Wheel of Time 2: cyclical and linear time

In the last post, I mentioned that I’d want to talk about how time functioned in the Wheel of Time series. Not the specific day-to-day of time within the books’ actions themselves – although that’s interesting, especially the way that time partially slows during the Last Battle. But the way that time functions on a large scale, as part of the worldbuilding.

As the “wheel” part of WoT implies, time here is cyclical. Ages come and go, souls are reincarnated, time repeats. Part of Rand’s angst is his fear that he’s going to repeat the atrocities committed in the past. And despite its name, the Last Battle is also part of this cycle – and so not “last” in any ultimately-forever sense. The Heroes of the Horn of Valere have done this before, and will do it again.

At the same time, Rand’s status as Dragon Reborn implies an apocalypse – a potential end to time, which would halt the cycle entirely. If that comes to pass, time won’t be a series of infinite repetitions, it’ll be a single line – from the Creator’s creating the world to the Last Battle and the end of the world.

Permeating both models is a sense of decline: that actions have faded into history, history into myth, ultimately forgotten. The Forsaken and Lews Therin come from the Age of Legends, and the secrets of that age are forgotten by the time Rand comes along – back to rural semi-medievalism. The wonders are gone; there’s a sense of things slowing down, eroding away, being lost to time that permeates the first few books (but not the last half!)

Why is this relevant to religion? Well, anyone who’s taken a 101 course should be vaguely reminded of a couple of major theory texts they probably had to read.  Eliade’s Sacred and the Profane was one place for this. Cyclical time versus linear time is often used as a simple contrast between “eastern” and “western” religions. Eternal wheel of reincarnation versus creation-temptation-fall-apocalypse.

Naturally, that oversimplification doesn’t last long compared to actual lived religion – ask any Christian about the cyclical patterns of the liturgical year, for example. What’s interesting about how Jordan uses these models of time is that he pulls really strongly on both, and ends up with double-strength apocalypse tropes.

The linear time, for example, fits neatly with every Rand-as-Messiah trope. The End of Days is approaching, and he has to wrap up a few prophecies before the apocalypse. Great! Toss in the book of Revelation from the Christian Bible, with the conquering Messiah returning.  Add any number of other end of the world tropes.

Cyclical time, meanwhile, has its own idea of decline. (After all, every generation can clearly see the world is getting worse, right? So they have to accommodate that sensation somehow…/sarcasm) Here the world keeps going downhill, but it’s not permanent. This is the concept of the Kali Yuga, the age of blindness or debauchery, during which civilization crumbles. (compare also the Mappo or Mo Fa, during which Buddhism’s teachings fail to be effective for a dull populace…)

So this is less about using religion specifically, and more about major religious tropes: the messiah, the apocalypse, circular and linear time, etc. As I’ll talk about in a few more entries, Jordan’s world isn’t really religious, despite being all about a messiah standing against the Devil.

Decline, however, has a different connection to religion and religious studies. I’ll talk more about that next week, with Max Weber, charisma, and routinization.

 

 

 

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Wheel of Time 1: nostalgia

First, thank you to the reader who submitted some suggestions – I have one of them queued up in my Overdrive library account now, and I read Who Fears Death while on hiatus and never added it to the blog! I’ll remedy that in a few weeks.
Second, I thought more about the Jordan series and decided to separate out the story of reading the Wheel of Time from my commentary on the Wheel of Time. So I’m giving the abbreviated version of the former here, in this entry.

In 1994 I was mid-highschool, hoovering up fantasy series left and right. I hadn’t yet hit graphic novels (though Sandman was around the corner), and the writing I liked most was quick, witty, and transparent – where the style of the writing was barely noticeable, just as long as it moved the story along. I hadn’t encountered unreliable narrators (or I’d mistaken them for transparency), but I was starting to feel a little unsatisfied by the plots of what I was reading.

I wasn’t champing at the bit to give Jordan a try, but I wasn’t ready to put it off either. What got me hooked was the “first one’s free, kid” model of booksales.

No, really. At the local college bookstore, they were giving away free paperback copies of the first third of the first book. By itself this first third was about the size of a regular novel. Completely free, and stuffed full of tropes and promise and prophecy of what was to come, and ending on a cliffhanger. So why not? What a great bait for a reader: just sample this story and see if you want more. Just try walking away from an unfinished arc.

