Wednesday Words of Wisdom #9 —Reality

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

Shirley Jackson

I keep meaning to read The Haunting of Hill House… That’ll happen eventually.

In the meantime, I just finished re-listening to the audiobook of Going Bovine, by Libba Bray. It’s one of those books where (no spoilers, kinda) you get to the end and wonder how much of it was real and how much was the unreliable narrator imagining things. It’s hard to tell what even he thought was real or not, in the end. But it’s a beautiful book that at its heart has to do with the stories we tell ourselves to make reality bearable, or worthwhile, or at least make some sort of sense.

The vocabulary I use for this idea comes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, particularly Hogfather which I recommend highly for its own merits and for being kind of a Christmas story.

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

Hogfather

Another source is the incomparable Douglas Adams.

Trin Tragula, for that was his name, was a dreamer, a speculative thinker, or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he would spend staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake. “Have some sense of proportion,” she would say, thirty-eight times a day. And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex – just to show her. And in one end he plugged the whole of reality, as extrapolated from a fairy cake, and in the other end he plugged his wife – so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock annihilated her brain. But to his satisfaction, he realised he had conclusively proved that if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have, is a sense of proportion.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio series), Fit the 8th

ZAPHOD:
The universe does that to a guy?

GARGRAVARR:
The whole infinite Universe. The Infinite sums. The Infinite distances between them, and yourself. An invisible dot on an invisible dot. Infinitely small.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio series), Fit the 8th

Absolute reality lacks meaning. Absolute reality is the universe before it’s been run through the filter of our perception. From the day we’re born we start hearing and telling stories, starting with nursery rhymes and “when you were a tiny baby” anecdotes and going from there. To be human is to be a storyteller.

I feel like I have written posts about this idea before. It’s something I keep circling back to, like an itch I keep trying to scratch, because it keeps coming up in my writing.

In the second draft of my NaNo novel I’m still thinking through the stories my main character tells himself about who he is, what he wants, whether or not he’s okay with how repetitive his life has become and why, and so on and so forth. People have been telling him stories his whole life about what is and isn’t okay, especially his father, and over the course of the story he needs to question and confront things that have seemed like solid reality but are in truth a lot more subjective. And that’s just the main character! I’m relatively certain of his character growth throughout the novel, but not so much with the love interest. I haven’t even tackled any of his stories yet.

The idea also creeps into a short (ish) story that I’m currently working on, involving dreams. I’m not going to say much more than that because I’m going to be posting it in April.

How do you think ideas about reality and the stories we tell ourselves about the rightness in the universe show up in your writing?

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A to Z Challenge #15 — Omnipotence

Do you know what it feels like to be aware of every star, every blade of grass? Yes. You do. You call it ‘opening your eyes again.’ But you do it for a moment. We have done it for eternity. No sleep, no rest, just endless… endless experience, endless awareness. Of everything. All the time. How we envy you, envy you! Lucky humans, who can close your minds to the endless deeps of space! You have this thing you call… boredom? That is the rarest talent in the universe! We heard a song — it went ‘Twinkle twinkle little star….’ What power! What wondrous power! You can take a billion trillion tons of flaming matter, a furnace of unimaginable strength, and turn it into a little song for children! You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds, and that keeps infinity at bay and allows you to wake up in the morning without screaming!Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32; Tiffany Aching, #2)

I think it would be terrible to be omnipotent. The quote above is not about omnipotence, exactly, but it suggests an interesting question. How could any human, given that we are so good at tuning out the world around us not only it will but sometimes even without making a conscious decision to do so, understand omnipotence? How could we understand or begin to contemplate infinity?

Because we are so far from omnipotence we create stories to explain the things we don’t understand. As it says in another Terry Pratchett book, the sun doesn’t come up, a big ball of burning gas rises in the sky. We write what we know, and when we don’t know we fill it in with something that. Because what is a single fantasy novel if not one author’s answer to a self-posed “what if” question?

total-perspective-vortex

One of my characters in Growing Magic is omnipotent on his own ground, meaning he is omnipotent but with limits. So he’s not really omnipotent. He doesn’t know everything. And that puts writing this character right back in my wheelhouse, because I am an expert at not knowing everything! He no longer usually has a corporeal form, so when he appears in the story that way it’s difficult for him to be so limited by that form. I’m drawing on ideas from Hitchhiker’s Guide, Discworld, and even a little bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey to help frame my ideas for this character concept. (Is it weird that two out of three of these examples aren’t fantasy?) To be aware of so many things all at once, 360° in 3D, and to only focus on one spot and one conversation, one or two threads of sound amongst a massive symphony of the world around you must be very difficult indeed. And yet this is a character who would never be able to tell a story, or write a song, or distill any of the beautiful things that he knows into a painting.

A to Z Challenge #5 — Earth

MAN: [Blood-curdling scream]

ZAPHOD: The universe does that to a guy?

GARGRAVARR: The whole infinite Universe. The Infinite sums. The Infinite distances between them, and yourself. An invisible dot on an invisible dot. Infinitely small.

~ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, radio series, Fit the Eighth, by Douglas Adams

total-perspective-vortex
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The Total Perspective Vortex was invented (fictionally of course) in response to the phrase “Have a sense of proportion.” I’ve noticed a similar concept mentioned in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books — that people have, amazingly, the ability to be bored, and completely ignore the infinite stream of stimuli that is constantly available to their senses, including the certain knowledge that there is far more out there than any individual could hope to process. Continue reading “A to Z Challenge #5 — Earth”

A to Z Challenge #1 — Audiobooks

I discovered audiobooks about a year after I graduated from college. At the time I had an intense full time job — six days a week, mostly nine to five, on my feet in a kitchen. By the time I battled my way home through rush hour traffic, it was time to eat dinner, shower, and fall asleep. I don’t remember exactly when or why the idea occurred to me, but I found myself at the nearest library one Sunday, browsing the audiobook shelf. After all, I had a radio adaptor in my car that could plug into my iPod, and I was getting tired of both my music collection and all of the local radio stations.

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This has been a good friend to me.

The first audiobook I selected was decent, but I liked it for the voice of Simon Jones more than for the actual story. I’m a nervous driver and my stress level goes up when I’m surrounded by other cars in that gray area between traffic jam and actually going the speed limit — but my stress level in rush hour traffic went down if I had a book to listen to. It was soothing. Plus, even when not driving I usually can’t read in the car without getting queasy. Not a problem anymore as long as I bring my headphones along on road trips, or if the people I’m riding with are game. (That’s how I got my mom into the Hunger Games series.) Continue reading “A to Z Challenge #1 — Audiobooks”