Archive for Writing

The Visionary Fiction Revolution – And how words can change the world

Visionary Fiction AllianceSK: Following are the opening paragraphs from the second of a two-part article written by Rory Mackay for the VFA. Reblogged here for what it says about the purpose of story. For the full post and direct link to the first part, please visit the VFA site here.


 

 

We tell stories for a reason

Mythology, which is storytelling at its most essential level, was not purposeless. It played an important role in shaping and sustaining society and, according to Campbell, had four primary functions. The first was to open the eyes of the individual and awaken a sense of awe, humility and wonder about the very nature of existence; to become aware of an interplay of tangible physical and elusive metaphysical realms.

The second function was cosmological; using stories and metaphor to help people understand the universe around them, making sense of time, space and biology. On a sociological level, mythology was also used as a means of forming and maintaining social connections. Having a shared narrative enabled tribes to stick together, supporting the social order and maintaining customs, beliefs and social norms.

Continued –>

Fiction’s Battle for Acceptance in Islam, as Metaphor for Visionary Fiction

Visionary Fiction AllianceSK: Following are the opening paragraphs of a most interesting article written by Stephen Weinstock for the VFA. It compares the development of fiction in the Muslim world to the rise of visionary fiction in general. For the full post, please visit the VFA site here.



Part One

In researching Book Three of my series 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles, I read a great deal about the history of Arabic Literature. I am no Arabic scholar, but I had to learn about medieval Persian and Arabic culture. My characters, in their past lives in 10thcentury Baghdad, collaborate on a special version of The Thousand and One Nights, which is multi-cultural, subversive, and highly symbolic. I became enthralled by the development of fiction in the early Islamic world, and how difficult it was for a story collection like the Nights to gain acceptance.

When I learned about the gradual acceptance of Visionary Fiction in literary culture, I thought there were some interesting parallels with Arabic fiction. The phrase uphill battle comes to mind. But also, Visionary and Arabic Fiction each have strong ties to spirituality and religion, which both promote and hinder their acceptance. But let’s travel back in time to see more detailed parallels.

Continued –>

The end of Systems

The Spider's House .
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*Warning*
– This post contains spoilers, and should only really be viewed by those who have read Systems.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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Systems cover

On 14 January 2013, Systems will have been in print for exactly one year. For those of you who have already read it, you’ll know that at the end, Hitoshi, Aaron and Elise meet at the nightclub, intending to return to Creux Island and take down the Paragon3 computer program that is presently controlling the world, and replace it with Libredux’s code. We don’t get to see this happen, but it’s obviously implied, so the good guys have as good as won. The story has come to its proper closure.

Right?

For some of you, apparently not. A significant number of you have said that the novel’s ending was either too ambiguous or at least left sufficiently open-ended for a sequel. I’ll quote one reader word for word:

I thought it was brilliant – but I was so disappointed by the ending!

Is that how you felt? Now I don’t deny that there is an open-ended, er, ending. I borrowed the idea from Mortal Kombat, at the end of which Lui Kang defeats the sorcerer Shang Tsung and the world is saved. But just as Lui Kang leaves the temple with Raiden, Kitana, Johnny and Sonya, the evil emperor Shao Kahn suddenly appears as a giant crashing through a tower, and announces he has come for their souls. Raiden says: ‘I don’t think so.’ And the fighters all pose for the next battle.

‘You humans are so unpredictable’

Hitoshi Katayama

Hitoshi Katayama

That to me was a perfectly wrapped-up-and-yet-open-ended close to the movie, and I wanted to do something similar. So I wrapped up my story up as far as possible in the last few pages, in particular the hospital scene where Aaron and Elise discover what Hitoshi had really found at Creux Island. And at the nightclub, I ended with Hitoshi’s devilish smile to imply that the fight will go on.

But some of you said you would have liked to see the world change in a more definitive way by the end. Others were upset that Hitoshi destroyed the data from the original Systems Experiment, because it would have proved once and for all that Omar’s Libredux model proved an ideal society was possible. (Apparently, one of Hitoshi’s many lies that the Systems Experiment results were ‘inconclusive’ may have put doubt in some readers’ minds.)

I took this complaint seriously. I was concerned that I had failed to communicate the point of the ending well enough. I wrote in confidence to a friend that I was thinking of tinkering with the ending – not to change it but to extend it and clearly show that Hitoshi was similarly tinkering with the Paragon3 code, which was better than having the original data. My friend’s emphatic response:

Please, no. I liked the ending very much. The destruction of the disc is not evil because what it implied for me was that the Truth is not even dependent on one-time data. It will find some other way of manifesting itself.

