Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, July 03, 2006

On Existence And Eternity

David Moles asks: How, in Vellum do you reconcile "people die" with people always being alive, somewhere else, somewhen else, as somebody else?

It's a tricky question; so, of course, I like it. The simple answer is, I don't; they're not meant to be reconciled, but to remain in irresolvable tension --the existentialist threat of mortality versus the essentialist promise of eternity. I'm trying to put those two into a relationship of antagonism and "reverse the polarity", make mortality the promise and eternity the threat. Or more to the point: to say mortality is true; eternity is false.

I mean, the first thing to bear in mind is that the extra temporal dimensions of the characters don't necessarily mean their lives are unbounded. Just because you have extra "breadth" of "you-ness" spread out across other incarnations (as, say, David Miles, editor of Amazing All Star Wireliner Tales, or David Mules, writer of "Planet of the Centaurs"), or extra "depth" of incarnations, strata of metaphysically "earlier versions" which go down a ways (as -- I don't know -- pick your prototype / archetype)... that doesn't mean those other incarnations aren't equally limited in the cradle-to-grave linear lives that *they* lead. In one fold of the Vellum, you're born here, die there. In another fold, you're born else-here, die else-there... but you still die. So, for the most part (i.e. with exceptions deliberately included so as to explore the idea's ramifications), I'm still looking at characters as finite. The threads of linear existence might build up into planar "shapes" which are then constructed into 3D "forms", but those forms are meant to be existential rather than essential, manifest in time rather than transcendant of it.

There's a potential reading of the metaphysics of VELLUM, which I *am* trying to deal with in part but which *isn't* the real underlying idea -- the idea of eternal reccurrence. You could read VELLUM and say, OK, this is about the same stories happening over and over again forever and always -- cyclic time. But a better way to look at it is if you imagine a sphere sliced horizontally into thin sections. Two adjacent sections from right in the middle will have the same circumference, and the section might be thin enough that the curving of the edge is imperceptible. So if you didn't know what you were looking at, you might think that these two planar structures can just be repeated endlessly, upways and downways, to construct a cylinder without a bottom or a top. But actually, while those shapes are repeated they get smaller with each section, and there comes a point where there's no more sphere to slice.

Now in terms of us -- as beings, as characters, as stories -- imagine you start with a circle section (the core story) and move upwards taking section after section. You keep getting circles (the story recurring), and so, hey, it does look like a cylinder. But then gradually it warps, starts to bifurcate, becomes a sort of snowman figure-eight. And then those separate into distinct circles. Those in turn bifurcate. And so on. Sometimes sections are warped into ellipses. Other ellipses seem to appear out of nowhere only to merge with ones that have migrated out from the centre. Eventually you realise that what you're looking at, if you reconstruct a 3D model from all those sections, is a tree, a gnarly-ass tree. You started at the trunk, moving up through branches and twigs. The shapes that seemed to come from nowhere are where a branch dips down. You could have moved down through the roots and seen a similar process.

Either way, a human life -- in VELLUM, at least -- is a little section of this greater whole... but that whole is still a finite form. The Big Story might be a hell of a lot more complex, taken as a whole, than all the little Branch and Twig and Root Stories spreading out of the Core Story of the trunk. The sheer difference in scale might make you think, man, this little story form (the circle) has infinite reiterations, infinite permutations, but it doesn't; at the end of the day, what we're looking at is not eternal recurrence. Rather it's a fractal growth where the pattern is repeated but which is an existential phenomenon and therfore has a beginning and an end.

(Of course, the danger of this type of character construction is that, regardless of how hard you try, you run the risk of losing reader sympathy for one particular avatar of a character by creating a feeling that, well, that character's only going to pop up in another incarnation anyway -- elsewhere, elsewhen -- so their death in this fold, here and now, is pretty meaningless. I try to counteract this by shifting narrative mode to mimetic / historical "real world" narratives, to offer incarnations of that character where the distancing effect of fiction is reduced (hopefully) by grounding it in the actual. Fantasies of eternity are coping mechanisms for dealing with real world death, as I see it. I want to strip away those coping mechanisms, to say, it doesn't matter a fuck if you imagine a Pie In The Sky When You Die afterlife -- you think the moment of death was any less painful, any less horrific, for the soldier in the Somme, for Matthew Shepard, because, in this pipe-dream of eternity, they get a happy-ever-after of harps and wings? Does that make it OK for you? Does that make it acceptable? Does that make it tolerable? Hell, rather than diffusing empathy the multiplicity of character lives is meant to kick out the crutches of the adventure mode (in which life is pretty cheap) and dump the reader on their ass in a world too much like this one for that character's death to be experienced as just another plot-twist. Some readers this works for, others not. So it goes.)

