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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Guest Post: "Freedom to Name" by Max Gladstone (Three Parts Dead)

Somewhere in Thailand, a mind-controlled ant climbs a tree.  She moves in jerks and starts, her body no longer her own.  Alone, she staggers to the underside of a leaf, and bites the thick central stem.  Her jaw locks.  Her chitin bulges and bursts.  A long gray tendril rises from within, unfurls to three times her length, and pops to release a cloud of spores.  Away on the breeze the spores float, to possess any other ants unlucky enough to remain within the blast radius.

The fungus is called Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani.  The fungus infects an ant, takes over the victim’s brain, forces it to move to a high place near other ants--a place where spores will spread--and explodes.

That’s real.

If you work for a corporation or a non-profit, you’re part of a functionally immortal entity whose life is governed by laws more theological than biological—a being that draws strength from desire,
faith, and sacrifice.  When corporations emerged in the High Middle Ages, jurists compared them to angels: immortal, immaterial, mighty.  And every angel is terrifying.

That’s real, too.

You read these words on a screen lit by lightning, which we harnessed either by burning hundred-million-year-old plants and plankton (and a few dinosaurs), by wrestling rivers like Achilles, by binding the wind or the shifting tide or sunlight or subterranean fire.  Building your screen required labors that would make Hercules blanch.

How can we tell stories about that kind of world?  A world that’s not straightforward, a world with diversities of wonder, justice, injustice, horror, majesty, and sheer scale to beggar the wildest opium dreams?

We can tell some stories by zooming in.  The earth seems flat to most human beings, most of the time.  Newtonian physics works fine for objects about the size of people, moving at people speeds.  A character who calls her former lover to console him after his father’s death doesn’t need to think about cellular towers, satellites, digital audio, or call routing, let alone the Chinese mine that produced the rare earths used to make the phone (and the people who worked there).  By focusing on dramatic structures of everyday life and emotional politics that haven’t changed much since Murasaki wrote Genji, a storyteller can avoid much of reality’s weirdness.

Or the teller can embrace the strange.  Break open the common surface of our lives and expose the machinery beneath.  Show characters who engage with the mad mess of their setting, who are elevated by it or ground to dust or both.  Pull out elements of our daily weird, hold them to the light, and watch them spark.

Some people accuse fantastic literature--science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all their permutations--of escapism.  And sure, some of us come to genre tales for the rich fantasy lives, for the grand open vistas and the capital-E Evils which Must Be Stopped.  But I think the richness of the genre lies in confrontationalism, not escapism: its ability to address the fundamental strangeness of the natural world, and the world we’ve built, and the world being built around us.  The freedom to tell stories out of this world can offer the freedom to name more precisely the world where we live.

And that world is wild, and needs naming.

About the Author:
MAX GLADSTONE went to Yale, where he wrote a short story that became a finalist in the Writers of the Future competition. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
About the Book:
A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart. Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith. When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

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