Oops! So busy with Conjuror Girl trilogy promotion I forgot to link to my guest spot at Dan Jones’ blog! Here it is…
Tony Ballantyne, author of the new collection Midway, asks: does technology shape art?
Of course. The sound of the orchestra evolved as first clarinets and then trombones were added. It changed further as inventors like Boehm improved the design of instruments such as the flute.
Pop music was influenced by the invention of the electric guitar, the keyboard and, more recently, a whole range of music software.
But what about writing? Has there been the same change as we’ve moved from handwritten manuscript, to typewriter, to word processor to purpose written software such as Scrivener?
Undoubtedly yes. Midway would never have seen the light if it hadn’t been for technology. I wrote most of the first draft on my phone.
I didn’t intend to write Midway. I had an idea for a novel set in an old cotton mill near where I live. I was working on the preliminary notes when my father took ill. The next six months, the last months of his life, threw everything into turmoil. Most days were spent driving between my home and my parents house. I found myself sitting in waiting rooms and cafes and service stations, drinking coffee and eating sandwiches. I began to record my thoughts and experiences on my phone, using Evernote. The thoughts began to join up, they got caught up with the mill stories. I began to rearrange my notes, merge them together. Gradually, the first draft of Midway took shape.
Would the stories have existed if I simply took notes in my trusty notebook? Yes.
Would they have existed in the same form?
I don’t think so.
I believe that notes are best taken “live”. As Sol Stein said, stories are about communicating emotion. You’re not describing a landscape, for example, you’re describing your reaction to it. I always had my phone with me in that time, I could do just that. I took notes whilst waiting in queues for coffee, I took notes when out for a walk, I took notes whilst waiting for the nurse to fetch my father a drink. Taking notes became my way of dealing with the situation.
My normal process when writing a book is to sit down at a PC and type everything into Emacs ([[https://tonyballantyne.com/my-emacs-writing-setup/][you can read about that here]])
Midway was different. The first draft was as close to a live recording as a book can be. Think Deep Purple ‘Made in Japan’ or, a better example, Thin Lizzy ‘Live and Dangerous.’ I added the polish in the remix.
Today I’m very pleased to present a guest post by Penny Blake. Regular readers of my novels will know I like a diverse crowd of characters. Penny, with her particular life experiences, here tells us about the Rromani people.
Representing Rromani People In Fiction, by Penny Blake
Rromani people have been a very visible part of some periods of history, particularly the steam era, and many steampunk and fantasy writers want to work a ‘Gypsy’ character into their worlds. Sadly the easily available information about who Rromani people were and are, why they did not always live in houses and what their beliefs, lifestyle and occupations were is largely incorrect.
Sources drawn on by modern writers are often works of fiction from the Georgian / Victorian period or ‘research’ published by the elite gentleman’s club known as the ‘Gypsy Law Society.’ These works dehumanised Rromani people into mythical ‘Gypsy Creatures’ – lawless, nomadic, romantic and magical beings far removed from the reality of Rromani people’s lives.
It is even the case that more modern publications (books / blogs / websites etc) which claim to be authentic sources of information on Rromani beliefs, lifestyle, language and history are often based purely on these earlier works.
Both historically and recently there have been books and articles published by people who have paid money to ‘live amongst’ Rromani people and then written about their experiences. This is obviously a deeply and complexly problematic scenario and any material derived from such ‘research’ cannot be considered reliable.
So what can we, as writers, do if we want to include the experiences of Rromani people in our worlds in a realistic and respectful way?
Fortunately, there are lots of Rromani writers, artists, scholars, activists and researchers working to chip away at this false image of the mythical ‘Gypsy Creature’ and reveal the true historical and modern faces of Rromani people across the globe and I will list a few of them at the end of this post.
The first, and most respectful, place we can start is by exploring their works before we embark on our own. It is always going to be more valid and insightful to read the work of an indigenous writer than to read an outsider’s impression of another culture. If we read a wide range of autobiographies as well as fiction and historical non-fiction by Rromani writers we will eventually begin to build a picture of what life was like for Rromani people living in different parts of the world and in different time periods and we can then begin to decide whether and how it might be appropriate to write about the experiences of a Rromani person in our own fictional world.
