Thoughts from the Icecon 2016 – The Making and Unmaking of Worlds: Part the First

Members at IceCon 2016

Or – why my books are set in Gurgaon

Reality and Fantasy, Science and Fiction: Which do you inhabit? It is convenient to think of these as separate worlds, their borders bound in the covers of books, best viewed from the seats of cinema halls, rules for engagement written in publisher’s ink, bought at a modest price, and left on your bookshelf when you weary of it. Convenient, but pointless.

Few things are more fantastical than reality. I discovered this when I first began writing fantasy. I turned for inspiration, as possibly every writer does at some point, to the things that interested me; geology, astronomy, mythology, how families become armies, why women work well together – that sort of thing. So if you asked me what was the most fantastical part of The Bones of Stars, I would say, Yellowstone Park. Which, as we all know, is more real than most things, larger and older than most things, and more likely to be the cause of the end of the world, than most things. Or if I were to say what was the most unreal thing I came across in my research for the book, I would say, the ancient provenance of the knowledge of the nebulae in the belt of the Orion constellation. Discovered a mere hundred years ago – fact; evident in myths from ten thousand years ago – also fact, just unbelievable. And if I had to say what was the heart of my books, I would say grandparents and grandkids.

So what I’m not saying, is that Jupiter’s thunderbolts are evidence of nuclear weaponry in ancient Greece, or that Ganesh’s head is evidence of cosmetic surgery in ancient India, or any of that. (Just so we’re clear.) What I am saying, is that the borders of the believable and the unbelievable are porous, and part of the job of the fantasy writer, as I see it, is to keep them that way. To make sure that there is never a brick wall that keeps out all those pesky foreign realities that threaten to cross over into our country of native realities when we aren’t looking. In that sense, Fantasy writing – my kind – is the child of the Romantics. Not just Keatsian, where the second order of ‘real’ things – buildings, monuments, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (!) – is as real as the first order – planets, the cosmos, Nature; but also a Winter’s Tale kind of Romance, where the impossible is shown to be the merely improbable, and slips into the realm of the real via a door that the playwright holds just a teeny bit ajar. It is as well to keep in mind that that door is held ajar, not just for the deeply desired, but equally, for the ferocious, and most intimately feared.

One way to think about this door, is to see it as the one that keeps the real-unreal differential open at all times. Consider the moment in First Contact, the Star Trek movie: when the first Vulcan spaceship finally lands on Earth, the doors open, and the first alien ever seen appears, the success or failure of the entire Star Trek enterprise (small ‘e’) lies in that first glimpse of the face of the Vulcan. Is he too human? Not different enough to move us out of our complacency? Is he too alien, leaving us only with a wry sense of having suspended our disbelief for nothing? Or is he (the answer is yes!) just familiar enough to leave us in our seats, and just alien enough to draw us out, and leave us with the sense of wonder that is the holy grail of the sci-fi or fantasy writer?

This is a question that JK Rowling need never ask herself or her readers, where her books create an alternate universe in which the magical is familiar, although delightful. We would actually be disappointed to find that letters arrived by postman instead of by owl, and the pressure on this kind of writer is to constantly create newer and more unexpectedly unreal things in order to keep the reader delighted. It is also important to recognise that the affect of this kind of fantasy is delight, not wonder. The capacity for wonder is lost the minute the alien world of magic becomes a familiar, Hogwartsian home for the reader and for the characters within the book.

Consider Marquez (for instance: feel free to consider any ‘magic realist’ you like; my own favourite is Allende) – there is always the chance that a woman may actually take wing and fly away while hanging up the laundry, or a house produce extra rooms for guests as needed. Sometimes wonder, sometimes delight, there is the frisson of recognition of other worlds, other lives, other happenings, just out of our reach here in the real world, which may, without warning, enter through arbitrary windows, doors, gables, cracks in the flooring. This, too, is not the wonder consequent upon the real-unreal differential being held open at all times, where the real is always present, the unreal always new.

It is possible, often, to avoid pointy hats, wands, and cleaning implements substituting as transport vehicles. And often, these are, indeed, avoided, especially by writers who write for the ‘adult’.  This is where we talk about sex and violence – look out for the exciting new sequel to this potboiler coming to a blogpost near you.