So I guess this is a sort of existentialist approach to Platonic morphology. Rather than positing a morphological realm, an atemporal essentialist (and therefore, to my mind, bogus) "space" where the form of a CHAIR is, was, and ever will be, what I'm positing is a process where you take a horizontal section of the plane and have hundreds, thousands, millions of branch and twig sections which are all manifestations of the CHAIR. Go back historically and you might find yourself at a trunk, an ur-CHAIR. But go back further still and that form diverges into hundreds, thousands, millions of roots of that CHAIR form. Go high enough or low enough and you find the existential limits of that Platonic form, the points below or above, before or after, the CHAIR.

To me form is (and is only) material, existential, manifest. Substitute COSMOS for CHAIR in that example and you have my underlying metaphysics. Substitute a particular character and you have my weird-ass hypothetical/fictive attempt to extrapolate that metaphysics to the human scale. There are alternative instances of "us" from other branches There are primal prototypes of "us" from (or from nearer to) the "trunk". And there are even more primal root-instances of "us". But all of them are to be understood as material, manifest forms, individually finite, and finite as a whole.

People die. When and where they die might change in this fold or that. Looked at from an atemporal perspective you could say they get to live again (elsewhen, elsewhere) but that just means they die again. And even from that atemporal perspective, seen as the sum of all those other selves, ultimately that whole also dies.

Of course, it gets tricky with VELLUM because this is where the exceptions come in... because I want to tackle the other side of the argument, the essentialist metaphysics which promises infinity, eternity, transcendance of that finite, manifest existence. Life after death. Or rather *spiritual* life beyond *material* life, *outside* material life, outside (our) existential timespace. My take on it is that the religious conception is not just about downloading the Platonic forms of "us" out of our meat bodies and uploading them into another substantial -- albeit "spiritual" -- form in another (higher, purer, but nevertheless existential, which is to say experiential) "reality", one which just so happens to be temporally non-finite. Rather I think the religious concept carries an idea that eternity is the substrate of reality, that existence is built upon essence, and that existential entitites are imperfect renderings of the essential entities temporally (and temporarily) trapped "inside". Fundamentally, those Platonic forms of "us" -- our souls -- are, by nature, in the religious conception, eternal, transcendant, indestructable.

I disagree with this. The whole "people die" thing is an attempt to articulate that disagreement. But to address that essentialist metaphysics in fantasy, of course, it makes sense to try and concretise it. So what I've tried to do is give it flesh as a theoretical possibility within the actual metaphysics of VELLUM. To say, OK, these characters are living in an existential anarchist metaphysics, but some are trying to impose a Platonic essentialism upon it, using a tool which might (at least, so they think) actually work.

So what you have in VELLUM are the unkin with their Cant and their gravings. What distinguishes them from the rest of us mere mortals is that they can hack time, rewrite existential reality... because they have the programming language. So suppose you can recode the world, including yourself. First thing you're going to do (automatically, as I see it, unconsciously as a survival mechanism) is rewrite your body so it doesn't age, to try and make yourself a permanent part of reality. Functionally, that's what I see the gravings as, a sort of permanent imprint of identity, a fixing of one's self into a set form. It’s the carving of one's name, one's life-story into an unchanging certainty. But unkin can still die; they can be killed; that story still has its ending. So the next thing is to have back-up plans. Hey, if you've got yer graving backed-up somewhere, all you need to do, if the old shell buys the farm, is have someone there to reinstall "you" in a new meat body.

But then that requires alliegances or power, comrades or servants. And then your story isn't yours alone any longer, but features all these other unkin with their own agendas and each with the ability to hack the world, rewrite existence to their own favour, so they live and you, if you're their enemy, die. In VELLUM, unfortunately for the protagonists, the big power among the unkin, the Covenant, are basically intent on imposing an essentialist determinacy, a Platonic morphology. If you're an unkin and you want to keep living (for as long as your average Covenant spear-carrier survives) then you have to submit to regraving.

