The Human Condition:

Art and Mystery – August 12, 2012

As a reader myself, I know that not every book is going to please every reader. In fact, it’s becoming more and more common for me to start—and sometimes even finish—books that just don’t “do it for me.” Lately, the balance between “hits” and “misses” is running about 50%. That doesn’t really bother me, because I read like a bear at a salmon run: pick up a book, take a bite or two, finish it or drop it, move on to the next one; the world is full of books and there’s always something else coming along.1 But that balance, which is tipping more toward “misses” as I get older, does give me pause to think about what I like. And here I’m not talking about one genre over another but within any of the genres I tend to favor.2

What I like, what “does it for me,” turns out to be quite simple: I like an air of mystery. This is not mystery of the whodunit variety—outside its proper genre—so much as a sense of the unknown and unexplained, of depths to the story that the author has not yet plumbed in so many words. The elements that are unsaid and still to be discovered and explored are so important a dimension of the storytelling art that I now use them as a kind of “pasteboard detector.”

Books that don’t go anyplace but where the words take you, books in which the author explains everything and runs the well dry, books that finish too neatly and leave nothing to the imagination—these are not art. They are dead, inert, obvious … pasteboard. But books that leave me imagining there might be other stories beyond the one I’ve been told, that leave me making connections between characters and events that were never fully explained, that leave me pondering the world that the author has made—and I don’t mean a new planet or imagined future, as in science fiction, because every author creates a whole world out of words—this is the highest art of storytelling. These books are alive, active, and live forever outside their mere words … an alternate form of reality.

As a writer, I try to bring this air of mystery, this highest art form, to my own work. I can’t claim that I always succeed, and my work may not resonate with readers who like things tied up with a bow and finished with the last word. (My work may, after all, be an acquired taste.) But that sense of mystery is a lodestone that keeps me pointing toward my own magnetic north.

As an example, let me take you inside my latest science fiction novel, The Children of Possibility. It might almost be called a hyper-example, because I’m conscious of having pushed the envelope with this one.3

Children is a book about time travel, told mostly from the viewpoint of the travelers, called “Jongleurs,” who come from 10,000 years into our future—or one of our possible futures. Their own world is going to be very strange to an early 21st century reader.4 And our world of the 21st century, where most of the book’s story takes place, is going to be strange and perplexing to the Jongleur who gets stranded and must adapt to living here, since the usual job of these travelers is to make brief, disguised visits while collecting biological artifacts.5

I didn’t want this to be a “by the numbers” piece of science fiction. So I used a selection of rhetorical techniques to set it apart and create that sense of space and time beyond the mere words. These techniques are available to any author, and I reference them here to show how they may be used to create a sense of mystery.

First, the book’s opening and closing sections—posted under the simple title “Backward”6—were told in inverse chronological order. That is, the first scene the reader encounters takes place at the end of the action, the next scene is one step further into the past, and so on, until the final scene comes where most stories would start.7 Playing with the reader’s sense of order, taking some events back to front, seemed to me an obvious component of a time travel book. I worked to drop enough hints and timing devices into the story, without being pedantic and obvious about them, so that the alert reader would quickly figure out what was going on. This inverse structure was intended to make the reader sense the flow of time as something fluid, malleable, maybe even reversible.

Second, like almost all of my novels, Children is told from multiple character viewpoints.8 In this structure, the reader inhabits one character’s mind at a time—usually for the duration of the whole scene—and only sees, knows, and understands what the character is thinking and experiencing. Thus, in Children, some of the scenes are from the viewpoint of the 11th millennium traveler, reacting to the strange world around her; some are from the view of the 21st century inhabitants, reacting to the traveler and her sometimes off-kilter speech and actions; and some from characters who come from intermediate futures, for whom the 21st century is familiar territory and the traveler is a known but not quite trusted quantity.9

Third—and I can see the average reader’s objections beginning to pile up—the book introduces new words and usages out of the 11th millennium, as well as new concepts in metaphysics10 to explain my particular form of time travel. I didn’t want to bog down the story flow with technical explanations or violate character viewpoint by explaining too many concepts that, for the 11th millennium traveler, are already known and familiar. So I put these new words and ideas into two sections of “front matter”: first, definitions from an 11th millennium dictionary and, second, fragments from the opening chapters of the Jongleur’s service handbook. This seemed safer than putting the material into an appendix at the back, where the reader would only come upon it after reading the book. (Of course, I ran a risk with readers who habitually flip past all those initial pages of boring crap—prefaces, introductions, dedications, even the section title page—and go straight to Chapter 1.) With the reader’s mind already teased and stimulated with these words and concepts, the story would then flow through a half-familiar, half-strange reality.

Whether all these techniques worked—or just created a confusing mish-mash—I’ll leave for the reader to decide. If it doesn’t work for you, well then, there are other books coming along, too.

Writing to create an air of mystery, of depths imagined but unplumbed, is in line with the only piece of bedrock philosophy I will confess to: that we are all born naked and questioning and make up the world as we go along.

The world we inhabit, the universe in which humankind finds itself, is a big and mysterious place. Each of us—from the day our minds first begin to focus and work consciously—goes along piecing together our own experiences, theorizing about what this or that event might mean, patching up and improving upon notions from our childhood that may or may not have played out. We are constantly seeking and adopting ideas from news stories, from books and articles, and from our more recent experiences. Along the way, we meet and interact with parents, teachers, friends, lovers, enemies, customers, and casual strangers. Some of them are wise and some are dull. Some know a bit more than we do about what’s going on. Some know nothing and loudly proclaim a whole load of nonsense. But no one has the final answer. Hint, hint: there is no final answer. There is only the mental architecture that we erect to explain reality as we find it—then reinforce, patch, or discard as life sends us new bits of reality.

