Friday, May 15, 2009

A story has to encourage me to suspend disbelief

In my first blog post, I mentioned I was reading a book by Dan Abnett, called Eisenhorn, set in the Warhammer 40,000 science fiction horror fantasy universe. This universe is very much a "Soft" universe (soft/scientifically unrealistic as opposed to hard realistic), in my science fiction realism grading scale, with gothic fantasy added. The technology level is often like today but with "spaceships and rayguns" added. Okay I have no problem with that, but I expect consistency. So for example it is asusmed in this universe, as in Star Trek and Star Wars, that people have the same lifespan as today, unless augmented with cyborg technology. Thus the eponymous Eisenhorn's savant Uber Aemos is about 200 or so years old when the story opens, really ancient looking, with various cyborg implants to extend his life. Eisenhorn describes himself as in the prime of his life as an Inquisitor, mid 40s. Ok, no probs with either.

Anyway the book is actually 3 novels, plus 2 connecting short stories, in one. It's supposed to be (so the blurb says) all about how Eisenhorn has the stern orthodox type ends up using the very powers of chaos he is sworn to oppose. Cool, the classic Darth Vadar theme, beware the dark side of the force yada yada. I was actually looking forward to seeing how this unfolded, presumably Eisenhorn progressing from hunter to hunted.

But i was shocked to discover, when i started the second novel of teh book, that it i set over a century after the first, and yet there are all the characters Eisenhorn gathered in the first novel, along with himself, all doing fine, despite being over 100 years older. If life extension is so advanced, what's the point of teh aged savant in the first novel? Indeed, it contradicts the whole gothic sci fi fantasy present day with spaceships and rayguns type setting.

So I pretty much stopped reading at that point, which si a shame because Abnett is an excellent writer. But I need to be able to "suspend disbelief" if i am reading a book or watching a movie. If i can't do that, the whole thing becomes absurd. If it's a movie, i feel cheated for the rest of the film (this happened in I Am Legend where one of the supposedly mindless rabid zombies set an intelligently set up snare for Will Smith's character; after that, i absolutely hated the rest of the film, and only watched it grudgingly to see how it would end). If it's a book, i just put it down, which i did with Abnett's book. Maybe one day i'll take it up again, maybe i won't.

So i've gone back to my non-fiction book, and also written a little bit for Palaeos com on the Permian period. Actually I've lately become interested in the hypothesis of the end-Permain extinction as due to runaway greenhouse and huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I did consider making this the setting for a post-apocalyptic novel, but no post-apocalyptic novel was ever that bleak. It's just like stories about outer space. The real outer space is a far more hostile environment then the "very soft" science sci fi shows like Star Trek and Star Wars would ever indicate. That is why all these sci fi books and movies and TV shows and role playing games and the rest are really fantasies, they are no more real than the Greek myths; indeed they are the modern equivalent. It is not really about the future at all; it is about telling a story, and if you can tell it well you can poertray a mythic hero such as Joseph Campbell describes. And if you can tell it very well you can portray profound spiritual truths, such as the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, Dante's Divine Comedy and Sri Aurobindo's Savitri.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writing a modern Epic

One theme I am interested in exploring in my creative writing is higher consciousness presented through mythos in a manner that is easy to read.

Stories and movies in areas of my interest - fantastical fiction (on Wikipedia this is called Speculative fiction) - tend either to be very bleak and dark (horror genre in various forms), rationalistic (hard SF), pseudo-medieval (fantasy), or scientifically ridiculous (superheros). While I have no problems with any or all of the above genres, which can certainly be included to add spice and tension to the story, none constitute the themes of gnosis and empathy that are central to my present book The Integral Paradigm. A third theme, evolution, is certainly part of hard SF and especially transhumanist and singularitan philosophy, which is why these things interest me. But what about Divinization, as taught by Sri Aurobindo?

In short, mythos in popular culture tends to be at the level of the surface consciousness, the emotional being (romantic and wish-fulfillment), the mental being (especially rational as in SF), and the lower and most grotesque aspects of the astral (as in horror, crime, and other morbid subjects).

