MythCon 45 Day 3: Postmodernity at MythCon

hogwarts

Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.

Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.

The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we  willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.

Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault's insights.
Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault’s insights.

The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).

Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.

Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.
Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.

The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.

Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges

John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s  Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.

Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.

Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.

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Photo Credits:

Hogwarts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

Panopticon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon_Jeremy_Bentham.jpg

Jorge Luis Borges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges

Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Love and Sleep by John CrowleyThe sequel to John Crowley’s Aegypt (The Solitudes), Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffet’s quest to write his history of histories, a book that in which he will propose that there is more than one history of the world.

He must decide what to do with the posthumous, unfinished manuscript of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft. The novel still sits at the famed writer’s office desk, a book that Pierce believes his entire past has prepared him to find.

I feel that my labour over the last several years has prepared me to read Crowley’s Love & Sleep. Researching the philosopher Giordano Bruno and studying the life of John Dee for my historical novel Intelligence has given me the tools I need to appreciate Crowley’s series in a way I would not have otherwise. It is like Pierce and I are mirrors of each other. I can only hope to impart some of my awe-inspired appreciation of this novel’s beauty to my readers.

Alchemical allegory
Alchemical allegory

If you are looking for an Appalachian novel (that’s right, there are hillbillies) that includes not only a parallel story set in England during Elizabethan age, but also an account of small town life during the 1970s New Age movement, and, among other antique delights, an alchemist’s  allegorical romance, then you have no other choice than to read Love & Sleep, because there is no other novel that offers those elements in conjunction, trust me.

In 1952, when he is still a boy, Pierce accidentally sets a forest on fire while burning a trash heap at his uncle’s house. This fire links his life to that of a mountain girl, who he comes to shelter from her abusive mother, their babysitter for the summer. With his cousins, he makes a secret club called  the Invisible College, which swears to protect her. By the end of the summer, Pierce loses his innocence and makes the fall towards adulthood.

Switch around the numbers of this fateful year buried deep in Pierce’s past, and you get 1592, the year the Inquisition arrested the heretic Giordano Bruno in Venice.

appalachia

Suddenly the story switches from the past to the historical past, and we see, as if from an excerpt of Fellowes Kraft’s masterpiece, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who wishes to announce a new age of the earth, arriving at the Elizabethan court during the 80s–the 1580s, that is.

Thrown out of Oxford as a lecturer for his controversial  Copernican ideas, which not only postulate the sun as center of the solar system, but imply there is no center of the universe itself, Bruno seems destined to meet the other great polymath of the age, John Dee. Sworn to an occult quest with his companion Edward Kelley, Dee comes under the spell of the angel Madimi, who appears as a seven-year-old girl to Kelley, his scrier, in a seeing-stone. Their devotion to finding out the secrets of the universe from the angels will take them to Prague, and the Holy Roman Emperor Emperor Rudolph II’s court, where an ailing Emperor is searching for the Work.

In the 1970s, the adult Pierce is without driver’s license, labouring to compile a book for his agent. It will tell the history of histories, arguing that the world has not always been what it has since become. History can be divided into cycles, where different ideas and philosophies of defining reality come and eventually go, in sudden paradigm shifts that leave those in the present looking back wondering. In the new age, the future is different too and the past is no longer the same past. The late sixteenth century, a time of religious strife and warfare and desperate uncertainty, was one age of transition, an time that saw the abandoning of magical ways of thinking and the rise modern science. Though gemstones and amulets in the old world may have been able to cure sickness or even sink the Spanish Armada, in this world, the world we live in, their powers are lost.

The 1970s is another age of transition. Modernity finds itself struggling with its own liberation from the past. All the presumably dubious developments of the New Age movement–climacterics, astrology, miracle cures, auras–find a fresh popularity. However, this New Age is not new in any sense, for these alternative sciences were standard fare in the Renaissance.

While Pierce labours under the debilitating pall of melancholy, a medieval disease afflicting academics, in the picturesque New York State town of Blackbury Jambs, old Boney Rasmussen is after the secret for immortal life. Kraft’s only real friend, Boney is obsessed with using the resources of the Rasmussen Foundation to locate an object of exceptional value. A Holy Grail, a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts, it is also, perhaps, the one thing Pierce needs in order to tie his project together: an object that has maintained its magical virtue from the passing of one age to the other. It could be a powder, a crystal, a stone, a liquid–anything. But it could be anywhere–or everywhere.

