Joseph Halden

Playing a Cruel God: An Interview with Joseph Halden

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.

E is for Evil, edited by Rhonda Parrish book cover

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.

Joseph Halden, author of "G"
Joseph Halden, author of “G” in E is for Evil

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.


Visit Joseph Halden’s website.

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MythCon 45 Day 4: Faith, Myths, and Archetypes

Fantasy and Faith Panel
Fantasy and Faith Panel

J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien

The first of the two legendary panels that happened on Sunday–just before my own presentation, which was the last before the banquet and awards ceremony–was entitled “Fantasy and Faith.”

Chip Crane moderated, and Carl Hostetter, Sorina Higgins, and Lynn Maudlin were discussing the Inklings. What is the place of faith in the fantasy genre? What place does religion have in LOTR? Oddly enough, there are no religions in Tolkien, despite his firm Catholicism; the elves have no need of religion, given their certainty that the Valar live in the West. Tolkien himself explained that LOTR was a “fundamentally” religious and Catholic work–unconsciously at first, but conscious during revision. This means that “fundamentally,” or “at base,” LOTR is religious, though not “fundamentally” in the sense of “extremism.” That would be decidedly un-Tolkienian! The Legendarium of Tolkien–the complex of legends that build up Tolkien’s world–is filled with Catholic metaphysics, well-informed by Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Yet the only hint of religious ritual is when, as Chip Crane’s two young children so learnedly pointed out, Faramir and his men bow to the West before meals, as a veneration of their “host.”

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C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

Tolkien was firm that one should not read LOTR as an allegory of faith or Christianity itself. He was no conjurer of cheap symbolic tricks, although some have thought C.S. Lewis to stoop a little lower artistically. However, it is not fair to reduce Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to allegory: Aslan is not representative of Christ, Aslan is Christ–just in another dimension of reality. Lewis’ Christianity is a whole other area of study. If you don’t know him from his fantasy novels, you know him as the Christian author of Surprised by Joy. But what you might not know, is that he was a science fiction writer too–his Space Trilogy is Christian sci-fi, where the cosmos is not Galilean and heliocentric but medieval, geocentric.

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Charles Williams
Charles Williams

The oddball of the Inklings was the Christian-Rosicrucian Charles Williams. Like H.P. Lovecraft, William fills his novels with occult secret societies and fanatic cults. In War in Heaven, what begins like a straightforward detective thriller morphs into a quest for the Holy Grail, a spectacular blending of genres. His description of a black mass around the Holy Grail, explained Sorina Higgins, is loving, precise, and sexual in mood. It suggests experience at having actually conducted such masses, of having participated himself in the described ritual.

Orthodox C.S. Lewis he was not.

In another novel, The Place of the Lion, Platonic archetypes run amok in the English countryside. In Shadows of Ecstasy, a cult of Africans plan a revolutionary movement to supplant European civilization. His novels have no Everyman character with whom the reader can relate, no Lucy Pevensey or Frodo Baggins. He tries, in a Modernist manner, to distort and challenge the reader. Why have I never heard of Williams before?

The Inklings were also big on Arthurian literature–which, by the way, is the theme of next year’s MythCon. Sorina Higgins was back in action as moderator for “The Inklings and King Arthur.” Chris Gaertner, Yannick Imbert, Benjamin Shogren, and Brenton Dickieson were the panelists. In May, Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur was published, a work that had long been sitting in the archives. But Lewis and Owen Barfield too, another Inkling, all wrote Arthurian legends. The Inklings were concerned with national mythologies and legends that describe the acting-out of human history. History can be seen as a long defeat, or as something to identify with, and when you do attach yourself to history in that way, history becomes mythology.

Owen Barfield
Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield deserves a paragraph on his own, even though few have ever heard of him. He was the first and last Inkling. Tolkien had the greatest regard for him; Barfield changed his whole outlook on philology. Lewis called Barfield his wisest teacher. Barfield was deeply aware of how ancients saw nature as having a consciousness, although our scientific, Cartesian universe draws a separation. He tried to restore readers’ awareness of this separation through literature. His Night Operation is a science-fiction novella, a grail story, and a dystopian tale of the Blitz, where society relocates to the London sewers to avoid the bombs. The effect of the Blitz on fantasy literature has been considerable, when you think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it was almost as if the Inklings saw the space of their nation’s city threatened, forcing them to escape into other spaces–even fantastic space.

