I never intended to have a rabbit. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the idea; I simply never thought of it myself. No, it was my friend Heather who said, way back in 1989, “Um, my roommate’s sick and she has to go back to the States for a while; can you look after her rabbit?”–and the rest was furry, twitchy-nosed history.
The roommate’s rabbit was known as “Bun,” though his real name was Stonewall Jackson. He had a small cage, which I let him out of infrequently. When he was out, he would scrabble at my covers and nip at the small of my back to get me to move. I gave him bits of chocolate covered Oreos as treats. I did no rabbit-related research (and obviously, given the Oreos, I was bereft of common sense, too). He used to bang aluminum tart tins vigorously against the bars of his cage. The rattling of raisins in a little Sun Maid box made him insane.
He died a mere half-year after I’d inherited him. I was shocked at how devastated I was. Bunny love; bunny loss. Who knew?
Many bunnies followed him. Esther Bun, whose favourite place to flop, full-length, paws stretched out behind, was an open road atlas. Rosie, tiny yet replete with attitude. Gentle Harriet Hare of the plush fur. Giant red Russell, who lived in a downstairs recording studio and never chewed a single cord. Guinness the ridiculous lop—as cranky as he was adorable—who spent his days and nights under our kitchen table, snarfing fallen bits of dinner. Ole Frankie Blue Eyes, the pigeon-toed Dutch, who was always earnest, curious, and adoring. Adoring, in fact, of Rosie. Yes: Frank and Rosie were my first experience of the bunny bond.
Let me tell you, this is some bond.
These lagomorphs have tiny brains. They’re herbivores; they’re prey; surely (one thinks, early on in rabbit-related experience) they’re far too un-evolved to feel emotion, to be attached.
Frank and Rosie shared a food bowl. We’d fill the bowl with pellets every evening, top the pellets with greens, throw a slice of banana on either side. Frank and Rosie fell on the banana slices first. It’s hard to describe how passionately rabbits feel about banana. There is frenzy; there is fierce pursuit and blissful chewing. One night, Rosie didn’t eat her banana. In fact, she ate nothing. She backed herself into a corner and sat there until the next day, when we took her to the vet. She never came home. (Old age; lungs filling with water, failing, along with other organs.) And Frank never ate her banana slice, or her portion of the greens. It was as if someone had put up a wee, impregnable bunny Berlin Wall in the bowl. He didn’t eat her food, and he backed up into the very space she had occupied, and he hunkered down there. For three days. He didn’t eat or drink or move, and he showed no interest in the bowl when I put it right under his nose. He grieved for her. And though he did hop out and start eating again, on day four, he was never the same. I’m almost completely sure I’m not anthropomorphizing. He was never the same without her.
Right now, in our dining room, we have Bunbun and Bubsie—otherwise known as The Probe (because she’s never acted like a “normal” rabbit and is thus almost certainly an alien bit of tech, sent to gather data) and The Dark Bun (whose shadow stretches, Batman-like, on our carpet, thrown there by hall light). They too are profoundly devoted to each other. Probe is the older woman, Dark Bun the young thing who hopped into her life, it now seems, near its end. They’ve been eating together, grooming each other, humping and snuggling, for just over a year and a half. And now she’s dying.
Head-tilt. It’s a bunny thing. No one’s sure if it’s caused by a parasite or a bacterium. There are meds for this, sort of. At first they made her a little better, but now, over a month later, they’re not. She can barely keep herself upright. Her head is on a terrible angle, one eye permanently closed (and when you force it open it leaps around and around and back and forth, unable to focus).
The Dark Bun licks her closed eye, and her open one. He washes her head, and the fur near her adorable bunny butt, which she can’t reach any more. When you put her on your lap to syringe her meds into her, he puts his paws on your back, your lap, your side; he scrambles up where she is and nudges her, gently, and you, forcefully, as if to say, Be careful with her.
She’s getting worse, not better. Soon she won’t be able to sit up at all, and we’ll help her eat and clean her up—but that won’t go on for long; it can’t. She’ll die soon, this bun my sister and I flushed out from under a car by our parents’ house, nearly six years ago. We humans will grieve. Dark Bun will grieve too, and more than we will. I’m absolutely sure of this, and it makes me even sadder. I don’t understand this grief. How does his brain work? How does he love? What, precisely, will he miss? How does his memory work?
The very worst thing is the dramatic irony—looking down on them every day and knowing, though he doesn’t, that soon he’ll be alone. Or maybe he does know? Maybe that’s why he’s so very very solicitous of her right now?
Though it’s probably a futile one: my hope is that she’ll go quietly while he washes her face and eyes and understands, somehow.
Enough, because I’m getting maudlin. Point is: bunny love. It’s a thing. It’s an amazing, humbling thing.
I alluded to this in a previous post.
I alluded to it in Sweden too, when many of the wonderful people we met there asked where we’d already been, and what we’d been doing. “I gave a lecture-type thing!” I’d say. “To a bunch of graduate biology students, plus members of the general public! [This thanks to Karin Pittman, charismatic biology professor and impassioned supporter of art and food and all kinds of uncharted waters. Also the companion human of a majestic Norwegian Forest Cat, plus a tabby who uses the bidet.] I had SO MUCH FUN!”
When we got home, I got a message from one of these wonderful people, who asked when that talk I’d given in Bergen would be up on my blog.
