Maps in a mirror, p.47

Maps in a Mirror, page 47


Maps in a Mirror

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  This doesn’t mean that I think the law I stated isn’t true. In fact, I stand by it as firmly as ever. It’s just that, like all laws, this one can be circumvented if you work hard enough. The reason why franchised worlds generally don’t work is because the junior writers don’t understand the original world well enough, don’t know what it is about the original writer’s work that made his stories work, and don’t feel enough personal responsibility to do their best work under these circumstances. Well, in my arrogance, I thought I did know the Foundation universe well enough—not in the trivial details, but in the overall sweep of the story, in what it means (Yes, I’ve read Decline and Fall, too, but that isn’t the foundation of Foundation, either.) Also, I thought I understood something of how the stories worked—the delight of discovering that no matter how many curtains you peel back, you never find the real curtain or the real man behind it in Asimov’s Oz. There are always plans underlying plans, causes hidden behind plausible causes.

  And, finally, I had a compelling story of my own to tell. I had already made a stab at it, with a fragment of a novel that was to be called Genesis—a book I may still write someday. In it I was trying to show the borderline between human and animal, the exact comma in the punctuational model of evolution that marked the transition between non-human and human. For me, that borderline is the human universal of storytelling; that is what joins a community together across time; that is what preserved a human identity after death and defines it in life. Without stories, we aren’t human; with them, we are. But Genesis became impossible to write, in part because to do it properly I had to visit Kashmir and Ethiopia, two places where it is not terribly safe to travel these days.

  But I could develop many of the same themes, though at a greater distance, in my story of “The Originist.” Moreover, Asimov himself had broached a related question in Foundation, when he presented a character who was searching through libraries in order to find the planet of origin of the human species. I was able to take a purely Asimovian point—the futility of secondary research—and interlayer it with my own point—the fundamental role of storytelling in shaping human individuals and communities. I went further in my effort to make “The Originist” a true Foundation story. I also used a form that Asimov has perfected, but I had never tried before: the story in which almost nothing happens except dialogue. Asimov can make this work because of the piercing clarity of his writing and the sublime intelligence of his ideas—it is never boring listening to his characters discuss ideas, because you are never lost and the ideas are always worth hearing. The challenge was to come as close as I could to matching that clarity; I had to trust that others would find my ideas as interesting as I had always found Asimov’s.

  So it was that, even though I knew “The Originist” would never be received as standing on its own, I poured a novel’s worth of love and labor into it. In the long run, I proved my own law—I wrote this story at the expense of a purely Orson Scott Card novel that will probably never be written. Yet I think it was worth doing—once—partly to prove it could be done well (if in fact I did it well), and partly because I’m proud of the story itself: because of the achievement of it, because of what the story says, and because it is a tribute to the writer that I firmly believe is the finest writer of American prose in our time, bar none.

  BOOK 3




  I don’t believe in the “collective unconscious,” not in the Jungian way I’ve seen it used. But I do believe that it is in large part through shared stories that communities create themselves and bind themselves together.

  It begins with the way we establish our identity, which is intimately tied to our discovery of causality. All of nature relies on mechanical causation: Stimulus A causes response B. But almost as soon as we acquire language, we are taught an entirely different system: purposive causation, in which a person engaged in behavior B in order to accomplish result A. Never mind that it was X and Y, not A, that resulted. When it comes to evaluating human behavior, we quickly learn that it is the story we believe about a person’s purpose that counts most.

  You know the phrases of moral evaluation: “Why did you do that?” “I didn’t mean to.” “I was just trying to surprise you.” “Do you want me to be humiliated in front of everybody?” “I don’t work my fingers to the bone so you can go out and . . .” All of these sentences contain or invite stories; it is the stories we believe about our behavior that give them their moral value. Even the crudest or weakest among us must find stories that excuse—or even ennoble—their own character flaws. On the day I’m writing this, the mayor of a major American city, arrested for using cocaine, actually stood before the cameras and said, in effect, “I guess I’ve just been working so hard serving the people that I didn’t have time to take care of my own needs.” What a story—smoking crack as an altruistic, selfless endeavor. The point is not whether the story is true; the point is that all human beings engage in storytelling about themselves, creating the story they want to believe about themselves, the story they actually believe about themselves, the story they want others to believe about them, the stories they believe about others, and the stories that they are afraid might be true about themselves and others.

  Our very identity is a collection of the stories we have come to believe about ourselves. We are bombarded with the stories of others about us; even our memories of our own lives are filtered through the stories we have constructed to interpret those past events. We revise our identity by revising our self-story. Traditional psychotherapies rely heavily on this process: You thought you were trying to do X, but in fact your unconscious purpose was Y. Ah, now I understand myself! But I think not—I think that in the moment of believing the new story you simply revised your identity. I am no longer a person who tries to do X. I am a person who was being driven to do Y, without even realizing it. You remain the same person, who performed the same acts. Only the story has been changed.