So I barreled through the first two or three, then slowed as I hit four, five…it didn’t seem to progress, and I wasn’t as enchanted with it as I’d been with other series. (This may be around the time that I started thinking I had “grown up” out of SF entirely. Wooooo was I wrong on so many levels with that.)

I set the series aside, as the years went on. I tried revisiting it a few times but it felt more and more repetitive and slow. (There is an argument that this was on purpose – the Pattern, expressed through the story itself – but in practice it just meant feeling like nothing new would ever happen).

I didn’t plan to finish it. But after reading Mistborn and admiring Sanderson’s ability to end storylines in a successful and satisfying manner, and hearing that Sanderson had been tapped to finish the series after Jordan’s death – that gave me confidence and curiosity. Endings are hard, and Sanderson is one of the few authors who’ve wrapped up Mega Huge Doorstop Series in a really satisfying yet surprising and rich way. (Current other contenders of the top of my head: NK Jemisin and Patricia McKillip)

I was not disappointed. Sanderson and Jordan combined well, and the endings made sense and were fitting.

But reading it also felt like reaching back twenty years – to the me who wanted these characters to both be simpler and more complex, who wanted to be distracted and escape but didn’t connect the escape with the return.

I suppose I’m saying: brace yourself for more nostalgia, readers. I’ll put new stuff in the queue, but I wanted to walk down the slightly conflicted memory lanes of WoT first. It’s been good to remember.

 

Finally, I wanted to set the stage by noting the two big elements that define the WoT religious universe: decline and consistency.

Decline is the idea that all cultures, customs, and heritage has declined from what they once were – from the Age of Wonders, or from the beginnings of the Aiel, or simply in the transformation of history into legend into myth. It’s in tension with the cyclical nature of the wheel of time itself, and it’s a a great excuse to talk about Max Weber and the routinization of charisma. Here comes more sociology!

Consistency is a major mark of the whole religious universe for Randland. As diverse as the nations are, they aren’t religiously diverse. Everyone agrees: there was the Creator, who built the world and the wheel of time and the Pattern as a prison for the Dark One. That’s it. There’s different names for the Dark One and different ideas about what the Light is or does (more on that later) but there are no competing cosmologies that have any weight in that world. Creator and Dark One and that’s it. Which could also be why there are very few religions in Randland, either…

Ages come and pass

I’ve started on another doorstopper series (Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive) and it’s prompting me to think more about books like it. In particular, I’m thinking about the 14-novel whopper Wheel of Time series. Sanderson was tapped to finish Robert Jordan’s opus, and so I move from one to the other.

(Side note – between WoT’s concluding novels and GoT’s seventh season finale, I’m reminded about how hard it is to end things in a satisfying way – especially if you’ve built the story on overturning a lot of satisfying narrative conventions. I don’t know that GoT can end in a way that’ll feel right for the rest of the books. There certainly are better and worse ways to wrap up a long series (LOOKING AT YOU, LOST AND BSG), but it’s incredibly hard to pull off well. Sanderson has my admiration for being able to do just that.)

There’s a lot to unpack in the Wheel of Time, and it’s going to be harder because so much of my memory of the books is clouded by time. I can’t remember if I even read book 10 or 11.

Oddly enough, that fits in perfectly with one of the themes of the books – and one of the primary ways it relates to religion.

It’s the theme of declension. Of the decline of meaning as time goes on, of the way that innovation hardens into custom and petrifies into mindless repetition; of the loss of knowledge with the passage of time.

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”

That’s the first line of the first book, and it’s repeated in the opening chapter in every book of the series. It sets up the themes of repetition and declension: Time is a wheel, and things repeat; time is also a line, in which legend fades and is forgotten.

It seems appropriate that my own memories of the books are shrouded in time.

I’ll likely jump around rather than offer a detailed analysis of the whole series. But there are several themes I want to think more about the Wheel of Time books: the portrayal of evil, the presences and absences of organized religion, the role (and critiques) of custom and tradition and ritual, the whole big Messiah setup…and the idea of declension, how it ties into major theories of religion, and what it means in relation to power and the cyclical repetitions of the Wheel of Time.