Nahal, and your martini-swigging cronies: that would be
Peter began by expressing his sense of insecurity about this context. I’ll do the same—because I have far more reason to feel out of my depth, here. Science and I had a very brief relationship, back in the 1980s and early 90s. I dropped biology in my second year of high school, before I got to do a single dissection, and after I graduated I moved on to a liberal arts undergraduate degree. As part of this degree I had to take a couple of credits in science—so in amongst all my Spanish literature and art history and Greek tragedy and philosophy courses, I ended up doing a whole lot of physical anthropology ones, plus a geography. Yes, I know: a geography! I was kind of proud of the way I was then able to throw around words like Kingdom Phylum Order Class, and to cite other science-y terms and concepts—but I always felt like a tourist who understands just enough of a foreign language to order beer and then ask where the bathroom is.
So science and I had a very brief academic relationship—and we also had a half-hearted but well-meaning literary one. I read some science fiction, and quite liked it—but what I read far, far more of was fantasy.
When Peter and I were Skyping with Karin about today, and I outlined what I thought I might say to all of you, her reaction went something like: “Fantasy drives me crazy! It’s always some medieval setting, and the women are all, ‘Oooh, save me’…I don’t get it, and I don’t have time for it.” She’s far from alone in this estimation of fantasy. I meet a lot of science fiction writers who think fantasy’s clichéd. In fact, my esteemed husband decided he’d mock me, when we first met, by calling me Unicorn Girl, since this just about summed up his own preconceptions about fantasy: medievalish magical beasts and schools for wizards and probably teenage girls falling passionately in love with sparkly vampires and crying a lot. Basically: a pretty superficial genre, and a static one too—stuck in a dead, long-ago past, not a vital future. (By the way, this attempt at mockery went a little bit astray, as I loved being the Unicorn Girl, and this is what he still calls me. Also, this image I sent him, back when he first mocked me, has become my phone wallpaper.)
A lot of fantasy is mindless and tired—but this is true of any genre, as science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon pointed out when he was defending his own genre against accusations of shallowness.
So today I hope to do a few things: urge those of you who share this misconception to unlearn what you’ve learned, by way of a discussion of the at times quite political roots of modern fantasy, and its continued influence in popular culture. In fact, if I may speak that vaguely foreign language of biology again, what I’m going to talk about is evolution: both of a literary genre and of myself, writing within it.
I tried to be empirical and objective, when I was coming up with a format for this talk, but it didn’t work: once a liberal arts student, always a liberal arts student. So I’m going to thank you in advance for your indulgence, and begin with:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Who was me.
I grew up in a family of book-lovers: my mother was a librarian, my sister ended up getting a PhD in English literature, and my father was a classics and English professor—so I kind of had no choice: stories were a staple of my life, from the beginning. Greek myths are the first ones I remember hearing.
This was myth at its purest and most elemental: told in the dark by someone with a deep, mesmerizing storytelling voice. There was such drama in these stories: fear, violence (though I realize now that my dad spared me the ickiest parts), love, betrayal, triumph and defeat. They dealt with things that the 4-year-old me was thinking about: why are there seasons? What makes thunder? Even then, I knew that the myth’s answers (Persephone’s kidnapping and Zeus’ thunderbolts, respectively) weren’t real answers—but they were so clever and so compelling that I enjoyed believing them, for as long as the stories lasted. Another wonderful thing about them was that they had a shape; they had conflict and resolution, even if the resolution wasn’t always happy, and this too was really satisfying and safe. Best of all, though, were the gods and goddesses and demi-god heroes. They were big, amazing characters who made me forget I was so small.
My father told me another, very different kind of story back then, too: the Jimmy and Louise tale. Unlike the myths, this kind was participatory. He always began like this: “Once upon a time, there were two rabbits named Jimmy and Louise. One day they decided to go for a walk. The sun was shining, the sky was blue…but then they came to a part of the woods where they’d never been before”
—and from that point on, nothing was known. I had to make it up. All I was certain of was that the stories always featured this same pair of risk-taking rabbits, and that there’d be serious danger in the woods, and/or wondrous magical stuff, and that it would all end happily ever after. So there I was, at ages four and five, making it up as I went along—taking characters and building stories around them; creating fantasy fiction before I even knew what that was.
Fairy tales featured too, not long after this—so when I started writing down my own stories, at about age seven, they almost always began “Once, a long time ago, there was a little girl who…”. The little girl was me, only cooler, in a world nothing like mine—because why put yourself in the very same world, when there were so many others you could create?
Then, on a vacation my family took when I was 14, I read Tolkien’s LoTR for the first time.
Here was the mythic structure I remembered from those bedtime stories my dad had told me, but there was also the most overwhelming sense of newness and discovery, because both the places and the people in these books were so clear to me.
So the arc of my first fiction loves was:
Greek myths, to
Fairy tales, to
This is a satisfying and relevant trajectory, because it also traces the early evolution of what we now know as modern fantasy. After all, Tolkien’s intention was to create a mythology. He wrote, in a letter to a reader,
“[England] had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands.”
So he drew on the Celtic, the Roman, the Norse to craft the languages, lands and races that became his own Middle Earth mythology—but why? Why did he feel the need for a mythology in the first place? Why did he turn back instead of forward?
To figure this out we’ll have to go one fantasist further back—to William Morris, who was an enormous influence on Tolkien.
You might recognize Morris’ name because you know something about the Arts & Crafts movement—but very few people are aware that he wrote two novels that are considered the first works of modern fantasy. They’re quest stories, and they’re wonderful: poetic, full of vivid imagery and adventure and, yes, magic. (Incidentally, his Well at the World’s End, written in 1896, features a female character who’s the furthest thing from a damsel in distress.)