I left this brilliant discussion, which I would have liked to hear more of, to high-tail it to my own presentation. You can read the summary of my main points here, and look at the PowerPoint I used here. I have no interest in re-hashing my thesis, but suffice it to say, the presentation went on without a hitch. The comments I received were constructive, although the audience cannot be said to have been intimately familiar with Guy Gavriel’s Kay’s work, as they might have been, for instance with Lewis or Tolkien. But most of the people I’d met over the weekend were there: Brenton Dickieson, John McGeaery, Daniel Lüthie, Rebecca McCurdy, Sorina Higgins, Carl Hostetter, and Mark Williams. Lüthie directed me towards Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal to explore the nature of Story more closely, and the audience was curious as to how I would analyze alternate history, or historical fantasy set in the primary world, such as Tales of Alvin Maker. I confess I don’t know how I would investigate alternate history–it would depend on the individual novel. But all suggestions were welcome.

Following my presentation was the banquet, for which several people dressed up as obscure, and not-so-obscure, characters from fantasy. The Author/Artist Guest of Honour was Ursula Vernon, whose web comic Digger was popular, though I had never heard of it. It is a beast-fable comics series that explores the mythologies and societies of different species of animals. It stars Digger, a groundhog miner who winds up in all sorts of trouble.

Then to the Mythopoeic Awards, in which Mark Williams’s book Sleepless Nights was denied victory, though so was Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker won the Adult Literature Prize. Father G. Ronald Murphy rose to take the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in General Myth and Fantasy Studies for Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. Murphy was the only Mythopoeic Award-winner present that evening. Another important work that won an award for Inkling Studies was Tolkien and the Study of his Sources: Critical Essays, edited by Jason Fisher. Lastly, Holly Black won the Children’s Literature award for Doll Bones.

Mythopoeic Awards! (It's a sphinx.)
Mythopoeic Awards! (It’s shaped like a sphinx.)

Silliness ensued with the reading out of the clerihews and the presentation of the Clerihew Award. A clerihew is a four-lined poem with rhyming couplets, meant to satirize lightly like a limerick. Tolkien was fond of them. The Masquerade presented all the costumes people brought to the conference. There was Galadriel, a steampunk Fourth Doctor, and Gandalf, among others. This show included Chris Gaertner’s tragic soliloquy as King Arthur, a memorable moment, as well as Sorina’s reading of passage from Charles Williams, as Morgeuse.

Christ Gaertner as King Arthur (the hair is real)
Chris Gaertner as King Arthur (the hair is real)

Sorina Higgins as Morgeuse
Sorina Higgins as Morgeuse

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Then there was Golfimbul. We lined up outside the depression in the quadrangle known as the Dimple and played T-ball with a doll’s head attached to a “Mordor U” jersey (a converted MacDonald’s uniform). This was our “goblin” and our goal was to knock off its head with a baseball bat and get it as close as possible to a plastic rabbit. This unusual sport is based on the anecdote Tolkien accidentally left in The Hobbit explaining how Bilbo’s ancestor, who was tall enough to ride horseback, once whacked the head off a goblin chieftain, so that it rolled into a rabbit hole, thereby inventing the game of golf. It is a MythCon tradition and I am happy to say I lost–so bad, in fact, that they had to give me a prize Monday morning. The paper plate commemorating my lack of Golfimbul skills remains on my desk to this day. It is known as the much-coveted “Linguist” trophy.

Golfinbul
Golfinbul

To close the day, I participated in Bardic Circle. There were ten or so sitting in a circle in the common room of one of the dorms, and we went in a circle, reading poetry, telling stories, or singing–whatever we brought to share. Sea shanties, Celtic reels, and our own creative mythopoeic poetry were all recited. When it came to my turn, I was put in the situation of Caedmon, who in Anglo-Saxon England was asked to sing a song, and was so embarrassed he ran off into a stable. When he returned, he played the harp and spoke the first poem in all of English, “The Creator’s Hymn,” which is earlier even than Beowulf. My version of this hymn was from this very website, which I was able to access from my smartphone. I recited “Vision:  Evening Prayer” and, on my second round, “Eternal Guarantee,” which is my own humorous take on the Arthurian mythos.