So I’ll start my next post by reaching way, way back, to bookstore promotions in Muncie and reading habits from 24 years ago.

First one’s free, kid.

Fragile and sacred

 

Last week I got fairly bogged down in the big ideas about fiction and change and ideals and ended up not actually publishing much. I’m still wrestling with a lot of that, naturally; I don’t know if it’ll ever come to a final draft. So instead I’m going to try and focus on something smaller this time around – much smaller, in fact. I want to think about small gods.

Not Terry Pratchett’s concept of “small gods,” from the novel of the same name. There, the small gods are patron spirits of incredibly specific things (such as cutlery stuck in drawers) or they’re faded, senile remnants of once-powerful deities. Their smallness is pettiness; it’s a smallness of small perspectives, small minds.

I’m more interested in gods of small things.

I am consistently moved by moments when something small, precious, fragile, or transient is found to be sacred. When a deity or spirit lifts up the value in the smallest of things. Like a moment of natural beauty, or a friendly conversation about casual matters, or an absolutely ordinary object. Something utterly ordinary or extremely fragile – not the perfect beauty of a Simaril, but the everyday regular peace of a sunrise. I love moments when a god or powerful character interacts with small things. Especially when this is done in contrast to big ideals, big heroism, grand forces of history, et cetera.

I’m thinking of moments like Cazaril awestruck with the beauty of a pebble in the wake of the Daughter’s blessing. Or Merriman laughing as Barney bursts into sheer preteen enthusiasm while on the Midsummer quest. Sam pointing out the elanor growing on the ruined statues in Mordor, or Gandalf praising the Shire. Hestia sweeping the hearth at Camp Half-Blood. Fizban and Tasselhoff sharing a silliness on the road in Krynn.

Usually these are quiet hope spots before the really important stuff happens. It’s a break, a moment to remember “what we’re fighting for” if the fiction is an epic story. I always felt that it meant the small things are valuable because the big causes are fought to protect them. The gods of small things aren’t always about the small things; the small things are for rest, calm, remembrance. Almost by definition, small things can’t be big ideas.

If I think of the small things in the world only as reasons to fight the big causes, they become secondary to heroism, secondary to struggle, secondary to ideals. They are things that can be discarded when shit gets real, or sacrificed in the name of Capital Letter Causes.

None of the stories are saying that, by the way. In fact, many authors make a point of saying that the small things aren’t secondary or subservient to the big causes. But the way that epics are structured, as well as my own urges for high drama, usually lead me to read them in this way.

But there’s something else that can be teased out of these moments: that small things – fragile, transient, impermanent, ordinary, everyday, flawed things – have sacred value. Perhaps even more than the grand ideals. If the pebble in front of Cazaril’s nose is so grand as to beggar description, then maybe the divine beauty isn’t in the earthshattering moments but in the most ordinary of them.

It’s hard to hold as a theology or even a formed idea. “Sacred” is almost always defined in opposition to “profane”, which is usually mundane, ordinary, plain. Valuing the ordinary as transcendent means trying to wrap your head around every small thing’s infinite value – which is a whole lot more infinity than I can take.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this because the small moments are where I’m trying to refresh myself. I have trouble doing gratitude diaries about small things like this when I’m depressed; the ordinariness and smallness feels puny and tiny against the weight of everything that’s wrong. But if I lift up the smallness of them as precisely key to their value, I might be able to turn that around.

The precision of this moment – this imperfect, small, flawed thing – will never come again, and it must be loved for what it is now, not what it reflects of the deeper truths of the world. It is its own truth.

 

 

 

Thinking over

I drafted about 700 words on trying to think out how some tropes might connect to the recent awfulness in America – the racism, bigotry, and hatred. Then I accidentally saved it before I decided to really publish it. I’m still thinking it out.

This isn’t going to be an organized argument; eventually I may be able to unpick my thoughts enough to make something coherent.  I don’t know if I’ll actually post it once it’s done; I may need to keep my posts more light and book-specific, maybe even hit the old familiar doorstopper series like Wheel of Time.