Too often, a Rromani character is added to a story as either a plot device or a splash of colour. If something needs stealing, a child goes missing, our main character needs their fortune telling or an exotic romantic interest is needed, many writers seem to think that this is justification for dropping in a Gypsy or two with no personality, backstory, character development or future other than ‘they are a Gypsy.’ It is heartening that writers seem to be steadily moving away from using other People Of Colour as plot devices; it would be wonderful if the same could soon be said of Rromani people as well. If we make the important decision to include a character of any actual race or culture in our writing, we should have a clear purpose in doing so and ensure that we act with respect and integrity.
It is far beyond the scope of one short blog post to provide all the information a writer would need or desire to aid them in making such a huge decision, but what I can offer are some quick myth-busting points which will hopefully start us down the road of critical thinking around this subject (if we weren’t already on it).
1. The Gypsy myth
The word Gypsy is a pejorative racist slur. It is a shortened slang form of the word Egyptian and has been used to dehumanise and persecute Rromani people since their arrival in Europe as refugees from the invasion of their lands in India. Hitler used the word to brand Rromani people as a type of animal rather than human and to justify murdering hundreds of thousands of them during the Samudaripen (the Rromani word for Holocaust). To most Rromani people today the word is akin to the N word, although some have decided to reclaim and repurpose it as a symbol of pride, it should not be used by any non-Rromani person without an appropriate reason (for example in a historic context or affectionately amongst Rom friends where the term is being used and accepted as one of camaraderie).
2. The magic myth
The original religion of Rromani people was Hinduism. However, because of their forced migration from India and the need to adopt the religious beliefs of the new countries they settled in, Rromani religion today world wide is mostly Christian and Muslim. As such, the majority of Rromani people consider the practice of magic, fortune telling, witchcraft and all forms of Paganism to be against their religion. As with all cultures and races, there are a significant number of Rromani people who do follow a spiritual path that involves the practise of magic, divination or earth based religion but these are a minority and always have been. It would be a rare thing indeed to find a Rromani family casting spells, slinging curses or owning a crystal ball.
3. The nomadic myth
Since leaving India as refugees, Rromani people have strived endlessly to find a place to settle down and be accepted into a new society. This has sadly never been easy as their skin colour and language initially made people suspicious and mistrusting; laws were quickly put in place to prevent ‘Gypsies’ from entering towns, buying and selling goods, owning property or even having children. In Eastern Europe they were enslaved for hundreds of years, they certainly did not travel around in brightly painted caravans. In Western Europe many managed to convince people they were Greek or Italian and so were able to settle and integrate into mainstream society. Those who couldn’t, mostly joined the already mobile communities of travelling farm workers who moved in a set and steady circuit of seasonal work – sowing, harvesting and ploughing – around a small area the size of one or two counties.
4. The pretty painted caravan myth
Most Rromani people, both historically and today, live in houses. They have jobs, pay taxes, send their children to school, etc. Although historically some Rromani families did own painted wooden wagons known as Vardos, these expensive commissioned caravans were rare and only existed during a very brief period of history. Instead, those who did travel slept in Bender Tents.
5. The thieving myth
There are many folk stories / sayings which suggest that Rromani people believe the world belongs to everyone and so does everything in it – therefore they have no concept of stealing. I am certain than any educated person would not be persuaded by such a myth but sadly for some reason many fiction writers love this romantic concept and can’t resist writing Rromani characters as ‘lovable rogues’ whose innate innocence or mischievousness means they can’t keep their sticky fingers to themselves. There is nothing wrong with writing such a character into our worlds, the problem comes if we link this aspect of their personality to them being Rromani, that is when it becomes racism. In reality Rromani cultural and religious beliefs dictate that stealing is wrong – as do most cultures and religions the world over. As with ALL cultures and races, there are some Rromani people who steal and particularly those who live in poverty but this is a socio-economic issue, not one of race or cultural belief system.
5. The sexuality myth
We have the likes of the Pre-Raphs and the Gypsy Law Society largely to thank for the sexualisation of Rromani people (and Rromani women in particular). So much so that the tired old trope of the exotic, yet one dimensional, Gypsy Lover who sweeps into a story only to have swept out again by the end; a ‘free spirit’ who cannot help but dance from one sizzling love affair to the next breaking heroes or heroines hearts along the way is now so twee as to be ludicrous. It is even more ludicrous when taken with the fact that as most Rromani people are either Christian or Muslim – and even those who aren’t have very strict codes governing dress and behaviour – such carry-on would be deemed scandalous!
