Ancient Astronaut Theorists Say Yes (an indirect primer to Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart)

Imagine a First Contact without contact, and an arrival of aliens where no aliens show up. Imagine the sudden appearance of Exclusion Zones all over the planet, into which no humans

are allowed. Imagine an end to all violence, from the abusive husband down the street to nations at war.  Imagine an end to borders, an end to all crime.  Imagine a world where hate has no outlet and the only harm one can do is to oneself.

Leaders of governments are not in the loop.  Scientists have no answers.  The military’s hardware has stopped working.  We’re calling, but ET’s not answering.

Imagine, then, a world transformed with no guidance and no hint of what’s coming next.  What would you do?  How would you feel?  What questions can you ask – what questions dare you ask – when the only possible answers come from the all-too-human face in your mirror?

On the day that First Contact finally arrives, it won’t be about them.  It will be about us.

 

I face a dilemma.  One of the standard questions asked of a writer regarding a novel or story is ‘What inspired you to write this book?’  In most instances, it’s not too hard to conjure up a relatively satisfying answer.  At least I assume it’s satisfying, since few interviewers ever follow up or press for elaboration.  Besides, inspiration is that place of mystery for all creative types where the less said about it the better.  It’s like confessing your obsessions, your compulsions, maybe even your fetishes. And really, who the hell knows where inspiration comes from anyways?

But this is only part of the dilemma I’m facing.  When a novel ends up less a novel and more a thought experiment, then the question might be: ‘When did the thoughts behind that experiment begin?’ And I see before me a rabbit hole of unknown depth.  I could go back to my high school days (circa, 14thCentury) and cite an essay I co-wrote with my friend Mark Karasick (now a renowned visual artist living in the UK) for an anthropology class wherein was honed my skepticism for all things conventional, which would in turn lend me a jaded eye towards the discipline I had targeted for a career (archaeology).

Or I could consider the innumerable First Contact novels I read, probably beginning with Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sandor Patrick Tilley’sFadeout, both excellent and for me formative novels that kicked open the door on just how alien engagement with humanity might take place.  Many more followed, leading me up to – about eighteen months ago – a couple of Jack McDevitt novels that, if I’m honest, really kick-started my determination to tackle the subject.

Alternatively, I might cite an online discussion with readers on Tor.com’s Re-read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen thread, where I first broached (even to myself) the notion that maybe, just maybe, all that commonly fell under the vast umbrella of anti-intellectualism included a few tentatively raised hands from people who had a valid point to make.  And that, even considering the slippery slope of ignorance and its seemingly inevitable slide into oppression and violence, a healthy dose of skepticism towards Western Science’s atheistic mechanistic universe and the rationalist (and rational) paradigm is probably a good thing.

Lastly, I might point to my reaching and indeed crossing a threshold in the backyard of my own expertise and experience (archaeology), a discipline the goings on of which I keep up with as best I can.  After all, just how many artifactual-and-feature-based anomalies are we going to ignore in order to maintain our tidy picture of early history and prehistory and indeed, human evolution?  It’s getting ridiculous.  Even more egregious, how many instances of denial, dismissal, ridicule and obstruction are clearly born of professional jealousy, turf-defending and every other form of blatantly unscientific objection?  And honestly, how much of that is going to pass as either reasonable or legitimate debunking?  Or, to put it all another way: it’s not the science I distrust, it’s the scientists.  Because they’re as human as the rest of us, as flawed, as potentially insecure, closed-off, dogmatic and often woefully uninformed of disciplines and specializations beyond their own (and here I envisage in my mind’s eye a whole host of Egyptologists standing with fingers in their ears and eyes averted from what geologists are telling them about rain-sourced erosion patterns on the Sphinx. Why?  Because it doesn’t fit their timeline!  But then, look closely at that timeline and you find that it’s mostly full of holes, fragmentary, more often than not second-hand and even third-hand in terms of sources, occasionally fraudulent and often contradictory.  In fact, that timeline is pretty much what a bunch of academics decided it was about fifty years ago.).  But I digress.

