by Nyo

by Nyo

The more I read, the more I experience, the more I question the validity of good and evil as portrayed in many so-called worlds. Certainly there is something within us, as a species, that consistently seeks to weed out good from bad, light from dark, wrong from right. We need our causes, our passions, our drives, in order to go about our daily lives feeling as if we are doing as we ought, happy with our choices.

There is perhaps no other literary genre that so adheres to the dichotomy of good and evil as fantasy, since it itself was borne out of the same womb as the myths that define humanity. As our cultures have evolved, we have brought along new religious undertones to play a counterpoint–the Son of God, Shiva the Destroyer, Morrigan the Goddess of War–in our search for good and evil. While this is not true with every writer, most tend to write from this same tradition, wanting to cast villains and heroes because, in all truth, that is what readers respond to. It’s hard-wired into us.

But because it’s hard-wired, does it mean it’s correct?

I do not deny that there is evil, nor that there is good. What I question is the clear-cut manner in which villains and heroes are drawn. To me, every character must be flawed–in a way, every character should have the potential to be a villain, just as every person has the capability to do extremely terrible things. I decided in The Aldersgate to blur the lines, to create monsters out of heroes, and to force my characters to choose sides. But I want my readers to follow the progression, to develop as the minds of the characters develop. This is by no means an easy task, since each character (at least to me) is very much intertwined in the heart and mind of the writer themselves. Doing evil deeds, selfish deeds, making wrong choices–these are not easy to write. Love stories are easy to write. Dinner parties are easy to write. Triumphant processions are easy to write! A downward spiral from despair, to madness, and then to utter selfishness and corruption… that is not so easy.

Consider what good and evil mean to you, and mean to the culture you’re writing as you build your world. Try and shed the preconcieved notions you’ve gleaned in your lifetime to go beyond black and white to examine the grays. A certain amount of tension is important, but so much of what we see of “good” and “evil” has to do with perception. Some people may think of the Crusaders as mighty heroes, but I daresay that wasn’t the opinion of the Jews in France and Germany.

I have as much trouble with “purely” good heroes as with “purely” bad heroes, especially when the dead start piling up. A good writer will examine what exactly are the ramifications for the decisions each side makes, will make the reader do more than just cheer for the good guys and scoff at the bad guys.

For my final comment, I’ll say one last thing.  I’m on board with the Lord of the Rings 99.9% of the time. I adore it. I am indebted to it. But the fact that Orcs are fundamentally evil, that they are a race of creatures inherently bad, beyond salvation and corrupt is certainly uncomfortable for me. And I understand Tolkien’s perspective in writing the books (being a product of the World Wars as well as a devoted Catholic), and know where he was coming from–I only wish that he left a little more wiggle room (gosh, even C.S. Lewis gave one of the Calormenes a ticket to the New and Improved Narnia in The Last Battle).

What I’m saying is this: take time to tell your characters’ stories, even if they’re under the flag of the Eye. Everyone starts somewhere.

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Airship!Of all things, it was my post about Tolkien that got me thinking more deeply about my “crossing over” as it were, from writing strictly high fantasy to steampunk. A snippet of a quote from The Two Towers briefly flitted over my brain last night while playing D&D with our new group (I do, in fact, roll polished brass d20s). We’re playing 4th edition, and it was the first time I got to combat with my new warlock. At any rate, I was thinking about Tolkien and his general distaste of all things mechanical.

Treebeard says to Gandalf at one point, re: Saruman:

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except insofar as they serve him for the moment.”

Holy cow. “Metal and wheels?” That’s totally steampunk.  However, Tolkien certainly didn’t mean this is a positive way. He viewed technology as a means of destroying nature–especially his beloved trees–with an ability to raze the calm, quiet, Shire he loved so much. Certainly I understand his trepidation growing up at the turn of the century as he did, facing the terrors of the two World Wars.

But strangely, it isn‘t the machines that really are the most corrupt in LoTR, but it’s magic itself. Though Sauron creates the One Ring, he is–in essence–descended still from the “magic” of Arda, part of the Creation. Of course this brings about all sorts of questions regarding free will, religion, and philosophy but, at the moment, I’m not in graduate student mode.

One of the common themes in steampunk literature is constant tension between good technology and bad technology. It’s a tension that we certainly feel today, as a nuclear reactor can both supply energy to millions of people and destroy them. We want technology to help people, to make their lives easier, but often it comes with unforseen consequences.

I guess my point here is that, in some ways, I’m more leagued these days than Saruman, at least without the massive destruction of Nature part.

Why steampunk? Once I realized that’s what this book was becoming, a steampunk fantasy, I began doing more reading and trolling the web for inspiration. The thing is, unlike the fantasy genre–which has certainly seen is share of hackneyed, cliched, and rather painful publications–steampunk literature is continuing to grow at a steady pace (just look at the Google Trends if you don’t believe me). And while some people are already heralding its death, I tend to disagree.

The thing about steampunk, if it even qualifies as a genre at all (this is up for debate, friends), is that it simultaneously reflects the tensions and concerns of our own world and transports us to another, whether re-envisioned, revisionist, or completely fabricated. This other world imagining is almost always a “distant but not too distant” past, unlike the bulk of science fiction that takes place in the future, or fantasy in an of ten very distant, mysterious past.

What that means for a writer is a little more freedom, I think, to work beyond the often allegorical mode of fantasy literature into a more mimetic mode. Because it’s not so far, far away, steampunk literature achieves a closeness to the reader; we can understand the ramifications and dangers of technology much better than we might, say, a great ring of power. Not that was can’t imagine that ring of power; but unlike magic, most people have actually seen technology at work in their daily lives.

