Archives for category: literary theory

I’d like to discuss my experience in creating a fantasy world in the novel, Dustless.

I think there are different degrees of fantasy. Perhaps there should be a measure, like proof for alcohol, or Celsius for temperature, for the ‘fantastic’?

How fantastic is Dustless? Is it mildly fantastic? Does it possess medium fantasy? Is it soft or hard?

Fantasy writers often inscribe strongly realist constraints into their work. By this, I simply mean that in order for the imagined world to be internally consistent and convincing, it needs to be governed by rules, which involve a kind of realism, even though the world itself may be organised by conventions that diverge strongly from those organising our own world.

In the case of Dustless, although philosophically it is a strongly fantastic work, I was very keen to embed my characters in a credible environment. I mentioned in another post, on ambient literature, my desire to

slow the narrative tempo down, to pay attention to details, to honour the materiality of ordinary life.

This aspect of Dustless, strongly related to the philosophy of TanZo (the ‘simple or pure Way’), is very important to me. I tried to imagine a world in which the beauty of the mundane, the rhythms of routine, the imposing existence of the ‘humdrum’, the recalcitrance and resistance of the natural terrain, are borne in on the reader. I wanted to give the main characters’ journey across the Land of O an existential weight and conviction. In slowing the narrative down, in paying attention to the passing of hours, moments, instants, I wished to give the reader a sense of struggle and of duration – so that, hopefully, at moments of release or climax in the story, the reader would feel, along with the characters, a genuine sense of achievement, and feel a real shift in their spirits.

In many ways, for large parts of the novel, I only wanted to ‘tweak’ reality. My characters are, in the main, flesh and blood human beings – they are drawn along the lines of what I consider to be psychologically realist patterns. They’re flawed, they are battered and eroded, and heightened, by the circumstances in which they find themselves. They aren’t endowed with ‘super-powers’, they can’t make magical escapes from the dilemmas they face, but must compromise and bodge, as we all do.

Dustless exhibits what I hope is an interesting inter-weaving of fantastic and realist narrative threads. The world of the novel grew, slowly, from certain intense imaginary nodes or cores. A lighter and more fantastic novel would have perhaps passed over much of the material and cultural complexity of Dustless, and concentrated less on the natural than the supernatural elements. As I wrote, however – and in this, I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t an element of ‘mission creep’ – and the world came more and more into view, became more immersive and extensive, I found that I wanted convincing reasons for the state of the landscape, the organisation of the communities, the evolution of the various interest groups, and a credible historical narrative behind the profoundly hierarchical and formalised society we find unfolded throughout the novel.1

Perhaps there is a curious jeopardy in the act of creating fantasy worlds? Even as one has the pleasure of bringing into being a world that has never existed before, one may experience a sense of melancholy at the futility of ever providing a proper account of this new domain. Detail begets detail: one character implies others. The constraints of time and mortality ensure that we can never fully investigate any phenomenon. Different forms permit different creations: with poetry, one can construct a convincing literary entity in a matter of seconds, but for the fantasy writer, it is quite possible to imagine years and years being absorbed in the creation of the literary world. Is there a danger – both technical (a matter of style, perhaps?) and psychological (in the urge to linger too long in a world of one’s own devising) – in building imaginative kingdoms in this way?

And if this is true for an imagined world – that we can never exhaustively account for any phenomenon – is there another world for which it is also true?

1It strikes me now that the creation of the novel became in a way a kind of hermeneutical progress. In trying to create a credible world in which the notion of TanZo is strongly rooted, it was necessary to try and pay attention to the different parts of the society – both ‘horizontally’, across the present, and ‘vertically’, through time. For the writer, certainly, there is a danger that a form of hermeneutic circle can develop, in which, as the world is created, and more elements of it come to be revealed, so more elements are required in order to complete the world satisfactorily – a process to which, in one way, there is no logical end. It’s possible to imagine, for example, a writer for whom it becomes necessary to account for every cell and molecule and atom in their world. “God is in the details”. And who’s to say that such a writer is wrong, or crazy? Perhaps, when they turn over an obscure atom in an indifferent part of spacetime, they might uncover the greatest secret in the universe of their book?

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I suppose I should try and sketch out a definition of ‘fantasy’1. I admit, I find it very difficult to do this. I don’t associate fantasy so much with subject matter or characterisation or themes. I think fantasy is more a kind of animating spirit, which exhibits a certain playfulness in its dealings with the world.