Many thanks for journeying along with me today. If you’d like to find out more about the lives and history of Rromani people, the following blogs and books by Rromani writers are an excellent introduction:
For Rromani folk tales see the works of Hedina Sijercic
For 20 powerful Rromani women writers see Jessica Reidy’s list
For lots more information and articles on this topic from my own website see my Rromani Steampunk section
Penny Blake is rooted in a traditional storytelling background. She writes Mythpunk and LGBTQIA+ Steampunk inspired by her Rromani and Celtic cultural heritage. Her book of Mythpunk short stories can be found here: Mahrime: Mythpunk for Monsters, the first book in her Steampunk series can be found here: The Curious Adventures Of Smith and Skarry and her latest release, Necromancers – an irreverent zombie romance in which a forgotten cult accidentally resurrects the wrong gods – can be found here: Necromancers.
Thirty seven years ago, when I started university, one of the first people I met was a chap called Pete Wyer, then the guitarist in a friend’s band. We’ve remained good friends ever since, and in fact of all my friends Pete is the one I’ve known for longest. He’s a great bloke ― a musician and composer of many and considerable talents, a good friend, thoughtful, insightful and never less than interesting to talk to. We don’t see each other often, but it’s one of those friendships where you can pick up at any time, knowing the other will listen, will be interested, and do all the other things friends do.
Pete is an internationally reknowned composer, who recently published privately a collection of short stories. Recently I’ve had online conversations with authors and would-be authors about the nature of art, writing and commerce. At the back of Pete’s book was a coda, which I thought might make interesting reading for those entangled deep in the mire of the publishing world. Here it is.
What’s the Point of Art? (And: Shouldn’t We Rebrand the Species?)
“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.” ― Immanuel Kant
When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor. Its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak this language we frequently use it in our creative works.
We are using symbolism right now, of course. These squiggly patterns on a page have no intrinsic meaning, if you doubt that cast your eye over a page of Sumerian script, it will only have meaning if you have learnt what each hieroglyph symbolises.
Why is symbolism important?
Symbolism allows us to convey large amounts of understanding with small units of information. If I say to another English speaker ‘kitchen’, ‘mother’, ‘climate’, ‘driving’ these arbitrary sounds represent concepts. This makes a huge difference because, while we may have massive storage room in our brains, our consciousness is tiny and typically has room for only a few items at a time. If we think of the brain being like a building the size of the British Museum, then consciousness is a little like the light from a pencil torch inside that building with the rest of it dark.
The brain does most of its work in this dark and, aside from having to manage bodily machinery such as intestines, hormone levels and the like, its day job also includes instincts, emotions and intuitions (the last one happens when stimulus queues up for the attention in the torch light of consciousness and doesn’t quite make it, giving us an ‘intuitive feeling’ about something. Hence it’s always a good idea to have a dialogue with your intuition since it’s telling you things you have unconsciously picked up, but not to assume it knows best; it’s as prone to mistakes as any conscious information).
Rebranding the species
Homo sapiens means ‘wise human’ – this is a terrible name for our species, firstly, because the most intelligent humans were probably homo neanderthalensis, the so called ‘Neanderthals’ whose brains were ten to twelve percent larger than ours, but more importantly our intelligence is not our most defining feature and, funnily enough, it may be that symbolism is. For example, homo erectus walked the earth for well over a million years, at least ten times longer than us, and was smart enough to develop tools, learn to make fire and to cook, so, where is the homo erectus cookbook? Or any book? When we study ancient humans we find homo sapiens are the first hominids to create ‘art’ and that is very telling.
