Category: fantasy

Knowing the beginning from the end

By , 2 May 2008 6:39 pm

In the nine months since finishing the manuscript of The Infinite Day I have been busy teaching and also involved in an editing project for a friend that, though worthwhile, has been very time-consuming. But that – and the teaching – is shortly coming to an end and I am beginning to think about my next fiction project, which has the working title of the ‘Seventh Ship Series’. I envisage it as another trilogy, though on a slightly more restrained scale than the heavyweight Lamb Among The Stars series. I have already compiled a lot of notes but in some spare moments over the last few days I have been trying to clarify that most important of things: the ending.

Yes, that’s right, it’s half a million words away from being written, but I want to know my ending. In fact, I’m not really sure I can properly start writing until I know, at least at a very general level, where I am going. I’m sure many fiction writers feel the same; there needs to be a goal, a fixed point to which we can write. It is however certainly not true of all such writers: I have certainly read many books (and given up quite a few more) where it was evident that the writer really didn’t know where they were going. Rumour has it that Robert Jordan’s enormous and unfinished Wheel of Time series that stretches on for 11 or so books attained its gargantuan length because he didn’t know where it was going.

What is so significant about the ending? Three things strike me. The first is that it allows you to distinguish that which is essential and that which is irrelevant. In fantasy, where an infinite number of things are possible, you need that discipline lest you become lost in endless subplots. The second thing is that creating a solid architecture like this allows the build-up of tension and its release at the key moment. I sometimes think of books as being like those situations where you have a thousand dominoes all lined up and then you just tap the end one and they all tumble down in a most satisfying manner. Knowing where you are going helps you set up that situation. Thirdly, the ending confirms, in a deepest sense, what the book is all about. And be assured, my books are about something more than just the tale.

Well I’m not sure that I have a proper ending yet. I’m in no hurry: I want it to be good. Popular wisdom says that ‘Coming events cast their shadows before them’. Maybe. Another and truer saying may be this ‘You can’t know where you are until you know where you are going.’ I suspect that may be true of life too.

Philip Pullman: an odd letter

By , 14 December 2007 4:37 pm

Using similar methods to those alluded to by C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters I have recovered the following recent letter from a senior devil to his nephew.

My dear Sneerpate,

Rumour has reached me that you are delighted that your patient’s son has started to read Philip Pullman and is going to see the film the Golden Compass. I am appalled at your enthusiasm. I see this as yet another indicator of the declining standards of the Tempters College. I suppose it is inevitable that, after generations of persuading humans that idiocy is a desirable state of mind – with some startling results – junior tempters are stupid themselves.

Do you really believe that these books or this film will ensure this child stays out of the Enemy’s hands? Oh, I can hear your pathetic answer, “Please Uncle Gnawbone, in the last book God is killed off.” And so he is. But do you really think that even the most naïve human child would recognise in that feeble caricature the dreadful reality about whom we can barely think without terror?

However, that is not the real issue. That is simply this; what is the price we pay for them to be tempted by such works? Oh yes, ’god’ is cast down, but those who read these books are expected to put their faith in all manner of things that human scepticism or what is called ‘rationality’ denies: magic, daemons, witches, wizards! You see what you are encouraging? Far from leading this child into the barren deserts of atheism with its insistence that the only things that exist are those that can be seen and felt, you are running the risk that this boy will develop a hunger for fantasy. Do you really not understand the danger? He may acquire a hunger for the supernatural, a longing for that which his everyday world will never provide. Fantasie is a perilous land for us. In those realms, it is all too easy for the Enemy to appear. Weren’t you strictly instructed that the safest route to the flames of our Father’s house is that wide, well populated path that shuns any hint of magic? Indeed so perilous is fantasy even when it is marketed as ‘atheistic’ that there are those amongst us who suggest that under all his many words (how these humans talk!) this Pullman is in fact an agent of the Enemy.

No, Sneerpate, keep the child from all fantasy. Indeed, better still, from reading. The Internet, with its encouragement of disorganised and incoherent knowledge and its promise of instant gratification of every whim is far, far safer. If the child must read, then let it be magazines or catalogues. A healthy taste in materialism can’t be started too early.

Your affectionate uncle

Gnawbone

The teddy bear affair

By , 7 December 2007 10:06 pm

I said I would comment on the case of the lady teacher in Sudan who unfortunately let her pupils call a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. Although the affair has apparently now blown over some points seem worth making. While there was a lot about it in the British press, it seemed to me that most comments missed the mark.

Anyway, as someone who has taught in this sort of culture for eight years (some time l must tell you about the unfortunate incident to do with Thomas Aquinas) let me give you my take on it. Obviously, there was a lot of politics involved, no doubt related to the appalling business of Darfur where the government of Khartoum must take the lot of the blame. But then politicking is pretty much standard in this region. I think there are three things that are worth considering.

Firstly there is the issue of shame and honour. As in almost every part of the Islamic world, life in Sudan revolves around honour. From my experience in Lebanon and elsewhere, most people spend most of their time trying to gain honour and avoid shame. Honour ranks above fortune and pleasure and to bring honour on one’s family is perhaps the greatest good that you can do. Shame must be avoided at all costs. There is a famous story from the Lebanese Civil War of a journalist interviewing a sniper who was being paid to kill people from another community on a per-body basis. The journalist asked him, ‘How does your boss know that you have really killed the number of people that you claim you have?’ The sniper turned furiously on the journalist. ‘Are you saying that I might not be an honourable man?’ Incidentally if you think this is bizarre, you need to read the gospels again. So many of the issues there revolve around matters of honour: the ‘shame of the cross’ is a real matter. Anyway, my first point is that the issue was not really that of blasphemy but bringing dishonour on the name of Mohammed.

A second issue is that animals have a much lower value in this part of the world. It is a pretty deadly thing to suggest in the Arab world that anybody is like an animal: they don’t do the cuddly creature thing. So to say that he is ‘a mule’ or she is ‘a kitten’ is asking for trouble. Here incidentally, it may be us rather than them that are odd; the British in particular, seem to rate animals above humans.

The third issue – and here I have to choose my words delicately – is that there is a real concern over the status of Mohammed. Islam prides itself on being a later – and better – revelation than Christianity. Linked with that but rarely expressed is the need that their prophet be on at least equal terms with the Christian’s Jesus. And here there is a problem. It has been pointed out by many people that if all that had to be done was to rate Mohammed against many of the Old Testament’s kings of Israel then he could indeed be accorded a place of honour. But he must be rated against the character, teaching and works of Jesus of Nazareth and compared to him, who can stand? The result is, I think, that there is almost a collective inferiority complex. And that makes matters sensitive.

So my take on the whole matter is that putting aside the evident politicking involved this was something of a perfect storm. Three things came together: the failure to recognize the high value of honour; the assumption that everybody thinks bears are cuddly; and the perpetual unease about the status of Mohammed.

Finally, there is a relevant comment to be made here about the role of fantasy. One of the key points of fantasy is that it forces us to engage with very different cultures and the values. As such it is an excellent preparation for being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes; something that didn’t happen here. Don’t believe me about fantasy? Well, if you try and explain the concept of living by honour to people of a particular age and background you all too frequently hear them say, ‘So it’s a little bit like the Klingons?’ I suppose so.

Have a good week.

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