And so ended Sunday, a most memorable day

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Monday

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In the morning, I was sad, because this was going to be the last day of MythCon, an event I had been waiting for months to attend. It would now be over, and I would move on to the next thing: my Master’s degree (though not before a little Boston vacation with my aunt, uncle, and cousin). Thankfully, John McGeary’s morning presentation “C.S. Lewis and C.G. Jung: The Fine Line Between ‘Myth’ and ‘Archetype'” had a lot of energy and useful ideas.

McGeary tried to look at Carl Jung through Lewis. Specifically, he searched for a way to restore Lewis’s idea that myths and archetypes are part of natural law, rather than the Jungian collective unconscious. Genetic memory, Jung claims, creates archetypes, which are instinctual, genetic predispositions towards certain images. For instance, Dracula: he is universally scary because he combines the archetypes of  vampire, dark lord, and werewolf (he has furry hands and controls wolves), which excite deep-seated primitive fears in our psyche.

McGeary cited Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, an anti-neo-darwinist philosophic return to objectivism, as a reaction against relativism. If natural law was the premise on which archetypes are based, that would mean archetypes are “out there” in the universe–not merely instincts or social conventions. In archetypes, Augustine and Plato saw the numinous, which functions alongside natural law, and can be a good or an evil force. Lewis argues that it is the numinous that is at the core of the archetype, not the unconscious itself, or merely.

This perspective has the possibility of challenging how we see the world. If the archetypes are a result of the numinous, then as with any human encounter with the numinous, we must have an existential reaction. For example, upon seeing a spirit or a ghost (or a taniwha, or elves), our most profound reaction is to think, “I’m afraid of how I exist, now that I know this exists.” If the fantastic, or the numinous, exists, what does that make us, here in the mundane world? If archetypes are a part of natural law and imbued with this numinous quality, then that changes forever how we understand out existence–there is something else out there.

Playing around with these archetypes is what mythopoeia–myth-making–is all about. This is what Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams were on about. It’s what the whole conference was on about. Surely Lewis believed there to be a divine origin for the myths he told: that’s why Aslan is not like Jesus Christ, but actually is Him. Maybe it’s also true that his Christ-archetype objectively exists. I challenge, however, that thinking about archetypes as objective realities must of necessity introduce the divine, for God is a divisive subject. For many people, it’s either you believe in Him or you do not, and there is a danger in making the question of God the same question as whether or not there is any objective reality to archetypes.

It’s like the old Cartesian supposition: “God, if he exists, guarantees my senses to reflect objective reality accurately, yet I see often that my senses deceive me, ergo God cannot guarantee my senses.” This opens the scepticism that leads to the separation between consciousness and nature that Barfield would be the first to show us was not the way of the ancients, but a feature of our modern consciousness. Furthermore, just because archetypes excite me emotionally does not mean that, for example, dragons really do exist–although I will accept that they do exist in my mind, and are “real” in that sense. I wonder how Nagel reinforces his argument for objectivism, and what uses McGeary will put him to. I suppose I better read Nagel.

And it is with this highly existential and worrying philosophical conundrum, the separation between nature and consciousness, that I must leave you. After McGeary’s talk, it was all but over.

The ceremonies for the awarding of the not-so-prestigious "Linguist" trophy. I won.
The ceremonies for the awarding of the not-so-prestigious “Linguist” trophy.

We had the MythCon Members’ Meeting, where we were allowed to give input on improving the conference for next year in Colorado. I said we should be given more time to travel between lectures; the schedule made it necessary to teleport between presentations, a luxury none of us had. Following this, we had the MythCon closing ceremonies and we sang the traditional MythCon songs “Chorea Magna” and “The Baby and the Bird,” a tribute to “the place that draws me ever / When my fancy’s running wild, / That little pub in Oxford / Called The Eagle and The Child.” Then it was checkout.