Of course, art isn’t the reason for the ‘success’ of the species (‘success’ is a matter of perspective here) it’s a product of it. Symbolism allows us to create language, and language allows us to know each other’s ‘inwardness’; our thoughts, ideas, emotions. In other words it allows us to network and it’s this which defines our species. Any human-made object you encounter is likely to be the product of an unimaginable number of human interactions. Take the pen on my desk as I write this; were I to tell the story of this pen it would need to include its designers, manufacturers, the people who promoted the product, the ones who transported it, the retailers, but, of course, that would be the tip of the iceberg: each of these stories is a small part of a whole series of other stories: who the designers each studied design with, who developed the complex polymers that made the plastics possible, who financed them… then there’s story of the ink, the paper.. let alone the vast web of infrastructure that meant that all of the people in these stories could be who they were in the first place; providing them food, water, medicine, shelter, transport, schooling, parenting and so on. The accomplishments of any single human, no matter how brilliant, are nothing without our ability to form these networks, to exchange and build on each other’s ideas. Our image of ourselves is misleading. Take a look at a picture of a feral child or adult; that’s you or I without the network.
If intelligence was the reason societies developed then not only homo neanderthalensis but squirrels, cats, badgers, monkeys would all have evolving societies too, even if they developed more slowly.
Rebranding exercise: homo sapiens
So, while I’m here to talk about art, along the way I’m going to audaciously rebrand our species, I hope you don’t mind: we are not homo sapiens we are homo communicare, communicating humans. If we one day learn to overcome the evolutionary programming in our brains that gives rise to that great deceiver who masquerades as an angel of light, the ego, we will have done what the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed when he said: “For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole”.
Enough about the species and its new brand name, back to art. We all speak the language of symbolism and metaphor in our dreams and so we use that language in ‘art’, but why do we then get into such confusion about it? I’ve seen people get red-faced and yell “is this art?”, with undisguised contempt. This is silly and many people are robbed of the enjoyment or experience of art because of it.
Here’s the root of the problem: the word ‘art’ has two meanings and both are in common use, worse, both regularly find themselves side by side in the same sentence and sit there in sullen, silent conflict, refusing to admit their differences.
So, let’s deal with the first: ‘Art’ is originally a 13th century word that means “skill as a result of learning or practice,” – this is still its meaning in, for example, a ‘Bachelor of Arts’ degree, but then in the 19th century, a French writer, Théophile Gautier, came up with the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’: which became in English ‘art for art’s sake’. This was part of a movement against the idea that creativity should serve some didactic or moral purpose and it was the philosophical fork in the road from which a tangle of misunderstanding ensues to this day.
‘Art for art’s sake’ has come to be a euphemism for self-indulgence and pointlessness, but in fact it’s a good philosophical definition of the thing we’re seeking to describe: our motivation, art as our creative response to the ‘universe’. When we make things for this reason, we make ‘art’. Whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art is a completely different question.
Art is not Science
In science we seek empirical understanding of the universe, in art (as used in the later meaning) we make a creative response to it. Science deals in universal laws and provable theories which have to be tested beyond doubt. Art is anything but universal, every day in galleries around the world people stand side by side in front of paintings and have entirely different responses to them.
In the fog of different meanings we often conflate ‘art’ into both meanings: Our highest skills of craftsmanship married to our most profound and imaginative creative visions, we step back and say, in appropriately awed tones; ‘it’s a work of art!’. What we really mean is that we consider it a great work of art.
But there’s a problem; there is no universal definition of the experience of art – just ask the two people standing side by side in front of the painting: One of them may be transported to heavenly realms by it while the other may be utterly indifferent.
The answer is easy. We should use the word ‘art’ in the same way we use the word architecture. Architecture is ‘the complex or carefully designed structure of something.’ – the word doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the buildings or other structures but it groups things within a useful category so that we’re talking about the same thing: we can decide later whether it’s good, bad, unusual or common architecture but we can agree: it’s architecture.
Of course, it gets still more confusing because ‘art’ is regularly lumped in with ‘entertainment’, the dictionary definition of which is ‘effortless engagement’ and the ‘performing arts’? That’s just asking for trouble; the performers are regularly described as ‘artists’ in the 13th century meaning of the word whereas the work they are performing may be considered ‘art’ in the 19th century sense. Let alone the fact that still others try to measure art by its commercial value but its financial value is merely what someone will or has paid for it, and yet more by it’s popularity, but popularity fluctuates and is strongly tied to exposure.
It’s not surprising that we end up with red faced people who can’t agree because they are using the same word to talk about different things and trying to evaluate them by using different criteria.