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

While the premise of Love & Sleep sounds like it appeals to those interested in yet another Illuminati thriller of the Dan Brown tradition, Crowley’s mastery as a novelist sets him in a higher sphere. I rank him among the great literary novelists. His style is so rich and multi-layered, every scene and image finding layers of allegorical or symbolic meaning whether through coincidence, conjunction, or parallels with the sixteenth century, that you cannot read Love & Sleep fast, but contemplatively, tasting the implications of each sentence.

Life moves in the quiet rhythms of rural life. Any big, celestial revelations which mark the shocking but cheap ends of scenes in The DaVinci Code do not draw cries of exclamation in Love & Sleep, so much as produce smooth ripples on the surface. Crowley’s style is fluid, the dialogue realistic; how he captures the stilted feel of real conversations is a magic in itself. I cannot fathom his process of plotting these books or how he plans them at all, but somehow, every note is there, each scene a verse of poetry.

I find myself nodding in recognition at all the things the characters notice in their world, things as ordinary as the pink bubblegum medicine Rosie Rasmussen gives her daughter Sam to cure her earache and the joy of what it’s like to sit in bed and pull down an encyclopedia on magical phenomena to read an entry on werewolves. Pierce takes such a book down when he was young, called A Dictionary of Deities, Devils and Daemons of Mankind, by Alexis Payne de St.-Phalle. (Whose name, by the way, is hilarious.) For me, this book was The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. While the latter book led me to an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, and then eventually to my novel Intelligence, Pierce’s Dictionary leads him to discover the land of Aegypt. And I think that John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence will form the inspiration for my Master’s thesis.

Love & Sleep is impossible to faithfully sum up in so short a space, but I have done the best I can to explain how astonishing it is. It goes far beyond typical historical fantasy, into the realms of magic realism and literary fiction, yet it never drops the ball on historical fantasy. Aegypt shows how ‘Fallen’ modern humanity can nonetheless glimpse another world that once existed, a world entirely separate from our own shopping mall-ridden, consumerist, parking lot-favouring, entertaining-ourselves-to-death, hyperreal, media-saturated society, a world that was just as much of a fluke as ours is today, to gently paraphrase Brian Attebery. John Crowley weaves a story that stands apart from every other novel I know, accomplishing what many writers of the fantastic have only attempted to do: he shows the mythic resonances of our own twenty-first century lives.

John Crowley
John Crowley

Picture Credits:

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Appalachia: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/09/08/appalachian/

Allegory: http://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1972101.htm

The Alchemist’s Quest

alchemyTo create the animated stone, take the juice of a Saturnine herb to extract mercury and evaporate it to get the purest earth. Join this with its like in equal weight and dissolve both with a crude metallic humor. Putrify for forty days. You may also calcine the earth with fire alone, join it with sublimatic arsenic, and it will be the greatest arcanum for human bodies.

If visions of a middle aged man in a dark robe fumbling in his laboratory to create the elixir of life appear to you when reading this alchemical recipe, then you already have a sense of the alchemist’s quest.

Immortality and infinite wealth were the boons such alchemists pursued, thinking it possible to turn base metals into gold. Although modern-day atom-smashing, particle-accelerating science has proven this technically possible on a tiny scale, early chemists such as Nicholas Flamel, Gerhard Dorn, Cornelius Agrippa, and Thomas Vaughan dreamed of attaining the impossible.

Yet for all their obvious mistakes, alchemists were pioneers. Their techniques of manipulating matter through sublimation, coagulation, putrefaction, and distillation eventually benefited early scientific chemistry. Furthermore, the philosophy of turning lead into gold–that humanity had the power to increase the quality of the world around them through their knowledge of the natural order–has remained a central motive behind many scientists.

Today I will take you into the world of the alchemists, and you can judge for yourself whether they were hacks, or spiritual idealists devoted to an old magic system.

