It's pretty much old hat for a writer of genre fiction to acknowledge a debt to J.R.R. Tolkien. Few works of science fiction or fantasy have or will continue to endure as well as The Lord of the Rings. But the very reason why Tolkien's work endures, I am convinced, is the fact that he wasn't, in point of fact, writing genre fiction. He was writing mythology.

These days, mythology has a bit of a bad name. A "myth", in common use, is a bad thing. A mistaken belief. A distraction from truth, which in our age of uncritical scientism is mistakenly defined as the primary object of scientific inquiry (it isn't, but that's for another blogpost).

But there is another way to look at mythology. For most of human history, the only way we could reliably transmit information about the past to future generations was to tell stories about how the past (supposedly) was. And by telling stories, I mean actual oral transmission: someone puts together a story, and tells it to listeners. Before the invention of writing, this is all you've got to work with if you have any interest in remembering the past.

And remembering the past is one of humanity's most basic activities. It is only through obtaining information about what was that allows us to examine what is and try to estimate what will be. Which is a rather important survival skill, if you think about it. A form of basic, innate, heuristic science, that helps humans make (one hopes) reasonably better decisions about where to expend energy in order to improve odds of survival. 

There is a powerful view, most potently expressed in the field of comparative mythology, that humans telling stories about their ancestors is essentially the earliest form of history. Witzel's fascinating book, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, actually argues that all humans appear to share a set of story components, mythemes, that repeat across cultural and lingustic groups throughout history. This isn't to say that we all share the same mythology, but that there are commonalities between different cultures' myths that imply some common origin deep in our collective past, going all the way back to our origins as a species in East Africa. And like language, there are markers that can be used to trace how we got from a hypothetical original world-myth to the diversity of manifestations of myth that persist throughout the world today.

In this view, any culture's oral histories start with a set of basic stories, that individual groups tell and re-tell, adding and shifting and altering to suit present circumstances. It is only with the advent of writing that the pressure to develop and maintain a fixed canon begins, and the idea that stories are fixed and unchangeable becomes viable. But before that, what you have is each generation of story-tellers inheriting a set of stories, then adapting them to maintain their relevance.

In most cultures, this naturally takes the form of people telling stories about the supposed exploits of their great-great grandparents. The Icelandic Sagas offer a case in point. Iceland, like Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Madagascar, was only relatively recently settled by humans, circa 1000 AD. In Europe, this was a unique time in history: writing was spreading through the continent as Christians sought to convert the pagans and establish rule over them. For the first time, the old Norse had the opportunity to write down their oral histories, and one particular Icelander, Snorri Sturleson, decided to write down the oral histories (thus providing us with most of what we know about Norse mythology). Both the Norse Mythology (I really like this website, Norse Mythology for Smart Peopleand many of the more narrowly-focused Sagas that tell the stories of... yep, the ancestors (and original colonizers) of people living in Iceland when Snorri was writing his books.

The Icelandic Sagas, though you obviously have to parse much of what is said, given that Snorri was a Christian and wrote from a Christian perspective, basically present the original founders of Icelandic society as semi-legendary people, generally tougher and more noble than anyone living in the present. And they, in their turn, were said to be descended from people who were semi-divine, that is, children of a union (lost in the deeps of time) between a human and a god or other deity. If that sounds familiar, it should: many mythological systems do the same thing. Hell, in Japan, where they still have an Emperor, the royal family is explicitly said to trace its heritage back to deities of myth. In Japan, you had better respect the Emperor, because the guy is literally a descendent of a god.

Sturleson, Christianized as he was, actually laid out a scholarly theory on why the Norse myths and legends he was writing down seemed similar, in may respects, to the Greek and Roman myths and legends that accompanied Christianity as it spread north to Scandinavia. He argued that the oral histories of the Norse were actually themselves derived from the Greeks, with the mythological figures Odin, Freyja, Thor, Idunn, and all the rest being refugees from the downfall of Troy, and thus identical with many figures familiar from Homer's Iliad. He was wrong, of course, but there's no way he could have known: only the efforts of generations of mythologists, looking at linguistic and archaelogical evidence accumulated over centuries, have shown that, in fact, the Greek and Norse mythologies themselves are merely individual branches of a far older and deeper mythological tradition associated with the migration of the Indo-European peoples, who also ended up making it into Northern India thousands of years ago, linking the Vedic mythology and Hindu pantheon to the Norse and Greek traditions (in the way way back).

But to get back on point: mythology is best seen as a sort of first draft of history. It tells half-remembered stories from the past, with the express purpose of having relevance to people living in the present time.

