Gustav Mayrink’s “The Man in the Bottle” is a short, decadent tale. It takes place at a masqued ball in the court of a Persian prince, Mohammed Darasche-Koh, who is gravely jealous of the Count de Faast for the hand of a beautiful princess.
Due to its decadent literary influences, and its preoccupation with themes of surface and concealment, I feel like this story can be best described visually. Were this story to be produced for the screen, it would be a contender for the Oscar for Best Costume Design for sheer extravagance. And if animated in the classic, shadowy style of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley–who is directly referenced as an influence in the text–it would win for Best Animated Feature.
At the centre of this story is a marionette show staring the Persian prince, the Count de Faast, and the princess together–a production designed by the jealous Prince himself. The Count is placed in a thick glass bottle, alone, while the Prince sits cross-legged above it. What follows is a prime literary example of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” in which the cruelty becomes genuine, no longer an act.
In short (spoilers ahead), the masquers watch the Count’s real distress as he slowly suffocates to death for lack of air in front of their very eyes. The masquers are unable to tell where the Count’s part in the “Man in the Bottle” marionette show ends and where his genuine panic begins. In effect, the Count’s panic and subsequent death is the evening’s entertainment.
Only at the end of the play, when the princess as “The Lady in the Sedan Chair” finally appears before the audience, do the masquers fully realize the “nameless horror” of what they witnessed (74). In short, the Prince plays the audience and actors like marionettes, executing the perfect vengeance.
This story appeared to me, on a first read, to be witty, decadent, and highly aesthetic in a way that seemed difficult to write about. However, when during my second read, I was reminded of Artaud, I started to see how this story has continuous relevance today, when we think about cruelty and spectacle in the news we consume.
I’m not well-versed in Artaud. But to me, “The Man in the Bottle” suggests that cruelty to another human being becomes normalized when it becomes part of a spectacle. People are uncertain whether they should intervene in a crisis, because the cruelty becomes perceived as part of the “act.” Only when the “mask” of performance comes loose does the full scale of the cruelty become apparent to the audience.
It got me thinking about the idea of “entertainment media” and how certain news shows play up real acts of cruelty as spectacles of entertainment. It also got me thinking about how some people tried to console themselves in 2016 by joking that Donald Trump’s election run was just an art project, as if that could make his boorishness and cruelty more tolerable or normal.
When cruelty is represented as a spectacle in the media, it becomes socially normalized. At what point do we cease to perceive the news as representing the suffering of real people, and at which point do we start viewing the news primarily as a spectacle, seemingly divorced from human suffering?
The masquers watch the Count de Faast slowly suffocate for lack of air, thinking it is part of an elaborate stage production. The times being what they are, I cannot ignore the parallel between this method of execution and the suffocating chokehold placed on George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. People who continue to deny systemic racism exists seem to me to be an awful lot like the masquers, in how they may prefer to think of police brutality as some sort of illusion–not that they deny police brutality happens, but that they prefer to deny the systemic nature of it. In treating systemic racism as an elaborate masque, they, through their inaction, tolerate and enable the cruelty perpetrated before their very eyes.
I would like to think that most people regard the suffering of black people at the hands of the police with a more morally engaged and empathetic attitude than the frivolous masquers regard the Count. However, it would be foolish to ignore the wider point this story is making about the cruelty of human nature. The message of “The Man in the Bottle” could be taken as a cautionary tale not to let spectacle and illusion blind us to the inhumane cruelty happening before our eyes. But the tale also seems to suggest something darker and more indicting–that such spectacles of cruelty are a fundamental aspect of our experience of modernity in the first place.
Next week, I will be reading “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), which, as I am sure you can imagine from the title, is a charming, happy-go-lucky story of love and loss with no body horror whatsoever.
The sixth entry in my Archaeology of Weird Fiction challenge is a classic weird tale by the fantasist Lord Dunsany, a story about the violation of the property taboo.
In “How Nuth Would have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles,” Dunsany tells a story about an aristocratic thief, Mr. Nuth. Though a businessman, Mr. Nuth’s tastes are highly refined and his service has no need of advertising. Given his unique status and skill set, he is set apart from the crowd as he steals tapestries and jewelry for his clients, who are envious of their neighbours’ country houses. He is more silent than a shadow.