First let me show you inside the laboratory, the best place as any to learn about the alchemist trade. The main piece of equipment was the athanor, a cylindrical furnace stove where the alchemists lit fires in order to refine lead. Inside the hollow chamber within that athanor are a series of pots placed within each other, linked to the outside via narrow tubes where substances may be poured in for experiments.  The athanor represents the womb where the Philosopher’s Stone was made. It is also the name I selected to brand my editing service.

athanor2Gerhard Dorn described four steps to the process of attaining the Stone. To attain the quintessence of matter, it was necessary to putrefy the body, decomposing all matter to a uniform blackness, purify it, then attempt to coagulate or condense the resulting spirit into a gold body. If you have any idea what that means, then I applaud you: alchemists concealed their secrets behind a web of symbolism and occult language, rather like the notation doctors use when they write subscriptions.

In order to attain the Stone of Harry Potter fame, the alchemist went through four processes using the athanor. These are called nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo: blackness, whiteness, yellowness, and then redness, each earthly colour endowed with its own symbolism. Not only did these processes for alchemical transformation correspond to actual techniques used in a laboratory, but Carl Jung found archetypical resonances charting the progress of self-individuation within this symbolism. Whereas nigredo represents “the dark night of the soul,” albedo represents the male and female aspects of the self, citrinitas represents wisdom, and rubedo wholeness.

Once these steps had been accomplished, the alchemist made “gold.” But saying this was the only goal of the alchemist’s quest would be limiting. “Gold” was merely a symbol for attaining “God,” specifically, attaining God’s creative matter, the power of the Word, or logos, itself. In the beginning was the Word, reads John’s Gospel, and many alchemists had as their goal the discovery of this primal creative substance. It was also called prima materia.

Within all matter, this piece of God’s own substance supposedly resided, and the alchemist’s job was to penetrate the form of matter in order to reach this seed. Indeed, some alchemists believed all matter to be alive in a way reminiscent of plants. Iron, gold, copper, and other metals supposedly “grew” underground. And attaining the “sperm” of the prima materia was a way to impregnate the “womb” of matter, giving birth to new substances. A menstruum was a solvent used to reduce a substance to prima materia and was considered the mother from which all metals were derived.

Since attaining the Stone required alchemists to search into the heart of matter itself (not dissimilar to our current search for the God particle), it is no wonder that the alchemists used VITRIOL as their motto. This sulphate of iron or copper makes a powerful sulfuric acid and forms the first letters of a Latin phrase: Visita Interlarem Terrae Rectifando Ivenies Operae Lapidem. “Go down into the bowels of the Earth; by distillation, you will find the stone for the Work.”

Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto
Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto

Often venturing this deep into the mysteries required the alchemist to go “underground” in more than one sense. The quest for the Work proved too expensive to pursue for many. Many alchemists fell into debt. They were often lonely, ostracized from a society that did not understand their beliefs. Though they thought they had greater insight into the beliefs central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the representatives of orthodoxy would beg to disagree, claiming them to be heretics. This required alchemists to be secretive, to pass as much as possible under the noses of those who wished them evil.

Usually alchemists kept their athanor outside for ventilation, ordering clay materials from the local potter to construct their all-important furnace.  They would also require an assistant–or accomplice–to keep the bellows going, like at a smithy. They had to face dangers from the authorities and may have had to pay them to turn a blind eye to their experiments. Furthermore, there was always the risk of lead and mercury poisoning, which may have caused some of the delirium experienced by these early scientists.

alchemy2

Given the risky nature of the work–especially in terms of finances–it is not surprising that many “alchemists” were less interested in unearthing the blessed Word, but in swindling kings and dukes of their money. These charlatans would place a rock in a pan of mercury, which they stirred with a hollow stirring rod stoppered with clay at one end. After stirring the mercury and claiming the everyday rock to be the “Stone,” the mercury would evaporate and the clay melt, letting the gold powder stuffed in the stirring rod pour into the pan. From the observer’s perspective, this would seem magical. Once their sleight of hand trickery was discovered, such alchemists had to ditch town and flee the king’s men.

Treatise by Gerhard Dorn
Treatise by Gerhard Dorn

This is not, however, to imply that all who practiced alchemy were charlatans. There were those like Gerhard Dorn who believed alchemy was best used to cure the sick, rather than for self-enrichment. Whether their cures worked is another issue. While it is doubtful alchemical cures were anything like modern medicine, a well-versed alchemist who was aware of the sympathetic bonds between planets and metals may have also know of the bonds between planets and herbs. Since planets and stars were said to direct the fate of humanity due to the phenomenon of stellar influence, perceived bonds between planets like Venus and Mars to metals like copper and iron supposedly contained great power. Medicinal herbs, whether due to their inherent chemical properties or their magical affinity to the planets, in all likelihood really did heal certain diseases and afflictions.

