Monday, August 19, 2013

Of Time and Faerie


Recently, Devin wrote me:

Great fan of all the books of yours i've read (The Iron Dragon's Daughter, The Dragons of Babel, Bones of the Earth). My question is (and it will be a spoilery one for anyone who hasn't read the former two of those books): Where does TIDD fit into TDOB chronologically? I know it has to be about the same time because Jane meets Will during her bratty new money phase. The end of TIDD can't be after the end of TDOB because Will locked down all the dragons (unless the military found a way around it). Yet if Jane's breakout occurred during TDOB, you'd think it'd have made the news. After all, hundreds of people dying when a rogue dragon destroys a dorm then bombs a factory doesn't seem like the kind of thing Will or Alcyone wouldn't have heard of. Help a nerd out?

This is a tougher question than it looks.  To answer it, I have to go back to before J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy regularized fantasy.

And already, in the first paragraph, I've told an untruth.  It wasn't Tolkien who regularized fantasy but his imitators.  Today, we've got a pretty good idea of what a proper fantasy looks like -- bucolic countryside, worthy young hero, mysterious mentor, magical knickknacks, a coherent history, the whole nine yards.  That's because contemporary fantasy began with imitations of Tolkien.

I'm not sneering at the imitators, incidentally.  Today, the formula looks easy.  But it took a long, long time for people to figure out how to do it.  I tried to write imitation Tolkien myself, very sincerely, when I was a young writer, so I have a good idea how difficult a task that was.

There was an interregnum of several years between when Tolkien taught millions of people that they wanted to read fantasy novels and when the first successful imitators and then original-but-still-influenced-by-Tolkien novels appeared.  During that time, people like me read every work of fantasy they could find, and publishers obliged by rushing back into print all the classic fantasy they could get the rights to:  The Gormenghast trilogy, James Branch Cabell's satiric fantasies, Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist . . . oh, the list goes on and on.  During this period, ambitious editors -- Lin Carter in particular -- resurrected some really wonderful books (and a few clunkers) that collectively were as good as a college course on twentieth century fantasy.

I took that virtual course, and it shaped my ideas of what fantasy ought to be and what it might do.

Then the imitators and successors came along and now you have a pretty good notion of what to expect when you pick up a book with a dragon on the cover.  Sometimes this is good, and sometimes less so.  That's a topic for another day, to be written by somebody else.

One thing that was common in the great pre-Tolkien fantasies was for time to behave differently than it does in what we call "real life."  In The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany, Faerie is eternal and unchanging.  When a goblin escapes into our world, the normal ebb and flow of a farm and passing of a day is great miracle to him.  E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros ends with the world restored to the instant the book began -- so his battle-loving heroes could endlessly relive their defeats and victories.  The castle Gormenghast in Mervyn Peake's fantasies exists in a bubble of unchangingness somehow isolated from the rest of the world.

I could go on multiplying examples, but shan't.  The point is that fantasy allows a writer the extraordinary freedom to rewrite the rules of time and mortality.  In The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I took advantage of this freedom by putting Jane Alderberry through repeated Yeatsian gyres of time -- recurrent cycles of history that have the same shape but different details.  In The Dragons of Babel (and I don't think anybody has noticed this), I took liberties with the speed with which Will grows up.  And in a third volume I plan to write someday . . .

Well.  When I started TDoB, I wasn't even certain it occurred in the same world as TIDD.  I was careful not to have any characters, place names, or even gods that were common to both books.  Only the dragons were the same.  I figured either it was a different world or else the events occurred on a different continent from the first book.  Will starts out somewhere near Lyonesse,which places him in Europe, and travels to Babel, which (though it is clearly on some level New York City) is explicitly in Babylon in the Near East.

A certain fluidity of geography, as well as time, is inherent to both the traditional Faerie and my own.

Then, late in the writing, I decided that it did no harm for both books to be in the same world and might give some people pleasure, so I threw in Jane's cameo.  I knew that this was wreaking havoc with conventional continuity.  But then, I wasn't interested in conventional continuity.

(As an aside, I was wrong to think this was my decision to make.  The two books feel very similar and readers were going to assume they held a world in common whatever my opinions on the matter were.  But while you're writing a novel, you have complete authority over it and it's easy to forget that this authority ends upon publication.)

So the two novels are roughly contemporaneous.  The plots occur mostly in separate parts of the world.  And events that seem very large in the one are far away and unimportant in the other.  That's as rational as I can make their relationship to each other be.

But a rational timeline can no more be imposed upon Faerie than can a rational system of magic.  There is a fluidity not only of time and space but of rationale as well.  The rules of Faerie are not the laws of Mundania.  It is, to borrow Fletcher Pratt's and L. Sprague de Camp's title, The Land of Unreason.

Unlike Middle-earth, which Tolkien implicitly set in our own distant past, it is a land which can only exist in a work of fiction.

So that confusion you feel about how the two books fit together, that uneasy feeling that something isn't right, that things don't quite add up .  . . ?

Perfectly deliberate.



skyknyt said...

So, the Goddess shall do as she wilt, and woe to anyone that inspects her handiwork too closely.

Michael Swanwick said...

Pretty much. Though I don't know whether it bothers her when somebody tries to examine the incomprehensible clockwork.

Ed McDonald said...

I have The Iron Dragon's Daughter queued up in my Audible queue and I am really looking forward to going back into that world. It had been a while since I had read it and I missed the cameo in Babel. Now I gotta read that one again. Oh well.