Tolkien was profoundly inspired by myth and Morris—and by the Romantic tradition. Here’s where I get to talk a little about the intersection of fantasy and science. The fantasy writers of this period espoused Romanticism—as did many of the scientists of the day. This was the “Age of Reflection,” which was a reaction against the Enlightenment and its “Cult of Reason.” In the 19th century, you had Lamarck and his “new science of biology”, Alexander von Humboldt, geographer and naturalist, Herschel, the astronomer…–all of them asserting, in their various ways, that a reliance on mechanism and what they saw as overly rational approaches to the world would lead humankind to turn away from nature—at its peril.
Modern fantasy was born then, a product of and reaction to the scientific tenets of its time. Romantic fantasists like Morris and Tolkien weren’t protesting the existence of technology, but the mass, dehumanizing, destructive effects of it—the workhouses full of fatally ill children, the factories that ruined the air and the countryside
—and, in Tolkien’s case, the weapons that he saw kill with an entirely new level of efficiency in the trenches of World War I.
Both of these authors could have written political treatises or newspaper columns. Instead, they chose fantasy fiction as their means of communication—because, as Peter mentioned, we’re all hardwired for story.
So what Morris and Tolkien did was draw their readers back, or sideways, into places where mortal beings, not gods, had agency, and something approaching actual personalities. Whether predestined or random, their actions had meaning in a world full of danger and uncertainty. When asked to differentiate between science and magic, modern-day science fiction author Ted Chiang responded:
Magic is, in a sense, evidence that the universe knows you’re a person. When people say that the scientific worldview implies a cold, impersonal universe, this is what they’re talking about. Magic is when the universe responds to you in a personal way.
Morris and Tolkien transformed ancient mythologies and medieval romances into something far more modern: a literature of meaningful escape in which human beings had power. No matter how important their plots were, it was the characters that drove these early modern fantasies—and this was a step in the genre’s evolution.
Almost immediately after I’d finished reading LotR, back on that car trip when I was 14, I started writing my very first novel, about a (surprise!) 14-year-old girl who finds the entrance to another world—a world being torn apart by Evil in the form of a malevolent character named The Silent Watcher. Here you see my original notes, describing the places and characters featured in the work.
Of course, the girl defeats The Silent Watcher, with the help of the handsome, slightly depressive young man with mysterious sea-grey eyes, and she stays, happily ever after, in this magical dragon-filled place. I should note that, even at age 14, I knew that such endings were stereotypical: what precedes this part of the sentence is:
And though I am aware that this has been said before, by many people, I will say it very quietly, in passing—all lived happily ever after.
So. Fairy tale fantasy with a Tolkien twist or two—but I was so proud of it—and I learned a lot: like, starting a story is super easy but writing the middle stuff is really painful, and not knowing exactly how it’s going to end is exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Though my stories’ themes and forms have changed a whole lot, my process kind of hasn’t.
Back to Karin’s “It’s all set in the Middle Ages!” We can, in fact, blame Tolkien for this common misconception—because his mash-up of mythologies was so enthralling to so many people that he became the first writer of fantastical fiction who got famous. He spawned generations of imitators: writers who wanted their own light elves and dark elves, wizards with pointy hats, beautiful princesses and quests for pretty and powerful magical objects. These later writers used his mythology but by and large didn’t transform it. I read a few books like this
—and while they satisfied me in a superficial, knowing-what-I’d-get way, they didn’t thrill me with newness, the way Tolkien had when I’d first read him. No: epic fantasy, as it’s now commonly called, no longer challenged or invigorated me.
Luckily, Ursula LeGuin was waiting.
I first read her Wizard of Earthsea trilogy when I was fairly young. When I was a teenager I really discovered her—and all of a sudden I realized what truly modern genre fiction looked like. For the first time, too, I became aware of gender and genre. The goddesses of the myths my dad told me were powerful—but they were goddesses, not real women. Tolkien’s female characters with major speaking parts numbered precisely three—and they were idealized, cast in roles typical of the Romantic period—even Eowyn, who was my favourite.
LeGuin’s stories, whether written in the 60s or the 90s, were deliciously challenging—her characters grappled with hard, hard issues of identity and politics—and the language she used was beautiful and lyrical without being old-fashioned. Also, she was (and is) one of those rare authors who writes both science fiction and fantasy—and I consumed it all. This was genre fiction that was alive, right now, not generations ago; fantasy that imitated no one else’s—and I could feel it changing the way I read and the way I thought about writing. In an interview in 1982, when she was asked about how she’d come up with the idea for her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin responded:
[The Left Hand of Darkness began with] an image of two people (I didn’t know what sex they were) pulling a sled over a wasteland of ice. I saw them at a great distance. That image came to me while I was fiddling around at my desk the way all writers do… [My books have] all begun differently. That image from The Left Hand of Darkness is a good one to talk about, though, because it’s so clear. Angus Wilson says in Wild Garden that most of his books begin with a visual image; one of them began when he saw these two people arguing and he had to find out what they were arguing about, who they were. That fits in beautifully with the kind of visual image that started The Left Hand of Darkness. But the others have come to me totally otherwise: I get a character, I get a place, sometimes I get a relationship and have to figure out who it is that’s being related.
So she didn’t start The Left Hand of Darkness because she was determined to examine a world in which there was no gender. That came later, once she got to know the characters she’d seen in that image of the ice. Her take on characterization was compelling to me the moment I read it, in one of her books of essays. She wrote:
In many fantasy tales of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the tension between good and evil, light and dark, is drawn absolutely clearly, as a battle, the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, cops and robbers, Christians and heathens, heroes and villains. In such fantasies I believe the author has tried to force reason to lead where reason cannot go, and has abandoned the faithful and frightening guide, the shadow. These are false fantasies, rationalized fantasies. They are not the real thing.