  All this deals with individual identities, and the tragedy of the individual is that the true cause of his behavior remains forever unknowable. And if we cannot know ourselves, true understanding of any other human being is permanently out of reach. Other people’s behavior must be, in that case, completely unpredictable. And yet no human community could ever exist if we had no mechanism to enable us to feel safe in trusting other people’s behavior to follow certain predictable patterns. And these predictable patterns can’t arise solely from personal experience—we must know, with some certainty, before we have observed another member of the community for any length of time, what he or she is likely to do in most situations.

  There are two kinds of stories that not only give us the illusion of understanding other people’s behavior, but also go a long way toward making that illusion true. Each community has its own epic: a complex of stories about what it means to be a member of that community. These stories can arise from shared experience: Have you ever heard two Catholics reminisce about catechism or being taught in Catholic school by nuns? Or they can arise from what is perceived to be a common heritage, spreading a sense of community identity across space and time. Thus it is that Americans feel there is nothing incongruous about referring to Washington as “our” first president, even though no living American was present for his administration and most Americans have precious few ancestors who lived here during that time. Thus it is that an American living in Los Angeles can hear of something that happened in Springfield, Illinois, or Springfield, Massachusetts, and say, “Only here in America . . .”

  Of course, membership in communities is never absolute. The same person could just as easily say, “We sure aren’t like that here in California” or “here in L.A.,” thus asserting the epic of another community. But the more important a community is to us, the more power its stories have in forming our view of the world—and in shaping our own behavior. I don’t think my children are the only ones who’ve heard
prescriptive epic stories like this one: “I don’t care what other people’s children do. In our family we . . .” Every community’s epic includes shibboleth stories—stories that define what members do and do not do. “No good Baptist would ever . . .” “. . . just like a true American.” And the stories that define a person’s individual identity are often interpreted by the role that person plays within the community. “You make us all so proud of you, son.” “An outstanding role model for young——s.” “I just wish other young people would be more like you.” “I hope you’re proud of the example you’re setting for the other kids.” “Now everybody’s going to think all us blacks/Rotarians/Jews/Americans are like you!” Thus we not only are defined by the epic stories of the communities we belong to, but also help revise the community’s epic stories by our behavior. (If I were going into this in detail, I’d talk about the role of outsiders in shaping a community’s epic, and also about negative epic. But this is an essay, not a book in itself.)

  The second category of story that shapes human behavior so that we can live together is not perceived as being tied to a particular community. It is mythic; those who believe in the story believe that it defines the way human beings behave. These stories are not really about how this character or that character behaved in a certain situation. They are about how people behave in such situations.

  All storytelling contains elements of the particular, the epic, and the mythic. Fiction and scripture are both uniquely suited to telling mythic tales, however, because by definition fiction is not tied to particular people in the real world, and by definition scripture is perceived by its believers to be the universal truth rather than being merely and particularly true, the way history is usually received. That fiction and scripture are also inevitably epic, reflecting values and assumptions of the community out of which they arose, is true but not terribly important, for their audience believes mythic stories to be universal and, over time, comes to behave as if they were universal.

  But fiction is not all equally mythic. Some fiction is quite particular, tied to a time and place and even characters in the real world. Thus historical fiction or contemporary realistic fiction with a strong sense of place can lead the reader to say, “Those people certainly were/are strange,” rather than the more mythic response, “People certainly are strange,” or the even more mythic response, “I never knew people were like that,” or the ultimate mythic response, “Yes, that’s how people are.”

  It might seem then that fiction becomes more mythic as it is divorced from identifiable real-world patterns, but it is not really the disconnection from reality that makes fiction mythic—if that were so, our myths would all be of madmen. Rather a story becomes more mythic as it connects to things that transcend reality. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is so thoroughly created in The Lord of the Rings that the wealth of detail makes readers feel as though they had visited in a real place; but it is a place where human behavior takes on enormous importance, so that moral issues (the goodness or evil of a person’s choices and actions) and causal issues (why things happen; the way the world works) take on far greater clarity. We find in Aragorn, not just that he is noble, but Nobility. We find in Frodo, not just that he is willing to bear a difficult burden, but Acceptance. And Samwise is not just a faithful servant, but also the personification of Service.