It may be possible that, even in their blindness, alchemists found certain effects that they observed to work reliably, though they ascribed them to sympathetic magic rather than the physical properties of the plants and metals themselves. However, one thing is certain, and that is that modern science would not have been the same without the efforts of alchemists. At the turn between the Renaissance and Early Modern period, alchemists participated in one of the great transmutations of European history: the transition from a traditional, magical worldview into the stabilized, rationalized, scientific mindset that defines the worldview of our own age.

Agrippa's Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Agrippa’s Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Cornelius Agrippa
Cornelius Agrippa

Ancestral Memory Point of View Experiment

Miles Desmond, in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, sitting in an Animus: a machine that enables you to revisit ancestral memories and travel through time. But how to represent the experience of entering such a memory in fiction?
Miles Desmond, in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, sitting in an Animus: a machine that enables you to revisit ancestral memories and travel through time. But how to represent the experience of entering ancestral memories in fiction?

Over the summer, I was debating what kind of new short story I should write, when I found myself gravitating towards the technical challenges and experimentalism that the Assassin’s Creed franchise might inspire in fiction. What really got me thinking was how to represent the experience of entering an Animus in fiction.

Altair
Altair

The Animus machine in Assassin’s Creed splices two consciousnesses. Tracing ancestral memories through a subject’s DNA–an intriguing bit of pseudoscience–an animus can make you re-experience the memories of distant ancestors. In the game, the modern-era protagonist Desmond Miles revisits worlds of Crusade-era Jerusalem as his distant ancestor Altair, then sees Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Ezio Auditore, before experiencing the American Revolution through the eyes of Connor, a Mohawk.

There are certain rules to the Animus. For example, the bleeding effect: too much time spent in the Animus can cause your visions of the past to appear, ghostlike, in the present. This can lead to madness, as it does with Subject 16 in the game. Also, it is (or should be) impossible to view later memories of an ancestor, if he or she conceives or bears the next child in the subject’s bloodline. The child’s DNA would contain the ancestral memories of both parents, but later memories of his or her parents would be lost, since chromosomes are obviously not given to children after conception. The possible conflicts inherent in this conundrum are not explored in the game. In fact, they are outright ignored in Revelations.

The synchronization bar essentially serves as the life meter in Assassin's Creed.
The synchronization bar is the life meter in Assassin’s Creed.

Thirdly, there is the entire concept of “synchronization.” In the game, Desmond’s DNA grants him access to certain early memories, but only through completing memory sequences can he uncover later, or even repressed, memories. Synchronization is an organic way to explain why Desmond must progress through a series of “levels” in the game. But is Desmond passive to Ezio’s memories, or does he engage actively with them? Most of the time, it seems that Desmond is only seeing through Ezio’s eyes what happens. However, if you kill a civilian, fail to complete a level, or die in the game, you “de-synchronize” with Ezio’s consciousness. Desmond has to repeat all the actions Ezio performed in real life. But he does them in a kind of liminal space between history and the player’s failures to “synchronize” perfectly. For example, when you die in the game, especially by doing something stupid like falling off the top of a church steeple, a common reaction is to sarcastically groan, “And so that’s how Ezio died…” and slam the controller on the ground. The skill of players–and Desmond himself–must coincide with Ezio, or all is lost.

Ezio in Venice
Ezio Auditore conspicuously breaks through a crowd in Piazza San Marco, Venice, in Assassin’s Creed II. To what extent does Desmond control what Ezio does?
Connor, aka Ratonhnhaké:ton: the first Native American Assassin
Connor, a.k.a. Ratonhnhaké:ton: the first Native American Assassin

All this to say, there is a nonlinear nexus where Ezio’s actions can coincide with Desmond’s or not, a kind of free, Matrix-like world created in the universe of artificial experience that the animus creates. This space not only causes us to ask, “Is this the real world, or just an illusion?” but even makes us ponder, “Is Ezio’s history real, or is the world created by the Animus itself, only an illusion, like a computer game?” (Perhaps Abstergo Industries, the all-powerful organization that invented the Animus, controls perceptions of the past in this way. THAT would make waves. A dilemma never addressed in the game.)