One day, to challenge himself, the genius thief plans to heist the house of the gnoles, which has never been attempted by a thief before. And if you noticed the future conditional in the title of this weird tale, you probably realized he does not succeed.
Lord Dunsany is a master stylist, and is enjoyable to listen to out loud. His sentences are perfectly paced to deliver the drama and suspense of Nuth’s approach to the gnoles’ house with his apprentice, Tonker. So much of the feeling of strangeness that this story produces is a result of the language he uses to describe the approach.
The description of the heist calls to my mind the approach to the Peruvian temple in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a weird tale author, Dunsany may well have influenced the pulp traditions that inspired Indiana Jones. Tonker and Nuth see an “early Georgian poacher nailed to a door in an oak tree,” while Tonker steps “heavily on a hard, dry stick, after which they both lay still for twenty minutes” (70). These points of tension ratchet the suspense higher, much like discovering the freshly poisoned arrows hints at danger in Indiana Jones.
These details fill the atmosphere of the story with a sense of intrusion and foreboding. Not only are the thieves intruding on the gnoles, but the weird is intruding on mundane reality. Dunsany expresses this in his description of the silence:
And the moment that Tonker touched the whithered boards, the silence that, though ominous, was earthly, became unearthly like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath offending against that silence …
The sense that something wrong has happened is tangible–and the punishment follows. It is significant that the moment Tonker breaks the taboo on property is the moment the unearthly intrudes. The intruder becomes the one being intruded upon, serving as a warning to other thieves.
Buried beneath this is a hint as to Lord Dunsany’s politics. At one point, his narrator says, “It must not be thought that I am a friend of Nuth’s; on the contrary such politics as I have are on the side of Property” (68). Indeed, though it uses ‘weird’ imagery to indulge in the fantasy of the violation of property, this story can be read as reconfirming the aristocracy’s right to private property.
After all, Mr. Nuth’s aristocratic privilege allows him to escape the dark fate of Tonker, his working-class apprentice. “Nobody ever catches Nuth,” the narrator says. His genius places him above punishment as he lets his apprentice take the fall for his own overreaching ambition; the fantasy of the tasteful, aristocratic thief is allowed to continue beyond the pages of the story.
In short, this story is an enchanting heist caper that can also be read as a window into the fantasies of the aristocracy to which Lord Dunsany belonged. It affirms the right of the aristocracy to private property, while at the same time indulging in a little escapism through a story that enables the audience to vicariously experience the violation of the property taboo as well.
In her latest poetry collection, Salt Bride (Inanna Publications, 2019), Ilona Martonfi reinvents herself by creating a narrative out of her past–one in which she has had to reinvent herself many times, as a child refugee, mother, battered wife, activist, and, finally, as a poet. Hers is a refugee’s experience down to the very form and content of her lines; the search for place and home inspires her poetry, sometimes in unexpected ways. In the furtive fragments of her free verse lines, one detects a longing for impressions to stick, for a sentence to settle. But Martonfi’s voice is productively restless. Danger forces the refugee on the road, but she can still appreciate the beauty in a field of flowers.
In addition to her own, personal past, Martonfi tells the histories of other people. Her opening poem describes the environmental devastation around Shinkolobwe, an abandoned Congolese village where the uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was mined. An “official nonplace” (1), Shinkolobwe is a home that has been erased. Nagaski, in her second poem, “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” is another example. With haiku-like economy, she speaks from the voice of victim of the atomic bomb blast: “the ocean still, low winds. / 11:02 a.m. August 9, 1945 / was the day I died” (3–5). Her understatement is not a shout out against injustice but a quiet witnessing of the victim’s experience.
In her witness poems, she uses her sparse, imagistic style to pay witness to the Chernobyl disaster, the Babi Yar massacre, the bombing of Budapest, and the Birkenau concentration camp, among other topics. She marks the time-and-place specificity of each trauma to memorialize it; the litany of place names and times of day develop their own poetic rhythm, their own stark, metronymic effect. But she never forgets the beauty of the natural landscape, which seems at times to encode the idea of home, especially in places where all sense of home has been destroyed and remembering it has become more important than ever.
For example, “Srebrenica” tells the story of a man’s brother, a victim of the Bosnian genocide. It is told from survivor’s first-person viewpoint:
hands bound behind his back.