Well, at least he got it. But he doesn’t count, since he also happens to be a genius. :) My instincts on this are that my original ending was right. I would never show how the world changed at the end, because that would conflict with my convictions that one should never seek to provide a ready-made blueprint of a vision for an ideal society. (Remember: Jinnah and Iqbal never provided blueprints either). But I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I have come to realise where the issue might really lie. And it’s not the Systems Experiment.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – A mirror opposite

One or two readers have compared Systems to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I can see the resemblance. Orwell’s novel is set in a future and a dystopian world run by Big Brother. In fact, it’s set exactly 30 years before mine, which essentially begins in 2014. My fictional world is a semi-utopia that is later revealed to be a dystopia run by E3. In both novels, the bad guys deal with rebels by murdering and then writing them out of history.

The Triumvirate Committee - aka E3

The Triumvirate Committee – aka E3

Whereas Nineteen Eighty-Four has an undoubtedly tragic and pessimistic ending, Systems ends on a decidedly positive note. But in both stories, the evil rulers persist, and we don’t see them get the comeuppance they deserve. And this, it seems, is the real offending issue in Systems. It’s not the Experiment, or the data, but E3 … the appearance of E3 ultimately getting away with everything.

The penny finally dropped for me after a conversation with an academic who said she wanted to know what would happen to E3 in a sequel. I immediately thought: ‘But E3 is already doomed, once the good guys go back to Creux Island…’ And then I realised that I hadn’t explicitly stated this in the novel. Or rather, it had only been implied, and probably not clearly enough.

Know the Truth and Return to Liberty

So why wasn’t E3 finished off properly, or at least exposed? Well, aside from the fact E3 does lose (albeit after the closing pages) that isn’t even the point of the story. The end of Systems is not about the battle against an external evil, but about an inner battle … of human self-belief. That’s why it’s visionary fiction. It reaffirms a belief, in Manner’s words, ‘in all that is possible’ … what we think is ‘ideal’, but which is not only absolutely possible, but moreover necessary for our evolution. The end of Systems (see what I did there?) was to show that no matter how powerful our dictators and tyrants might seem, it’s a deception. All it takes to defeat the sorcerers is to see through the illusion. Whatever they tell us, human destiny really lies in our own hands, and unlocking our potential is a simple case of knowing it, and acting on it.

The Spider's House

A trap – but a flimsy one

Truly the flimsiest of houses is the spider’s house; if they but knew. - The Quran *

When I first started writing this post, I was going to announce my intention to change the ending. But since then, my conversations with some readers have shown me that I only need to change maybe a line. As Roz Morris has recently suggested at her blog, readers are usually right when something is wrong. But they are not always right about what is wrong.

So the ending will stay the same. Phew! But I am planning an edited edition (including that added line, obviously), with some extras …

More information will be made available on the first anniversary edition of Systems, in January 2013. Stay tuned.

* Incidentally, that Quranic quote is directly responsible for the title of Chapter 33 (The Spider’s House), and is a massive clue to the reader as to whether E3 is going to really get away in the end (especially since the Quranic ‘spider’s house’ is a literal allegory for Pharoah, Hamaan and Qaroon, the three symbols of tyranny on which E3 is based!). And Chapter 34’s title, Know the Truth, aside from being the tag line to the novel, is borrowed from the Biblical You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. That too is a clue linking Aaron and Elise’s discovery of the truth to the implications for their world … and for E3.

To be or not to be didactic

The Marghdeen Learning Centre’s latest course on Iqbal is exploring the philosopher’s take on art (with a focus on literature). Though he was born in the period when l’art pour l’art was developing as a new movement, Iqbal didn’t believe in art for art’s sake. In fact, he took a dim view of it. In one of his articles published in July 1917, he wrote:

“[Art for art’s sake] appeals more to imagination than to will, and on the whole acts as a narcotic on the mind of the reader. … the good in art is not necessarily identical with the good in life; it is possible for a poet to write fine poetry, and yet lead his society to Hell. The poet is essentially a seducer; woe to his people, if instead of making the trials of life look beautiful and attractive he embellishes decadence with all the glories of health and power, and seduces his people to extinction.”

(I should add that in this article Iqbal was talking specifically about poets but his views applied to art in general.)

Edgar Allan Poe - public domain image

19th century author Edgar Allan Poe famously called didactic poetry ‘heresy’, but he was also an early pioneer of modern sci-fi

The late sci-fi author and academic Joanna Russ suggested in 1975 that all science fiction is didactic in the vein of medieval fiction. The word ‘didactic’ itself originally meant art with educational or informative content. It was only from the 19th century onwards that it was redefined to mean something ‘burdened’ with this content. It seems that this negative definition of didactic fiction coincides with the onset of modern materialism (as the outcome of the Enlightenment period).