Now that those who may be unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed have an idea of how the Animus is supposed to work, let me address my initial question: how can literature represent the unique consciousness of a subject like Desmond in the Animus? Two minds vying for the same stream of consciousness make it a challenge to write well–even omitting the whole paradox of synchronization.

Dumbledore extracts his memories through magic, to store in a pensieve.
Dumbledore extracts his memories through magic, to store in a pensieve.

Before I get into my analysis, I must clarify that the challenge of the Animus POV extends much, much farther than the world of Assassin’s Creed and its novelizations (none of which use experimental language). One common science fiction and fantasy trope, to cite one example, involves aliens and other creatures who are able to share memories instantly with other organisms, at touch. I believe Vulcans and Na’vi fall under this category, neither of which are limited by the paradoxes of the Animus technology. Furthermore, a fantasist can imagine an infinite number of other ways in which memories can be stored inside inanimate objects and reproduced in the character’s consciousness when activated. I recall Harry Potter’s adventures in the pensieve, for example–not to mention Kimberly Ford’s flashes of Seer insight in Fionavar Tapestry. The great virtue of revisiting memories is that you can make characters re-experience backstory and elide much of the drawl of re-telling history.

Looking into a pensieve, you can revisit your own memories or those of others, walking through them as if through a world that doesn't see or hear you.
Looking into a pensieve, you can revisit your own memories or those of others, walking through them as if through a world that doesn’t see or hear you.

My method of representing the Animus viewpoint is as follows: I wrote a story where I began with one consciousness that exists in normal circumstances, made it pass through a transitional phase through the Animus, and then found some way to represent the nexus of consciousnesses within the Animus itself.  First person “I” and third person “he/she/it”: these pronouns each create a certain effect when used with either the present or past tense (I left out ‘you’ because the second person is too experimental and thus an unstable ground on which to test this already-experimental strategy). Perhaps it is best for Desmond’s consciousness to be distinct and separate from Ezio’s, which would be a clean, clear reading experience. If we want to experiment with synchronization, however, we might try to keep Desmond’s mind somehow in dialogue with Ezio’s viewpoint, like some kind of self-conscious narrator in Ezio’s story. A happy in-between may also be possible…

If you try to combine the first person with the third person perspective, then make both either present or past tense–and then repeat them again, to form the total number of possible combinations–then you end up with 16 possibilities. These combinations do not employ the synchronization paradox (that, later), but some have the benefit of clarity. I have included the list of aesthetic effects I observed below:

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Desmond – Ezio

I am – I was: This combination causes Desmond’s viewpoint to become lost in an ancestor’s voice, who retells his story in the past tense, as though it has already happened. The voices are distinct, but the perspectives do not synchronize.

I am- I am: Smooth transition from POVs. Immediacy, in-the-moment. Subjective, so close to a direct experience. Desmond is perfectly synchronized to the second POV to the point where he seems to transform into Ezio and acquire his sense perceptions.

I am- He was : I found that this combination distanced Desmond from Ezio. Desmond ends up describing Ezio’s viewpoint after-the-fact, as though he left the animus and is now explaining what he saw. Or perhaps the narrative’s camera follows the ancestor over his shoulder.

I am- He is: Really postmodern effect. The character loses control of his own narrative, stops telling us his direct experience, and another unknown, possibly non-participant narrator begins telling his story from above.

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I was-I was: This effect is like ‘normal’ literature. Desmond is simply revisiting a memory in his own past, in a flashback where he imagines himself revisiting his past experiences.

I was -I am: Decent synchronization effect, and a reasonably smooth transition. To my ears, at least, it did not feel so much that Desmond’s POV became Ezio’s or that Desmond’s POV was replaced by Ezio’s, but that Desmond was wearing the skin of Ezio for a while, as though he was playing his part, a bit like an actor. Not perfect synchronization, but does present an interesting effect that can absolutely work.

I was -He was: There is no direct synchronization, Desmond watching Ezio from a detached, almost God-like or narrative standpoint. Unless explained in the text, we do not necessarily understand their minds to be melded in one; he could simply be watching a video of Ezio moving.

