In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Punchline

 What is myth? Where does it come from?

 I don't mean stories like the fables of the Brothers Grimm, which are just warnings. Don't go into the woods alone, little girl; or don't be so strange that ordinary people get nervous. They're code for  'Do what society expects', and not much more. I mean the real myths,the ones that have come down from so far back in time that they were old beyond imagining when they were first written down.

 They're code too, of course. In pre-literate societies they were how knowledge was passed on. Embed it in a story, then spread the story so widely that the whole culture remembers it. People always change a story, though, even when it travels from village to village. We add a tweak here or there, change an oak into a willow because we happen to live near a stream where willows grow. Have you ever told a joke that wasn't quite the way you first heard it? Every repeat sees the story change.

 But I bet the punchline of that joke was still the same.

 Myths are encoded information. Our problem today is that we live in an empirical society, where we believe what we can touch and hold and not much else. We live in a world of science and objectivity, and the writers of those fables didn't. There's evidence that their brains were built differently, with a larger corpus callosum that meant greater exchange between the left and right halves of the brain. That meant the lines between reality and fantasy became blurred. They thought differently, in short. It means we have to understand what their myths meant to them, while not understanding how their minds worked.

 This is quite tricky.

 It's a little easier to work out where the myths came from. You find identical motifs, similar tales with the same numbers used in the same places, all over the world. I talked about this a little in my last blog, Memory and Myth. Because the stories are spread so widely, it means they must have originated in one place and then travelled with peoples as they migrated. So the creators of the stories must have lived during the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago or more. Sea levels were 400 feet lower then and humans might have flourished in the tropics, places like the Persian Gulf and Yellow Sea, and sailed east and west along shores which no longer exist. When the water rose the cultures were drowned, but the stories they'd sowed survived, in outposts on higher ground, or maybe among more savage peoples who began to look for better lands in the changing world.

 I think I could write at least three or four stories set in a world like that, without even trying. And there's one more interesting thing.

 Our world might be about to change just as radically, now mightn't it?

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Memory and Myth

  I don't have time to write at the moment. It's the first time that's happened to me in my life, and I don't like it.

 There's just no way around it. Caz, my wife, works early mornings, and I work late afternoons until midnight. We have one shared day off a week to do all the laundry, clean the house and so on. The rest of the time I'm either looking after the kids, at work, or trying like hell to get enough sleep to last through the next day. There's simply no time to write. Nothing. I could do five minutes here and there, but that's not enough to keep my head in the story. I'm hemmed in and can't find a way out.

 I can't write, but I can still think, and read, and I can still research.

 Currently I'm going through Hamlet's Mill, an essay on the importance of numbers in ancient myth. The thesis is that myths were stores for information, particularly on the stars. So if myths from Iran, Finland and Mexico all have a hero who rises to heaven without dying, and in all three cases makes his last journey with six companions and a dog, then there must be meaning behind it. For me, the most interesting thing is that the myths must all derive from a common source - an ancient culture that spanned the world. Or a group of such cultures, or maybe just survivors from civilisations that fell. We don't know the details, but there must have been someone watching the stars back then, during the last Ice Age maybe, ten thousand years before the first pharaohs.

 Whoever it was measured the movement of stars so accurately that they knew the Earth wobbles on its axis over a 26,000 year cycle. Impressive, eh? But they didn't mine coal, or gold, because we'd have found their pits if they did. They weren't industrial. Their culture was built on different values to ours. Maybe they thought in different ways. They may be as alien to us as dinosaurs.

 Isn't that interesting? My wife watches Black-ish, a show that makes it pretty clear that for all the progress society thinks it's made on civil and race rights, for black people the same issues still remain. As a white European man I can't really understand their experiences. So how am I supposed to comprehend a culture lost so long ago that the only relics we have are myths?

 Well, I can't do that, either. I can incorporate some of this into my work, whenever I can start working again. Meantime, this ancient culture seems to have flourished without writing anything down. They used memory and myth to record the things they thought were important. They kept every word in their minds, and still created tales that have lasted for thousands of years.

 In these days when I have so little time, that's an encouraging thought.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Parts and Pieces

 OK, so I have my new WIP pretty much blocked out now. There are some details to work out, especially concerning the traveller people who drift through the story a couple of times, but the gist is done. The world is defined and the characters are drawn in detail (two of them are very strong women, missing in most Fantasy). And I've noticed something.

 My first novel, The Risen King, had no magic at all except in how the story was set up. None in the actual events. My next two had hints of magic but not much more, and then Troy didn't have any - no gods, either. My idea there was to return the tale of Troy to what it was - a plain, straightforward story of love, heroes and betrayal, magnificent in scale but historically accurate. I hated the David Gemmell version which had cavalry galloping about, at a point in history when no horse was strong enough to be ridden. He might as well have included muskets, or aircraft. Anyway, little or no magic, is my point. Not many of the more common Fantasy tropes. Straightforward stories of mortal men and women trying to make their way.