The closeness of steampunk is that fuels the imagination of writers and makers alike with that closeness. A few trips to the dump or an antique shop, and you can mod your hard-drive with brass and mahogany. Peering through Victorian era newspapers is like a window into Verne.

I think as we continue to move toward nanotechnology and living in a hyper cyber world, steampunk will remain relevant as a hybrid, re-imagined past. It’s certainly captured its share of fans, and I think in time the general media will latch on, as well, as they did with Tolkien. But these sorts of movements start small…

My favorite things about writing steampunk fantasy literature:

  • You don’t have to worry about travel. Skip the horses and the backpacks: we’re boarding a train. Or better yet, a steam powered monocycle!
  • The clothing! I’ve mentioned this many times before on the blog, but one of my favorite research projects involves scouring the web for Victorian couture for my gals. You just can’t get better than that. Add a little steampunk modifier, and you’re in business.
  • The language. I’m a sometime linguist, and always struggle with the languages my characters speak in my high fantasy novels. It sometimes ends up sounding too formal, and it puts a reader at a distance. But I can never decide how the accents and voices of another world would sound. Not so much a concern with steampunk; sure there’s lingo, but it’s nowhere near as difficult.
  • The technology! A mind of metal and wheels indeed. There’s no limit on what the imagination can put together. And, it’s shiny.

tolkien\'s sigThough I was writing novel-length creations (these lopsided, clunky, laborious writings are the literary equivalent of badly-wrought golems, I’d say) in my tween years, and had certainly admired writers like Lewis and L’Engle before, reading Tolkien just did something to me. For good or ill, I don’t know what it was. Some mysterious magic, no doubt, but one that, more than a decade later, I still can’t shake.

What happened exactly? Well, I recall being about thirteen or so, completely ostracized from the group of friends I’d once had, and was a painfully blossoming nerd. The glasses, the sweaters–I was a postergirl for early 90s fashion nightmares, and was growing a rather sulky personality to go with it. I had just finished a stint reading Stephen King, mostly The Stand twice through, and though I knew I liked fantasy as a genre, had no idea where to go.

It was my high school librarian who suggested LoTR. They didn’t have the first installment, but figuring it was like the Narnia series, I just picked up the Two Towers and ran.

First impressions:

  • I had no idea what an Aragorn was. With no context, he was all slinky and secretive. I figured, if he was hanging out with an elf and a dwarf, he must be something as equally impressive. I imagined him like a nicer version of Gollum, a being with large eyes and green skin who could see long distances and had a remarkable way with people. Boy was I surprised when I figured out he was… well, just a guy.
  • Merry and Pippin are the whole show! I didn’t get to the Frodo and Sam stuff for a while, but I was really intrigued by the terrible twosome. They were funny, friendly, and boy could they eat and drink. To this day, I simply adore Pippin, moreso than is really warranted. But, you know what they say about first impressions.
  • Kickin’ the Rankin-Bass. Unfortunately, prior to reading the series, I’d seen both Rankin Bass films–the adapted Hobbit and its Return of the King follow up (cringe). It had been about eight years though, so as far as plot and theme were concerned, there were no big spoilers. What took me forever to get rid of however, were the huge, sparkly, luminous eyes and terrible songs. For all the care that Tolkien put into the poetry of the series, I imagine hearing that warbling bard was enough to send him to his grave again.

It became an obsession for me very quickly, this hobbit series. It was all-encompassing. I had never read a book so voraciously before, nor had I ever loved characters as much. I remember reading RoTK, and one of the chapters describes Pippin being smooshed by a troll then “his eyes saw no more.” I of course, thought he was dead. I burst into tears. (Thankfully, being a fan of George R. R. Martin, I am now a little more hardened to this stuff).

Over the next few years, I absorbed everything Tolkien I could. I read all the books in the series, multiple times. I researched the genealogies. I joined a MUSH. Yes, I ultimately “met” the man I married five years later there, too (but that’s another post, I imagine). It makes sense. Michael was as in love with the hobbits and the Shire and Tolkien as I was. It’s really that. It’s love. It’s the highest sense of love you can have in the world… except it’s with a piece of art (I feel a Pygmalion reference coming).

There had never been anything–and there may never be–that impacted me on the level Tolkien did. This crotchety old man from England who really only wanted to frolic with trees and write a novel to put his own languages in, somehow changed my life entirely.

Years of internalization, and it eventually became apparent in my own writing. It’s not that I want to re-create Tolkien’s world; truly, in the years since I’ve learned to both love and critique his work and realize it’s not all perfect (there was a time that anyone who uttered such a word in my presence would have been called a blasphemer, but hey, we all grow up). What I want is simple: to tell a good story. I want my stories to move people even a modicum of the amount Tolkien moved me. I want to continue in the storytelling tradition and help people understand themselves better, even if it’s just through a fictional character.

How did Tolkien do it? I suspect is has something to do with the intimacy of writing, especially fantasy writing. Unlike fiction that takes place in this world, fantasy requires a huge amount of trust on the part of the reader. You are turning your imagination over to the writer and letting them describe things to you that you have never seen; they speak in languages un-uttered, of creatures uncreated. And, fickle as we are, we tend to cling still to the things we understand most: the people. In the end, Frodo’s decision to claim the ring for his own is the greatest heroic disappointment of all time, because, I think, it’s the same one we’d all make. He’s not better than we are, like so many gilded heroes. He’s as flawed as the rest.

All peripheral philosophy/religion/criticism aside, a great writer takes their readers on a journey; they show them danger, heartbreak, despair, joy–but always, always, they create a window into someone’s soul. That’s the deciding factor. That’s why people continue to pick up LoTR, or Shakespeare, or Updike, or any writer that maintains the ability to be relevant as times change. We often know characters in novels better than we ever will people in our real lives.

That’s quite astonishing, I think.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” – Gimli