My brother is here
summer of 1995
in a mass grave in Bosnia
fourteen years old
Avdija buried without his head
of the mountain.
In this description of a grave, a home for the dead, her staccato imagery has the spontaneous clarity of Japanese poetry. The natural world is never far from Martonfi’s awareness; the beauty that lies by the wayside of trauma recalls the value of the lives lost.
Eventually, Martonfi turns to her own past to write about her family’s experience as Hungarian refugees during and after the Second World War. In poems like “Easter Sunday,” she reconstructs her earliest childhood memories. Representing herself as a “pigtailed Magyar refugee girl” (22), she tempers a sense of her innocence and naivety with her adult awareness of the secrets that her family never discussed at the time (personal interview). Fields of flowers and a new dress to wear are at the centre of this ten-year-old child’s world, until she discovers the “unfound” body of her mother (17), who has attempted suicide. “All the time I carry with me / the odour of spring / the odour of funeral,” the speaker states (5–6).
Smell is supposed to be the sense most strongly tied to memory; but what occasionally concretizes the past for Martonfi is sound. Lines of dialogue bring back the past with immediacy. Dialogue can draw up a specific childhood memory, or a memory of a fateful conversation, as in “The Vigil on Puget Sound,” a lament for her late brother. Other exclamations hit. In “White Lilacs,” she quotes her assertive reprimand against her abusive husband:
Lined with row houses
1215 rue Saint-André
tight knots of violence
Your four children. His fists.
“Shorty, I will divorce you!”
“I will divorce you,” you said.
Martonfi renders the violence in the relationship explicit. Her oral assertion of agency reaches out from the poem like it does from the past; her promise to divorce is her response to her husband’s fists.
In examining her own life, Martonfi writes about her own children and what it was like to live with a batterer husband. Though equating a poet with her speaker is usually problematic, Martonfi states that these poems reflect her experiences completely and that standing up against domestic violence is her life’s calling (personal interview). This said, her poetry has been a vehicle for the reinvention and re-fashioning of her identity. In the prose poem “Casa dei Zetti,” she furnishes a villa with a catalogue of domestic details, describing how it is “a house for art” (3), despite the presence of the violence that puts her “arms on the ceiling. Head on the wall” (15). Art is a way to recover from abuse and, in the end, to master one’s past. “Every day, I reconstructed myself,” she says (14), highlighting the importance of art for her recovery.
Martonfi’s poetry is especially sympathetic to the plight of children. In “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” she speaks of the “children / who will die once again” (22–23). The children who continue to suffer due to society’s inability to learn from the past serve as indictments of that society. In “Girl in Dubrulle Wood,” she speaks of a girl who was “snatched in a playground / in front of her mother” (16–17). In “Small River,” an Inuk woman recalls her grandparents’ traditional way of life, before she was taken to a Residential School–another form of kidnapping. “I was just four when taken,” her speaker says (19). “Small River,” like “The Fourth Panel,” is respectful of the other’s voice, reporting the facts of their trauma and letting the reader supply emotion.
Martonfi’s own childhood as a refugee, as recalled in her poems, parallels the experiences of these children. In fact, “Funeral Prayer for Alan Kurdî” can be read as one child refugee’s prayer to another: from Martonfi younger self to a boy who never made it to safety. Alan Kurdî is the Syrian refugee boy who drowned en route to the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and whose photograph became one of the pietàs of the Syrian refugee crisis. As a former child refugee, Martonfi expresses her wish for Alan, and for all children displaced by conflict: “O little boy, Alan. / O God, give him a home” (15–17).
Given this powerful subject matter, which manages to be both personal and historical, one could risk overlooking Martonfi’s less eventful, more form-based poems. But to do so would mean to overlook her experiments, which inform the aesthetics of the rest of her collection. The well-crafted word-strokes of her ekphrastic Van Gogh poems express her verbal impressionism. In addition, her Cézanne poems, contained in “Les Lauves,” are a series of haiku which paint an impression of Cézanne’s art studio in Aix-en-Provence: “red-tile roof stone house / chasing the ghosts of artists / mistral in blue pines” (7–9). Additionally, “Sea Urchin” echoes this form in a series of oceanic haiku with mythological overtones, hinting at the mysterious depths that lie beneath the haiku itself: a concept that can be summarized in the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen.
