Maps in a mirror, p.74

Maps in a Mirror, page 74


Maps in a Mirror

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  When I was writing my historical novel Saints (first published, over my bitter protests, as Woman of Destiny), I needed to include an example of the fiction writing of one of my main characters, Dinah Kirkham. Since she wasn’t a real person, I of course had no body of work to draw on, so I had to write, not an Orson Scott Card story, but a Dinah Kirkham story.

  In that goal I failed—because, of course, it’s an impossible goal. The only kind of story I can ever write is an Orson Scott Card story. When Saints came out, with “The Best Day” imbedded within it, it did not sound like anything of mine that had ever been published. But I already had my epic poem “Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow,” which was my first attempt to bring fantasy into the American frontier; and beyond the American setting and flavor, the story is simply a fable, like “Unaccompanied Sonata” and “The Porcelain Salamander.” I can’t do such tales very often, because fables are devilishly hard to write—there is only one Jane Yolen in the world of fantasy, who can do it over and over. But it is one of the most satisfying kinds of tale to tell, because, finished, it makes such a tidy package. Being so complete and yet compact, it gives the author the delusion of having created something perfect, rather like a jewel-cutter, I think, who doesn’t have to see the microscopic roughness of his work. But if fabulists are jewel-cutters, we have a peculiar inability: We can rarely tell, while cutting our little stones, whether we’re working with a diamond, a garnet, or a zirconium.


  Few of my stories begin with visual images; this one did. I can’t remember now if the idea sprang from the illustration that appeared in Omni magazine along with Patrice Duvic’s story “The Eyes in Butterflies Wings,” or whether I simply remembered my story idea when I saw that illustration. My mental image, though, was of a man awakening in the morning to find his blanket and bedsheets and the floor and walls of his room covered with butterflies, hundreds of different colors on thousands of wings, all moving in different rhythms and tempos so that his room looked like the surface of a dazzling sea. He arose and cast off his blanket, sending the room into a blur of colored flight, and began a journey with the butterflies trailing after him.

  The image stayed with me for some time before I found the story to go with it. I had been toying with the science-fictional notion of creatures that consciously change their own genetic structure, and that transmuted to the idea of an alien creature that fought back against a human invasion by genetically adapting itself into a superior organism. What this had to do with the butterflies I cannot fathom, but for some reason I started trying to put the ideas together.

  Had I been more sophisticated, I would have recognized the visual image as the seed of a tale in the South American magic realism mode. It did not belong with a science fiction idea. And the beginning of the story definitely has the mythic—no, fabulous—quality of magic realism. Indeed, the whole story retains that sense of not quite connecting with reality no matter how many details are provided, so that the science fiction aspects of the story are never clearly presented, or at least are not presented as science fiction, so that readers don’t know if what they’re reading is to be taken factually or magically. Thus the science fiction is swallowed up in the fantasy.

  Years later I would recover the science fiction idea and use it in my novel Wyrms, where it is presented with absolute clarity, yet without losing all the magic. So it is possible to look at “A Plague of Butterflies” as a study for a later work. Yet it also stands alone, my one venture into a strange kind of voice that nevertheless pleased and pleases me very much.

  I knew as soon as I had written it that this story was too strange for any of my previous audiences. At that time I received a letter from Elinor Mayor, who was then performing the thankless task of editing Amazing Stories, trying to keep that long-mismanaged and mis-edited magazine from going under. She was paying, as I recall, one pound of dirt upon publication. But I thought it was important to help keep the magazine alive, and about the only thing a writer can do to sustain a publication is to offer stories for publication. I had sent her a couple of poems, but now I had a story that would probably find no other home. I mailed it. She bought it. Just in time, too—it was almost immediately afterward that TSR bought the magazine and George Scithers took over as editor, which meant the end of my contributions to Amazing. (Scithers and I have a peculiar relationship. He only likes my stories after other editors buy them.)

  To my knowledge, no living human being besides Mavor and me ever read this story. It is still the strangest fantasy I ever ventured to write. If you actually read it all the way through, you have significantly increased its number of readers.


  Perhaps it is strange to have this clearly science fiction story in a fantasy collection, but I think it belongs here. The science fiction is only the frame, the outline of the story. Within it, the fables that the artificial habitat tells to itself are the meat of the story, and those are definitely fantasy, perfectly in line with the rest of the stories in Maps in a Mirror.

  I first conceived the story in response to a call by Jerry Pournelle for contributions to an anthology of stories set in artificial habitats. Being perverse, I immediately determined to set my story in an artificial habitat that was, in fact, a living alien organism. I conceived of it as a hollow sphere of great size. Its shell would be composed of thousands—perhaps millions—of hollow cells, each one large enough to sustain a good-sized population of human beings in an Earthlike, self-renewing environment. The hollow interior of the creature would be a highly charged electromagnetic memory chamber that would serve as the creature’s intelligence, running the entire habitat and passing energy and resources as needed from one cell to another.