It hasn’t helped that my constant focus on the crazed pace of news has kept me from reading more, so I’m a little low on new material. Maybe I’ll prime the pump by writing about an old familiar book, or dive into those Radch short stories that touch on religion. Or maybe I’ll pick up The Divine Invasion again and just jump right back in.

Religion in the Radch

There are a lot of things that make the Ancillary series awesome. Big questions about identity, about AI, about loneliness, about language, about empire…there’s a couple of dissertations’ worth of analysis in there. It’s adventurous, it moves between noir-ish and space opera-esque without falling into any genre entirely, and it’s got great twists. Go read it now.

Like deBodard’s Obsidian and Blood series, the Ancillary series drops readers in an unfamiliar environment with very little in the way of recognizable worldbuilding, and it treats this environment with a blasé, matter-of-fact approach.

In Obsidian and Blood, the unfamiliar was the society and cosmology of deBodard’s version of Aztec civilization: blood, sacrifice, sorcery, star-demons; nothing like the Gygaxian D&D cosmology with quasi-European gods and feudalish societies. Because the cosmology was so necessary to set the plots of Obsidian and Blood, the religious questions took center stage.

In the Ancillary series, there are several religious ideas and questions that are intriguing and cool – but they are not as closely tied to the core plots. They move into the background, while several other unfamiliar and unusual aspects take center stage.

Foremost of these is the gendering of language. Instead of the default pronoun of “he”, the narrator’s default pronoun for everyone, male and female, is “she.” (There are a lot of other unusual aspects to the world – but some are major spoilers, so I’ll stick with this.) It’s a wonderful technique that manages to illuminate the main character’s perspective on gender and the dynamics of a dominant imperial/colonizer’s language.

Like the reversal of the Genesis story in Neveryon, this also forces the reader to confront their own unconscious prejudices. I was shocked by how hard it was for me to visualize the events – it was as if the pronouns showed up how my usual default was to imagine male characters, male extras, even in the absence of a specified gender.

It made the narrative feel distant – not in an unsympathetic way, but in an unusual, uncanny way. Which meant I got to read the events as if I was in a similar place as the narrator herself, as if an uncanny filter had been placed between me and the events of the book.

The religious universe fades into the background behind the language, identity, and governmental questions (as well as AI, personhood, etc.) But it’s there, and it’s an interesting bit of depth in the society of the Radch.

The Radchaai, as we are introduce to them, are the dominant human force in the universe. They are aggressive and assimilationist…okay, maybe “colonial” is a better word than assimilation. They have been annexing systems and expanding for a very long time, and the main conflicts from the first book arise not from the conquering of new systems, but from the maintaining and governance of the recently-annexed ones. In other words, the colonization process, as governors and overseers are sent, work with some of a planet’s population to ensure control over the rest, struggle to maintain a semblance of legitimacy in the wake of a conquest…

And in the background of this is the echoes of the Radch religion. We learn very little about it in the main books. (I understand there is a short story that may touch on more…haven’t tracked it down yet…) We learn that there is the Creator Amaat and her four Emanations. We also learn that the Radchaai religion is strongly assimilationist, and indeed often syncretizes the local deities into its own cosmology. Like the Roman empire, where local gods were assimilated as regional versions of Mars or Juno or Ceres. Everyone is expected to acknowledge it, though orthodoxy is less important than orthopraxy.

The religion underlies a lot of the culture and philosophies of the Radch.  The ship classes include Mercy, Justice, Sword, and are named after gods in the religion. The days begin with prayers and recitations, and the principles of justice, propriety, and benefit are rooted in Amaat’s scriptures. Ship ranks include names of the Emanations, each of which is a duality.

A hard sf empire where every day is started with prayer? I can name other examples, but it does feel odd; I’m so accustomed to linking “hard far-future sf” with “atheism”, with the occasional fanaticism. This religion isn’t either. It’s pervasive, but not fanatic. It structures and underpins the empire, but it doesn’t fuel it on a wave of religious fervor. Like Obsidian and Blood, the unusual details of the world are offered up in a steady drip rather than a flood.

To me, this makes it even more fascinating. The pale, background religion that is so unobtrusive and so ubiquitous, that defines the world for the narrator and the Radchaai as subtly as the default pronoun.