In short, these poems reiterate the aesthetic that defines the rest of the collection. Fusing the personal with the historical, and impressionism with yūgen, Salt Bride offers the reader history with personal depths.
This week I got profiled as a creative-to-watch with Graphite Publications. It’s a big honour. Thank you to Willow Loveday Little, Graphite’s creative editor, for the opportunity to tell the world what I’m all about. And to my sister, Sam Rettino, for some amazing shots.
In my profile, I talk about my love for fantasy and history, my upcoming short story “The Goddess in Him” (NewMyths.com, September 2020), and my typical writing process. Check it out!
In “The Thousand Revolutions of Kronstadt,” Futurographer Anatoly Yuryevich Kolchunov steals aboard a battleship during a historical revolt led by the sailors of Kronstadt against the abuses of the Russian revolution. There, strapped into the Chronosthesic engine, he searches all possible futures for a destiny in which the revolution does not devour its children. Is there a future in which the sailors survive Petrograd’s brutal suppression of their revolt and live to save the revolution’s ideals? Or is there no escape? Pablo Valcárcel’s story explores these questions and more.
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.
MR: Personally, I find it fascinating that this story exposes a tension between doctrinaire Marxist teleology–the idea of the inevitable, global communist revolution–and a multiplicity of different futures. What gave you the idea to write about futurography in the context of the Russian Civil War? What attraction did this novum and this historical event have for you creatively?
PV: One of the most fascinating elements from Marxism, and specifically historical materialism, is that it aspires to follow a scientific approach to understand (and to some extent, predict) historical developments. In that sense, futurography (a scientific and predictive mapping of the future) and Marxism pair surprisingly well.
I feel that although there are many stories that explore alternate history and time travel in the context of the great conflicts of the twentieth century (Man in the High Castle comes to mind), there’s a missed opportunity when it comes to time travel from the Soviet perspective. Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of technological developments as politically agnostic, while in truth, they’re always coloured to some extent by society’s political views.
I also feel that the Soviet Revolution and the following Russian Civil War are one of the most fascinating periods of human history. It could be argued that never before, or ever since, has there been an attempt at reinventing society on such a massive scale. It is, despite the tragedy of its failures and shadows, in many ways the perfect setting to explore utopianism and societal transformation. One can’t help but wonder: What if they had actually gotten it right? How different could the twentieth century have been if post-revolutionary Russia had become the beacon of freedoms it aspired to be?
MR: The action of the story moves from Kronstadt, Russia to Barcelona, Spain. When the hero appears in Spain, where you live, the nation is in the thrall of the Spanish Civil War. Was there anything personal for you in setting part of this story in Spain during this time?
PV: As a Spaniard, the Spanish Civil War always ends up being a personal and weighty matter. Although, as far as I know, Barcelona isn’t really connected to my family history (perhaps that helped me to be able to keep some emotional distance from that element of the piece).
The main reason for me to choose Barcelona as a backdrop for one of the episodes in the story was that it was, at that time, a successful anarchist revolution. A revolution that ended up being violently suppressed by the Bolshevik Communist factions of the Spanish Republic (again, just like in Kronstadt). It is plausible that a survivor from the purges who followed the Kronstadt uprising could have ended up among kindred spirits in the Barcelona of 1937, only to suffer again the same fate.
I’m also a huge fan of George Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia” and I’ve always wanted to write something set in the revolutions that took place in Aragon and Catalonia during that period.
MR: The Chronosthesic engine enables Anatoly to see the future, but he must do so by living through thousands of his potential deaths, which act as “cartographic milestones” for charting the future. Can you talk a little about what inspired you to create this unique constraint for time travel? Was death always a part of it? How did this influence your approach to writing the story?
PV: Time travel as a form of consciousness projection isn’t, of course, a new idea, but when combined with the constraints of one’s mortality, it created a unique playing field. Not only is there a widespread belief in the clarity of our final moments, but from a practical standpoint, there was some sense of trying to cartograph the rough shape of a moving space by analysing the endpoints of some of its key vectors.
Nevertheless, possibly another key element of subconscious inspiration were the lyrics of the German band Rome for their song “The Chronicles of Kronstadt.” Often, my short stories emerge from developing further the nebulous imagery that forms in my mind from particularly inspiring lyrics.