Meeting-Place of the Inklings
Meeting-Place of the Inklings

I hope you all enjoyed sharing in my intellectual journey these past four weeks. In an ideal world, these would have been published during the conference, but I was far too caught up in the moment to bother updating WordPress. I have no regrets, in the end. These copious ideas could lead on to a Master’s thesis or research paper, so long as I don’t rehash someone else’s thesis (I am actually giving a lot of thought to space, post-colonialism, and magic realism right now). In addition to all that I learned, I have plenty of new authors and thinkers to discover. McGill’s MacLennan library beckons.

Until next week, then, so long.

The road leads ever on and on…

The banquet on Sunday evening.
The banquet on Sunday evening. (Clockwise from left: Miguel Angelo Fernandes Rodrigues, Marie Perrier, Sørina Higgins, Paromita Sengupta, Chris Gaertner, Daniel Lüthi, Brenton Dickieson.)

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Photo Credits:

Eagle and Child:http://jtchatter.blogspot.ca/2012/03/dinner-at-eagle-and-child.html

Owen Barfield: http://barfieldsociety.org/Poem.htm

Charles Williams: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_%28British_writer%29

Tolkien: http://cslewisjrrtolkien.classicalautographs.com/jrrtolkien/index.html

Lewis: http://shoutitforlife.com/profiles/2010-2/cslewis/

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

20140730_163408Every once in a while, I pick up a book that inspires me into creativity and haunts my dreams. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is one such book, a celebration of the alien, the urban, and the grotesque.

New Crobuzon is a corrupt city with an underground network of criminals–only a part of whom reside in Parliament and control the ruthless militia. Furthermore, its hundreds-of-years-old decaying architecture sprawls amid the bones of a vast, ancient beast. It is home to humans, xenians, and Remade, a class of condemned criminals whose body parts are replaced by animals limbs as a kind of cruel, creative punishment. The human architecture has been replaced in certain districts by the xenian architecture of khepri, vodyanoi frog-men, and the cactacae, each of whom form their own societies within the complex city landscape.

We are introduced to the life of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an unconventional scientist within this vast, minutely detailed world, a universe where various branches of science–mechanical, biological, computational, and thaumaturgic–all thrive. Miéville’s science fantasy world is one where miracle-making, amputation, and difference engines can coexist without contradiction, a hodgepodge patchwork of different systems, just like New Crobuzon itself is a motley ecosystem of various coexisting species.

Ancient Egyptian Khepri
Ancient Egyptian Khepri

Isaac’s lover is Lin, a khepri. It is a scandalous kind of love for a human to be enamoured with a xenian. She is half-human, half-insect, her body apparently human-looking–below her head-scarab, that is. The males of her race are oversized beetles without sentient brains, only good for reproduction, and so she has bitterly left her home to become an independent artist.  She and Isaac keep their relationship secret, although it is an open secret among their friends in artistic community.

Isaac and Lin’s lives get complicated, however, when Isaac encounters a garuda, a half-man, half-bird xenian, named Yagharek, who has lost his wings. Yagharek hires Isaac to find a way to get him into the air again. Isaac, being the pioneering scientist he is, agrees to the challenge. Meanwhile, a shady employer hires Lin to produce a sculpture unlike any she has ever created, a very portrait of the grotesque.

As Isaac searches for a way to make Yagharek fly again, he peruses all the technologies and scientific systems at his disposal. It’s his specialty to combine disparate ideas to create new technology. His unified field theory proposes that there is a  center where all the sciences converge, like how all the skyrails and trains in New Crobuzon converge on Perdido Street Station, the giant tower of sprawling architecture that forms the city’s central hub.

While Isaac gathers data to build wings for Yag, it swiftly becomes apparent, however, that in trying to analyze and document the physiognomies of all manner of flying creatures, he may have wandered out of his depth. A terrible danger arises out of his unsavoury deals with the criminal underworld, and it will lead to a nightmare from which the entire city will not be able to awaken.

A Thai garuda
A Thai garuda

I came to learn about this book while researching my Honours thesis. In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendelsohn calls Perdido Street Station an immersive fantasy, because the protagonist, Isaac, takes all the strangeness in the setting for granted. The scientific principles that formulate how the world functions makes that world “arguable.” The reader is therefore “immersed” in the perspective of  a New Crobuzon native. As a scientist, Isaac can combine technologies in ways never conceived of before, and even set their forces in paradoxical contradiction to each other. The word “grotesque” means “attaching to an object qualities that do not belong to it,” for example, a wingless garuda, or a human with his head turned around 180 degrees. Isaac’s science–crisis theory–is itself a kind of grotesque of science, fusing magic and technology.