You don’t owe art anything and art doesn’t owe you anything. You can live a happy, wonderful, fulfilled life without ever engaging with art, and many millions of people have done so, so don’t feel obliged, some of my fellow artists may scream ‘heresy!’ but if you opt out the world doesn’t end. However, before opting out, consider that art is the place we share our wildest creativity, our highest and our most extraordinary visions, and this is a party you’re invited to. It really can move, inspire and inform and it really does transform lives. Many people are passionate about art not out of pretension but because they love the world that it invites them into and it brings them enormous joy. Some would claim it deepens their experience of being alive.
When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor, its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak it we frequently use it in our creative works. Hence, when Marcel Duchamp produces a urinal and puts it in a gallery (‘Fountain’, 1917) or John Cage produces a work that invites us to contemplate four minutes thirty three seconds of silence (4’33”, 1952) then we accept these as art because they are invitations to explore Duchamp and Cage’s creative responses to the universe – whether they are ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ is up to you and to each person who encounters them.
However, while there’s no single definitive experience of a work of art I believe there are helpful ways to approach it. I’ve met people who are baffled and put off by art and who can blame them with all the confusion about it? (I’ve also met people who feel obliged to experience art and wondered what on earth they get out of it). So, in hopes it may be of help to someone somewhere, here’s my personal rule of thumb for considering any work of art (I call them the ‘Four E’s’):
Express: What is the artist seeking to say? Emotionally, philosophically etc
Explore: Are they doing anything new or just regurgitating old ideas?
Engage: Does it ‘resonate’ with the human experience? Or are the ideas so niche that only a few can connect to it?
Execute: So much for the ideas, were they able to pull them off?
If Art has anything to recommend it…
Art invites us on a journey and some journeys will mean more to one person than to another. One journey may be more demanding than another but you may find when you get to the pinnacle that the view is breath-taking and unforgettable. Others may make you smile but quickly be forgotten.
In the end, ‘art’, the place where we share our creative response to the universe, is, I think, a healing place. It can draw our attention to amazing things we’d otherwise have overlooked, make us laugh, cry and share more deeply the experience of being human.
It’s the last one, the ability to share the experience of looking at ourselves and others, that to me is the richest thing that art has to offer. It’s uniquely human and something that great wealth and extraordinary technology don’t offer and while in theory religions and philosophies with noble ideas do, ideas are often doomed to the same fate: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Capitalism*, Nationalism and ping pong teams throughout history have hit the same problem: we attach our ego to each of them and out there in the darkness of the brain an unconscious primal mechanism becomes active that, if unchecked, quickly turns those teachings into ‘us and them’ (of course, there are many devotees of all these faiths and philosophies who adhere to them and do wonderful things, nonetheless, in each of them we can find people doing extraordinarily destructive things that seem contrary to the teachings). The same pattern plays out over and over again throughout human history: psychologically we never kill ‘us’ only ‘them’. Empathy helps us see that this is nonsense because ‘they’ are ‘us’.*
Perhaps this is the point that underlies art: it helps us find our deeper connection to ourselves and each other. When we have a profound sense of connection and empathy we have the potential to break down the archaic barriers such as race, culture and gender that have haunted our species throughout its history, to one day become the ‘wise humans’ we thought we already were.
* In Adam Smith’s 1776 ‘Wealth of Nations’, capitalism had noble ideas, capitalism has been responsible for much initiative and advancement but anyone who trots these out as justification today should be thwacked over the head repeatedly with a gigantic graph illustrating the narrowing fortunes of the 99% of people who actually live in capitalist societies. In 2nd Century Britain, in response to the rebellious Britons, the Romans created an aspirational system under Agricola, where a very few had the chance to escape penury and join an elite, ruling society. In the chronicles of that time (by Tacitus) it says “because they didn’t know better they called it civilisation when it was in fact their slavery.”
‘Ancient terror, modern error, future era.’ Otter shook himself. ‘Mean much to you?’
Two years after being washed up on a remote beach, freedivers Orc and Cass still have no idea who they are or where they came from. Worst of all, they feel like lovers but look like brother and sister, and must repress their instincts for fear of committing a terrible mistake.
