1 | If I may start with a little crude philosophy…

My understanding of human life is that we are creatures of possibility – by which I mean, we are open-ended, we are always heading onwards, into new ground, we can reach no final decision on the nature of things. Made up as we go along, we are a bit of a hodge-podge. We lack the super-cool, disembodied intelligence of a god: guarded and separated by our unique limitations, both as individuals and as a species, we are inevitably idiosyncratic. Neither an objective world existing ‘outside’ us, nor a subjective world existing ‘inside’ us, is accessible in any supposed totality.

If we can never be entirely certain of ourselves or our world, then it follows that we must deal with possibilities. Language is the chief way we negotiate those deals. We create our significance. We assign values to things, ‘meanings’. We create orders of value and meaning, and then we attempt to negotiate these orders. Indeed, for us, in one way, the world is composed of meaning. And this meaning is dynamic, and in a perpetual state of construction, of ‘visions and revisions’ (T.S. Eliot). There is no grand “meaning of life” – an order of significance so persuasive that it stabilises and checks the natural flow of meaning, or can arrest our own inherent drive to create significance.

Unless all is known, nothing is known. Our penchant for analysis means that we are forever generating more and more pieces of a puzzle even as, by generating the pieces, we seek to complete other historical puzzles handed down to us by our ancestors. Even if we consider that we “know” something (‘2+2=4’), we can’t possibly know the full significance of that “something”, of how it fits together with all the pieces of our knowledge, because we aren’t able to place it in a totalised order of significance. We can’t arrive at a totalised order of significance for a variety of reasons, but most importantly and inconveniently because life is constantly happening, and our value system is therefore always in a state of flux. We are inherently constructive and creative creatures. We cannot but create meaning – always, all the time, meaning is coming into being, and orders of significance are shifting around. As meaning comes into being, so the world comes into being: they aren’t two separate entities or events…

2 | When I write, whether it’s poetry or prose, I usually want to try and incorporate something of this philosophical worldview into my work. With poetry, it’s a relatively straightforward exercise, in that poetry (more easily than conventional prose) allows for radical shifts and jumps and can be constructed in such a way that it embodies this notion of the world being “composed of meaning”.

In terms of prose, I very much like fantasy’s fluidity, the ease with which I can integrate subjects into the work and the world of the novel.

SPOILER, relating to Volume 3 Stories in the Falling Snow: please omit the rest of this post if you wish to read the story ‘unspoiled’

To give a concrete example from Volume 3 of Dustless: while travelling across a high plateau, the characters stumble on a petrified ship, where they take shelter from a blizzard. The ship’s timbers appear to have turned to a dull green crystal, from vegetable to mineral. Akzasosan, the adult lord (‘Shion‘), gives a conventional explanation to his sceptical boy servant, the ‘barbarian’, Early:

…‘A chemical alteration in the nature of the wood’ Akzasosan added, indicating the way the green timbers shone in the lamplight. ‘Among the atoms, it has changed to stone – has become imbued with stone, you understand… GaMin-Zo Zir-ee, Early?’
‘Wood turned to stone? How, Shion?’ the servant asked.
‘By chemical alteration. I have already said that.’
Early shrugged.
‘What is “chemical alteration”, Shion?’…

“Truth is stranger than fiction”, but one of the advantages of fantasy is that you can create these rather dreamlike, symbolic episodes and locations with greater facility and fluidity than is possible with conventional realist fiction. With much of Dustless, my aim was to ‘tweak reality’ – to exaggerate, or to bend it a little, not to try and tear it down or assemble a universe radically different to our own. So, in this example, I permitted myself the mystery of having a large body of water – a great lake, or minor sea – sitting on top of a high plateau. This isn’t physically impossible – there is Lake Titicaca in the Andes, for instance – but it’s unusual. And the episode contains several other unusual or unlikely phenomena: the blizzard that drives the travellers to seek shelter is a lightning snowstorm; the body of water has entirely dried up; the ship has undergone its curious metamorphosis. None of these phenomena are absolutely impossible (as far as I understand), but the aggregation of so many unlikely events would be implausible if someone was expecting the more stringently factual environment of a realist work.

The freedom of fantasy allows me to bring in a kind of fairytale element to the story. The ship is meant to resemble an item from a fairytale – to sit in magical contrast to the bleak and empty landscapes of the plateau, the sheer brute matter of the terrain. Fantasy allows me the freedom to create what are, hopefully, resonant and powerful symbolic imaginative domains. A crystal ship on a dried-up sea, on a high plateau, with Akzasosan and his two companions, one a child and one a youth, stranded there while the blizzard blows and then as one of their ponies recovers from a wound – the episode permits me to explore, at the level of metaphor, certain states or moods to do with childhood and dream, and to develop the figural architecture of the characters.

I really value the flexibility of fantasy, its elasticity. When I was younger, I adored much ‘realist’ writing – writers like George Eliot, Turgenev, Dickens (I’m re-reading Turgenev’s Nest of the Gentry at the moment) – but perhaps, as a writer, I lack the patience to build such beautiful simulations of reality. And in one way – to circle back to the first part of this post – I see in the imaginative display of fantasy, its evident departure from conventional realism, a more accurate mode of embodying our human condition: that we have to keep imagining what our lives are like, and what the world is like, because we have no other way of going about our affairs. In living, we imagine; and in imagination, we live.