  The life cycle of the habitat would be the problem. Its original designers knew how to arrest its development so that it didn’t ripen completely and explode, scattering seeds throughout the galaxy—unless they wanted it to. But the one that comes to the human solar system has no such controls, and so it moves as quickly as possible toward maturity, at which time each of the cells becomes a fully functioning adult with tiny minicells forming its own shell, and the hollow space humans were now using as a habitat would become the highly charged inner intelligence. The original inner intelligence dies in the process of giving independent life to all the outer cells.

  The fables are the tales being told by the inner intelligence to its children. There is little sense of separate identity among the cells or between the cells and their parent. But the tales must be preserved in order to keep some sense of purpose and meaning alive in the creatures. They have long since forgotten that all these tales have to do with “human” justice and equity, or that the creature exists in order to provide homes for the makers of the place. Still, the tales survive.

  I include this explanation because of the number of readers over the years who have politely asked me (actually, some have begged) to explain what in hell is going on in “The Monkeys Thought ’Twas All in Fun.” I hope this helps. Those searching for thematic explanations, however, are on their own. I don’t like decoding my work in that way.

  To my mind, the very fact that I didn’t make this story clear enough for many—perhaps most—readers makes the story a failure. I think clarity is the first thing a writer must achieve; if I fail in that, what does it matter what else I do? If I were writing this story again today, I’d spell out precisely what was going on from the beginning, so there wouldn’t be the slightest confusion.

  One must remember, however, that when I wrote this I was a graduate student in English. I think this explains everything.

  BOOK 4




  I believe that speculative fiction—science fiction in particular—is the last American refuge of religious literature.

  An odd thing to say, it m
ight seem, particularly since science fiction openly requires that gods be either absent or explained. The moment you have a character pray and get an answer that is not explained through perfectly natural phenomena, the story ceases to be publishable as science fiction. In Stephen King’s The Stand, which began as science fiction—an escaped virus destroys almost all of humanity—some characters’ mystical dreams could perhaps have been acceptable as science fiction, because the Jungian collective unconscious has won a grudging place as legimate grist for the sf mill. But when, at the end, the finger of God comes down out of heaven and blows up Walking Man’s nuclear missile—well, that crossed the line, and The Stand was clearly either fantasy or religious literature.

  It would be fantasy if the god that acted were a god that the readers were not expected to believe in their real lives. It would be religious literature if the readers were expected to believe that such divine interventions actually do happen in reality. But no way in hell is the story going to stand up as science fiction if gods are both supernatural and real in the world of the tale.

  So why do I call science fiction the last bastion of American religious literature?

  You have to understand that what passes for religious literature in the U.S. today is really inspirational literature. The Religious, New Age, and Occult publishing categories all contain very similar kinds of stories: Isn’t it wonderful that we understand the truth and live the right way, and ain’t it a shame about the poor saps who don’t. Their fiction (when they have fiction at all) is self-congratulatory. It doesn’t explore, it merely affirms. It gives readers an emotional high in connection with membership in their own community of faith.

  Real religious literature, I think, does something entirely different. It explores the nature of the universe and discovers the purpose behind it. When we find that purpose, we have found God, because in all religions at all times, regardless of the outward descriptions of God or gods, deity serves the same role: He (or she or they) is the purposer, the planner. And human beings, either with or without their knowledge or consent (depending on one’s theology), are following that plan.

  I think existential literature still falls into this category, for even though, after much searching, characters always discover that there is no God and therefore no purpose, the story is nevertheless about the need and search for purpose, and the climax is the discovery of the absence of one. Stories about God’s nonexistence are still about God, and therefore are still a branch of religious literature.

  The need to discover purpose in our lives is a universal human hunger. Even the slimiest, most evil people alive try to find meaning in their self-gratification; and the best of people shunt others’ praise from themselves by ascribing their works to the purposes of a higher being.

  There is a tendency, though, in the “true” stories available today to explain human behavior, to remove purpose—motive—from serious consideration. We tend to accept the notion that mechanical, not purposive, causation accounts for the things people do. Joe Sinister is a criminal because his parents beat him or because of a chemical imbalance in his brain or because of a genetic disorder that removed the function we call conscience. Jane Dexter, on the other hand, acts altruistically because she is compensating for feelings of inadequacy or because she has a brain disorder that causes an overactive sense of responsibility.

  These explanations of human behavior may be accurate; I’m interested in the question, but the issue of accuracy is, in fact, quite irrelevant to human societies. A human community that uses mechanical causation to account for human behavior cannot survive, because it cannot hold its members accountable for their behavior. That is, no matter how you account for the origin of a human behavior, a community must continue to judge the perpetrator on the basis of his intent, as near as that intent can be understood (or guessed, or assumed). That is why parents inevitably ask their children the unanswerable question: Why did you do that? Terrible as that question is, it at least puts the responsibility back on the child’s head and forces the child to ask himself the question that society absolutely requires him to answer: Why do I do the things I do? And how, by changing my motives, can I change my behavior? Whereas nothing is more debilitating or enervating for a child than parents who do not ask why, but rather say, You’re just going through a phase, or, You can’t help that, or I understand that’s just the way you are. Such a child, if he believes these stories, has no hope of getting control of himself and therefore no hope of becoming an adult, responsible citizen of the community. We must believe in motives for human behavior, or we cannot maintain community life.

