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.

FREE monthly Archaeologies of the Weird newsletter.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Featured picture background by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Advertisements

Folklore and Graffiti: A (Potential) Study of Spatial Tactics and Urban Fantasy (Part I)

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal: an example of an urban spatial tactic.

While conducting my research into urban fantasy, the subject of my SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Committee) grant proposal, I was stricken by a sudden inspiration. A few images and lines from scholarly texts united in my mind and I saw something bold in the connections. While the following essay is in no sense an exhaustive scholarly study, or even necessarily a completed lead-up to one, it does hint at what could make a promising introduction to an anthology of short stories. Perhaps there is even something of literary critical value in it as well. However, I suspect that the most this gives me is a model for thinking about urban fantasy as a creative artist, before any usefulness as a description of how urban fantasy texts actually function. I leave it to the judgment of my readers to determine if there might just be something linking street art to the urban folktale.

June 2013: Montreal street artists Fin DACx and Angelina Christina produce a mural on the corner of Notre-Dame and Côte St-Paul. The black and white mural depicts a pair of women whose hair styles are suggestive of raven feathers. Furthermore a bird’s skull—I suspect a raven’s or a crow’s—appears between them looking on at the gazer with hollow eyes. I immediately perceived the resemblance to Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls, a recurring pair of characters from his urban fantasy short stories.

The first time I spotted these Crow Girls, I was on the bus and I zoomed right by. But I had been paying attention to my surroundings and glimpsed them. It was exactly as if I were a character in de Lint’s Newford, catching a glimpse of a folkloric being in the interstices of the urban landscape. Like one of his characters, I doubted that the mural, though I had seen it distinctly, actually represented the Crow Girls. So I sent the author of Dreams Underfoot a Facebook message. He or one of his social media managers returned me an article from StreetArtNews, where the creation of the “Crow Girls” artistic project was reported (see above). Though I still did not have an explicit confirmation that the muralists intended their work to depict the Crow Girls, I was still left with the sense that they must have been familiar with de Lint’s work.

After thinking about it, I came up with the idea that de Lint’s novels are, in some respects, the literary equivalents of street art.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

For those of you unfamiliar with de Lint, let me explain the general concept of his work. Charles de Lint’s works are based on what John Clute calls a crosshatch society—a place where the enchanted and magical mixes with the mundane world—and he does this by fusing urban settings and characters with mythical and folkloric figures. However, these fantastic beings are largely invisible in their urban settings, save to the bohemian, artistic protagonists of de Lint’s world who have knack for spotting them. One might often catch a glimpse of a fairy, or a Celtic god, in the margins of Ottawa, or in de Lint’s invented city of Newford, but the magical beings soon vanish. These encounters with the numinous can be moments of conflict, terror, or healing. This not only involves an encounter between states of being (the real and unreal, or the fantastic and mundane) and worldviews (traditional and scientific), but also different ways of interpreting time and space (the urban chronotope of homogenous space-time versus the folkloric/mythic chronotope of sacred, or heterogenous, space-time).

How do I connect graffiti to these crosshatched worlds? Fran Tonkis in her essay “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics” concerns himself with “the everyday escape routes that may be worked through the fabric of the city, ways in which spatial order can be disrupted through different modes of using and making space” (236). These spatial tactics include skateboarding and graffiti (I might also add parkour), which are practices that subvert and transform space. Strikingly, Tonkiss describes this subversion as a moment when the “mundane meets the enchanted,” a moment that enables one to think “about spatial tactics in the city,” a concept explored by Roland Barthes (241). Although I doubt Tonkiss meant enchanted in quite the same way as the magic you read about in fantasy, he is referring to a certain ‘magic’ element in how spatial tactics can change how we perceive urban space. It is easy to imagine a graceful skateboarder as unbound by gravity, for example, and in this ‘magic realist’ sense, reality itself seems to gain enchantment. The subversion and disruption of spatial order can appear as a form of enchantment, since it lets us see the city itself a fresh new way.

Another way in which we can see the city anew is through graffiti—or mural painting. Graffiti are an example of how “the everyday escapes,” though “such escape attempts are only ever partial or temporary—they slip between rather than tear apart the mesh of rational order” (242). A graffiti tag must be sprayed over, for example, a brick wall, but the brick wall is going to stay there. Tonkiss’ invocation of the interstice in his language of ‘slipping between’ made me think of Charles de Lint’s homeless Celtic gods in Forests of the Heart, who live in the ‘in between places’ or interstices of reality just as the homeless do. Since urban fantasies set in an actual North American city cannot enchant the entire city with a magical veneer without causing some cognitive dissonance on the part of the reader, the enchantment must happen within the city—even outside of conventional views of it. This is what may make Ottawa-native readers of de Lint fantasize that Celtic gods might be living in their own city without actually seeing them; maybe such readers have simply not looked carefully enough to see them. This also strikingly calls to mind how no one likes to gaze for too long at the homeless; homeless people are as ‘invisible’ as gods.

But the thing about graffiti is that they do interrupt, however briefly, the urban rational order. A form of political and territorial inscribing upon the the city, it asserts identity, “the simple statement that says ‘I am here.’” (243). Furthermore, “these assertions of presence by an author who has got away transform blank spaces into the scene of a crime” (243). Graffiti are illegal because they ‘deface’ public and private property, a crime. This is not to say, however, that it can be beautiful, or even, on occasion, fully legal and commissioned. The ‘Crow Girls’ urban art on St. Urbain is such an example of a legal enchantment of city space, although it loses its subversiveness since it was a legal act. However, continuing the analogy with urban fantasy, writing a magical being into an urban setting does breach a law—the law of ‘consensus reality,’ which is constituted by Cartesian, scientific principles, not only of ontology but of space itself. This hegemonic “rational order” found in the city is controlled by the hegemonic discourses that define our reality, a model we all give our consent towards by force of habit (242). As Bramley Dapple in “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” declares, “we live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24).

There is a great potential in urban fantasy to subvert this order, to break the rational laws of reality just as graffiti breaks the laws of the city. In fact, I could say so much on this topic that this would be a large blog post indeed. As such, I will continue these thoughts next week and given the reader a chance to gestate what I have said so far.

Next week, I will continue my thoughts on the political implications of this hegemonic rational order which is otherwise commonly called “consensus reality.” In the meanwhile, I must work on my SSHRC application!

Mural on St. Laurent Boulvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?
Mural on St. Laurent Blvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?

Works Cited:

Charles de Lint. Dreams Underfoot. New York: Tor, 1993.

StreetArtNews (http://www.streetartnews.net/2013/06/fin-dac-x-angelina-christina-new-mural_28.html)

Tonkis, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vols. 1-IV. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author website.