  Thus it is in fantasy that we can most easily explore, not human behaviors, but Humanity. And in exploring it, we also define it; and in defining, invent it. Those of us who have received a story and believed in its truth (even if we don’t believe in its factuality) carry those memories inside us and, if we care enough about the tale, act out the script it provides us. Because I remember standing at the Cracks of Doom, and because I remember experiencing it through Sam Gamgee’s eyes, I clearly remember seeing that those who reach for power are possessed by it, and if they are not utterly destroyed by it, they lose part of themselves in getting free. I doubt that in crucial situations I’ll summon up the memory of Lord of the Rings and consciously use it as a guide to my behavior—who has time for such involved mental processes when a choice is urgent, anyway? But unconsciously I remember being a person who made certain choices, and at that unconscious level I don’t believe that I—or anyone—distinguishes between personal and community memories. They are all stories, and we act out the ones we believe in and care about most, the ones that have become part of us.

  While I have been speaking about what fantasy can be—a particularly powerful source of mythic stories—it is worth pointing out that most fantasy, like most other kinds of fiction, doesn’t live up to its potential. Furthermore, because it is to be received and acted upon unconsciously, the most successful fantasy is not often that which looks most mythic; often the most powerful fantasies are those that seem to be very realistic and particular. I think this is part of the reason that Tolkien shunned allegory. Consciously figured storytelling is received intellectually; it is never as powerful as stories whose symbols and figures—whose mythic connections—are received unconsciously. And I’ve come to believe that the most successful mythic writing is that storytelling in which the author was unconscious of his or her most powerful mythic elements.

  So, while the best fantasy will have a powerful mythic effect, the most successful fantasists are not those who set out to write myth. Rather, the best fantasies come, I think, from storytellers who strive to create a particular story very well—but who use settings and events that give great freedom to their imagination, so that mythic elements can arise from their unconscious and play a strong role in the story. A fantasist who works from a deliberate plan will almost never achieve as much as the fantasist who is constantly surprised by the best moments in his or her stories.

  You can see, then, that I’m not defining fantasy the way the word is used in contemporary publishing. When publishers speak of fantasy they generally mean stories set in a kind of pseudo-medieval world in which some kind of magic plays a role. Certainly good mythic fantasy can still be written in that kind of setting; but since such a world has been a staple of romance since before Chaucer, one can hardly credit most authors who work in it with having allowed their imagination to play a large role in their writing. Most such “fantasists” tuck their imagination away somewhere before they enter the mythic marketplace; they have come to buy, not to sell.

  It’s worth pointing out that works of derivative fantasists often sell very well; there is a large audience that buys fantasy in order to have their pre-existing vision of The Way Things Work reaffirmed. And some quite brilliant fantasists remain obscure, because their mythic universe is so challenging that few readers are happy to dwell in it. But when a fantasist imagines well—and writes evocatively—many people drink in the story as if it were water, and their lives till then a vast desert in which they wandered without ever realizing how much they thirsted.

  The real fantasists are not content to echo other writers’ myths. They must discover their own. They venture into the most dangerous, uncharted places in the human soul, where existing stories don’t yet explain what people think and feel and do. In that frightening place they find a mirror that lets them glimpse a true image. Then they return and hold up the mirror, and unlike mirrors in the real world, this one holds the storyteller’s image for just a fleeting moment, just long enough for us also to glimpse the long-shadowed soul that brightly lingers there. In that moment we make the mythic connection; for that moment we are another person; and we carry that rare and precious understanding with us until we die.

  And what am I? Like most who attempt fantasy, I imagine that I am doing true Imagining; like most, I am usually echoing other people’s visions. There’s always the hope, though, that at least some readers will dip into the old dry well and find new water there, seeped in from an undiscovered spring.



  When Christian Haroldsen was six months old,. preliminary tests showed a predisposition toward rhythm and a
keen awareness of pitch. There were other tests, of course, and many possible routes still open to him. But rhythm and pitch were the governing signs of his own private zodiac, and already the reinforcement began. Mr. and Mrs. Haroldsen were provided with tapes of many kinds of sound, and instructed to play them constantly, waking or sleeping.

  When Christian Haroldsen was two years old, his seventh battery of tests pinpointed the future he would inevitably follow. His creativity was exceptional, his curiosity insatiable, his understanding of music so intense that the top of all the tests said “Prodigy.”

  Prodigy was the word that took him from his parents’ home to a house in a deep deciduous forest where winter was savage and violent and summer a brief desperate eruption of green. He grew up cared for by unsinging servants, and the only music he was allowed to hear was birdsong, and windsong, and the cracking of winter wood; thunder, and the faint cry of golden leaves as they broke free and tumbled to the earth; rain on the roof and the drip of water from icicles; the chatter of squirrels and the deep silence of snow falling on a moonless night.

  These sounds were Christian’s only conscious music; he grew up with the symphonies of his early years only a distant and impossible-to-retrieve memory. And so he learned to hear music in unmusical things—for he had to find music, even when there was none to find.

  He found that colors made sounds in his mind; sunlight in summer a blaring chord; moonlight in winter a thin mournful wail; new green in spring a low murmur in almost (but not quite) random rhythms; the flash of a red fox in the leaves a gasp of startlement.

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