  And once we have embarked on that course—judging each other by motive rather than explaining behavior by mechanical causation alone—the fundamental religious question of the meaning or purpose of life cannot be avoided. What can be avoided is the question of whether there is an ultimate purposer whose plan we all fulfill—and most American fiction does avoid it, including almost all of the stories published within the category labeled Religious Literature. Instead, purpose or lack of it is assumed.

  Not, however, in science fiction. There alone we find the search for the purposer is still alive. Indeed, in story after story the question arises and is explored at depths that would be impossible in any other genre—even fantasy. For while fantasy is uniquely suited to dealing with human universals—the mythic—science fiction is uniquely suited to dealing with suprahuman universals—the metaphysical. Fantasy can hardly deal seriously with gods, because gods are common motifs, like magic swords and unicorns. Readers aren’t expected to believe in them. (Few things are more jarring to a fantasy writer than to meet a reader who actually believes in those fantasy worlds. The dowsers and seventh sons who wrote to me or telephoned me after my Alvin Maker series started appearing finally led me to stop listing my address in the phone book. I didn’t want these people to know where I lived.) But because science fiction specifically excludes supernatural gods as characters in stories, it is possible for science fiction to explore the purpose of life deeply and thoroughly without being distracted by existing theologies.

  One of the best examples is in the work of Isaac Asimov. The good doctor has made it clear over the years that he has no belief in any kind of transcendent god, and his work bears this out. But his novels are almost all profoundly religious in the sense that they invariably affirm both the need for and the existence of a purposer. The original Foundation trilogy is explicitly about Hari Seldon’s plan and purpose for humanity, and how it worked regardless of the conscious intent of the leaders of Terminus. And, when the plan seemed thwarted by an unplanned-for intruder, the mutant Mule, we find that there is a Second Foundation, which continues to fill Seldon’s role, ongoing purposers and planners guiding the destiny of humankind. Furthermore, they realize they can’t possibly do their work if humankind is aware of their presence—their scientific planning can’t function unless it is not known to function. Therefore they have to fake their own destruction. The nontranscendent god of Asimov’s fiction must remain invisible and ineffable—must remain, in fact, rather transcendent.

  What shows up in Asimov shows up elsewhere as well. Gene Wolfe’s novels are quite explicitly religious—more so than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is a profoundly religious (and, in fact, Catholic) work. Frank Herbert’s Dune and its sequels are even more obvious. Lisa Goldstein’s Tourists and A Mask for the General both reveal, at the end, the active role of some purposer in making things work out according to a certain pattern in spite of the weakness of the leading characters—though in her cosmology, unlike Stephen King’s, the voluntary actions of human beings do play a vital role in their salvation, a very non-Calvinist view of the relationship between man and the universal purposer.

  Certainly there are many more; equally certain is the fact that many, perhaps most, science fiction novels don’t deal with the plan of life and its planner. Nor is this subject unheard-of in works outside of science fiction. My point is that in scien
ce fiction, the relationship between man and god can be dealt with explicitly, in depth, and with great originality, without necessarily being connected to any religious system that has ever existed on Earth. Indeed, whenever science fiction touches on actual contemporary religions, it is almost always hostile to them. Yet it deals with religious ideas in a way almost not seen in serious American fiction outside of sci-fi.

  So far I have referred to other writers’ work; my own is also religious, in exactly this fashion—and in another, which I will deal with soon. But that was not a conscious choice on my part. In fact, because my plays had all been explicitly tied to religion—to Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular—when I turned my hand to writing science fiction and fantasy I made a deliberate choice to exclude religious concerns from my writing. No one was going to be a member of the Mormon Church; there were going to be no tales of prophets, saviors, priests, or believers. I was going to write pure, unmixed sci-fi.

  This was not because of any hostility toward religion, you understand. I have been a believing and practicing Latter-day Saint throughout my writing career, without wavering on that point. I am, in fact, quite annoyed with critics who assume that this or that bit of my writing clearly shows my “struggles with doubt,” as if the only religious issue worth writing about was whether or not one believes in a particular religion. That, in fact, is the most elementary—dare I say childish?—religious issue, and the one least interesting to those who are actually committed to a faith. There seems to be an idea among those obsessed with their own unbelief that to write about religion means to write about doubt. They miss the point. To write about religion actually means to write about truth and faith, two matters that cannot be intelligently dealt with in the presence of doubt. They can be dealt with easily in the face of unbelief—it is doubt itself that muddies the waters. You cannot present an idea clearly if you spend all your time discussing whether it’s true. You leave the issue of truth in abeyance while you discover what the idea is; only then, having understood, should the issue of doubt vs. belief arise. And, quite frankly, I’m just as happy if it arises after the story is over.

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