So the matter-of-fact, no-big-deal portrayal of religion in the Ancillary series makes it part of the background, whereas a similar no-big-deal approach in Obsidian and Blood made it both everyday and jarring.

I love that aspect of sf. I love how some things become the linchpin of the worldbuilding, and others are as unusual but never at the pivot point.

This is also leading me to some thoughts about the portrayal of religion as background versus plot center, and how that makes things more or less acceptable or understandable. I think there’s an interesting ethics argument in here somewhere if I can tease it out.

Exposition and the everyday (and human sacrifice)

Obligatory Paracommentary:
Been another long while. I finished the manuscript, though I still need to go through and address every place where I put “NEED CITATION”. (Which is a lot. And I promise you, editor, I’ll take care of that.) I’m pretty proud of it; it’s rocky in a few places, but it’s a good and solid compilation of the thoughts that went into forming this blog.

And things have been moving again in good ways. New job, healthier life and mind, and really starting to miss my regular Prose Gods writing. I haven’t felt like a religion scholar in a while, and I miss it. So now what?

Now I go back to writing. Once a week for the moment.

For my beach reading this summer, I reread some of Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series. Nothing like sand and sun and the grotesque fracturing of the Fifth Age into the blood-soaked prey of star-demons…what? It pairs beautifully with pina coladas.

I’ve written about it before, and de Bodard’s portrayal of the Aztec society is wonderfully thrilling and strange. Acatl, high priest of Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld, is responsible for maintaining the boundaries between life and death. This means tracking down monsters that trespass those boundaries, addressing curses that weaken those boundaries, and solving murders that may involve those boundaries. So he’s a perfect noir detective figure.

He’s also stuck in the midst of court intrigue, in a place where not having a ruler means profound existential threat. Not existential threat in the sense of “a loss of meaning from contemplating what little humanity can do in a changing world”; existential threat as in “the star-demons will descend and devour the world so that the Fifth Sun can be destroyed and the Sixth Age begin.” No time for ennui when there’s a jaguar that wants to eat your face.

Two things strike me about Obsidian and Blood today.

First, de Bodard manages to walk a very fine path involving moral relativism. It might be the only book I’ve read where human sacrifice is rendered understandable, even unremarkable. A prisoner taken in battle is destined to be sacrificed – and the person who captured him becomes his war-father, a deep and vital obligation and bond. The warriors don’t look down on their prisoners, they value them – the prisoners are haughty and ready to face death. One of de Bodard’s short stories in the same world features a mother who is terribly eager to have her daughter be chosen (for a flaying sacrifice, no less) and hates to deny her the chance.

So the brutality of human sacrifice, while it never becomes less jarring, is also moderated somehow. It becomes ordinary. Sacrifice is not only necessary to maintain this universe, it’s a social good.

Yet even in a world where violent, gory death is a matter-of-fact occurrence, there are ethical questions and struggles that don’t involve human sacrifice. Especially in the third book, the exhaustion and toll of the constant warfare is specifically called out. Acatl wonders about the subjugation of a nearby city – is it necessary to be so harsh for so long, what can we expect if we continue to oppress the Tlatelocans, is more revenge on the way.

It’s not a total chaos morality, where good and evil just don’t map, nor is it a simple reversal, where good and evil switch places – it’s that good and evil are askew from our context, not missing or inverted.

I really like this. I like that de Bodard makes this part of Aztec culture so vivid and yet so normalized. Acatl isn’t going to be the reader-avatar with present-day ethics wedged into the old world; he protests some wrongs and accepts others with no more than a shrug. He’s more disturbed by a nihilist saying “why does it matter if we serve the gods?” than by the sacrifices of children to Tlaloc.

The second thing that strikes me about Obsidian and Blood is how de Bodard makes this possible: by sheer matter-of-factness. Because the key plot points of the stories involve magic, demons, priests, gods, curses, and sacrifice, they’re almost always at center stage. But there is never a single huge infodump aimed at educating an outsider. Instead, the reader picks up all the unusual bits through a steady trickle – a flow of detail, described not as wondrous or fabulous things, but the daily “meh” of the priesthood life.