I was – He is:  Like ‘I am-he is,” the character loses control of the narration of his own story. However, the transition between past tense to present, which is a bit arbitrary, threw me off and sounded clunky. Not recommended.

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He was – I was: Ezio ends up speaking about himself, but it runs a bit clunky. Not immersive: there are two viewpoints being juxtaposed.

He was – I am: Tense difference can be choppy, but it requires the ancestor to have a distinct, immediate voice.

He was – He was: Like normal literature. Desmond is simply reliving his past.

He was – He is: An interesting effect. The synchronization is such that it feels like though Desmond is playing Ezio’s role, (as in “I was-I am”) only it is told with more distance, so the effect of role-playing is reduced. Also, since the Ezio POV is so immediate, it is not necessarily true that it is presenting a linear narrative–only a series of immediate sensations and experiences. This can enable you to scramble the order of the ancestor’s story.

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He is – I was: The effect of this is like a retelling in Ezio’s journal. It is strange to use to create the illusion of synchronization, but still viable as a technique. Desmond’s experience of Ezio seems second-hand.

He is – I am: Feels more synchronized than if past tense was used. Ezio ends up speaking about himself in a separate viewpoint, but a clever person might be able to make it clear Desmond is somehow integrated into Ezio’s consciousness, since the experience is in the present-tense with both characters.

He is – He was: Feels like Desmond is visiting his own memory. But the difference in tense makes it awkward, like a failed transition into a normal flashback.

He is – He is: Perhaps the easier, most viable, though one of the least experimental, of these options. The present tense makes it immediate and the consistent third person makes the transition smooth. It is almost as if Desmond has physically turned into Ezio. In fact, this point of view might be effective for metamorphosis stories. Unless we are reminded that Desmond’s own body is still lying in the animus, it will seem to be a complete transformation.

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When Desmond and Ezio’s scenes are told from either the same tense or same person, it is generally more effective–although there are some interesting effects that can work where there is a difference. Now, there is one last problem: accurately describing the synchronization process–how Desmond’s mind might occasionally conflict with Ezio’s memory. One solution is to elide this dilemma entirely.  After all, losing synchronization does not have to be a danger in a fictional world in the way it must be in the Assassin’s Creed video game. Your readers cannot “lose” a story, unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. However, if I were to encounter this dilemma head-on, I might write something like this:

“Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. Connor felt angry today and Desmond could see why: the man in the blue coat standing near the bench on the other side was Haytham. I don’t have to see him yet, thought Desmond, and walked into an alleyway. His body was not sore, refreshed from Connor’s last fight, so he climbed onto the roof of the print shop when he spotted a piece of Ben Franklin’s almanac flying in the wind.”

Chasing the almanac page is literally a side-quest in the game, translated directly to the page, and threatens only to be a distraction, however. For a tighter narrative, either Desmond would have to search for something important that he would have motivation to find in 1781 New York, or he would go right towards activating the next memory, by speaking with Haytham.

“”Connor,” said Haytham. “You’re late.”

“I came as quickly as I could,” said Connor.

“Follow me. We have a matter at the brewery.”

Desmond remembered Rebecca and Shawn had found something in the Abstergo database about the Old Brewery.  He followed Haytham, keeping an eye out as Connor made an angsty sound in his throat, at his father who cared nothing for him. Perhaps he and Connor had more in common than he’d thought–he’d been riled up against his own father, William Miles, earlier.”

If this style of writing satisfies, then my job is done.  In conclusion, I have isolated five types of perspectives that can be written, which have resulted from this experiment:

-Split Synchronization (as above)

Straightforward Transformation of Consciousness: “I am/I am, “he is/ he is,” and “I was/I was,” “he was, he was.”

Remembrance of things past: “I was /I was” and “he was/ he was.”

Non-linear/Timeless animus effect: “He was / He is,” “I was / I am.”

Journal memories: “He is/ I was,” “I am/ he was” “He was / I was” “I was/ I was”

The following are some examples of these last four types, made essentially by taking the first paragraph of Desmond’s above story and changing the tense and person accordingly.  Taste the effects like a subtle wine.

What would it be like to be Ratonhnhaké:ton?
What would it be like to be Ratonhnhaké:ton?