The Covenant think they can build eternal peace by wiping out all resistance. They think the end result will be this nice essentialist heaven on earth, where all these troublesome hackers are either co-opted into the system or eradicated, and what you're left with is human sheep and their immortal, angelic shepherds -- beings perfected, purified, simplified (into one of seven key roles, one of the "Sebbiti"). You take the King's Shilling and, sure, you get to live, but are you really a "you" anymore, or just a crude, reductive type -- an angel of fire, an angel of ice, etc.? Is it worth it? Given a choice between joining the Covenant, fighting it, running and hiding, or trying to scheme your way out of the whole setup, which do you go for?


What Thomas tries, his lateral-thinking solution to the problem, is an attempt to escape the whole duality of existence and eternity. He submits to a regraving which renders him the slain-and-resurrected figure, an eternal victim, but also an eternal escapee. He will die, over and over and over again. But this means he will live over and over and over again. He is eternally escaping from existence (the moment of death) into eternity (mythic permanence), but also eternally escaping essence (being nailed to the one cross, if you'll forgive the pun) into existence (in the metamorphic instances, the moments of life). This is, I freely admit, a pataphysical headfuck dependant on one's ability to percieve Summer, like Thomas, as a state of being. The reader, like Phreedom, is entirely free to not understand and not want to understand, to think he's insane or just plain wrong. He might well be. The price of this is that he's caught on the border between existence and eternity, a liminal creature. All those metamorphosis render him a being which can only exist in the margins, a fanciful thing, a sprite. And even as a faerie, he dies. Still, Thomas accepts this liminal pseudo-existence.


The whole point about characters having the potential to escape "into eternity", to become unmoored from the straight-line track from cradle-to-grave as Platonic forms which can be (re)incarnated elsewhen and elsewhere, therefore, is to raise the question: is the whole idea of binding one's self into a graving -- of concretising one's identity, fixing it as an essential "soul" in order to make this immortality possible -- an artificial hobbling? (*cough cough* the final Endhaven sections *cough cough*)

Does eternity thereby become something we might want to escape from into existence?

In that context, "people die" becomes a refusal of the Covenant offer of eternity as a loss of humanity. You're given that choice and you say no. People die. Maybe you think the price is too much to pay. Maybe you think these Covenant fuckers are wrong anyway, that their plan is doomed to fail because, no matter how much these arrogant bastards might like to believe otherwise, they are not incorporeal, transcendant beings. They can slide and shift from this fold to that, twist and turn through reality virtually at will, but at the end of the day they're flesh and blood like the rest of us. The nearest you've got to "transcendant" beings in VELLUM are those faded gods (Enlil and Sin, for example) who live on only in crumbling statues and inscribed clay, ghosts all but dissolved into their pathetic archaeological remnants. Hell, reality itself is flesh and blood, vellum and ink. And sooner or later, you might think, if you're a Seamus Finnan, the existential nature of reality is going to turn around and bite those essentialist eedjits on the ass.

People die.

You can accept this or deny it. You can surrender to it or defy it. The protagonists in VELLUM each have their own reactions, mostly ambiguous, and while I've got my own personal nihilist / existentialist / humanist / pacifist view about the negative impact of essentialist rejections of this truism, I can't blame those who might decide to counter it with a "fuck that shit". Hell, even if you accept it as a theoretical inevitability, that doesn't mean you're not going to defy it to the bitter end.


Blogger David Moles said...

I like that. The metaphysics might be some comfort to someone else, trying to come to terms with your death, but it’s no comfort to you.

You know, I really feel bad for Metatron.

9:09 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

:) So do I. He's misguided but he's not a bad bloke... just a poor bastard who's stuck himself with a dirty job, trying to deal with all these glory-hungry nut-job God/King/Hero types... the fuckin lions, bulls and hawks.

2:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I certainly can empathize with your feelings for Metatron, do remember, in the end, he's not just another Koolaid drinker, he's the one making up a great big batch of the stuff for all of reality to drink. I don't know if "not a bad bloke" quite works for me. He's had millenia to see the error of his ways...I'm jus' sayin'


3:46 pm  

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