Non-priest characters don’t react with wonder or fear, either. They can’t see or sense what Acatl does, but they accept that the stars are the eyes of demons, the gods are powerful but not especially caring, and someone born on a Jaguar day is capable of summoning a jaguar spirit. It’s part of life.

This is worldbuilding through detail, not worldbuilding through saga. On one hand, there is a constant flow of exposition on nearly every page. On the other hand, because it’s constant, it never needs to be given in exposition-chunk-bursts. I think the longest is two sentences in a row.

The net effect is to make the world fuller without ever feeling like it’s exhausting. It makes it more real. We don’t get detailed, lavish description of the daily worship that requires Acatl’s blood; we get short references to the scabs on his ears that he has to crack open to do a quick spell. It makes the unusual into everyday.

And when it is everyday, is it easier to accept?

Next time I’ll write about a world with another unusual religious universe and a similar-yet-different matter-of-fact way of describing it: the space opera of Leckie’s Ancillary series.

 

Some notes on writing and early comparisons

I’ve reorganized the chapters in the book draft several times, and what’s clear is that the raw material needs a lot of work to smooth it into viable chapters. (This isn’t unexpected – the intention of this blog was to be first-draft, quickly written entries, not polished pieces.)

Some of that writing is a matter of “connective tissue” – explaining how one entry fits next to another, explaining the reasoning behind stuffing Butler and Ellison into the same chapter. Some of it is revising writer-based prose into reader-based prose – stating my assumptions, explaining my logical leaps.

But some of it is deeper content, and that takes a lot more work. So I’m going to poke at a few of these ideas here, since thinking out loud is what this blog is for.

For example: In my last entry, I hinted that I was thinking about Lewis and Pullman as pedagogical fantasy. Both of them are aimed at teaching impressionable readers – convincing them to see things in a certain light, opening their minds to new possibilities, giving them suggestions for how to view the world.

In contrast, L’Engle and Pratchett are a lot less didactic – they’re more atmospheric. But I think they’re more effective teachers than Lewis and Pullman.

In order to make that case, I need to:

· Explain how Narnia can be seen as a way of teaching or influencing readers (despite my own misgivings about how books do and don’t influence)

· Explain how Narnia does that broadly and specifically –

o Characters that you sympathize with and come to love

o Easily overturning straw man or simplistic arguments from evil or foolish characters

· Explain how Pullman is doing something similar with HDM

o Partly as a direct response to Narnia

o Maybe even compare some of the more obviously-theological moments from each book?

§ I’m thinking of the Dwarves in The Last Battle and the Underworld in HDM.

§ Maybe Jadis from The Silver Chair, “there never was a sun,” or Emeth the Calormene; contrast Mary Malone’s how-I-left-the-Church narrative.

· Talk about why both of them fail (for me)

o Both have trouble maintaining the consistency of the world compared to the emphasis on the theology

o Both have more luck when they move to the positive, meaningful moments than the villains

· Then I’ll need to pivot: This doesn’t mean that SF can’t be influential, or that it can’t serve a teaching purpose.

o Pratchett is something of an agnostic’s instructor;

o Willis is a Christian instructor –

o What makes them different?

§ Both push the admirable-characters as role models without making them purely awesome all the time; we’re not expected to like and approve of what they do at each point (cf. Granny Weatherwax especially)

§ Both also leave room for doubt and argument and difference, and make their dissenters thoughtful and sympathetic

· The Bromeliad trilogy does this well – use examples here

§ And both also acknowledge the less-admirable parts of their own positions

o So while it’s clear that they have a strong position and strong preference for one religious belief over another, it never comes across as didactic or uneasy.

§ Except a couple of places, and it’s jarring when it does – at least to me.

· I could also point out two authors that are also very religious, but that don’t make it clear enough

o E.g. L’Engle and Tolkien, where the Christianity is present but in the background – perhaps too far in the background

o Is there a comparable secular / agnostic author? Gotta think about that.

· So the main difference may be twofold:

o Does the story engage with religious ideas?

o Does it do so in a complex way, with characters who are more than single perspectives?

§ Side note – complexity may mean that absolutes (such as God or Good) never get portrayed. If I were calling for a flawed Aslan, for example, that wouldn’t make any sense.