In the old days, attempts to describe the Transcendent through mythos (story-telling) rather than logos (philosophy) involved epic poetry and mythological tales of gods and so on. Good examples are the Hindu Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita, the most revered work of mystical literature in Hinduism) and the Christian Bible. All of these were presented as objective fact. Hence it was believed as literal truth (and often still us) that Krishna picked up a mountain, Jesus ascended bodily to heaven, and so on. Since then, human consciousness has moved on, and religious fundamebntalism is no longer credible (except to fundamentalists)

Sri Aurobindo sought to present his insight of the Supreme (and Divinization - the Supramental Transformation) through the medium of epic poetry, taking the old Hindu legend of Savitri and updating it. The result is a profound work, considered by many to be Sri Aurobindo's graetest, but, like almost all of his material, written in a heavy 19th century style of Romanticism that makes it almost impossible for the non-devotee and no0n-scholar to read, especially if, like me, you don't have an aptitude for poetry.

Are there then examples of epic mythoi that are accessible to the modern, attention-deficit, early 21st century mind?

Well, here we should distinguish between two types of mythoi, the old, cyclic Myth of the Hero (Joseph Campbell), and the newer form of evolutionary and Integral transformation (Divinization) described in Transhumanism (on the secular level) and by Sri Aurobindo (on the sacred level).

In the cyclic cosmology, the hero's role is to restore and renew the world to its romantic ideal (but not radically change it). For example, Tolkein's ''Lord of the Rings'' (the origin of the entire High Fantasy genre), George Lucas' ''Star Wars'' trilogy (a reinventing of the classic Space Opera; but we can forget the embarresing and disappointing prequels, which all but destroyed the mythic grandeur of the Star Wars universe), and the Walchalskii brothers' ''Matrix trilogy'' (this latter being, along with Peter Jackson's Tolkein adaptation, one of the greatest movie stories of our age, imho).

Science fiction, through the work of the famous trio of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, broke away from the old cyclic mythology, with a new mythos of rationality, which was the beginning of the grand tradition of Hard SF. This is continued by modern SF writers, including the so-called "killer Bs" of David Brin, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford, along with other hard SF writers like Greg Egan (why are so many SF writers called Greg?), Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, and many others.

Brin has been very critical of the old mythic-cyclic stories; to quote his Wikipedia page:

"Brin also wrote a number of articles criticising several science-fiction and fantasy series, including Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. On Star Wars Brin focused on what he called George Lucas's "agenda", describing how he saw the basis of the Star Wars universe as profoundly anti-democratic. These essays inspired a debate-format book: Star Wars On Trial which clashed "defense vs prosecution" testimony covering a dozen political and philosophical and storytelling charges against the Star Wars Universe. Brin also criticised The Lord of the Rings for what he perceived to be their unquestioning devotion to a traditional elitist social structure, their positive depiction of the slaughter of the opposing forces, and their romantic backward-looking worldview."

This is a good example of "culture war" (or clash of ideas) - the premodern or Traditional (Tolkein, Lucas) vs the Modern (Brin). I am reminded of the cultural-evolutionary stages described by writers like Jean Gebser and, more recently, Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh.

So if there is premodern/cyclic and modern/rational/evolutionary, there would also be a future stage that could be called integral, or evolutionary-divinization (however it is so simplistically linear, because all these stages also evolve in parallel, they are archetypal structures of consciousness)

So far, two modern evolutionary-divinization sets of epics stand out.

The more recent and better known is Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey novel and movie; the movie (directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick) I felt was better than the novel, the novel reads in a bland and dry style. Some might add Clarke's Childhood's End, but I found the premises and conclusion of that story somewhat chilling, and in any case Teilhard de Chardin says it better, and Sri Aurobindo says it even better again!

The other (and more imaginative) are the the novels of Olaf Stapledon - Last and First Men and Star Maker (or Nebula Maker); which date from the 1930s. Along with Russian Cosmism, Stapeldon represents the beginning of Transhumanist ideal of future evolution beyond the current limited human condition.

Neither Stapledon nor Clarke have much day to day character deveolpment in their stories, so they are not epic mythoi at the level of Tolkein, Lucas, or the Walchowskiis. And it is that level of personal intimate writing taht interest me most. Without it, stories become cold, overly-cerebral, and unintersting, except as purely intellectual ideas. When we look at the classic mythic epics of Homer or Vyasa (the legendary author of the Mahabarata), we find a lot of gritty personalities, who are also larger than life, much like modern Hollywood movies, and for that amtter that Eisenhorn book I'm reading. And that is what really makes a mythic epic. The characters.