In terms of its influence when writing the story, it offered both unique advantages and challenges. Advantages because I could explore different ideas or scenarios of competing timelines simultaneously. Challenges as well, because it was hard to compress these fleeting vistas into short snippets of information that felt both comprehensible and emotionally meaningful at the same time. I think that in the end, I was lucky enough to find a formula that allowed me to achieve a bit of both and hint at an even larger scope with the poetic use of repetition.
MR: Towards the end of the story, Anatoly remarks that “life is no longer to be postponed; it now must be lived.” Notably, you’ve also written the story in present tense. What made you decide to write your story this way? More philosophically, was this decision connected to Anatoly’s realization that a hyperfocus on future promises can be detrimental to seizing the moment?
PV: Again, credit where credit is due: I think that the theme of the story and Anatoly’s epiphany came from one of my favourite passages in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
As for the point of view chosen for the story, the present tense offers an immediacy and urgency that fit very well with the revolutionary rhetoric that was part of the character’s narrative.
I think that the relationship between the point of view and Anatoly’s epiphany was something that emerged only after many rewrites, but as you said, it does provide a satisfying pairing between the ethics and aesthetics of the piece.
When is it best to remember? When is it best to forget?
Sit with this question.
Ask yourself what memories in your life are worth keeping. Some memories we treasure for sentimental reasons, while some were part of our education, part of what made us into who we are today. But some memories are better worth forgetting.
Some memories we just want to forget because we find them embarrassing. However, there are some memories that, more profoundly, hold us back from realizing our fullest potential as human beings.
It is possible to be enslaved to the past. That’s the insight Nietzsche arrives at in his essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” Living historically can be life-giving and can lend us towards tremendous insight into our life and times. But living with too much awareness of how our actions have repercussions can paralyze us into inaction.
I recently wrote an essay on this topic entitled “The Virtue of Forgetting: On Memory and Oblivion.” In it, I discuss how presentations made at Concordia University’s 2019 Liberal Arts Spring Colloquium last February treated the topics of memory and forgetting. The presentations ranged from Roman history, the works of Anton Chekov, and African Diaspora art. I reinterpreted the presentations in light of Nietzsche’s article, which was assigned to the audience as a reading for the Thomas More Institute’s interactive panel discussion that closed the colloquium.
You’ve written your story. However, when you hand out your story to first readers (or beta readers), you receive feedback saying that certain events seemed manipulated by the author.
Maybe your antagonist went easy on your protagonist for some inexplicable reason, resulting in them overcoming the antagonist faster than expected. Maybe your antihero had a spontaneous change of heart the possibility of which had not been foreshadowed at all.
Whatever the case, your characters just didn’t behave like themselves; it felt like someone else was pulling the strings.
We writers need a technique to test the integrity of our causal chains after we’ve finished our first draft. After all, we write what excites us, or what we “feel” should happen next. But when the writing is so raw, the causal link between events is not always there.
Haven’t started your draft yet? No problem. A slight variation on the same technique can help you in the outlining stage, if you’re the kind of writer who finds outlines useful. I go into it in “How to Build Your Causal Chain.”
It took me so long to realize I needed a causal chain in my fiction. Specifically, it took me a long time to know I should pay attention to cause-effect relationships when revising.
The causal chain is the series of cause and effect relationships that structure your narrative from beginning to end. It’s omnipresent in the fiction you probably read, and that means it’s almost invisible when done well.
“The strongest plots are created by cause/effect chains. This makes the story feel more like a row of dominoes falling over, unstoppable and inevitable, rather than a series of random occurrences arranged for the convenience of the author.”
When not done well, a poor causal chain results in events that seem manipulated by the author. The problem for me in 2016 was that I had no idea I was doing it.
There really is a dearth of writing advice on the causal chain. For example, though Plot by James Scott Bell from the Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series discusses the importance of the lead character and the “chords” of fiction (setup, action, reaction, and deepening), there is almost no mention of the importance of tying your plot together into a series of causally connected events.
Pre-Odyssey, Plot was my go-to book for learning about how to write effective plots. But I never learned the most basic facts about plot until I was told directly that causal chains were something almost all dramatically compelling stories must have.