…As you can see here, I’m drifting into writer-based prose. Those last bullets make sense to me as a shorthand for the ideas I have in mind, but need to be spelled out and explained rather than left as references. It’s a start, though, and I may be working a bit more on these bits and pieces in the weeks to come.

Getting back to it

Well, that was longer than a month, and the manuscript’s not done yet. It’s been, um. A little wild here.  I left my job from health concerns and career changes, I’ve started another website (and a blog on it), and holidays had their usual hit.

I have a big list of “stuff to write about” – connective tissue, revising the chapters, etc. But I’m not entirely sure I want to add new material. There’s plenty to work with. And I’m not giving up, even if I’ve been away from the writing for a while. I want this done. I want it a thing I’ve completed.  (Of course, my issue comes from the tension between “done is beautiful” and “just throw it together” – I often freeze because I’m worried about perfection, or rush something substandard out the door.)

But enough self-analysis. Here are a set of things I want to write about in the coming months.

  • Leckie’s Ancillary series and the pervasive yet background nature of religion there
  • Octavia Butler and the election and resisting
  • Where Pullman might be going with the next Dark Materials series – I gotta get over my frustration with that series. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be; that doesn’t make it bad.
  • Contrasting the pedagogical approach of both Lewis and Pullman (who are kind of teaching religion / teaching atheism) with the more vague spirituality of L’Engle and the different kind of overt religiosity of Willis
  • Really getting into the comparison between Sanderson and Bujold’s human-divine relationships – what they have in common, what’s different; why that difference matters; human ambition for divinity, human need for relationship

Escape and hope and fear and why it matters

Why does this matter? Why does any of this matter at all? Especially now, when things feel really bleak?

I’m not sure it does. If you threw all of this against the grand scheme of things, this matters about as much as kicking a rock into the ocean. But I do it anyway, as a small kindness to myself, and as a small voice about the power of imagination.

When we imagine these other worlds (as writers), and when we inhabit and explore and reimagine them (as readers and fans), we are giving power to our fancies and letting our minds explore alternative ways of being.

We use it to state our fears about the world- to spell out how terrible it could be, how the worst could come to pass in apocalyptic fiction. Or to put shape to a fear of religious fanaticism, or a fear of apathy. We explore worlds where the worst things we imagine about religion are true, where our fears about god/s are made real. And in so many of those fictions, there are still ways to hope. Still small kindnesses. In many, there’s a rejection of the idea that says only the individual, the merciless, the cruel survive.

We use it to state our fears about god/s: that they are present but malevolent, that they condone and even use human suffering, that they are false faces for manipulative beings or human selfishness, that they are absent entirely and the world is nothing but empty chaos.

We use fiction to try out alternatives and see if they have more potential for hope or more risk of despair. Would a female deity change things? What about different ways of interacting with the gods? Or religions that have objective proof of divinity? Would humanity be better than we are now, would we be crueler or kinder or pretty much the same?

And we use it to state our hopes. Sometimes this is a hope that humanity will peacefully evolve beyond the need for religion (not a hope I share, but definitely present in many SF works). Or hope that god/s are loving and concerned about us at the most personal level, even if they can’t act directly. Or hope that all shall be well and all shall be well. Or hope that different religions can find a way to coexist, even when they contradict each other.

We read to escape. We fly away from where we are now, into worlds where it is better or worse or just different. And when we return, what has changed? If nothing else, time has passed, and we have had a few minutes, a few hours, where the pressures and worries of today have been briefly swapped for another.

At times that swap is rich with possibility, inspiring us to prevent the worst or strive for the best or challenge the current in the name of an alternative. We can look up from the book, moved and ready to act, or look back on it days later as a reminder of good and bad.

At other times, the only thing that matters is the momentary anesthesia of being elsewhere. It gives ease to someone otherwise terrified, wrestling with society or exhaustion or their own biochemistry.

So yes, this still matters. It matters to me because it feeds my heart. It matters because it lets us give shape to fears and often imagine defeating them; because it lets us try out hopes and alternatives and struggle with what the outcomes might be. It matters because the escape is as valuable as the return.

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