Her characters and their stories changed the way I read and the way I wrote. Instead of a Big Supernatural Evil Dude, my third novel, which I wrote when I was 17, featured a conflicted young man who makes the wrong choice for understandable reasons. All of a sudden the Light versus Darkness of my earlier writing wasn’t enough. LeGuin inspired me to write about difficult, ambiguous situations, and difficult, ambivalent characters.
A few years later, when I was an undergrad, I had two separate, simultaneous revelations: magic realism and Mervyn Peake.
A lot of papers have been written about the differences between magic realism and mainstream contemporary fantasy, but I still consider it part of the genre. In fact, it may well be the most purely fantastical of all—because it’s about the matter-of-fact co-existence of everyday things with totally impossible ones. There’s no internal logic to it, as there is in mainstream fantasy, so it’s full of strangeness and mystery and allegory. Allegory—because, like Tolkien and Morris, the magic realists were reacting against the social and political realities of their time.
In 1967, in Colombia, where two hundred thousand politically motivated murders were being committed, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a book called One Hundred Years of Solitude. He wrote of a place where war and modernity co-existed with legends and magic. He used fantasy to comment on what he saw as the never-ending, vicious repetition of his country’s tragedies.
I also read Jorge Luis Borges, whose most famous works, published in the 40s and 50s, predated Marquez’s. His stories weren’t obvious political allegory—they were fables; surreal experiments in which he used symbolism and even mathematics to explore his favourite enormous themes: the nature of language, time, meaning and being.
I immersed myself in Garcia Marquez and Borges—and the fact that I read their stories in Spanish added one more layer of magic and otherness to the experience. Labyrinths, mirrors, time that folds up so that characters can imagine the past and remember the future—I was totally hooked.
And then, right around the same time, I discovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series
—three books in which the crazy, chaotic castle is as much a character as any of the eccentric human beings—and in which these characters are far, far bigger than the plot. Tolkien experienced firsthand the horrors of World War I, and Peake fought in World War II.
Rather than writing, as Tolkien did, about a world of pastoral wonders and epic quests, Peake wrote about claustrophobia, the strangle-hold of tradition, the hopelessness that was everywhere—in the world, and within Titus, the main character. Titus is not on a world-saving quest, like the hobbit Frodo; all Titus is looking for is an escape from the confines of his own life. Peake’s books are utterly modern in their unsentimental bleakness, but they’re also written in lush, poetic language that has been compared to the prose of Charles Dickens.
All of these stories—Borges and Marquez and Peake’s—had a huge influence on my first published book, which I wrote because I was sick and tired of the epic fantasy Tolkien imitators.
I gave my young female protagonist a quest that seems lofty but ends up being dark and bittersweet, not triumphant; I created a desert fortress where time has no meaning and the halls and doorways are always changing. And I created a legend, within this world, that I then tore apart and told the truth of, in the following book.
This was new ground, for me, as a writer—but the marks of fantasy’s evolution were all there.
There have been other major evolutionary stages in the genre, which I don’t have time to go into at any length—but I will mention modern retellings of fairy tales. These are books that give real flesh and motivation and backstory to characters who existed only as symbols before. Imagine the difficult, nuanced lives of the women who became the Wicked Witch or the “evil” stepsister. This is fantasy evolving, transforming, becoming more relevant by going back.
The medievalish epic has also evolved, believe it or not. George R. R. Martin’s still-being-written Song of Ice and Fire series features many of the same tropes as Tolkien’s writing did: dragons, horse lords, human tribes with their own vividly rendered gods and lands and languages. But Martin’s writing in the early 21st century, not the early 20th. There’s no chivalry in his fantasy: it’s darker, grittier, crueller than Tolkien’s. And while Tolkien did myth one better by giving his characters actual personalities, rather than shorthand traits, Martin goes further yet: he takes you inside the characters’ heads, one by one by one, rather than showing them to you from a slightly detached authorial distance.
Martin, in fact, provides a nice jumping-off point into this next and final bit, about fantasy in popular culture.
Game of Thrones, the TV show that’s being made of his epic series, has attracted zillions of viewers, many of whom haven’t read his books, and many more of whom aren’t genre fans, per se. Myths were huge in the ancient world, and they’re obviously still going strong. Asgard became Tolkien’s Valinor—and a couple of summers ago, Thor fell out of Asgard into the New Mexico desert, and millions of us watched, in movie theatres around the world.
The elves of Norse mythology become the elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth become Orlando Bloom.
Transformation, evolution—still at work.
It’s ironic that technology is driving the meteoric rise of fantasy in popular culture. Comic books once beloved of relatively small, exclusive groups of people can now be brought to stunning, 3-D life before the eyes of everyone.
The story that Tolkien wrote as a protest against the destructive rise of technology is now playing on screens large, small and everywhere. The machines of the Industrial Revolution made Morris and Tolkien yearn for magic and innocence and escape; the Internet and blockbuster CGI tap into our yearning for the very same things. Because we do still need these stories. There’s safety in a familiar kind of escape, with our world as unstable as it is. Economies crashing; wars raging; climate changing… And the more science makes possible, the more we long for the impossible.
But myths and fantasies weren’t popular in their times only because they touched on existential social issues—no, myths have always been fun—engaging delivery platforms for more subtle messages. Wine, women and song; secret identities; shapeshifting; unintentional cannibalism; blood feuds lasting millennia—these were the pop culture entertainments of their time, from which our Avengers and Game of Thrones descended.