Transformation of Consciousness: “I am sitting down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clack over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surges up my spine. I close my eyes. When I open them, I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I am angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.”

Remembrance of things past: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes.

He was in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. He felt angry today: Haytham Kenway, his father, was standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looked restless, expectant.”

Non-linear, timeless Animus effect: “I sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up my spine as I closed my eyes.

I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I feel angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.

Rebecca’s voice in my ear tells me to prepare for step back in time. The cityscape vanishes into blue squares and formless shapes while the Animus knits the world back together. Suddenly it is 1776. I’m younger, staring at my father as he waits below the State House, whispering to Charles Lee. The Boston Massacre is about to begin.”

Journal memories: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes…

I was angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, was standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side of the market. He looked restless, expectant. What could I do, if the Templars have a chance of winning this war? Benjamin Church must pay for his crimes.”

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Which passage most pleases the ear? I leave that up to you decide…

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Photo Credits:

Altair: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Alta%C3%AFr_Ibn-La%27Ahad

Connor1: http://www.idigitaltimes.com/articles/10594/20120802/assassins-creed-iiis-anvilnext-creating-unprecedented-experience.htm

Connor 2: http://wiiudaily.com/2013/02/assassins-creed-3-wii-u-review/assassins-creed-3-connor-fighting/

Desmond in Animus: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/acb_360/

Ezio: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/File:AC2_Ezio_in_crowd.jpg

Pensieve: http://www.evercurious.com/2010/01/11/a-memory-catching-pensieve-for-muggles/

Pensieve 2: http://www.thinkboxsoftware.com/krakatoa-in-production/

Synch bar: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Synchronization

Top Ten Wainscot Societies

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gained unprecedented popularity, the world at large was introduced to a “new” concept: a hidden magical society that lived parallel to the everyday world, but scarcely—if ever—interacting with it. The idea of hidden societies, however, is not a new one.

Many fantasy novels of all types include hidden societies. These have been termed “wainscot societies” in John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, or “wainscots” for short. You may have wainscots in your house: the name also refers to fancy paneling, which is often used to decorate walls. Mice and rats are reportedly notorious for borrowing into wainscotting, to make their own homes inside the walls and cracks. These hidden “wainscots” are analogous to the hidden structure of mouse homes.

Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?
Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?

Including the wizarding world of Harry Potter, there are 10 wainscots in fantasy literature that I have identified as being either the very famous or very defining. The Top 10 list is probably less than perfect, mind you, and I confess I have not read most of these books. However, I do feel that most of the authors are well-known enough for the list to have some legitimacy. They are in alphabetical order:

Borrowers1. The Borrowers

Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers is clearly and distinctly a wainscot society. In this children’s tale, a family of tiny people live within the floorboards of a house in England and must borrow items from the big people who live parallel lives along with them. A great success, this book developed into a 5-book series. The novel was adapted into a 1997 film I  remember seeing way back in elementary school.

Cuthulhu2. Cthulhu Cult

Cthulhu is an ancient god supposedly dormant in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, who will one day rise and bring about an apocalypse. The creation of H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu drives humans mad upon sight, even if they only see a depiction of him in a statue. Furthermore, his telepathic energy affects human around the world on the unconscious level, filling them with terror. The religious societies of people who worship Cthulhu can be considered a wainscot—one you are better off not finding.

Strange devices3. Faery

“Faery” was used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe a place, not a magical creature. In literature, fairies are always hidden and when a human ventures into the kingdom of faery, they enter into a dangerous, supernatural world where time runs differently from normal. While Lisa Goldsteins’ Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is not the only story to use faery, I still think it is a defining use of faery as a wainscot—especially in a historical fantasy novel.

In Strange Devices, the Faery Queen enters the court of Queen Elizabeth I in search of her son, King Arthur. Historical reality and the supernatural world are crosshatched here, so that it is not clear whether “our” world or the world of Faery is the “dominant” one.

Faerie also appears in John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, in which Smoky Barnable, the protagonist, encounters a similar crosshatched world, in which he encounters fairy tale creatures invented by his future father-in-law. Although traditional stories about faery were at first simple encounters with invisible realities, more modern stories include complex interactions between our world and the other.