As if these ideas–strange concepts of science and art, religion and magic, the urban and biological–were not enough, China Miéville paints such a vivid, believable, and detailed picture of New Crobuzon that it was impossible for me not to imagine some scenes as paintings. His style is poetic, especially during Yagharek’s first-person scenes at the end of each part of the novel, where he appears as a lost soul at war with his own deformation, wandering the dirty city streets, longing for the feeling of wind in his feathers.

The epigraph to Perdido Street Station is from Philip K. Dick’s We can Build You: “I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.” New Crobuzon is itself a character. Just as the war against the vampiric creatures that will be unleashed tests Isaac’s relationship to his city, Yagharek loses touch with the sky, which is his home. Readers grow to be highly sympathetic towards old Yag, forgetting sometimes that he lost his wings because he committed a crime.

I have only just scratched the surface in describing the complex, sprawling, political, and fascinating world Miéville creates. I forgot to mention the Ambassador to Hell, for example, and, my favourite extra-dimensional entity, the Weaver, a giant crooning spider whose metaphoric structure of speech left me imagining him in a fedora snapping to Beat poetry. You’ll have to read Perdido Street Station to taste the rest of this whacky world. I’ll say it certainly made me hungry for more. Maybe I will read Iron Council next…

China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station
China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station

Photo Credits:

Garuda: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thai_Garuda_emblem.png

China Miéville: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_Mi%C3%A9ville.jpg

Khepri: http://www.zin.ru/animalia/coleoptera/rus/chimera.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

Fantasy, Narrative, and The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

The Origin of SpeciesAlex Fratarcangeli, the protagonist of Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, works on a Ph.D. proposal that could change literary academics: he chooses to analyze literary texts in the light of Darwinism. As its title suggests, the novel is about Alex’s relationship to the life of Darwin and his seminal The Origin of Species. On the road, he lives through various failed romantic relationships and tries to learn what it means to be a father. This journey culminates in the production of a Ph.D. proposal that I believe to be both fascinating and potentially revolutionary, if academia takes these ideas seriously. In Ricci’s fictitious 1980s Montreal setting, academia does not.

Having achieved an MA in Victorian Studies, Alex pursues his Doctorate and is assigned Jiri Novak as his supervisor, a man with a troubled past. He has an idea about what he wants to explore, but he struggles to come up with the revelation that will tie his thesis together: kind of like the way I am currently searching for my Master’s research essay topic. Not even Jiri, however, can deny the simplicity and revolutionary potential in Alex’s work, even if the institution of academia finds Darwinism a tough pill to swallow.

What emerges is the argument that narrative is older than humankind. As Darwin’s discoveries about evolution once put humans in their not-so-special place in the animal kingdom, so does Alex’s thesis put all of literature in perspective with biology. To paraphrase Ricci, narrative is not the hallmark of human self-consciousness, but a path to it, a journey in itself.

The masked booby of the Galapagos presents its mate with a series of gifts that indicate the male’s desire to give the female a life of happiness. This, and interactions like it across the animal kingdom, prove that “happily ever after” is a story that goes beyond the human.

A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were.
A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were. We all are products of fairy tales.

Bringing this understanding in light of my own research, I am astounded to think that Tolkien’s transcendent vision of the fairy tale’s happy ending, eucatastrophe, should be part of some biological imperative. No doubt Tolkien, who believed in the Christian resonance of eucatastrophe, would find Alex’s thesis radical.

Darwinism is often described as leading to the rise atheism in the nineteenth-century, a slaying of the ultimate Father–who was also Tolkien’s Father. Without God, what becomes of transcendence? Must narrative itself become arbitrary, without an overriding scheme? Is storytelling a denial of Darwinian competition and randomness in how it attempts to map order onto an orderless world? Is storytelling itself a fantasy of an order that no longer exists?