In terms of my own relationship with the geeky side of popular culture… I’ve already mentioned my first published book, A Telling of Stars. Back in 2002, when it was about to come out, I found myself at my first “con”–or, science fiction/fantasy convention. I’d always been an unofficial member of “geek” culture—since 1977, anyway, when I saw a brand new movie called Star Wars.
Geekdom was a field dominated by boys, back then—but I had no problem with this. I also played the trombone
—I was the only girl doing this, right up until grade 11—so I spent a lot of time with geeky boys, revelling in our weird, almost coded language. Still: when I got to my first con, decades later, it was kind of overwhelming.
Stormtroopers walking around in groups. Star Trek jerseys everywhere. Dealer rooms overflowing with Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings action figures. I kept thinking, “Oh my god, if I had been able to see all this when I was 15”–but you know, I’m kind of glad I didn’t. I had conversations then, in the back row of the orchestra—geeky but personal interactions.
I do still enjoy conventions and big-budget movies—these contexts in which people have enormous shared experiences and are more crowd than individual. But these things don’t inspire me or feed my writing. In my own work, I still crave the small, the individual, the human: character, not concept, is what I need before I can write a single word.
In the case of my recent writing, I’ve gone back to the stories my father told me in the dark, before I knew how to read. My last book, The Pattern Scars, started with a character from Greek myth: Cassandra. Poor Cassandra, cursed by Apollo to always tell the truth and never be believed. What if, I thought, there were a woman who was cursed to never tell the truth and always be believed? What would that do to her relationships with others, and herself?
And the book I’m writing right now began with the Minotaur. What if, I thought, the Minotaur were a shapeshifting boy who doesn’t get killed by the Athenian hero, Theseus, in the labyrinth—what if a young woman saved him? A sort of Bronze Age Beauty and the Beast—featuring another shapeshifting boy, Icarus, who changes into a bird, and a princess, Ariadne, who’s not the lovestruck girl of myth, but a girl who’s manipulative, bitter and sad. I’m in the middle of this one—the stage at which I have no idea what’s going to happen.
These stories have ended up being about the high price my female protagonists pay as they fight to find power and control, despite often insurmountable odds. But this theme is the effect, not the cause. I never know what’s going to happen to these characters when I’m beginning their stories. I certainly don’t know how the stories end. I don’t write up experiments I know the results of, as Peter does. I dive in blind, without a hypothesis—which is kind of appropriate, speaking of themes. Uncertainty—not knowing—lies at the root of myth, fiction, science; existence. What’s next? There’s uncertainty, and there’s the wonder that comes from guessing. Whether you find this wonder in hard science fiction stories about a possible future or fantasy stories about a possible past, it underlies everything we do and think, feel and read and write. The wonder and urgency of not knowing drives fiction, and us, to evolve.
Here, to end, are some beginnings.
When I was in Spain, back in 1992, I wrote everything I was seeing down in a notebook and composed long, musing, lyrical posts at night, in an attempt to synthesize all the images (fireflies in the sky above the Alhambra, for example, or puddles drying on the cobbles of the Moorish quarter) and smells (the lemon-and-bleach freshness of laundry drying in the courtyard outside my guest house window) and sensations (the brutal chill of the shower I took in the sunlit bathroom—cold water only, as I couldn’t afford warm). I wonder now how many of my memories of Spain exist solely because I wrote them down.
As I sat on the train from Bergen to Oslo, I thought about trying to set down some of what I was seeing. I didn’t. And now that I want to craft a long, musing, lyrical post about the journey, a mere few days later, I’m casting about looking for a way to start. And failing.
So I think I’ll just upload some photos and hope they speak (mostly) for themselves.
There are no photos of the fjords we saw mere moments after the train set off, because we saw them only intermittently, thanks to a series of tunnels. Understandable tunnels—without them it would probably have taken hours and hours longer than it did to get around the mountains. (And it did take hours.)
Once up and out of the fjords, we found ourselves in Troll Country, made all the more mysterious by the blurring of the rain on the train windows…
After much lonely chugging through this barrenness, we found trees once more. The mystery, though, did not abate.
And then more trees.
And green. And sheep!
We were supposed to change trains in Hallsberg—except that our first train was late, and there was no Hallsberg (at least not according to Peter’s various GPS-having devices). We ended up in Stockholm, where train #2 had been cancelled—at which point we got on a bus that took us to a different railway station, at which point we got on train #2. By the time train #3 became involved, just after midnight. I had no desire to take any more photos.
Here, though, is about all we saw of Stockholm.
It’s now 11 p.m. in Uppsala, and we’re setting the alarm for far too early. We’ll be home tomorrow. Home, where my new job awaits, and a new class of creative writing students—and a daughter who’ll be turning 13 any minute.
I made it.
Took a photo over Germany of this making of it. Here it is, to prove that I wasn’t tearing at my hair or lying prone in the aisle or buttoning and unbuttoning Peter’s jean jacket for seven hours. No. I was sitting by the window, quite serenely.
Toronto to Frankfurt; Frankfurt to Bergen – a city come sadly late to incorporation, as per Wikipedia: “Trading in Bergen may have started as early as the 1020s, but the city was not incorporated until 1070.”
And what a city it is: terraces of trees, bare rock, red-and-brown-tiled, sloping roofs.
Also, cats. On benches.