 

Well, could be any of those things, each one claiming a place – and rightfully so – in that murky mélange of sources for inciting me to finally write this novel.  The decision to do so then launched me into a preparation stage (although it could be said that, as above, the preparation has involved most of my adult life, and that would be accurate) and that stage included a fair bit of research into what we might call the fringe areas of the subject.

Needless to say, quite an eye-opener.  I endeavored to approach it from an agnostic point of view, to admit flat out that when it comes to UFOs, close encounters, government cover-ups, etc, I am undecided and will require a whole lot of evidence to convince me … either way  (and that’s where it got really interesting – ever looked carefully at the debunker arguments?  About ten percent are reasonable, the rest are shite.  It’s just as hard to disprove something as it is to prove, though you’d never know that from some of these people, or, to put it another way, do ad hominemattacks and unsupported dismissal preceding ridicule convince youof anything?  Even worse, some of them keep reappearing on a whole slew of disconnected sites until one is left wondering, is this their job?).

I remain undecided.  Many conspiracy buffs will talk about government-sponsored disinformation attacks intended to discredit them.  If they’re right, those attacks are doing a good job.  It’s very hard to parse the credible or reasonable positions from the sheer torrent of stuff that’s out there (as in seriously out there), and one might be inclined to group ufologists with flat-earthers and have done with it, and those who bemoan the general trend of anti-intellectualism tend to do just that. But this is hardly unique, as the war between belief and fact daily ramps up in vigor and ferocity, with all kinds of people, organizations and indeed governments joining in the scrum. We may well have gone from the Age of Information to the Age of Disinformation, generally trending towards chaos and the dissolution of virtually all civil institutions, underscoring the notion that all physical conflict is preceded by a war of thought.

One thing I will say, however.  We have a problem with secrecy.  Knowing something few others know is an expression of power, and it’s heady and probably addictive.  Hiding truth can be justified in myriad ways, though very few of those ways has the well-being of humanity in mind.  The old ‘they can’t handle the truth’ is usually a glib cover for seedy and unseemly shit, because secrecy invariably leads to oppression.  More often than not, the justification for keeping something secret becomes recursive: secrets kept by others demands secrets kept by us, in any number of contexts: political, economic, religious, etc.  And this is why secrecy is defended with extreme prejudice, because everyone defends their secrets with extreme prejudice.

Is it important to keep secrets?  I guess your answer to that depends on a lot of things, among them your view of human nature (aka otherpeople). And of course, what nations do to protect their sovereignty could be argued as a collective extension of our general notions about privacy, although in the act of ramping up we find ourselves in an adversarial arena where no quarter is given, and there are enough examples of secrecy winning wars that justifies the necessity.  Either way, the reality of secrecy is messy, murky and unpleasant.  When what you know or don’t know becomes a weapon, it’s pretty much a guarantee that someone behind the curtain not only knows more than you do, but they’re using that fact to either fuck you up or keep you towing the line.

In the meantime, mainstream media has dispensed with even the illusionof objectivity (it was never objective, ever), and the daily game of selective attention on the goings on in the world has become so brazen it borders on the comical (if not for all the suffering and misery).  One is pretty much left with the sense that most of mainstream media simply assumes its audience is stupid, blindly obedient to whatever agenda is being peddled, and therefore liable to believe anything.

To be fair, in this modern age, we’re under deluge.  The crap keeps raining down.  Is it allcrap?  Who knows?  No, really, whoknows?

It would be nice to think that skepticism is an even-handed quality of thought.  But it isn’t.  It’s selectively directed (in fact, the only instance where skepticism iseven-handed would come from a person saying ‘you know what, I don’t believe anyone, including myself, and I don’t trust anything I read, or write.  In short, I don’t know shit, and what’re you going to do about it?  If you’re going to tell me something, don’t bother.  I won’t believe you.’).  So what I mean by this is: a self-professed skeptic will pick and choose what to target with their skepticism.  This decision-making process is founded upon their own belief system (whether they are aware of it or not) and that belief system is never wholly, absolutely rational.  Each of us in turn might thinkit is, but it isn’t. Rather than go into a whole slew of examples to back up this assertion of mine, how about I just offer up to anyone reading this who wants to challenge my statement the following: let’s find for you your most rational position on a subject.  I won’t argue against it; I’ll just ask some questions, until we’ve both peeled it back – to where and what?  A belief system predicated on a whole bunch of unproven and unprovable assumptions.  And I’ll do that not for the purpose of one-upping you, but to emphasize that we’re all the same in this area, and more to the point, we are allselective with our skepticism.