It’s hard to take a photograph of this spirit: always on the move, slyly insinuating itself into double meanings, a creature of ambiguity and disorder, a lover of things that haven’t yet existed, a will o’ the wisp and a slip of the tongue, creating itself as it goes along, forever trying on disguises and postulating new ways to be, insisting on fresh perspectives from which to confound the assumptions we use to organise our world… If we try to hunt it down, it has already left for a new adventure. Seeking a glimpse of it in its natural habitat, we must be patient and be prepared to camp out in often inhospitable terrain – but perhaps, if we’re lucky, we may find it deep in the linguistic undergrowth, darting between the terms ‘fantastical’, ‘fantasy’, ‘imaginative’?…

The spirit of fantasy doesn’t necessarily inhabit a particular genre exclusively. A writer like Dickens, for example: in some ways, he could be described as a ‘realist’, and yet his prose is capable of the most fantastical excursions. Great Expectations is a wonderful account of (among many other things) social class and its relationship with individual desire, but Miss Haversham has just stepped out of a fairytale. People wouldn’t generally describe Great Expectations as a fantasy novel, but it displays the lightning and fluidity, the heightened metaphoric state, of a fantasy.

I accept of course that my definition of fantasy is skewed and idiosyncratic, not to say spectacularly vague. In my defence, I can only say that I’m not attempting an academic article, these are simply my thoughts about the subject. I appreciate that for many people, ‘fantasy’ refers to a particular genre of writing.

In fact, to a certain extent, I think there’s a problem precisely when fantasy hardens into a genre. This is a problem for both writers and readers. As genres splinter into sub-genres, the ‘hardening’ process intensifies. In order to satisfy the dictates of a genre – the genre which, in theory, allows publishers and critics and readers to establish the nature of a book – certain rules tend to be followed. Ironically, this may actually result in a more rigid deployment of the ‘spirit of fantasy’ that I’m talking about, with the consequence that books become less imaginative, less fluid and light-fingered. A certain international house style develops, an unwittingly corporate enterprise. By accepting the formulae of a genre, we are all of us immediately in danger of suppressing a certain degree of flexibility in our reading and writing. This descent into genre, into too easily adopted codes and styles, may lead to producing work which has the effect of closing minds and encouraging clichés, and into a general literary culture that runs the danger of degenerating into fanaticism, obsession and snobbery.

The spirit of fantasy is open-minded and flexible. It’s at ease with the plasticity of form – as in Ovid, say. It’s playful, in a deep sense of the word – it’s happy to invent whole worlds in which to exercise its powers. Anyone who has watched children running through a forest in the middle of a shopping mall, or building a submarine or an aeroplane out of a cardboard box, will have seen the spirit of fantasy at work.

I’d say that, in one sense, the spirit of fantasy represents a refusal to accept the status quo of what could loosely be called realism, and revolts against any literalist interpretation of the world. I suppose there is a degree of irrationality in this spirit of fantasy – perhaps he or she is related to Edgar Allen Poe’s Imp of the Perverse?

If you’ve read some of this site’s earlier posts – on my preference for writing fantasy, for example [Why I write fantasy | 2] – you will realise that I believe that at the heart of human beings there lies a core not of certainty but of possibility. In my view, realism asserts a kind of certainty – a form of fatality, in fact. This fatality lies in the assertion that there is one world, objectively accessible, which conforms to rigid laws. This conformity is seen as a value in itself – it is ‘the truth’. The ‘real world’, ‘reality’… ‘Things as they are’, ‘the basic facts of life’… ‘Get real!’… Our language is dotted with concepts and idioms referring to this place, this world that is real – hard, actual, undeniable, a place where the cosmic trains run to a mathematical timetable, a place susceptible to our desire for order, and curiously compliant to our analysis.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is often viewed negatively – we speak of “flights of fancy/fantasy”, and urge people we feel are letting themselves “get carried away” to “come back down to earth”. “It’s just a fantasy.” The spirit of fantasy, though, chafes against this urge to accept the common sense view of life. It wishes to bend things out of shape, to offer alternatives, to insist on our powers to change things by looking at them in new ways, to celebrate our condition as uncertain, as not knowing, as not being in control2.

The power of figuration is crucial to the spirit of fantasy – figuration, configuration, re-configuration… In literature, fantasy enjoys being able to construct different planets and societies, new intelligences, and fantasy offers a heightened capacity to manipulate symbols and images.  Metaphors can be viewed as the assertion of a particular bond, the establishment of a relation between objects or states normally kept discreet. But of what use are they? Aren’t they just futile whimsy, the doodles of a playful mind? A solemn, severe, totally literalist interpretation of the world would insist that metaphors are absurd. The literalist might accept similes – might accept the fact that a mushroom looks a bit like an umbrella – but would categorically deny that a mushroom actually is an umbrella. Metaphor displaces the literalist order, and brings together things a literalist would prefer to keep separate2.