That relevance hinges on something else, very fundamental, that mythology does (has probably always done): it assigns certain traits and behaviors to certain characters within the myth or legend, creating archetypes that move through the story saying and doing things that are supposed to serve as guides for proper behavior in all times, past, present, and future. Mythology isn't about simple transmission of stale facts through time, it is inherently about laying out moral and ethical codes for the community that is associated with the mythology.

And there is where the miscategorization of Tolkien's work as mere genre fiction does a serious disservice to the author's achievements and intent. Tolkien was explicitly writing a mythology for his tribe, the English people. He did that because he perceived in English culture a lack of rootedness, an inability to know who they were and what they stood for as a people.

The Lord of the Rings in particular, because it is a narrative (unlike the Silmarillion, which is straight-up myth in the Homeric mode), expressly describes a group of people with near-legendary abilities who are faced with fundamental moral choices. Throughout the story, we see characters making pronouncements about what is right in terms of behavior and belief. In many ways, the story itself is a carrier for a deeper philosophical discussion about how to be in a diverse world fundamentally endangered by the fact that humans are always at risk of pursuing power, which in the end destroys them body, mind, and soul.

There's actually a far deeper philosophy at work in Tolkien's legendarium. He hints at it in his letters, where at one point he tells his son Christopher Tolkien that he, in fact, sees himself as a sort of anarchist: he believes in monarchy, but elected monarchy, which is reflected in Aragorn's election by popular acclaim to become King of Gondor at the end of the Lord of the Rings. This isn't the sort of anarchy most of us living today have been trained to see as the only form of anarchy in existence (bewhiskered bomb-throwers, as Tolkien described those of this mode), but the more traditional form of anarchy, that simply rejects the presumption that anyone deserves power, or that being granted rule by a people also implies that the ruler then obtains permanent authority over them, and has the right to demand obedience. Tolkien believed very strongly in right and wrong (he was a firm Catholic, after all), but not that those in power had any special authority to determine such matters. Kingship is fundamentally limited in Middle Earth, and he goes through great pains to show exactly how those with power usually end up abusing it, and those they are supposed to serve.

I could go on (and on, and on, as Tolkien and I are akin from afar in many ways, not least in that we're both members of the Anglo-Saxon tribe, and believe it to be just one tribe among many with no inherent claim to being special), but for now suffice to say that as someone who is also writing mythology (merged with science fiction, for fun) I am also writing a story about semi-legendary beings who have to make hard moral choices about their actions. And I am also writing a story that deeply engages with philosophy, and embeds anarchist thinking throughout the narrative.

Most people don't realize the true depth of Tolkien's work at first glance. It has only been re-reading most of his work every couple years that has given me insight into the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish. Because, thankfully, he appreciated subtlety. Making art that doesn't have to scream I'm art! Pay attention to ME! I can only hope to be half as subtle when it comes to my own attempt to discuss morality and philosophy in the context of a grand adventure. Because in the end, a story has to be fun. And should be.

Published in Blog
Monday, 30 November -0001 00:00

Bringing Ragnarok: An Introduction

So I've written this book. I call it Bringing Ragnarok. And I think (others are now confirming this belief) that it is a pretty darn good bit of science fiction.

So I've decided to publish it. Still working out the details, but I am quite strongly considering publishing it on Kindle through Amazon. Which means I should probably start doing some writing about Bringing Ragnarok, to convince people to actually read the thing.

I am actually a deeply introverted, even shy person. I was also raised in a culture where "bragging" was a basic sin. So my inclination is rarely to talk/write about things I do or my accomplishments. But I believe so much in the quality of the work that I think the time has come to go beyond my comfort zone. To actually lay out why I think this book is important, and worth your attention.

Bringing Ragnarok is an apocalyptic, dystopic bit of science fiction, because these are dystopic, apocalyptic times.

At the core, it is a Saga, directly inspired by the old Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology (itself being one realization, or flavor, of a deeper pan-Eurasian mythological tradition). It is a story of Six Friends, who are taken from the world they know and thrust into a nightmare. They go hiking in northern Iceland, and unwittingly cross a dimensional barrier where they meet the trickster 'god' Loke (I prefer the Swedish spelling, sue me!). In the Norse myths, he is busy spending eternity chained to a rock and tortured by snake venom as punishment for crimes committed against the other Norse 'gods'. In Bringing Ragnarok, he's gotten bored. And decides the time has come to burn down the Universe. Well, all of them, in point of fact.

The six friends get scattered across time and space, and are used by Loke to trigger a paradox in the multiverse, that will ultimately culminate in the destruction of reality. Eventually, their story will bring them into a position where they get to try and alter the outcome - but not in the first book. Book 1 is the story of their sudden removal to the midst of three rather horrible human conflicts, where they are forced to do what they can just to survive, and their discovery of a way to meet up in a dimensional space where they can get advice from other members of the Norse pantheon.