At some point the subject of education is bound to come up in a discussion like this.  After all, universities are there to teach us how to be skeptical, free-thinking, fact-seeking, open-minded, diligent in our pursuit of the truth, and sensitive to the complexities of the human condition.  Well, that was kind of the intention, anyway.  Alas, it didn’t quite turn out that way.  Any institution (school, church, university, military, etc.) puts in place a regimen of subjects, systems of teaching, and all the tried-and-true practices required to mold the intellect and character of its students.  The imposition of these things is mostly to do with standardization: with the necessity for an ordered system.  Within this framework, the check against dogma (in universities specifically) comes from the recognition that subjects and disciplines, being based on knowledge, must remain flexible, dynamic, and free to evolve as new knowledge arrives.

One could look at the hard sciences to see this most clearly.  The entire subject of computer science was born within my lifetime.  Physics saw repeated overturning of basic principles and laws.  Same for biology and the theory of evolution.  And so on.

In the humanities, the ongoing experimental stages of knowledge acquisition – while less clear cut – marked and helped define each discipline in turn.  And often at a breakneck pace.  Only a few, in our modern times, proved more lethargic (philosophy, literature, the fine arts, Classics) within the university/education context, as these were based upon mostly pre-existing bodies of data/knowledge.  Note that I said ‘lethargic.’  There hasbeen movement in such areas of learning, often characterized by new trends of interpretive analysis (ie Neo-Marxist, Post-Modern, etc.) applied to pre-existing data.

Unfortunately, dogma is a powerful force and often the pressure for continuity of belief, consensus and conformity of thought (and thinking) conspires with the rigidity of the ordered system to crush those qualities promulgated by free-thinking, fact-chasing, open-minded and inquisitive education.  Such dogma can come internally, within disciplines, or externally, from the outside world’s political, cultural or social agenda, or as an unholy union of the two.

In other words, new knowledge (data, interpretation, ways of seeing things) is resisted.  And while that’s a good thing in general, it may not be when the motivations behind that resistance are dubious or outright objectionable.

How does one parse all of this?  How does one separate the wheat from the chaff?  It isn’t easy.  Because lots of letters behind names and fancy titles don’t quite carry the authority or veracity they used to.  Blame politicians for that, or corrupt government officials and agencies, or all those mad scientists in films and television.  Blame the chemists and CEOs who thought napalm and agent orange were good things.  Blame all those psychologists who initially claimed that PTSD wasn’t real, or who thought dosing unwitting subjects with psychotropic drugs was acceptable practice. Blame the experts hired by corporations who said fracking wouldn’t trigger earthquakes, or that gas pipelines are safe, or that clear-cutting was good forest management.  And on and on.

So, in addition to the aforementioned problems (secrecy, skepticism) we can add another: we’ve got a problem with authority. We just can’t trust it anymore.

 

Okay, it doesn’t take deep thinking to begin to see that those three things are connected to one another.  Secrecy (aka being lied to), authority and skepticism. What has all this to do with my First Contact novel?  Lots. You see, I’m in the same boat as you are.  Veracity is an endangered species (I have begun to believe it’s alwaysbeen an endangered species).  I even have sympathy for the whole ‘facts/false facts’ comedy routine – for both sides.  I suspect that this latest clash has always been around and it’s only weirdly prominent now because we have access to more information than ever (meaning we’re communicating more than ever, too).  As an example, consider the clash between the Earth-centered universe of Catholic dogma and scientific heliocentrism in Europe in the Middle Ages. People were burned alive for rejecting false-facts, and haven’t we come a long way?  (No, and maybe ‘comedy routine’ was not the best descriptive to use.)