Maybe for some writers, the causal chain comes naturally in the organic process of writing. But for me, and I suspect for many others, it’s an under-examined aspect of writing fiction.
When I learned about causal chain, it came as a revelation, as if I’d been let in on a secret code underlying the realism (yes, even in the fantastic modes I prefer to read!) and compulsive readability of my favourite stories.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to be disproven that almost nothing has been written about the causal chain.
Comment on this post if you find any books that do discuss causal chain, and I’ll collect the links in this post. Thanks!
Joseph Halden explores the evil psyche of an evolutionary scientist in “G,” included in the speculative fiction anthology E is for Evil. The following interview was conducted over Google Docs.
Joseph Halden is a wizard in search of magic, an astronaut in need of space, and a hopeless enthusiast of frivolity. He’s shot things with giant lasers, worn an astronaut costume for over 100 days to try and get into space, and made his own soap. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, he writes science fiction and fantasy in the Canadian prairies. His story, “G,” is included in E is for Evil, the fifth volume in Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series.
In “G,” two scientists experiment with the accelerated evolution of a strain of krillids in a time conservatory, subjecting them to repeated irradiation in order to hasten their development. This naturally raises the question of whether scientists should play God by accelerating this process. Can inflicting harm on scientific subjects ever be justified? Why do human beings have such a cruel streak? Joseph Halden’s story explores these questions and more.
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.
MR: Each story in E is for Evil is titled after a different letter of the alphabet. How did you find working with Rhonda Parrish’s prompt? Did the story or the letter come first? What’s it been like to write for this series?
JH: I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating stories for Rhonda’s anthologies. The way it works is that she gives you a letter, as well as her overall vision for the anthology. Once I’m given a letter, I usually go through a list of all the interesting things I can think of tying the letter to that particular theme. Because of the way the anthologies are written, with their reveal of the word at the end of the story, I try to make the word I choose something unexpected.
There were obvious choices that came to mind at first, such as “G is for Ghoul” or “G is for Ghost,” but I wanted to shine a light into places that weren’t so clearly good or evil. I had the idea bubbling in my head about an evolution accelerator beforehand, and once I tied that notion into playing God and the potential for evil, everything fell into place.
I absolutely love working with Rhonda. She maintains a great balance of professionalism and fun, while adhering to her commitments and making her expectations really clear. It takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the whole process, and it’s really just refreshing to work with somebody you know you can rely on. It lets me focus on crafting the story rather than administrative aspects of the process.
MR: In your story, Professor Victoria Manassa is a scientist who feels betrayed by God for not being allowed into space. She channels her frustration by inflicting harm on the krillids, based on the belief it will make them hardy enough to survive in space themselves. While she is cruel, her motives make her deeds believable. As an author, what was it like trying to empathize with such a cruel person? Is she evil, as the title of the anthology suggests?
JH: One of my favourite shows is Breaking Bad. Something it made me think about was how a person can go from good to evil by making a series of choices and compromises that consistently move in one direction. I really liked this idea, and thought it was probably the most realistic way to depict evil, and kind of used it as a guide.
I also used “G” as an opportunity for some self-examination, because I created Victoria partly from my own desires to go into space and associated disappointments. That made it a lot easier to empathize with her ambitions and goals, but I diverged from her thoughts as far as how to respond constructively to these disappointments (as well as her distorted religious beliefs). It’s always interesting for me to try and come up with legitimate reasons why people might do terrible things. To me that is a recipe for situation that will leave the reader thinking long after a story’s done, which is the kind of story I most like to read.
As I progressed in writing the story, it was hard not to fall into the trap of making Victoria a caricature, a cartoon cut-out of a villain. I think the temptation to fall into that trap might have been an instinctive need to distance myself from a person capable of such cruelty. I didn’t want to think of such a person as a real human, and especially as someone I could relate to. However, that was ultimately what I was trying to get at: the potential for evil exists in everybody.
While this realization is uncomfortable, I had to sit with it as I wrote the story as much as I wanted readers to sit with it when they read it. Ultimately, there is a trajectory, where Victoria becomes what most people would agree upon as evil. My hope is that her starting motivations were human enough that it caused readers to reflect upon the ways their own distorted beliefs might lead them down dark roads.