I don’t wish to establish a crass, binary opposition between fantasy and realism/reality (as if it were a kind of boxing or wrestling match: FANTASY vs. REALITY [“And in the blue corner, wearing the gold trunks with blue trim”…]). As I’ve mentioned, in some senses, I don’t see reality as an entirely plausible concept or place. I don’t believe reality is an alternative to fantasy. I believe that reality is fantasy.

Nor do I wish to rehearse the same opposition as it can be played out within literature. I see fantasy and realism as intimately inscribed within each other – each depends upon the other. Philosophically, though, I would gently insist that the spirit of fantasy is fundamental to all literature. After all, the worlds of a realist writer and of a fantasy writer are both created worlds. Both worlds are imagined. One world is imagined to be different to some notional actual world; the other world is imagined to be similar.

As I look back over this post, I see the ironies which are, to a certain extent, inherent in my views. All the time, I either use or am tempted to use certain phrases: “Really, if we think about it, then…”, and “In truth…”, and “In fact…”, and “Actually…”: in seeking to create a persuasive argument, I seek to appeal to the conventions of the very world (the ‘real’ world) I am attempting to discredit, or at least to challenge. So, bearing this in mind, perhaps we may move on to the last phase of this post?

Really, if we think about it, then no work of art would be possible without fantasy. To give an example of a single art form: any film, no matter what its conventional style, requires the audience to accept the element of artifice and creation within it – its fantastic base. The audience in the cinema gazes at the silver screen, and creatures of light and sound move across the landscape of an imaginary world. We know it is not ‘real’. We know, or seem to know, that the characters whose fates we follow are actors – they are playing roles, they are “making believe”. And yet, so tremendously affective is the world of cinema, and so deep our desire to enter and remain in it, that we are transported by the story, and can laugh and cry at what we see. The spirit of fantasy works as an animating energy within the audience, not only in the film’s creators.

I realise I’m extending my definition of ‘fantasy’ into a rather nebulous construct, for which I apologise. But what I’m trying to get to is that the spirit of fantasy isn’t an aberration, or a departure from a realist way of looking at the world: it isn’t something we add on, a luxury or a kind of afterthought. It’s fundamental to our humanity. We think fantastic thoughts. We live in a fantastic world.

I hope to return to this subject in a subsequent post.

1 Our lives always seems to come back to definition. “It depends what you mean.” And we depend on what we mean.
Human life consists of three things:
1 | Arriving at a definition of a term, enabling us to act.
2 | Applying a value to a particular definition, inflecting how we will act.
3 | Everything else apart from what I’ve just written in points 1 & 2.

2 I accept of course that the spirit of fantasy has a dark side, and that it can be capable of “negative” as well as “positive” activity. A footnote isn’t the place to discuss this subject, but a common critique of “fantasy” lies precisely in the dangers that arise when a person “retreats into fantasy”, states in which the individual fantasises precisely that they are in control, that others do their bidding, fall for their charms, and so on. And fantasy, in this more alarming form, isn’t at all restricted to individuals: groups of people, cultures, entire states – and perhaps even an entire species – can live out fantasies. For anyone interested, my trilogy of poetry books, When the volts flowed, explores in part a world in which the lives of individuals have been rendered as ghostly, haunting already doomed worlds, by the delusory nature of the societies in which we live.

3 I would like to discuss the nature of metaphor in a separate post.

It’s a complex issue, the nature of influence. There are certainly moments of Dustless where I might be able to say, “Oh, I really wanted to emulate The Seven Samurai in this part”, or “I wanted to bring in something of Swann’s Way [Du côté de chez Swann] at this point”. These are conscious emulations, quite possibly recognisable to someone who has seen The Seven Samurai or read Swann’s Way.

I would say, though, that these kinds of one-to-one match-ups are quite rare in the novel. Match-ups, I mean, where you may be able to isolate the vivid point where the current from one work of art can clearly be seen entering another work of art.

Influence, though, doesn’t necessarily or even usually flow along lines of literal transmission. The world is too subtle for us: we’re always using bold crayons to depict it. And we can concentrate too much on what is there, when what is not there may be of equal or greater importance.