Many First Contact novels I’ve read left me frustrated.  Not because of the writing or the story or even the characters as such. There’s some really good stuff out there.  But it seemed that so many of the novels ended right at the moment where things got reallyinteresting for me.

Okay, the aliens have arrived.  Now what?

The novels that tackled that question often defaulted to a Business-As-Usual-Only-Bigger scenario: the same competition, aggression, deception, resource-chasing, wars, politics, nationalism, corporatism, as we have now, only with a bunch of bug-eyed aliens tossed into the mix (sort of like Star Trek Discovery, or DS9, or Alien).

And those assumptions make me … skeptical.  In fact, I’m having a hard time buying it.  I don’t think resources are scarce out there.  Space isn’t even as empty as we think it is (as physicists are now discovering).  I don’t think life is rare, even in the void between the planets.  Also, I can’t really imagine that any spacefaring civilization coming to visit us gives a flying fuck about our nations, presidents, dictators, covert agencies, corporate interests, borders, militaries, capitalism, communism and all the rest. As for our highly vaunted scientists, well, that’d be like trying to have a conversation with a four-year-old, we’d be so far behind.  Besides, scientists aren’t really people-people, or rather, they have no special qualifications for being on point in a First Contact event.  Same for astronauts, military types, men-in-black (and let’s face it, what a fucked-up lot they’d be … if they existed).  Nor politicians (I mean, when was the last time any of them truly had your best interests at heart?  Would youwant them mucking it up with aliens?  I wouldn’t, for the simple reason that they’re not qualified and, oh yeah, I don’t trust them).

I want to know: what if… and … what then? And that’s where this novel came from.  Because I have this suspicion.  If ET arrived tomorrow, all they’d have to do to bring down human civilization, is show up. No giant lasers, no hordes of giant spiders or mech-warriors.  Just show up.

We’ll do the rest.

PS – It’s true–at the moment I have a .com and a .org website. The explanation behind this situation would bore you to death. Eventually things will get ironed out and there will be one site for all things Steven Erikson. The new .org site still has a few bugs that we are working on but it’s exciting to have a fresh look. 

Fireside Conversation with Steven Erikson

You won’t want to miss this fireside conversation with Steven Erikson.
In addition to talking about Malazan, Steve provides more insight about his upcoming book, Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart, talks anthropology, muses about nihilism, and much, much more. Be sure to check out the show notes with links to articles and reference materials.
Special thanks to Michael for hosting the interview and to Kevin Feris (https://www.kevinferis.com) for his audio editing work.

Deconstructing the Siege of Pale Aftermath Scene

As promised, here is the deconstruction of the scene.  Because the chapter is thirty-two pages long, and because I intend to be very precise, I’m going to do only the first section.  In truth, the aftermath to the siege of Pale as written in this chapter consists of a bunch of scenes, not just one, including an extensive flashback.  The opening section, the scene that opens on the hilltop with Tattersail and Hairlock, and then Whiskeyjack, Quick Ben, Kalam and Sorry, sets up the flashback which continues in a loop to pick up in present time again at page fifteen (in this version).

Before I begin the line-by-line stuff, however, some opening comments on my decision-making processes on the structure of the chapter.  I have in the past described my scene construction (and chapter construction, and novel construction) as elliptical narrative.  This is probably a holdover from my short-story-writing days, although to be honest I’m not sure what led me to refine the approach the way that I did.

In short, elliptical narrative makes use of images, details, settings created at the beginning of the scene (or novel, or series), that establish a strong connotative subtext, and this subtext then becomes my target for the end of that same scene.  In other words, I circle round to complete the scene.  This makes it self-contained in a sense, like the closing of a thought.

To put it another way, imagine that, with some chosen detail at the beginning of your scene, you ring a bell.  Now, as you write further into that scene, the tone of that sound carries you forward, until eventually it fades.  At which point, recalling that original detail, you give the bell another tap, softly this time, and you repeat that when needed (or desired) until you come to the end of the scene, whereupon you ring that bell again.  Only this time, if you’ve done your work – that is, if you’ve advanced the narrative so that the fictive world has, through the passage of the scene, been subtly altered – the tone of that final ringing will echo that opening tone, but not exactly.  It’ll be subtly off.  But not in a bad way: more like a reprise in an orchestral piece.  The closing reverberation complements how the scene began; more importantly, it evokes something of the opening: an emotion, a sense of atmosphere.