We walked and walked. On our very first night there, jet-lagged and full of cider, we meandered through the wooden alleys and galleries of Hanseatic Bergen, where rich, celibate merchants had lived off fish and by the Bible and poor working boys had toiled and slept, without light or heat. (The whole area burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1702. So I guess it’s understandable that the merchants were averse to open flames. No comment on the celibacy thing, though.)
|On our first night in Bergen, these alleys smelled of old, rain-soaked wood. The lamps were few and far between, and flickered like torches.|
In grey daylight and thronged with people, the place lost mystery but gained colour.
“Rain-soaked” was the name of the game, here. The sun came out once. Like so.
The lack of sunlit blue was a good thing (though the American women behind us on the train to Oslo would vehemently disagree with me). You’ve seen one cloudless, bright sky, you’ve sort of seen them all. But in Bergen, as in St. John’s, what’s above you truly is “skies,” plural. You’re standing atop a lookout point by the 13th-century castle, gazing out over the bay, and the clouds and water are a light grey; you turn to look behind at the city and see that the far mountains are black with advancing rain; four minutes later the rain’s pounding down on you and you’re running for cover while magpies stare beadily and almost certainly scornfully from the lawn.
|Four minutes later the wind blows the rain away and the clouds part on silver.|
Also good: the varieties of mist, fog, rain and cloud bring out the colours of the city.
Karin, our university professor host, had us put up in an apartment full of Ikea, featuring a fridge full of food (including a gigantic fresh cod fillet, which we cooked, haplessly and to therefore improbably delicious effect, on our first night there).
After one night of semi-jetlagged sleep, we gave talks to Karin’s masters biology class and a healthy number of non-biologist general public types. According to Karin and our audience, the talks were good.
The next morning, Peter was briefly, inexplicably sick. I was not.
A mere two-and-a-half days after arriving, we hauled our luggage through the teeming rain to the railway station and left. Bergen to Oslo…
But that’s another story.
I’m seven years old. I’m very small, in the University Theatre seat; I’m clutching the armrests, waiting for the curtains to open. And then, at last, they do. They do, and the screen is dark, except for ten words:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away
Music: a resounding fanfare that makes me shiver. And, after the tedious scrolling of yellow words, a rumble. It’s this rumble I notice first, even before the images. My seat is shaking. My arms and legs are juddering — because there’s something coming — something bigger than a garbage truck or a jumbo jet — something huge and grey, veined and mountainous, shaped like an interstellar arrowhead.
Fast-forward. I’m now ten years old. I’m semi-small, in the York Theatre seat; I’m clutching the armrests, waiting for the curtains to open. And then they do. They do, and a motorcycle is buzzing toward me: an old-fashioned one, with a blond man in goggles perched on it. Sometime after this is the desert: the vast, empty sweep of it, studded with bare cliffs; the gold of it, with the impossibly hot blue sky above, matched only by the blue of Peter O’Toole’s eyes. His blue eyes, his golden hair, swathed in white cloth; the golden sand, where men stumble and die.
When I left the University and York Theatres, everything had changed. There was a desert behind my eyes. Star Destroyers, too. Yeah, so two blond men featured prominently — I was 7 and 10 (and had no idea that Han was hotter). The point was: I was changed. Shaken and stirred, for the duration.
I was a kid. I was impressionable. I imprinted on Lawrence and Skywalker like a baby duckling opening its eyes on a sock puppet or a Labrador retriever or even an actual mommy duck — taken in, consumed by wonder and newness, incapable of thinking, “Hey — are you really my mom?” Everything’s more intense when you’re young, from apocalyptic hatred of broccoli and milk to transcendent love for A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Cotton Ginny track pants in 52 colours.
I’m older now. Presumably wiser. I own no baby blue track pants or top 40 songs. And yet I wonder: where have all the Star Destroyers gone? Where is today’s Omar Sharif, shimmering out of the heat-haze, moving from the horizon to me?
I go to Prometheus. This makes me angry. I go to The Avengers. This makes me happy in a fleeting, weightless, appreciating-all-the-superhero-buttocks kind of way. I can’t remember the last time a movie actually moved me. Maybe I don’t go to enough of them — and when I do, I may go to too many genre blockbusters, of which I have low expectations. Sound and fury; impressive CGI; nothing signified.
The University and York Theaters are nothing more than facades and engagement party venues, now. George Lucas has made Star Wars into a franchise, and a joke. David Lean is dead. And I’m left with Prince Feisal’s words, which I address, with gratitude and yearning, to the deserts of space and the Nefud:
What I owe you is beyond evaluation.
My fear of flying kicked in out of the blue—or rather, out of the smog—above Mexico City in 1994. My boyfriend and I had decided to embark on an English-teaching adventure in a city called Oaxaca, which we’d chosen based on a couple of paragraphs and a few photos in the Lonely Planet Guide. On a hot mid-August day, my parents drove our gigantic knapsacks and us to the airport. It was exciting. The revving of the plane’s engines made me bounce up and down in my seat like a kid. That’s the way I’d felt about planes, as a kid: giddy, breathless, can’t-wait-to-get-there.
In the sky over Mexico City’s sprawl, all that changed.
I’d flown back and forth across the Atlantic several times; I’m pretty sure I must have experienced turbulence before. But for some reason, that 1994 landing was different. We lurched down out of the sky in a series of drops so dramatic that everyone else on the plane threw their hands up into the air and shrieked. It was an enormous, airborne roller coaster—and the only actual roller coaster I’d ever been able to handle was the Scooby Doo Ghoster-Coaster at Canada’s Wonderland, which was intended to mollify the children who were too short for the real rides. The flight attendants clutched their five-point harness seatbelts and stared at each other with what I was certain were wide, terrified eyes. After the plane had banked, bumped and braked its way onto the runway, everyone cheered.