In an earlier post [Ambient literature | 2], I suggested that, when we’re strongly affected by things we don’t like, these dislikes can become very important to us, and even precious – they may, paradoxically, form powerfully benevolent and creative forces in our lives. In terms of the subject under discussion, we might describe this process as a form of “negative influence” – a concept vaguely and mis-shapenly analogous to the idea of “negative space” in art theory. We react against cultural works, disliking them, and this reaction shapes us and what we create. This absence of matter, these missing tones, those disused procedures, constitute a space surrounding the constructed work of art. What we put in is shaped by what we leave out. And this process of negative influence doesn’t have to be overt – the work of art doesn’t have to proclaim its negative influences by insisting on its own difference from them, its novelty, the reaction against what we dislike doesn’t have to be made explicit within the work of art we do produce – it can be gentle and diffusive.

Works of art influence each other, and the work of life, distantly. In terms of plot, for example, I’d very broadly describe Dustless as a quest or journey – a “road movie”. In terms of “positive” influence, we could take a trip back, perhaps, to visit the great sites of the texts and works of the past – see how, for example, The Odyssey, has flowed out and influenced many other stories and poems and other works of art, which have in their turn flowed on and performed the same transformations on neighbouring works. As narratives and images and tropes disperse and mutate across time and culture, tracing the lines of the literal transmission of influence becomes impossible, but is it so far-fetched to say that, as we are supposed to contain particles of the very first moments of birth of the universe, so Tokyo Story or North by Northwest, or a minimal techno track, or even a game of tennis or chess, may well contain within them particles of The Odyssey?

I imagine many of the influences on Dustless are there in a diffuse form. Myths, folklore, and fairy tales, for example – these are all part of the ambience of the novel. Things that are atmospheric, that we breathe. Fragments of sacred texts, nursery rhymes, cartoons from our childhood (Boss Cat, and Tom and Jerry)…

One way of describing Dustless might be to say that it is panoramic. In filmic terms, the narrative pans slowly across a vast landscape. The landscape is cultural – the landscape that is feeding into my mind as I write, over the years, encountering new works, remembering encounters with older works. So gradual and extensive is the panning action that, in turns of influence, a huge amount of material ends up being fed into the story.

Cinema itself is very, very important to the world of Dustless. The early volumes, for example, are heavily influenced by the Westerns I watched as a kid. John Wayne, James Stewart, Jack Palance, Gary Cooper. Many of those films had faded or bleached out of my memory by the time I actually came to start composition, but Sergio Leone’s Westerns, and Clint Eastwood’s films, such as High Plains Drifter, entered the DNA of the novel. It wasn’t so much any particular incident in these films that stirred my imagination, but more the atmospheres – again, the scale of the landscapes involved, the emptiness, the sense of settlements isolated in near-wilderness. Or fragments of gear: the immortal sound of boots and spurs jingling on steps and boardwalk as the protagonist approached the saloon. Space and distance, and travelling through difficult terrain, and what these elements do to people, the kind of person who is fitted to such environments – I think of Clint Eastwood’s lean, languid figure in the saddle, the way his eyes seem to have been sculpted into slits by his facing into sun or snow – those Westerns were really important to me.

It’s fitting that Sergio Leone’s name crops up, because he’s a well-documented example of the diffusion of influence. Leone was influenced by Akira Kurosawa, who was in turn influenced by the Western, particularly by John Ford. This wonderfully fertile cross-pollination of works of art, and specifically those of occidental and oriental cultures, resonates through Dustless. I absorbed atmospheres, and Dustless was the arena in which those different atmospheres mixed, like a sky that contains different kinds of clouds.

During the long years of composition, it was a kind of technique of mine to immerse myself in films, and particularly in Japanese period dramas. I was fascinated by the formality and (to occidental eyes) hierarchical rigidity of the societies depicted in many of these films. I don’t think it would be too absurd to say that the greatest work of art to influence Dustless is Japan itself. (I’m guilty of huge generalisation, here, for which I hope you’ll forgive me, but of the nations I know [which are very few, and those few I don’t know very well!], I would say that the one that most approximates a work of art is Japan.)

I find Japan endlessly fascinating. The main ‘religion’ depicted in Dustless is that of TanZo, the ‘simple Way’. TanZo is clearly influenced by Buddhism – the title, Dustless, is in part derived from the Buddhist notion of ‘the six dusts’, and the search of the characters to transcend the ‘dusts’ and become ‘Dustless’. Although Buddhism flows from India out to China, and so to Japan, it is the Japanese Zen inflection of Buddhism that is probably most important in the novel – which is probably not a very Zen observation to make, I’m afraid, being so caught up with differences and distinctions.