This then is the challenge, how to integarte the personal with the transpersonal, as is required in such a story. And that is where the real skill of epic writing lies.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

New blog

New blog! Whoopee! :-)

First, a few words of explanation.

This is my third blog, and will probably be the most active one. As I'm mostly working on my nonfiction philosophical book The Integral Paradigm, it feels counterproductive at the moment to post anything on my second blog, called Integral Transformation. It's also hard to post much on my original blog (at Gaia com, formerly called Zaadz), mostly becxause the community I was in touch with there seems to have moved on, and I don't have the impetus to get involved in other projects and discussions there. I'd rather put the energy into the book.

At the same time, I'd like to explore creative writing ideas. This is an area I've been interested in on and off for years, but, as with my esoteric projects, no published books ever came of it. As my non-fiction book finally comes closer to completion (following many rewrites) I figured it would be good to also start thinking about fiction writing as well.

The two in a sense complement each other. In terms of archetypes, non-fiction is logos (rational and intuitive mind), and fiction mythos (imaginative or daydreaming). Both are different ways of telling a story.

Hence the title of this blog - mythoworlds. It is about worlds of the imagination, which will complement the worlds of intuition that esoteric philosophy refers to.

In this blog I'll put down various thoughts, ideas, and comments on fiction that I am reading (or have just watched on video or at the movies), as well as ideas about my own creative writing.

By way of background history and explanation, I'll explain here some of my interests in and previous attempts at writing fiction (For more, see gaia com and my Kheper website biography). To begin with, I loved reading sci fi (sorry, SF) as a kid and teenager, and made a few attempts at drawing sci fi comics (none of which were ever finished) and writing stories. In later years I tried again to write SF, especially cyberpunk (my page - wikipedia page). My Cyberpunk book Haap New Year was never finished either, so i made the first chapter into a self-contained story. At the time I was heavily into William Gibson and Irvine Welsh; the latter especially had a particularily colourful style of writing, which I incorporated. People with delicate sensitivities therefore are advised not to read!

My next big project was Orion's Arm (OA for short), a hard science collaborative worldbuilding project, which I co-founded and was involved in from 2000 until 2004; for how this happened, see my recollections at the OA zine Voices/Future Tense. There was going to be a novel, or maybe several, at one time, but I couldn't get focused enough to write them. Currently there is a compilation based on the winners of a 2008 contest of short stories/novellas set in the OAverse (the OA Universe) which will be appearing in print soon. I haven't been involved with this, but it has inspired me tpo reconsider my original idsea of an OA Space Opera story.

Since OA I haven't written any SF, and indeed since 2005 or so haven't been involved in any worldbuilding at all (except for a short spell in 2007 at the OA Metaverse project). I've been focusing instead on my non-fiction book, which has been inspired by my involvement with and contributions to the nascent Integral Movement (my page, Wikipedia page, which I co-author) in 2006 and 2007. I've said just about everything I wanted to say on that topic (see Integral Transformations blog and my essays at Integral World), except for my book, which will represent a new level of insight again.

Then, for the last few months, I've been thinking of going back to writing SF. Not necessarily the Hard Science Fiction of my OA days. While I do like good hard SF, i find it can be a bit dry and limiting; too much rationality and not enough imagination. That is why I'm now interested in a more multi-genre mythological science fiction fantasy cross-over. In a sense, this mythology hard SF cross-over theme was the basic inspiration of OA as well, but it was hard to maintain the balance, as worldbuilding and the need for scientific rigor meant there was more emphasis on the technical side of things. This was really my idea anyway, I was trying to create a counterbalance to the "bumpy-headed humanoids" of Star Trek type popular sci fi; and I think I suceeded too!

A rather more serious problem is that I couldn't really put my own esoteric ideas and insights into the setting, because I had to work with others, and whereas we all shared a love of hard SF, we didn't agree on metaphysics. So I'm looking forward now to a more eccentric and ideosyncratic approach; acknowledging the contrabutrions of hard science, but not being limited by it.