So, with my writing, I try to capture and express this sense of ongoing development and wonder against the larger unknown. No character in my books is perfectly good or perfectly evil, but all can be understood from within his or her frame of reference. No character is all-knowing, and none is to be completely trusted. However, I do try, mostly, to play inside the heads of characters who are reasonably interesting, personally unassuming, and disposed toward being honest and even friendly. I don’t usually dwell with characters who are overtly angry and hostile, plainly psychotic, or simply stupid and careless.

The world of my imagination—including the 11th millennium of the Jongleur home world and the 21st century that the other characters (and my readers) inhabit and which the time travelers visit—stands outside both the characters in the book and the readers of the book. The whole point of my writing is to reveal this world in bald events relayed through the characters’ interpretive experiences, peeks into the characters’ internal mental architecture, and exchanges among characters who are acting and reacting out of their own guesses about what’s going on.

I try never to be an omniscient narrator. When I write in the text that something happened, I am not necessarily affirming that what is seen, heard, or experienced is some kind of absolute truth or fixed reality. Hint, hint: there is no fixed reality. Everyone is standing on a slope, sometimes with loose pebbles underfoot and sometimes slick mud, trying to figure out the pull of gravity and walk in a direction they think might be “up.”

As such, I have a horror of being obvious. Some readers may not like this. They prefer an episode of Star Trek, where the starting conditions are carefully explained in a voiceover from the “Captain’s log.” They prefer a story out of Dr. Who, where the ongoing situation of the Earthly characters gets all muddled up, until the wise Doctor pulls a trick out of his bag and explains everything. I prefer to throw the reader into a dark room, play shadows on the wall, launch glowing apparitions past your head, then give you a flashlight with faulty batteries.

Why? Not because I’m cruel. But because life is a mystery and you are born naked and questioning. This is your natural state, and I expect my readers to be sophisticated enough to know it.11 They won’t look for “the truth” but for “shades of truth,” as well as a collection of interesting and workable ideas. And if I laid out exactly what was going on in my stories, leaving no room for doubt, I would also leave no room for wonder and no opportunity for you the reader to populate that vast darkness with other events and people from your own imagination.

My business is not to present the world as a static photograph, a verifiable statement, or a mere inventory of facts. My business is to suggest a larger world of greater complexity, which you imagine having seen after gleaning only a few facts in the text and interpretations from my characters. It’s a tricky business. It doesn’t always work, because I’m not the perfect artist. But when it does work, it creates a much richer reader experience than a simple story that goes from A to B to C. And besides, it’s more fun.

1. The glory of the current book market—whose reach is extended nearly to infinity by the internet; whose supplier ranks are expanding daily with thousands of new authors experimenting with digital self-publishing; and whose buyers can access thousands of books almost instantly at prices we haven’t seen since the 1960—is that, in this environment, every reader should be able to find the kind of books he or she likes, and every book should find its ideal set of readers.

2. Okay, for the record: science fiction, historical fiction, mystery, literary, and military fiction, as well as nonfiction in support of these genres.

3. As an English major I was trained in the New Criticism, one of whose tenets is that the book, poem, or other artwork is a “found object.” The reader is expected to interact with it in the same way a beachcomber interacts with an interesting pebble or shell, exploring it with all senses and a keen imagination. In this model, the author is not the “expert” on the thing he or she has created or more knowledgeable about it than the reader. The author’s intentions, personal views, and protestations about “What I really meant …” are all out of court. The reader either gets it or doesn’t. I’ll try not to violate—or not too much—that critical position as this meditation proceeds.

4. One of my circle of pre-publication readers commented that he found at least one aspect of my far-future world—the names of my travelers—too similar to 21st century naming conventions. So I had to invent names for them that would be different and sound exotic without falling into the science fiction trap of being incomprehensible as personal names or unpronounceable in the reader’s mind.

5. Another pre-pub reader found my central character, the stranded traveler, too cold and unfeeling and therefore not likeable and—a supposed sin in modern storytelling—not someone to whom this reader could relate. In response, in the final draft I tried to give this character a bit less casual incivility and make her do a good deed or two. But the situation remained that the Jongleurs must be loners by choice, operating in hostile territory, living by their wits, and surviving because of their suspicious natures. They don’t come here to make friends with the locals or settle down.

6. As other sections were titled “Sideways” and “Forward.”

7. All right, it does sound outlandish, when told in this fashion. But the inverse chronological structure is not unprecedented. Harold Pinter used it in his play Betrayal. That was an experimental play, and I’m fascinated by experimental works.

8. See Writing for Point of View from April 22, 2012.

9. Is there a time war in the future? Oh, yeah!

10. I won’t call it “physics,” because the physicists would have a fit.

11. In a way, I’m the author for the anti-“young adult.” Because they are still trying to piece the cosmos together in their heads, children and young people want—and cling to—certainty. They want stories to be just so. They want life to be simple and obvious. Adults and sophisticates of all ages expect that everything they see and experience will be just part of the answer, subject to interpretation, and not a solid peg on which to trustingly hang your hat—let alone your head.