My boyfriend and I were supposed to book another, much shorter flight once we got to the airport. But as we sat there on terra firma, he turned to me and said, “We have to take a train instead.” And we did: an old decrepit one that took 16 hours to wind through open-guttered slums and then high, red mountains whose vast stretches of nothing were sometimes broken by nearly vertical, somehow-green fields tended by farmers who stood and watched us go by. (Mexico still makes me write run-on sentences.) It was a wonderful trip, despite the theft of our Lonely Planet Guide and the throbbing in my left big toe, which, within a few days, would become a full-blown infection. I wouldn’t have missed out on that old, rickety train for the world, and I will always maintain that trains are the only way to see strange new countryside. I will maintain this with a fervour born both of truth and of rationalization.
Because man, do I hate flying. Luckily for those around me, I don’t hate it with a full-throated, Marge Simpson panic. Unluckily for the nice person next to me who made the mistake of saying hello, I hate it with a quiet, chatty kind of panic. When Penguin Canada sent me out west for a book tour I ended up beside a woman who, foolishly, said hello. I said something like, “Hi—apologies in advance if I rake the back of your hand with my nails; I really, really hate flying.” Turned out she was a former flight attendant. She was also even chattier than I was. She talked to me for five hours; I found out all about her home, her husband, her travels. Whenever we hit a bump she’d put her story on pause and reassure me. When we were nearly there, she said, “Now, then: we’re going to come down out of the clouds, which will probably be a little turbulent, and then we’ll be directly over the water—but the runway will be there too.” She was right. And she showed up at my book signing a few days later.
Now, as I stare at an email full of Scandinavian flight information, I’m trying very, very hard to resist pre-emptively sweaty palms and fibrillations. I’ve decided that it’s not about killing the fear—that won’t happen. It’s not even about mastering it: it’s about surrendering to it. I know. Doesn’t sound promising. But here’s my thesis:
When you’re a kid, that spider in the corner of the ceiling, or that centipede that just might ripple out from under the baseboard like it did once before, or that dark and lumpy shape by the closet—these things are scary in a stark, simple, utterly primal way. Then you grow up, and you know that spiders nibble the moths that nibble your cotton shirts, and that the centipedes ripple away as quickly as they arrive, and that dark, lumpy shapes are usually laundry that’s waiting to be folded. Primal fears are replaced by horrifyingly rational ones like losing a job, a home, a child. Some of us replicate childhood adrenalin surges by going on rollercoasters or skydiving. Some of us get ourselves a whole new primal fear.
Maybe it can be healthy to be afraid of something irrational. Maybe giving the lizard brain a chance to do the un-thinking lends a clarity to the processing the other parts of our brain do. Maybe, despite all the advice given via sonnet and 12-step program, we should be a little afraid, now and then.
Sadly, this seemed more persuasive before I wrote it down.
Still. When those engines roar, I intend to be a kid under the covers, staring fixedly at that spider, waiting for it to move. I’ll be an australopithecine* on the savannah, huddled in a cave, listening to something big-toothed and hungry howling at the moon.
And then, when morning comes, there may be this:
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
It’s such a wonderful, agonizing, Kubrickian sequence: the slow approach to the big wooden desk and the typewriter and the neat pile of manuscript paper. We’ve never seen what’s on the paper; all we’ve seen is the man, Jack, who’s a writer. Jack, who’s found the perfect place to start that novel. Only, as the camera soon shows us, he hasn’t.
The Toronto Islands are no Overlook Hotel. I’m no Jack. And yet, as I prepare to head out on a ferry tomorrow for a solid week of writing and critiquing, I’m kind of scared. We almost certainly won’t be snowed in (but oh my god, there is a hedge maze!). There will likely be no Big Wheels or dead twin girls or elevators pouring blood. But will there be blank pages?
I wrote my third book on the streetcar to work. I’m writing my fourth (and maybe fifth) books on Thursday nights at a pub. I am emphatically not someone who requires a Walden Pond to sit beside before she can write; in fact, I’ve been known to write while Pub Stumpers Trivia Night has been going on ten feet away. The only “full-time” writing I’ve ever done coincided with my full-time mom duties, which meant that I had to wedge the writing in around all the others things in my life that were noisier, hungrier and more redolent of diaper.
So this is it: the first time I’ve ever taken five days off work to GO AWAY AND WRITE.
I’ve just upgraded myself from “kind of scared” to “terrified.”
There’s a lighthouse right next door. It’s supposed to be haunted. There’s a resident cat. There’ll be other writers—heck, there’ll be my husband. I’m hoping for one big storm, and some wine to go with it. For one sentence that features the word “Ariadne” and survives the ferry trip back. For a goofy email from my goofy daughter.
And anyway: the Island may have a hedge maze, but I have a minotaur…
The Pattern Scars has just been nominated for a Sunburst Award.
This particular award is close to my heart. For a couple of years, Lesley Livingston, Adrienne Kress and I lent our bespectacled, sequined charms to the Sunburst auction (photos unavailable, just because). In 2007 I was on the Sunburst jury; among the stacks of books that arrived at my house was one called Blindsight*, which I probably never would have read, otherwise (it being hard science fiction and all).
Yes. This is a special award for a whole whack of reasons, both personal and cultural.
This year I’m nominated alongside ChiZine authors David Nickle and Michael Rowe. You may recognize their names from the Aurora nominations, too. Ah, ChiZine; CZP; publisher of dark, disturbing, surreal fiction – you’re the winner, whether or not any of us actually wins.