Of course, we see fantasies that have tragic endings. I need hardly mention Game of Thrones. But there is also the branch of historical fantasy, which blends Tolkien’s eucatastrophe with historical probability, often placing a moment of refuge, instead of an outright happy ending, amid a larger historical catastrophe, such as war and famine. When you consider Clute’s five points of the fantasy novel structure (wrongness, thinning, recognition, healing, eucatastrophe), and all that description of florid, healthy natural habitats in Thomas Convenant, you are left with the sense that this structure is tied to ecosystem. Fantasy magic is related to the “health of the land.” Is this a memory of  how narrative, like the structure of life itself, is “primal beyond reckoning?” (Ricci 400).

Could it be that eucatastrophic literary fantasy is a leftover from a protohuman mating ritual?

Suddenly, why so many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–I’m thinking of The Lions of Al-Rassan above all–end with romantic couplings at the end becomes clearer than glass: eucatastrophe is itself a promise of sexual fulfillment. It is a fulfillment that often occurs despite the catastrophes of history. And in its promise of happily ever after, what the characters offer their beloveds is refuge: from the trials of history, the world, all the forces of eat-or-be-eaten.

What Darwinism implies about fantasy as a mode is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps fantasy itself has a rather obvious sexual origin. “Happily ever after” may itself be the fantasy that spawned all fantasies, making fantasy itself older than mankind.

In fantasy literature, as in other forms of narrative, animal instinct lies at the foundation stone. When reflecting on how physical bodies of ancestral creatures came to influence the bodies of texts, Alex reflects, “Somewhere in literature’s dark beginnings there had to be real blood on the page, there had to be real bodies being sacrificed or being saved” (82). Even in the midst of his Darwinist reverie, the religious connotations in this line is intriguing. I believe it reminds the reader that Christ’s death–a body sacrificed so humanity may be saved–spawned a body of text. Perhaps in the even more distant past of the Bible, there were animal bodies whose narratives human beings inherited. Such creatures may have given us the greatest love story of all, the greatest eucatastrophe–according to Tolkien, the Resurrection.

Yet this “blood on the page” has a more eerie connotation: Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil for knowledge. Perhaps Alex’s devotion to Darwinist ideas are his signature on a satanic contract. A hubristic scholar, Alex is beset by frustrations on all sides. He has sold his soul to academia and blames his partner Liz’s abortion on getting a paper published in Canadian Studies. Perhaps the Chernobyl disaster, referenced often throughout the book, is as metaphor for mess of his life. But if Darwin killed God, then Satan is dead as well, and Alex only serves to entrap himself in a cycle of guilt  marked by a fateful trip to the Galapagos islands.

Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)
Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)

Alex “had always seen Darwinism as just another of the grand schemes for making sense of the world–like Marxism, say, or Freudianism, or New Criticism–that proved all was right with it” (297), but his opinion soon changes as he begins to see the undirected life of Darwinian evolution for what it is. Soon he is offered a chance, perhaps, at redemption, when he learns he has borne a son to his Swedish girlfriend.

Eventually it is Alex’s research into sociobiology that sets his thesis in presentable order: “It was all total anathema to the literary purists insofar as they even deigned to notice anything reactionary–it was just biological determinism writ large, they said, the worst sort of regression, a heartbeat away from social Darwinism and eugenics–but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (398).

This theory goes against “everyone,” claims Jiri, his supervisor. “The Marxists, the feminists, the deconstructionists, everything that’s happened in the past twenty years” (409). Just as Darwin unhorsed the theism of his time, Alex threatens to overturn the other structures of significance literary theorists have built for themselves over the years, proving that literature is at base biological.

“I suppose it’s like Derrida,” Alex explains at an earlier point in the book. “This idea that there’s a whole structure in our minds that controls how we think. Except that instead of language or binary opposite or something like that, it’s genetic” (75).

If the radical theory of literary criticism contained within Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species ever builds steam within the real world of academia, I have a feeling it could change the landscape. Alex is one fictitious character against a conservative institution, but his theory is simplifying, like all great theories, including Darwin’s, are. Time will tell the extent of the consequences of evolutionism, Darwinism, and sociobiology on the field of literary studies. Personally, I cannot wait to see the effects of the ideas on fantasy literature.

Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species
Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species

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Image Credits/Works Cited:

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Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Anchor: 2008.

http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

http://www.bellasbookshelves.com/?p=1696

http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=135c6779-b5d1-4bc7-b933-d19aeed03a61