MR: You and I both attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and one of the novellas we read for the workshop was the novelette “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin, about an owner of monstrous pets who abuses them and who gets abused by them in turn. I couldn’t help but read “G” as a gloss on “Sandkings,” since it explores similar themes of evolution and cruelty. Of course, your story goes in a different direction. Were you inspired by “Sandkings”? If so, how? What did you decide to do differently?
“Sandkings” was a definite inspiration for the story. The horror George R.R. Martin created and sustained by writing such a cruel and sadistic tyrant stuck with me long after I read the story. The whole setup was such a beautiful way to highlight and exaggerate the effects our decisions can have on the world. Usually, there are checks and balances, limits to how much cruelty a single person can exert. With the setup of “Sandkings,” however, a person’s true nature can come forth in a(n) (almost) limitless way. The consequences have to scale up to match the increasing horror of the main character’s actions and psyche, which allows for some really unique explorations of character and morality.
In “Sandkings,” the protagonist was pretty evil from the outset. I remember reading it and wanting him to suffer early into the story. The horror he receives is really well-earned, and it made it satisfying to sit through on a long, scary ride.
What I wanted to do differently, however, was to try and take somebody on the trajectory from relatable motivations all the way to monstrous extremes. I also wanted to have a general framework around the whole situation, even outside of the characters, that people might find excusable. I think examining those instances of evil is one of the most important things we can do is writers, to ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps as our characters.
To be honest I’m not sure if my ideas for the evolution accelerator came from “Sandkings” or not. I hope other people will think I did something new and interesting with the premise.
MR: As Manassa subjects the krillids to torture, they eventually develop sentience and an advanced civilization. It’s Darwinism in action. But could such advanced evolution be possible without cruelty? In your opinion, is compassion or cruelty the better educator?
JH: That’s a really tough question. I don’t know if I have a clear answer. I know people who have suffered great tragedies and ended up developing greater compassion, but I also know people who get ruined by acts of cruelty and almost never make their way out.
I think the research for parenting styles can give us an indication of the effects of compassion versus cruelty as a teacher. The parenting research shows that a mixture of compassion and accountability yields the most balanced adults. In our modern age, that would tend to lead toward higher survivability and therefore procreation.
I think there are two key points, though: (1) our modern times are arguably different than evolutionary history, and (2) the struggles are not faced alone. The latter point is the more important idea for me.
Studies show the parents of well-rounded children have firm rules and expectations, but are also responsive and understanding. So there’s no needless cruelty, but there’s not endless compassion, either. We’re still talking about parenting, though, which is a bit different from natural selection.
In evolutionary history, I suspect features that weren’t essential for survival were weeded out. So a harsher environment would lead to a wider variety of traits that would make a creature more capable of thriving on the grand stage of the universe. I don’t think, however, that such a long term benefit justifies the moral choice of inflicting such pain upon creatures. While it is good to be able to deal with life’s challenges, I don’t think we should choose to inflict them upon anyone. The research I mentioned above shows that there are other ways of instilling grit and life-skills in people than the crucible.
As to the other part of your question, no, I don’t think advanced evolution is capable without a reason for evolution to take place. I think anthropologists have theorized that complex social interactions led to the development of larger brains, and these complex social interactions were in turn a way for human tribes to be larger to pass down knowledge of survival more readily. Ultimately it all came down to adaptability, and I don’t think the heavy resources to develop such advanced brains would have been allocated without a really high need for them.
However, the label of cruelty gets a bit tricky. If someone believes there is a superior intelligence willingly inflicting this on everyone, then it is indeed cruelty. I choose to instead see it as random consequences of the structure of our universe rather than anything specifically chosen. Because seeing tragedy as a God’s choice to toughen us up is kind of a bleak outlook for me personally, and I’d like to believe that a benevolent creator could think of better ways to help us grow.
Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.
Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.
Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.
However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.
As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”
The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.
In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.
For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?
In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.
Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.
In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.
In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.
The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.
The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.
The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight
I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.
From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.
The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.
Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.
This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.
What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose
“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.
[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste“
(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).
At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.
The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.
Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.
Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.
In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.
Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.
This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.
If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.
Beat the Drums of Peace
The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”
Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.
When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).
Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.
To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.
If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.
Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.
N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.