There have been several events that triggered my current interest in multi-genre science fiction.

The first was a review on the community TV station Channel 31 (Melbourne)'s computer games review program Level 3 (I notice Wikipedia is good with links like this :-) It featured a trailer of a game called Section 8. Now, I'm not very intersted in these sort of first person shooter video games (I find them really boring in fact, although i did enjoy playing the early versions of Castle Wolfenstein and Doom back in the early 1990s. But what really impressed both my friend and I when we watched it was the trailer with the voice over. it was obviously influenced by Joe Haldeman's Forever War, was very fast moving and well done. So that got me thinking about writing a hard SF first person military science fiction story. But then I realised, well, I would just be writing crap (of the sort that authors of airport novels withou actual experuience churn out), regurgitating stuff that the masters like Haldeman and Heinlein (Starship Troopers) had already done much better.

The next big inspiration came with a dvd anime called Vampire Hunter D (written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri). This was a sort of post-apocalyptic vampire horror sci fi western cross over; It was absolutely brilliant. (If Wikipedia is any guide, it seems that the character development in the anime is much better than in the original novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi). The way it packed in so many different genres, in a way that seamilessly integrated them, was awesome. It inspired me with the idea of post-apocalyptic cross-over novel with all the genre cliches (why not?), and more besides. I actually started on the story, and got a few pages down. I experimented with both first person and third person narrative of the same stiory scene, which was a useful exercise. But I felt unsatisfied with the main character; he wasn't strong enough to hold the power of the setting. There was also the problem of the plot; there wasn't any (plots have always been a weak point with me). So after a while I put this one aside too. It was more promising than the military SF, but still didn't feel complete. So I returned to my non-fiction project.

A third big inspiration came through reading a book by comic and science fiction writer Dan Abnett, called Eisenhorn, set in the Warhammer 40,000 gothic science fiction horror fantasy universe. The story is a first person narrative of an Inquisitor in this unhappy future universe. I only bought the book by chance because I happened to be at Northland Shopping Centre on Monday and I wandered into a Games Workshop store because I noticed the Warhammer miniatures and table-top settings. Along with a whole lot of these very cool wargaming miniatures and various games, they sold a few books. I picked up a fat volume at random, perhaps attracted by the very evocative cover art, and started reading, and I was hooked. Although I find the setting much too bleak for my liking, the book is very well written and fast-moving and grabbed me from the first page; later I would find bits that were very unrealistic (i.e. more Indiana Jones derring-do then the actions of an Imperial Inquisitor), but even so it helped me form the idea of a strong first person character; someone who comes across as a good person but has to enforce an oppressive regime. The book consists of three novels in one, so i need to finish all of it before I can give my complete assesment. But really just the first few chapters sets the pace and character very well (the rest is just drawn out space opera so far, but it may change). Although the way the alien geometry is described as unsettling is well done; I am sure Abnett must have read Lovecraft. And some of the horror and supernatural elements are very well written.

Mythos - Logos. Totally different style; totally different ambience.

So what I am interested in writing is an epic, cross-genre story, perhaps something of the scope of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings (although no-one could match Tolkein for worldbuiilding, but in the sense of an adventure type story), incorporating esoteric and mythological themes, a vast setting, lots of monsters and action and adventure, but without the stupid Indiana Jones type swashbuckling crap which is so unrealistic.

At the moment I'm considering three stories; one a magical-esoteric-science fiction-fantasy post apocalyptic type story, perhaps told in first person, the other a parallel universe type story with gnostic elements, the third a far future spaceships and AI type space opera story, with a cast of characters (maybe space pirates or some such useful cliche as a frame of easy reference) and maybe set in the OA universe, maybe not; it depends how the writing unfolds. Each would need to have an epic, tolkeinesque plot structure; that's the hardest thing to work out (I find writing characters, narrative, dialog, and action quite easy)

So this is where I am now, regarding my creative writing inspiration. I'll have more to say in later posts; including further reviews; indeed I could've gone on and on, but I thought it better to leave it here.

If anyone reads this and shares interest in the same style of epic writing, please feel free to contact me, or post a comment here; I'd love to hear form you :-)