Now at last they’ve tracked down a psychic artefact powerful enough to restore their memories. But others also seek its forbidden magic. To reach it, deep within a sunken ruin, they must flirt with a ruthless occult conspiracy, one intent on summoning an ancient goddess to destroy the dreadnoughts of the Empyreal fleet.
The depths of the sea, of the past, of the world’s collective mind: down there are truths, but also madness and despair. And a power that will plunge the world back to a new dark age, if it can’t be stopped…
New author Bryan Wigmore is a member of the SFF Chronicles forum, with many friends and fans there. Bryan and I chatted over the course of a few weeks about his Snowbooks debut novel The Goddess Project.
Stephen: To start with, what characters do you have for this novel?
Bryan: The two main characters in The Goddess Project are Orc and Cass, a young man and woman of about twenty, victims of magical amnesia. They feel like they used to be lovers, but can’t act on that because there’s a suspicion they might be siblings. As part of their search for the truth, Orc develops a dangerous relationship with the psychic residue of an ancient goddess, which Cass, the more rational one, has to try to rescue him from. Then we have Tashi, a young warrior from a mountain monastery sent with his ascetic master on a mission to the “lower world” they see as being ruled by the Witch Mother; Martin Seriuz, a naval officer intent on saving his country from war by physically manifesting a powerful goddess to act as peacekeeper; Lucian Daroguerre, magician and Seriuz’s co-conspirator, who also has plans of his own; and Hana, a shaman interested in the Great Mother figure and what she meant for human development. Plus various animal spirit guides and whatnot.
Stephen: What led you to write in this particular world?
Bryan: Partly, I was interested in exploring why we might have switched from female gods to male (if indeed we did); the figure of the Great Mother; shamanism; and the division/war between what have been called the Apollonian and Dionysian (broadly, definition versus dissolution, or I guess order versus chaos).
Would any of those tie in with your own interests/writings, for instance matrilineal societies?
Stephen: There’s evidence in Homer’s Odyssey of matrilineal arrangements. But the whole ‘-archy’ thing began with men taking over by force. It’s a very interesting area, and there’s been many super books written, mostly by women historians, on how and why men took control. I used a lot of these ideas in my 1996 debut Memory Seed. But you only have to look at the hate, disgust and fear of women expressed by every single religion since 3000 BC to grasp how men think; it could hardly be more obvious.
How will you be working in the prehistoric “Great Mother” concept into your books?
Bryan: I agree the evidence for women-dominated societies is slight (though I think there is evidence that something with much greater equality was around on e.g. Thera, now Santorini). But it’s a powerful idea.
I first came across it in Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade, and worked the concept into a previous story which involved a semi-sentient planet trying to work itself out from under the oppressive heel of colonists from Earth: effectively earth goddess versus sky god, a dynamic that has always interested me. I see the “great mother” as a primal force of both nurturing and destruction – the embodiment of the cycle of life – as Nature might have been seen at the beginning of language development. Other later goddesses are more developed parts of her, but not truly differentiated. As I said, I’m interested by the switch from this kind of earth-goddess worship to mountain/sky-dwelling gods, and what drove that switch. You cite the triune of male disgust/hate/fear of women. Of those three, I believe fear is the driving force, as it leads to the others. In fact I realised quite late on that what I was seeking to do in The Goddess Project (or more perhaps in the rest of the series) is to ponder the question “why do men fear women?” – not on an individual level so much as one of collective myth and symbol. How would you answer that?
Stephen: Blimey, where do I start!
Bryan: Do you accept the premise, though? If so, well, we could take the advice of surely one of the most feared women in fact or fiction, Maria von Trapp: “Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.” At what point in a man’s or boy’s life does this perhaps begin, and why?
Stephen: There’s strong evidence that basic gender stereotypes are in place by the age of 2, which is a pretty frightening thought. I think most men fear women because they believe they have a lot to lose if they lose their masculinity, which, in my opinion, most women would like them to do. The whole patriarchal concept is a stack of lies created to make a mythology of male superiority. But any boy would do that, given the chance… Boys are socialised to remain boys at any age.
Tell me more about the set-up of your novel.