Obviously, one should not be obsessive about this.  As a crass example: you describe a tree your protagonist is standing under in the first paragraph of the scene.  It’s leafless, possibly even dead.  Or it’s a mass of thick leaves.  Come to the end of the scene, somewhere in that last paragraph or two, mention the tree again.  This time, the character (or narrator) takes note of new buds on the branches and twigs [a new hope has sprung!].  Or that verdant growth from the opening paragraph now appears, upon closer examination, to be blight and rot [bad times are coming!].  The direction of that echoing depends on where you want to take the story, and the character.  Now, don’t bother doing anything as crude as that.  This really only works if you stay subtle.  The bell shouldn’t deafen the reader, and those intermittent soft chimes should be quiet enough so that most readers don’t even notice them: the important thing is that you do (you, the writer).  Why?  Because it’s the surest way to stay on track and stay focused while writing that scene.

Bear in mind that scenes exist to advance some element of your story.  Some scenes can carry multiple elements, but for the detail you use as your bell to ring, pick one.  Don’t try them all.  If you’re ambitious, try two, and then see how they can be made to play off one another as you write through the scene.  If you’re really ambitious, you can take that first ringing of the bell and spend the entire scene subverting it.  The key here is to be mindful, because without that, you can get lost in the scene you’re writing.  You can lose its thread, its thematic track.  You can, in effect, lose control of your narration.

And we don’t want that, do we?  This is how writing ends up being that strange, seemingly contradictory combination of mindful intent with spontaneous, unfettered creativity.  What you, as writer, write is in essence your dialogue between the two, laid out on the page for everyone to see (but you first, since you need to become your own editor, to fix what needs fixing, to test what’s working and what isn’t working; to make it as perfect as you can make it).

Accordingly – and this is very important – don’t go desperately looking for that detail that rings the bell.  It doesn’t work that way.  Rather, as you open a scene, with details of setting, or words in dialogue or monologue, employ the details you need to give the reader a clear picture or at least a sense of what’s going on.  Then, once you’ve got a couple paragraphs in, stop and look back over what you’ve written.  Chances are, something in that description, in that narrative, is the bell waiting to be rung.

Bear in mind this is only one approach to narrative fiction.  There are many others.  The reason I’ve gone to such lengths to describe this particular approach should be fairly obvious: it’s what I do, and did, throughout the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  In fact, it’s become so natural to me – as a mechanism to maintain cohesion and control over every scene I write – that I do it these days without even having to think about it.  Nor do I always do it, either, but it remains as an option in the back of my mind.  You can go to any scene in any of my works, and you’ll find something of this approach.

You want to write a fat book?  A long series?  A ten-million-word masterwork?  How swiftly does intimidation and despair set in?  Suddenly, your own ambition becomes an enemy, a sneering, mocking foe to your own creativity.  In your head there’s a seven hundred page novel, and here you are, on page three.  Struggling.  Sweating.  Dying.

The elliptical narrative approach is your sure-fire fix to this problem (and I’m sure there are others, too), because it circumvents the brutal truth of six hundred ninety-seven pages still to go.  Instead, your task is constrained, condensed, to One. Single. Scene.  Start writing, find the bell and ring it, write through to the scene’s end and ring the bell again, noting its subtle alteration (with grim delight).  Come tomorrow, it’s time to start a new scene.  And so on, and so on.  Until surprise!  You reach page seven hundred, and lo, your novel is at an end.  And damn if that opening bell in chapter one (or the prologue, even) isn’t ringing one more time as you close out the final few paragraphs of the story.  Congratulations: you’ve just written your first narrative symphony.

Click the link to see the scene notes (use the zoom feature to enlarge the print):

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4tRw3Z4d1FPblZpTWFHb1JLejNCb1pXVjJ0endYS2R4cm5V/view

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