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.

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Chapter 15: The Attack of the Ferals (The Bones of Stars)

Chapter  15: The Attack of the Ferals
It was an image of the geyser blowing at Yellowstone. The image in the central laptop was odd but unmistakable. The frame had caught the eruption at its peak and the screen was filled with red flecked with gold.

“Well I’ll be darned. It’s the eruption!” Yvonne was the first to speak. “And that is exactly as we saw it. That same, absolutely impossible deep red!”

Ethan leaned in and pointed to the third screen. “Hyun? What on earth are those green dots doing?! This looks like a DNA sequence or something!” Hyun pulled a chart over to her and began to make some calculations in pencil on it. “Well, you see” she began but she was cut short by Adit.

“Is that a face?”

The words were no more than a whisper yet the room fell silent as if felled by a blow. Everyone turned to him as he leaned towards the first screen. It showed the geyser moments after it had subsided. The still pool, still rippling from the after water had been sucked back in and spewed lightly back. It was a dull, rusty red with shadows deep in its centre and gold lights shifting over its surface.

“There. See?” He pointed to a smudge in the centre of the bubble. Hyun hurried over and pressed a few keys. The image enlarged, zooming in on the spot that Adit’s finger had touched. A large blurry image filled the screen with two just discernible patches that could be eyes. Hyun tapped a few more keys and the image sprang into focus. Adit sank to his knees.

With a deafening bang the door slammed shut. In the instant it took the three witches to open the door and whirl out, Adit was armed and battle ready. He hefted the carving knife from the kitchen in one hand and gripped the handle of a smaller blade in the other. Outside the Feral army had massed an attack of gigantic proportions. Adit’s skin crawled as he saw the flat yellow eyes and spotted skin revealed through the patches of fur that clung to the bony hyena-men. He slashed at a large male as it lunged for him, realizing in the same moment that his paltry kitchen knives were no use against a foe that was already dead. The severed arm of the Feral snapped back into place and a shower of its spit hit Adit across his chest, burning its way through his clothes into his skin.

“Use these!” Adit’s arm swung out instinctively when he heard Hsimah’s shout and he caught a long sliver of ivory in his hand. Without stopping to wonder what manner of weapon this was, he bent double under a flying spray of the deadly spit and lashed out at the legs of the Feral. The ivory rapier sliced through the bone almost without effort and the severed legs fell to the earth in a pile of powdered bone.

“Bone to bone!” shouted Hsimah, his grin wild against the raised sabre tooth he wielded. It was at least 6 feet long but Hsimah swung it lightly, his slim body lithe as a whip. Swift as quicksilver, he stepped behind a crouching female Feral and stabbed her backhanded, wrenching the sabre tooth sword out and bringing it about in a wide arc to ground it ferociously in the neck of another.

“Another, Hsimah!” called Adit, and an instant later reached out to catch a short, lethal looking dagger about a foot long. It was slightly curved, like a horn torn from some large animal’s head. But before he could turn a body slammed into his back with gutting power. Forced to his knees Adit dropped the dagger to tear at the bony arms wrapped around his neck, the body heavy beyond belief. Gagging, he felt the muzzle-like chin against his cheek, the spit burning its way down neck and screamed in agony. The stench of the decaying flesh filled his lungs and he choked again, writhing in the dead creature’s grip. Twisting his other arm, he brought the thin rapier about and brought it down on his own back in a flagellating motion. The Feral dissolved in dust as the rapier ripped through it and Adit leapt to his feet, staggering from the pain. His neck and chest were smoking where the deadly spit continued to hiss and sizzle on the blackening flesh. Yet he grabbed the horned dagger and forced an eye open just as the skin was beginning to pucker up around it.

A tall form confronted him inches away. Adit reared back and raised his dagger to strike.

“Easy, easy. Let me take a look at that nasty stuff.” The voice was soft and comforting and the tall shape resolved itself into Ethan, blue eyes shining through the dirt that matted his hair and face. Somehow in the midst of hell he was a spot of silence and stillness. Adit swayed towards him and he caught the boy deftly, placing both hands gently over the worst of the wounds. The teeth gritting agony ebbed almost immediately, subsiding to a dull throbbing. Adit opened his eyes, wondering why he had not been attacked again and stared dumbfounded. The battle raged all about them still, but seemed to flow around them like a roaring river parting around a large rock in its path. Ethan’s robes swirled gently in the current but seemed to mark the outmost boundary of the temporary oasis. Adit gazed up in wonder at him. The warlock’s eyes were shut and a look of intense suffering suffused his face. Suddenly the intense blue eyes snapped wide open and with a hoarse shout Ethan flung out an arm into the battle.

Hyun came skidding into the silent circle, her hair matted with blood where a severed hand clung on. Adit found himself loosed and sprang towards Hyun, burying his dagger up to his fist straight into the face of the enormous creature that clawed at Hyun with its other hand. He barely had time to glance back and mutter “thanks, man!” before another Feral was upon him. Hyun stayed barely still, swearing loudly and furiously as Ethan smoothed her hair with an infinitely gentle hand. Then she strode forward, pulled up her hoodie’s long sleeves and flung a bolt of pure energy past Adit towards Hsimah. Hsimah zipped a hair’s breadth to the left and inclined his head in courtly gratitude as the Feral lunging for his neck went up in flames.