I wonder what Iqbal would have made of visionary fiction. Part of its appeal – for me, at least – is that it isn’t art for the sake of art. And yet funnily enough, over at the Visionary Fiction Goodreads group we all recently agreed that visionary fiction isn’t overtly ‘preachy’. Is this a contradiction? Not really. We can liken it to how non-fiction deals with facts. Whilst non-fiction writers present their facts as they see them and obviously have an opinion of their own, they don’t necessarily claim to having the final word on a subject – at least, not if they’re honest.

Visionary fiction is didactic in the former sense, rather than the latter.  In fact, I’ve always felt that all fiction has something to teach us, whether or not that is the author’s conscious intent. It all has a value. The real question is whether that value is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, that is, constructive or destructive. Iqbal believed the most destructive form of art is pessimistic, nihilistic, and amoral, even if it uses beautiful imagery. It glorifies death. True constructive art, in Iqbal’s view, is optimistic, life-affirming, and encourages us to face life’s challenges – large and small – with courage and dignity.

“The highest art is that which awakens our dormant will-force, and nerves us to face the trials of life manfully.”

In other words, Iqbal believed that art doesn’t just reflect human psychology (collective and individual). It can actually have a hand in shaping our destinies. A huge claim, but it resonates with those who value the power of ‘story’.

Connectivity: The essence of a believable story

One of the most appealing things about fiction is that a story can take place anywhere. It can occur in a house, or a space ship; on planet earth or in the afterlife. It can be based on an hour-long event or it can spread itself across several generations. The characters can be any creature you like. But however much we let our imaginations run wild, a good story must be believable – at least in human terms. It must appeal to the intellect or our emotions, preferably both. It must be wholly acceptable to the audience even if we ask them to suspend their disbelief about the settings or even the physics of your imaginary universe.

So what makes a ‘believable’ story? Short answer: connectivity. Why? Because connectivity is a given real life. Everything exists just so. Water always freezes at zero degrees. Gravity keeps us safely on the ground. Everything in the universe behaves in tune with everything else. The laws of nature are all inter-connected. And stranger-than-fiction coincidences are abound.

The law of connectivity – or, to use the technical term, reincorporation – is likewise a must in making the parts of your story work cohesively. But not coincidence. In fiction, coincidence – like the cavalry turning up just in time to save the hero – is considered too convenient. Although some writers think it’s okay to have a ‘bad luck’ type of coincidence (say, a car failing to start in a chase scene to prolong the tension), I personally find that kind of coincidence just as overly convenient and off-putting as the other type.

The TV series Doctor Who appeals to so many people because the Doctor is able to connect all sorts of things in his mind – no matter how obscurely – and also because the writers like to make connections to a single main story line in nearly every self-contained episode. Every detective and mystery story also relies heavily on reincorporation.

The more you can connect things in your imaginary universe to each other, the more ordered, in tune – and therefore believable – your story will be. This allows for events to be set up which would otherwise become coincidence. (Foreshadowing – the provision of hints about events at the end of your story – might be considered a form of reincorporation.)

I must admit, connectivity comes to me quite naturally. I applied a similar device – albeit in a different way – in both my non-fiction books. In Systems, almost everything is connected to something else, conceptually or otherwise. For example, early in the story I show that water has a ‘dampening effect’ on the characters’ psychic abilities. For the serial killer (Peter Manner), this dampening effect is a blessing and a way to get away from the energies of countless people he can feel for miles around. For the police officer (Elise Archer), it impedes her work as a psychic aide in police investigations, since she can’t, for instance, sense danger when she’s around water. This minor issue becomes all-important in the climax scene, which occurs at a dam.

Have you got any examples of reincorporation from your own fiction, or from someone else’s?

How I recycled my blurb

I wrote my original blurb for Systems a long time ago. It went something like this:

Why is Peter Manner so desperate to go to New York State, when he has never even set foot outside his psychiatric hospital? And what ties him to a British policewoman and a Brooklyn-born hacker, neither of whom he has never met?

The answer lies in a past life – a life in which the three were close friends – and an idea that could change the world. That was thirty years ago. Now they are reincarnated and psychic to boot. The question is not why they were killed, but why they were brought back to life.

Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard similar words in the trailer for the novel.

I had this text on my machine for a long time, but in the end I didn’t use it partly because Peter Manner is not the main protagonist. I wanted a blurb that mentioned things like the Systems Experiment, the Phoenix Project (the artificial reincarnation experiment) and the World Democratic Revolution. None of these things was present in the old text. But I always liked the sound of the old text. It made me think of movie trailers. So it made perfect sense to recycle the text for the book trailer.

Waste not, want not! There’s always room for that abandoned passage somewhere.