Bryan: The set up of my story-world is based on an exaggerated split between female earth deities and male sky deities. Thousands of years ago in the world’s history, there was a successful and peaceful agrarian society based on the worship of an earth goddess, in which her consort, the Sun-King, willingly sacrificed himself at the end of his seven-year reign in order to ensure her fertility. (You’ll probably recognise the idea from Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, etc.) Until he refused. I’ve tied that in with the ideas of a Buddhist mystic writer Ken Wilber, who correlates the phases of growth in societal human consciousness with those we all undergo as individuals growing to adulthood. The phase I’m most interested in is the growth from unconscious to ego. He roughly relates this to the phase of moving from goddesses of vegetation/earth to gods of mountains/sky. So in my book, this is where humans move from body-focus to mind-focus. What drives this is complex and I haven’t quite worked it out, but it might have something to do with men wanting to escape the feeling that they are inferior because they cannot create life. By moving away from body-focus, indeed almost to body-denial, they reduce the importance of child-bearing, which is beyond them. The present-day story (set in a world roughly equivalent to ours of about 1900, partly so I could include a recognisable patriarchy like the Victorians or Prussians) in part deals with the consequences of that split, which in my world has been widened by such things as an actual god of technology.
Does that make sense, and does any of it chime with your own ideas?
Stephen: Yes, it does – interesting stuff. I think there’s a lot to the idea that men were envious of women’s child-bearing ability, but I suspect there was more to it. I think that was probably a symptom of something still deeper in the development of human (for want of a better word) psychology. We’re much more constrained by our environment than we realise, I think.
But the whole notion of moving to ‘The Word’ as the principle of creation mirrors the arrival of patriarchy. I’m currently reading The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After by Sylvia Anthony, and it’s reminded me how much amazing work was done through the 20th century by child psychologists. So much yet to learn!
Bryan: I think there was more than envy of child-bearing too, and I think it might have something to do with separation from the idea of the body and from nature, a process of which language is part, as you point out. I think it’s actually part of a larger tension between what we might call “order” and “chaos”, or what Nietzche and Camille Paglia term Apollonian and Dionysian – definition versus dissolution, ego versus id, man versus nature, mind versus body. Our society, over thousands of years, has swung very markedly towards the Apollonian, and increased gender equality hasn’t swung us back; we’ve just adopted different ways of keeping it there. Maybe we can come back to that, though my ideas aren’t definite. I could mention a couple of books that helped shape them.
Having mentioned my main characters’ amnesia, the title Memory Seed, and some things I’ve read about The Girl With Two Souls, suggests memory is an important theme for you. Is that the case, and if so, why do you think that is?
Stephen: Not really. Consciousness is the main theme for me. Those ideas of separation that you mention are comparatively new – post-Descartes.
I’d be very interested to discover your reading list.
Bryan: Well, your Memory Seed for one! I remember your mentioned it before as having something to say about gender dominance, and a quick look revealed vegetation as a major element, so I’ve been reading it. I think I mentioned in the reading thread that it reminded me a bit of Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. Have you ever read that, or anything by her? I certainly can’t say Memory Seed reminds me of anything else I’ve read (and I mean that in a good way).
Stephen: I think I have read Winterlong; I certainly read one of hers, and loved it. I think it was Aestival Tide? It was quite like Memory Seed.
Bryan: As for my reading list relating to these topics: The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler was what introduced me to the main idea. Up From Eden by Ken Wilber then developed it and gave it a Buddhist/ mystic/ consciousness angle that I found very interesting. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia introduced me to the idea of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy and how it might relate to gender relationships and how they’re expressed in art. Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit was a hugely interesting academic study of fiction and memoir produced by members of the Freikorps, post-WW1 proto-fascists, and showed how men of a rigid and militaristic patriarchy perceived themselves and their bodies, and women and theirs. Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand is a novel that draws on the ideas of the ancient matriarchal society as outlined in The Chalice and the Blade.
Stephen: Women In Prehistory, Margaret Ehrenberg, The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, Rosalind Miles, The Women’s History of the World, Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman.
Bryan: I was interested to find on reaching the end of Memory Seed that nature didn’t seem to have reacted against human activity by a process of evolution as we understand it, but as a decision by a planet with some level of sentience. Is that a fair interpretation? The idea of a sentient planet doesn’t really come into The Goddess Project, but it will become important later in the series. What were your thoughts behind your decision (if I’ve interpreted it right) and do you think a sentient planet is a useful image or concept in terms of viewing our own planet and its relationship with us?