Anubis Gates4. King Horrabin’s beggars

Much of the work of Tim Powers contains wainscots, especially in the form of hidden societies of sorcerers living in the historical past. The Anubis Gates (1983) is his most well known story, based on a millionaire’s botched time-traveling plan to send a group of wealthy people to 1810 to attend a lecture of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the characters, Professor Brenden Doyle, falls in with the clan of murderous beggars led by King Horrabin, a clown sorcerer. The domain of the king’s kingdom runs parallel with the mundane world.

Gulliver5. Lilliputians

The tiny people from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels do not quite form their own wainscot. Although the Lilliputians are diminutive people, the existence of whom normal people are ignorant, they live completely apart from human beings. T.H. White, however, turned them into a wainscot in Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The home of the Liliputians, two hundred years after Gulliver, is on Repose, an island in the middle of an lake on the estate of Malplaquet, an English house in Northamptonshire. The island is difficult to access and their city hidden within brambles, providing an effective place for this wainscot to hide.

Neverwhere6. London Below

Neil Gaiman’s stories contain many wainscots indeed. The hidden world of deities in American Gods and Anansi Boys is prominent (and similar of the wainscot of divinities in the Percy Jackson series), but Gaiman conjures no milieu more fully a wainscot than London Below in Neverwhere (1996). Beggars and thieves live unobserved in the sewers and abandoned tube stations of London, forming a feudal-based society that revolves around the markets, where various items normally considered trash are traded for other items, or favours. A clan of rat-speakers, a group of beggars who can speak to rats, is a wainscot within a wainscot—to say nothing of the rats themselves, which form their own society.

pratchett nomes7. Nomes

Terry Pratchett’s Nomes series—Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990)—involves a group of small people who come from another world. They struggle to survive among humans, but make a return journey towards home once they learn about their origins—from a thing known as the “Thing.” The series consists, of course, of typical Terry Pratchett humour.

Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?
Wainscotting in a house. Coincidence that Harry Potter also lived in a cupboard under the stairs?

8. The Pendragons

C.S. Lewis speculates about the survival of the descendents of Arthur Pendragon in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. The final volume of his Space Trilogy, a science fiction series with theological undertones, Lewis’ novel takes place mostly on earth. His series protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, learns he is the heir of King Arthur and thus “Pendragon” (or king) of Logres, King Arthur’s ancient kingdom. In the Space Trilogy world, Pendragons live in secret in Britain and have risen up in times of crisis to protect their country from evil, without letting everyday people learn of their existence.

Roofworld9. Roofworld

Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld contains a secret society of Londoners who live on the city’s rooftops. Robert Linden and Rose Leonard, two outsiders, get drawn into into that world, as the roof-dwellers enter a war over their leadership. I would not be surprised if Neil Gaiman had been inspired by Fowler in his depiction of London Below, especially in the character of the roof-dweller Old Bailey. Roofworld proves that wainscots are not only in walls, or underground, but above our heads as well.

10. The Wizarding World

Last but not least, the world of Harry Potter, meticulously imagined by world-famous author J.K. Rowling, has to be the most famous of all wainscots. Harry first enters the wizarding world through the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron, which opens to Diagon Alley, where he goes shopping for school supplies. Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards—along with the rest of the magical universe—is not visible to Muggles (normal people). Strict laws protect any exposure of the wizarding world to Muggle eyewitnesses. Of course, you probably already knew all this.

leaky cauldron

Works Cited

Wikipedia, Goodreads, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute.

Photo Credits

Anubis Gates: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Anubis_Gates

The Borrowers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Borrowers

Cuthulhu: http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Call_of_Cthulhu

Leaky Cauldron: http://dumbledoresarmyroleplay.wikia.com/wiki/The_Leaky_Cauldron

Lilliputians: http://ralphcassar.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/liliput-and-chris-said%E2%80%99s-tunnel%E2%80%A6/

Neverwhere: http://jenniferdawnbrody.com/tag/neverwhere/

Nomes: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Terry-Pratchett-Nomes-Books-Collection/dp/B005FPTAUG

Roofworld: http://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/books-2/roofworld/

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon: http://www.salamzone.com/strange-devices-of-the-sun-and-moon/

That Hideous Strength: http://americanfront.info/2012/04/22/c-s-lewison-left-vs-right/

Wainscot: http://www.cambridgecrownandtrim.ca/Wainscoting.aspx