 Not so much, now.

 My last work (unpublished, yet) includes prophecy, an alien species and a mad king, and journeys to magical lands. This one, tentatively called Tears of the Child, is just packed with Fantasy tropes. Elves, Dwarves and Orcs, mighty sorcerers, seers, eldritch creatures and so on and so forth. I seem to be moving more into mainstream Fantasy ground, though on my terms. I don't want to borrow races from other books lock, stock and barrel, so my Dwarves aren't much like Tolkien's, and he wouldn't recognise the Elves or Orcs at all. But still. There's a definite trend in my work to include magic and other species. Other ideas for future stories show the same tendency.

 Why? Don't know, don't much care. Nobody ever got anywhere trying to break down art into its parts and pieces. Sometimes we just don't know, and the only good answer is because. I'm heading in this direction because these are the stories that excite me, the ones I want to tell, and that brings me to the other emerging theme.

 My newer work are more reflective of our society today. Not greatly so - that might ruin the work. But some. How The Stars Shine deals with the danger of handing too much power to too few people. In Tears the society is very divided between rich and poor, privileged and downtrodden, so social cohesion becomes a theme. Hopefully I'll handle it well enough that the reader doesn't feel like I'm thumping him on the head with a morality stick. And that, mes amis, is the point. I don't think I could have handled this five years ago. Now I think I can. Nice to feel we're growing as people, isn't it?

 Five years ago is when I met my wife. I wonder how much of this new me is owed to her... but that's a question for another day.

 Pip pip.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Carried off by a Dragon

 Age is a funny thing y'know.

 When I hit 20 I didn't care much. I wasn't a teenager anymore, and so what? Same when I hit 30, and then 40. I didn't really understand the idea of a mid-life crisis. They're just numbers. If we counted in base 60 like the Sumerians then nobody would worry about these multiples of ten.

I reached 50 last month, and I've slowly realised I feel different this time. I mean, 50. Half a century. I don't even think I want another 50 years, slowly declining into senescence and confined to comfy chairs in a home somewhere. But that might lie ahead. There's a voice in my mind that's lost and alone, and a little afraid. Only a small voice, but it's there.

 I am already on the downward slope, over the crest of the hill and closer to the finish than the start.

 Wow. Just... blimey. I mean, I have two infant daughters, and after all this time I've got reasons to want to live. And yet at the same time I've come to understand that I'm probably at a point where my energy and stamina begin to fade. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

 Now, my twisty won't-stop-twittering brain has taken all this and wondered what it would have been like five hundred years ago, when 50 would have been a pretty grand age. The average might have been 30 or so. Does that mean people had mid-life crises in their twenties? Did men of twenty-four have a sudden urge to get a tattoo and buy a really fast racing mule? A man like that might have been married at 17, seen his wife die in childbirth and married again at 22, have three kids that lived and two that didn't. If anyone had the right to dream of freedom and a more exciting life, he did.

 It's interesting, but hard to see how it could be incorporated into a Fantasy story. Modern readers won't sympathise with a twenty-something with an identity crisis, they'll just think he's a self-indulgent cockwomble. You can't really write a true account of how life was for people back then, or in a similar world. Too much of it would be dealing with plague or smallpox scars, and working a twelve-hour day of backbreaking labour only for the crops to be eaten by greenfly. Or the cows carried off by a dragon, but that doesn't change much. An author needs to create the right mood, but not too right. An overdose of realism kills the mood.

 The genre is called Fantasy, after all.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

No Pressure, Then.

 I've been thinking about battle in SF and Fantasy.

 In SF onscreen, it's usually rubbish. Star Wars has fighters that behave just like planes in World War I, dogfighting around planets. Space: Above and Beyond was the same. Moonraker and others feature marines who drop from orbit into battle. But all these things are nonsense. Our technology is already so advanced that we can pick aircraft off from miles away with homing missiles, so why use lasers that miss even from a few hundred metres? Why drop assault infantry from orbit when micro missiles would shred them high in the atmosphere?

 Fantasy is bad too. Partly that's the LOTR tradition, in which the Good Guys come through massive battles without a scratch, leaving a trail of dead Orcs or generic Bad Guys behind. I know a bit of history, and nobody comes through a battle that way. You suffer burns where your shield ring rubs, or blisters, or bruises from your armour taking a hit. In medieval days people died when their armour was driven into flesh and jumbled up their organs. No scratch? That means no one hit you, so you're either luckier than gods or faster than light. Silly either way.

 As for magic, mostly we find what I think of as the Terry Brooks approach. Mages who throw spells around, usually beams of red or green like lasers, sometimes illusions. And this, friends 'n neighbours, is the one that really annoys me. Is that really the best way a mage can think of to fight?