Stephen: It’s really the people of Kray who give their interpretation of “what Earth is doing” more than anything else. I’m a strict Lovelockian, so don’t go in for any ‘sentient planet’ stuff, despite being of the hippy persuasion. I did use artistic licence a bit though, I have to confess… (Having said that, in Urbis Morpheos I did have a go at trying the notion out, by using extremely long time-scales.) The storms/rain etc are a result of global warming, i.e. the massive input of human-created energy into the atmosphere. The oestrogen-mimicking chemicals are pollution, as is much else. I do think though that evolution can work, in certain circumstances, on the short time scale, the classic example being moths in the Black Country.
Bryan: The thing in Memory Seed that made me think sentient planet was the way nature reverted to what we might call benign after the humans had gone. Now, I guess we don’t know (or you might!) how much time had passed, but I assumed the fact that it had happened during the Cowhorn Tower’s lifetime meant it must have been thousands of years at best, rather than millions. Given that everything before that had been scientifically explicable (with maybe some licence) it surprised me.
By the way, is Kray on Earth? I assumed it was, but then in a recent post somewhere you say that Flowercrash moves “back to Earth” or something.
Stephen: Yes, Kray is on Earth – in Wales, in fact! The Welsh clues and context are all there…
Bryan: I thought it might be Wales when there was the Men Eye bridge, but I didn’t spot other clues. Because there seemed to be what I perceived to be a lot of Dutch-style naming, I wondered if it was South Africa. What did I miss?
Stephen: My original idea was to have three distinct cultures in Kray, one “vaguely exotic,” one “vaguely European” – I did German at school, hence the kinda German/Dutch thing. The other culture was the Krayan one, where everybody spells their name with a y. I developed this three-culture thing from reading Mary Gentle books…
Bryan: You said you were of the “hippy persuasion”. Can I ask, did you ever give any credence to what we might call ley-line-type stuff?
Bryan: I take it that’s a yes? No, seriously, I’ve been having some thoughts about how to reconcile a classic “hippy mindset” (of the 1970s variety) with a firm belief in proper science, and if you are a person who’s moved from one to the other, I’d have a few questions for you.
Stephen: I’ve always been a scientist, but I love the alternate/counter/hippy way because of the environmental concerns, general humanity and liberalism, and of course the FANTASTIC music! I must say though, a lot of my more cosmically inclined friends find my inability to believe in crystals, ley lines and healing by hot cats on the back a little odd… Recently I annoyed a former member of Ozric Tentacles by posting on FB a link to an article on how cannabis cures absolutely nothing at all… He didn’t unfriend me though!
Bryan: I wonder how many people adhere to such beliefs because they have a deep psychological need, maybe a genetic one, for “meaning”. The problem is, perhaps, that we’re supposed to have only one reality, which should be objective, so in someone whose need for “meaning” is strong, this could make them reject scientific evidence that counters their beliefs, and thus lead to a diminishing in their eyes of science generally. This is the kind of narcissism you mentioned in your recent blog post, I think. I’ve been pondering whether it’s feasible to have a meaningful relationship with a “god” one does not believe objectively exists, by some kind of “magical” exercise, and whether this might help those predisposed to the mystical lose the contradiction between the objective and subjective worlds.
Stephen: Everyone has an innate need for meaning, I think, it’s a – perhaps the – fundamental part of the human condition. But because of the way consciousness works, we find ourselves at a comparatively primitive stage of development – only 500 years of effective scientific understanding of the universe – yet with not much progress within ourselves. Our understanding of ourselves lags way behind… only 120 years since Freud’s discovery of the unconscious/subconscious, which kicked off so many developments. People lose the contradiction by simply compartmentalising thinking, or by sheer self-deception. There’s plenty of thinkers who’ve shown how most people, religious, atheist, hippy or scientist, compartmentalise thinking in order to keep contradictory aspects of life in their minds all at the same time. You and I both do. We all have stuff in our childhood that sets this off. One of the tasks of life is to overcome all this.
Thank you, Bryan! Fascinating conversation, and very best of luck with the novel.
The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore is out now from Snowbooks.