So the story is actually three different stories woven together, with the ability of the six to meet together and coordinate actions basically constituting the meta-story.

One thread of the tale is set in Germany at the end of the Second World War, where the main character (Eryn) finds herself in the midst of the July 20th plot against Adolf Hitler and the rest of his Nazi cronies. It is heavily inspired by alternative history, and asks a fundamental question: if the German Resistance had taken over Germany in 1944, would the outcome of the war have been any different? It is just extra fun (and lets me explore feminist themes) to have the main character (who, spoiler alert, chooses to kill Hitler) be a 20-something geology grad student from Canada. And, readers get to go on tour in war-torn Europe, just like our grandfathers were once forced to in order to defeat the evils of Nazism.

Another thread is set in Western North America in 2041, where three characters (Kim, Timur, Patrick) appear in the middle of a battle being waged in Eastern Idaho, and are subsequently press-ganged (recruited) by a paramilitary organization called the Missoula Regiment, which is tasked with preventing any of the post-USA successor states from controlling the 150 nuclear missiles hidden away (they actually exist there at this very moment) under the rugged mountains of Montana. This story is heavily inspired by near-future dystopic fiction with a dose of military fiction, and explores the consequences of the United States' collapse for those living 20+ years into our future.

The third thread is set in space in 2147 (in spaaaaaaaaaaaace!), where siblings Yarielis and Loucas appear on a space ship moving about through the colonized Solar System. She, being autistic, gets 'integrated' into another space ship's computer systems where she partners with a machine intelligence to help pilot it. Loucas, being just some guy, gets sent to deliver a package to a space station... that turns out to be a bomb. Because in 2147, wealthy humans have banded together to "save" Earth's deteriorating climate by warehousing the poorer 2/3 of the human population in giant space stations. And, like most people forced to leave their homes at the point of a gun, they're none-too-happy with their predicament, and are starting to fight back. With sentient robots backing them up.

Sound complicated? I promise, it flows better as narrative than in a description! The style I've chosen for the story is chained to each character's individual perspective: each chapter advances the story by showing what a given character is seeing and thinking and hearing. I work to minimize editorializing or writing as an omniscient narrator, and let the characters - primary and supporting - describe their world in their own words. Which, as I'm going back through on the final round of edits before publication, I'm finding actually works.

I'm glad of this, because under the hood Bringing Ragnarok is doing quite a lot. I have only now started to realize that this is the story I've wanted to write since I was a teenager. Elements of the plot first popped into my brain almost 20 years ago, in those long hours I spent sitting in front of a hydraulic logsplitter, turning big rounds of oak into smaller pieces, loading them onto a truck for delivery to clients. When you spend 4 hours a day moving wood around, you need something to think about. And being a bit strange (autistic), I spent a lot of time thinking about other worlds, and the characters who populated them.

But as much as I've always wanted to be a writer, I never really put all the disparate threads of what I like to write together until recently. Bringing Ragnarok's actual plot, characters, and setting have been in development for some time, but it was my experiences as a doctoral student that really brought life to it.

One summer, I was given the chance to teach a course on sustainability to undergrads. I ended up learning as much from them as from my own studies. I'm now absolutely certain that contemporary narratives about the digital generations, late X-ers, Millenials, and whatever they name the cohort after, are mostly bunk. So many older writers and professors want to cast today's youth as distracted, lazy, uncreative. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today's 20-somethings, just a decade younger than me, are already more sophisticated and used to thinking creatively than I am now, let alone how I was when I was a 20-something. They have grown up in a qualitatively different world than their parents. They actually understand it better than their parents do. And, as their parents have managed to lead the world over a cliff, they are going to be the ones who will have to repair the damage, and right the many wrongs.

Bringing Ragnarok is at heart a story for people who want to understand what is happening in our world and how to handle it. Which is why war is a major theme throughout the work. I use war as a lens for understanding humanity at large. But I work very hard not to simply reiterate stale tropes about war: This is a work rooted in critical and postcolonial theory. Where I try to give voice to the voiceless, and represent the justified rage so many people feel when they look at how unequal and hidebound our political, economic, and social systems have become. Understanding war, as one of the oldest and most consequential of human activities, is essential to our collectively understanding ourselves, what we're capable of, and how to build a better world.

But the story is, first and foremost, a story. All the philosophy, science, and ideas that make their way into the narrative are intended to add depth to what is essentially a tale about what a small group of dedicated friends can achieve when their backs are to the wall and they have only one another to rely on.

If this sounds at all interesting, stay tuned. More details to come.

Published in Blog
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