 I have a new WIP which involves a good bit of magic. It's used to fight, which means I need to work out how. I don't want to have this mano a mano approach. I'm looking at illusion, mages changing their appearance or fading into the background, so you don't know they're there until they strike. But what else could a sorcerer do? Slice time, perhaps. Divide a second into smaller and smaller segments, allowing himself to move more quickly than an opponent and so counter his moves before they develop. They might win by crushing the rival's mind. Someone watching would see the figures blur, and not much else, except that maybe the ground around them bubbles or cracks with the force unleashed.

 These are broad strokes, and I don't have details yet. But I like the direction of ideas. It's a little different from the usual, and that's a good thing I think. Let's give the reader something new to look at. It might be better, might be worse (that up to me, so no pressure, then). But at least it will feel new, and that matters.

 That's all for now. Pip pip.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

We All Wear Levi's

 There's a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government at the moment, with the acronym CHOGM. Catchy, eh? They're deciding who'll replace the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. As a Republican I could care less, but there's another issue too, which is that 70% of Commonwealth countries apparently still ban homosexuality.

 Now to my mind, who sleeps with who isn't my business. If two men are in love, or two women, that's fine. Love is very rarely wrong. But still, do we really have the right to lecture other countries, other cultures, on what to believe?

 That's cultural imperialism. There's still a good bit of it about, unfortunately, sixty or seventy years after the end of the European Empires. People get upset because Saudi Arabia, among other countries, punishes thieves by cutting off their hands. They get angry because homosexuality is illegal in Zambia, or women have few rights in Pakistan. Those things seem strange to me too, even a bit backward. But I know that's because of my perspective as a man raised in the increasingly liberal West. I'm not sure I have the right to lecture other peoples on issues like these. Their cultural histories are different from mine, so their outlooks are too.

 The world wasn't like this, once. Marco Polo could travel to China and be amazed by the differences. Ibn Battuta covered the world from Morocco to China and wrote of the wonders he saw. Now we can travel from Britain to Cuzco or Samarkand, and most likely find a McDonald's on a street corner and a little shop that sells Pepsi. Everything has to be made the same. I think that's a pity. I'd rather live in a world of myriad cultures with different rules and traditions, than one in which every pub is a Wetherspoons and we all wear Levi's.

 I'd like to see homosexuality accepted everywhere, and women's rights too. I'm liberal to my bones. But if the price of that is losing the things that make us different, losing much of the world's cultural identities... well, then I don't know, because I love those differences too. It's the sort of conundrum which liberals have failed to deal with in the past. We all defend a woman's right to have as many children as she wants, but we also know that overpopulation is killing the ecosystem, so which belief do we abandon? Which holy cow do we shoot?

 Instead of trying to sort through this, at CHOGM they've spent days deciding that the next Commonwealth head will be the heir of a hereditary monarch. Imperialism, still kicking after all this time.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Cursed Earworms

 I just finished watching Altered Carbon on Netflix, and the first thing to say is - watch it. And Netflix, make another series, please. It's graphic and sometimes brutal, but also brilliant. It reminds me a bit of the Blade Runner films, and there's no higher praise.

 The key, as always, is the writing. There were surprises all along, in every episode. In this future world consciousness can be kept in a Stack, an electronic box at the back of the neck, and it's from this that all else flows. The whole society is shaped by what that one idea leads to. I don't want to throw out spoilers, so I'll limit myself to saying that life is cheap for most while the wealthy have achieved immortality. All very topical, eh?

 Isaac Asimov once said that when he read a particularly good book he'd get frustrated, and throw it across the room because he hadn't thought of it himself. (He said the same about a bad book, which he threw in disgust. Writers are a funny bunch.) I feel like that about Altered Carbon. It's the best SF series I've ever seen on TV, and there has to be another run. But then, I thought that about Defying Gravity, and that was never renewed. So don't let me down again, and as Homer Simpson said, let me bask in television's warm glowing warming glow.

 Speaking of good writing, Netflix has also done a show called The Good Place. I watched both series of that and they were fabulous, funny and creative all along. As different from Altered Carbon as you can imagine, but very nearly as good. Watch that too, if you can. I don't often watch TV as a habit, though these days I seem to see an awful lot of kids shows, and find myself humming the Mister Tumble songs, which are the most cursed earworms ever. But I do watch Netflix some of the time. Some of their shows are original, clever, and well written. By comparison the shows on the BBC or ITV seem pretty tired.

 I keep seeing adverts on Facebook urging me to submit writing to Netflix, Amazon et al. They're making a lot of new programming and they need scripts. Could I convert one of my novels to a TV show? It's a tempting thought. I've never written a script before, but as I always say, God hates a coward.

 Pip pip.