Through my reading, and poring over woodblock prints, and watching films, a huge number of Japanese artefacts – from different historical periods – enter and influence the novel. Of course, they are all transformed into their equivalents in the imagined world of Dustless: some are hardly affected at all by the transformation, others are considerably adapted, or the model effectively vanishes into the mutated equivalent.

One of the key artforms to influence the world of Dustless was that of animation in general, and Japanese animation (anime) in particular. I’d like to discuss animation and anime in subsequent posts.

I’d like to discuss my own experience in creating a fantasy world in the novel, Dustless.

I think there are different degrees of fantasy. Perhaps there should be a measure, like proof for alcohol, or Celsius for temperature, for the ‘fantastic’?

How fantastic is Dustless? Is it mildly fantastic? Does it possess medium fantasy? Is it soft or hard?

Fantasy writers often inscribe strongly realist constraints into their work. By this, I simply mean that in order for the imagined world to be internally consistent and convincing, it needs to be governed by rules, which involve a kind of realism, even though the world itself may be organised by conventions that diverge strongly from those organising our own world.

In the case of Dustless, although philosophically it is a strongly fantastic work, I was very keen to embed my characters in a credible environment. I mentioned in another post, on ambient literature, my desire to

slow the narrative tempo down, to pay attention to details, to honour the materiality of ordinary life.

This aspect of Dustless, strongly related to the philosophy of TanZo (the ‘simple or pure Way’), is very important to me. I tried to imagine a world in which the beauty of the mundane, the rhythms of routine, the imposing existence of the ‘humdrum’, the recalcitrance and resistance of the natural terrain, are borne in on the reader. I wanted to give the main characters’ journey across the Land of O an existential weight and conviction. In slowing the narrative down, in paying attention to the passing of hours, moments, instants, I wished to give the reader a sense of struggle and of duration – so that, hopefully, at moments of release or climax in the story, the reader would feel, along with the characters, a genuine sense of achievement, and feel a real shift in their spirits.

In many ways, for large parts of the novel, I only wanted to ‘tweak’ reality. My characters are, in the main, flesh and blood human beings – they are drawn along the lines of what I consider to be psychologically realist patterns. They’re flawed, they are battered and eroded, and heightened, by the circumstances in which they find themselves. They aren’t endowed with ‘super-powers’, they can’t make magical escapes from the dilemmas they face, but must compromise and bodge, as we all do.

Dustless exhibits what I hope is an interesting inter-weaving of fantastic and realist narrative threads. The world of the novel grew, slowly, from certain intense imaginary nodes or cores. A lighter and more fantastic novel would have perhaps passed over much of the material and cultural complexity of Dustless, and concentrated less on the natural than the supernatural elements. As I wrote, however – and in this, I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t an element of ‘mission creep’ – and the world came more and more into view, became more immersive and extensive, I found that I wanted convincing reasons for the state of the landscape, the organisation of the communities, the evolution of the various interest groups, and a credible historical narrative behind the profoundly hierarchical and formalised society we find unfolded throughout the novel.1

Perhaps there is a curious jeopardy in the act of creating fantasy worlds? Even as one has the pleasure of bringing into being a world that has never existed before, one may experience a sense of melancholy at the futility of ever providing a proper account of this new domain. Detail begets detail: one character implies others. The constraints of time and mortality ensure that we can never fully investigate any phenomenon. Different forms permit different creations: with poetry, one can construct a convincing literary entity in a matter of seconds, but for the fantasy writer, it is quite possible to imagine years and years being absorbed in the creation of the literary world. Is there a danger – both technical (a matter of style, perhaps?) and psychological (in the urge to linger too long in a world of one’s own devising) – in building imaginative kingdoms in this way?

And if this is true for an imagined world – that we can never exhaustively account for any phenomenon – is there another world for which it is also true?

1It strikes me now that the creation of the novel became in a way a kind of hermeneutical progress. In trying to create a credible world in which the notion of TanZo is strongly rooted, it was necessary to try and pay attention to the different parts of the society – both ‘horizontally’, across the present, and ‘vertically’, through time. For the writer, certainly, there is a danger that a form of hermeneutic circle can develop, in which, as the world is created, and more elements of it come to be revealed, so more elements are required in order to complete the world satisfactorily – a process to which, in one way, there is no logical end. It’s possible to imagine, for example, a writer for whom it becomes necessary to account for every cell and molecule and atom in their world. “God is in the details”. And who’s to say that such a writer is wrong, or crazy? Perhaps, when they turn over an obscure atom in an indifferent part of spacetime, they might uncover the greatest secret in the universe of their book?

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.