2012? Pretty okay so far.
*It didn’t win. Peter mentions this from time to time.
The fifth paragraph, which begins “And that’s the point”, is replete with spoilers. Other than that, though, it’s just general diatribe.
I wasn’t expecting to love Prometheus. I’m not a rabid fan of the original movies, and I haven’t been waiting for this one with bated breath. I figured it would be entertaining—that I might be surprised by an image or plot twist at some point along the way.
The surprise has turned out to be how vehemently I disliked it. It kept me up last night, this dislike. It has made me cranky and possibly a little incoherent.
You’ve been warned.
Watching the first two movies of the Alien franchise, I knew that there was a dark, twisted, utterly strange world beyond the edges of the screen. Something else’s history slept and stirred as the Nostromo’s crew stumbled around, understanding it as little as I did. The dread came from the glimpses, from the not knowing, from the not even wanting to know.
And that’s the point: I didn’t want to know. And Ridley Scott (who didn’t know what any of it meant himself, way back when) went and tore away the curtain and revealed—what? Ginormous-headed alabaster dudes with Ebola (maybe) who created humankind (maybe) and then (maybe) wanted to destroy it. A very pretty 3D star map. An alien ship whose controls lit up (as Peter put it) like a Fisher Price toy. The founder of the sinister, faceless Weyland-Yutani Corporation—Guy Pearce, as it turned out, wedged into wrinkled latex, maundering on about death. Some small slimy worms and a much, much bigger thing with a bunch of mouths and tentacles, which impregnated one of the alabaster dudes with something that, at last, was a Ridley Scott alien I recognized. But by then it was way, way too late.
Roger Ebert wrote, in his review: “Prometheus is a magnificent science-fiction film, all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn’t have the answers.”
Well, no. Musings about the nature of divinity and humanity, history and destiny, are just plain embarrassing when you word them clumsily and put them in the mouths of cardboard characters. For this movie to have succeeded as a prequel-in-spirit, it should have dispensed with the existential questions (Why is humankind here? Is there a god?) and given us elemental ones (Why am I here in this gooey air duct and oh my god what was that noise?).
Back to the dread thing: I felt not one frisson of this. A tired sort of inevitability, yes: that slimy worm is definitely going in the stupid biologist’s suit, and there’s probably going to be a flamethrower, and gee, I wonder when a wet, pale little alien’s going to bust out of someone’s gut. I wanted dread! The creeping, edges-of-your-vision, pit-of-your-stomach kind that ran through Alien/s like milky android blood. Simple, primal, delectable dread.
I’m pretty sure that much of the ambiance of early sci-fi and horror movies was shaped by budget constraints. Keep things dark; have the monsters move very, very fast and don’t show them too often; pay attention to a couple of rooms, because they’re all the set you’ll have. 30 years later, though, it’s all about the enervating detail and exhausting bombast of big-budget CGI. I’m so tired of it. I liked Tom Baker’s one-room, Swiss-cheese-holed TARDIS better than David Tennant’s gigantic, super-fancy one. Frank Oz’s rubber Yoda had more life in him than virtual Yoda, no matter how much kung fu-fighting the latter might have done in that prequel whose name I’ve tried to forget. And I don’t care if it was laughably archaic (especially for the 22nd century): I liked the Nostromo’s clunky control panel and its damp, hissing, cramped, cable-strewn corridors.
A setting that’s intimate and believable enough to become a character: that’s what Alien/s had and Prometheus doesn’t. That, and human characters you feel you come to know, at least a little, before they die.
Silence, too. Somehow silence has become another casualty of CGI—as if directors feel they have to lay on a musical score that’s as relentless and grandiose as the images. There’s no space for dread when there’s never any quiet.
John Carpenter’s The Thing, the original Alien/s: these are stories about people trapped in bleak nowhere places, fearful of both monsters and each other. People waiting, often in silence, moving from despair to defiance and back again. These are good goddamn stories.
Oh, Ripley. Oh, Jonesy. We will not see your like again.
This happened yesterday.
I know no one at NPR. I don’t think I know anyone at the National Post, yet one of their columnists called me, also yesterday; someone at the paper had told her that I was great, and exactly the right person to ask about Ray Bradbury’s life and legacy. Sadly, this person I do not know was wrong about the latter (though obviously incredibly well-informed about the former).*
The CBC Bookie. The Aurora. The National Post. This NPR thing. Wow.
This is the same variety of “wow” that I utter (sometimes silently, others aloud) when I’m about to do a reading and I see that there are people I don’t know in the audience. “Do they think someone else is going to be reading too?” “Was the program wrong? Are they actually looking for the panel on Game of Thrones?” (Okay, so there are never that many people at my readings.)
Yes, more than a whiff of imposter syndrome. More than a dash of surprise and delight. And yet, at the very same time as one part of Caitlin gasps and wonders at these turns of events, another thinks, “Well, of course. You wrote a good book. It deserves this – and then some.”
These two Caitlin-facets co-exist fairly peaceably, for which I’m grateful. Kind of confused, but grateful.
Petra Mayer at NPR: I’m grateful for you. And Melissa Leong at the National Post. And whoever it was at CBC who nominated The Pattern Scars for the Bookie. And all of you who’ve headed for a stuffy hotel “suite”, knowing exactly whom you were going to see.
Also Tyrion Lannister/Peter Dinklage. I’m grateful for you too.
* The columnist ended up going with a quote (lead-off, no less!) from my esteemed, Tall- Science-Fiction-Writing Husband. Which pretty much confirms that the universe is unfolding as it should.