Worldbuilding: Standing in mother’s place

In some ways, worldbuilding is like unsnarling a necklace chain found in a drawer, particularly at the beginning. It takes patience and mental energy to tease the links apart, to soften and separate the knots, to draw one loop free of a ball of metal tangles. Very often it can’t be done in one sitting; one has to put it away before ragequit takes over — take a break, take a walk, rest one’s inner and outer vision.

This is because building a world is a reversed process of how our world usually unfolds. I want my characters to be in a particular predicament; but the predicament depends on a situation that doesn’t happen in our world. So how can I get that situation to come about? Well, it could happen due to these causes. And where do those causes come from? They came from a larger situation like…this. And why is the larger situation like this?

Then: do all these causes agree with one another? If not, what would need to happen to make them agree?

And then: what invisible assumptions am I making? Are those assumptions valid in the world I’m building? What kind of parabolic light do they shed on our world? Is that the parable I wanted to sketch?

All this is by way of saying that when I invented a matrilineal society for my main characters to live in, it was a means to an end, starting from my characters and working outward. I didn’t start with the world and work inward to the characters.

A lot of times when we describe the premise of a SFF story (or urban fantasy, or anything that requires extensive worldbuilding), we describe it from the outside in. We say, what if there were Jesuits IN SPAAACE? Let’s hear a story about that. But did Mary Doria Russell say that when she started to write The Sparrow? Maybe she did. But maybe not.

I didn’t say: what if we had a matrilineal society in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Let’s hear a story about that. I said: these two characters interest me. I think I’ll call them Speir and Douglas. This half-tangled story I’m drawing about them — what’s happening to them? What’s happening around them? What are they doing about it? And why?

Only then did I say: hey, it sure would be interesting if this society was matrilineal. And if there were a long-past nuclear holocaust, that would explain why the technology is so piecemeal compared to our own. How do those two things fit together?….Well…

And so I got out my tweezers and turned on the anglepoise lamp and set about pulling free a straight chain. Because like all writers, I’m a glutton for self-punishment. It’s not enough to spend a luxurious week in free-form daydreaming, reeling out a one-show-only viewing in my mental theater. Oh no. I had to plan to tell the story to other people. I had to make it sturdy. I had to make it internally consistent. I had to develop a coherent moral imperative. Dammit.

So from a writer’s point of view — or this writer’s point of view, anyway — vicarious enjoyments are like a gumdrop trail of rewards: if you write this story, then guess what, you can read it. You want that, don’t you?

It was so simple, seven years ago, when I was inventing Ryswyck. I was just an ordinary space-cadet writer sitting at a table with a pair of tweezers and a necklace. I thought that inventing, sketching, and detailing a matrilineal society was a pretty pedestrian way to tell the story I wanted to tell.

It may have been, but it isn’t now.

In the country I invented, mothers are the undisputed custodians of their children; their surnames are the ones that children are known by; their fertility is a precious asset that they control; they live in bonds of sworn trust with the local communities they live in and participate in collective decisions as a matter of course; their relationships are governed by witnessed contracts of which they are equal and sovereign negotiators; their property and inheritance is at their own disposal and likewise can be negotiated by contract with the fathers and sponsors of their children.

What I am describing is not a matriarchy. But it is so very, sickeningly far from the world I wake up in day after day that the distinction is obscured by distance. By day I work up to my elbows in stories about how there are maternal health care deserts spreading in rural areas in what we tell ourselves is the pinnacle of civilized society. I get on my Facebook feed and between the dead dolphins and the ominous Bonhoeffer quotations are sandwiched horrific headlines about men shooting their wives point-blank in the face for not behaving abjectly enough to their inherent superiority. Laws being written denying that a female body houses a self and a soul of its own. Public citizens treated like public property. Godwin’s Law is dead and Margaret Atwood is a prophet.

The story hasn’t changed. But the parable has.

At church yesterday all the women were offered a pink carnation for Mother’s Day. I politely avoided taking one. I don’t want to be handed a fucking flower, I want to be handed a sword.

Fortunately, I’ve already got one.

So: would you like to read a story about characters in a matrilineal society set in a half-broken post-nuclear world? Would you like to read a story about two countries whose leaders recognize the choice between destroying one’s enemies and not destroying the world they live in — and who stand a chance of choosing rightly? Would you like to read a story in which a character’s slogan becomes Undefendedness is an offensive strategy — and who deploys that strategy to great effect? Would you like to read a story in which courtesy and humanity are more valuable than cynicism?

You may think that if you stretch out your hand for this story, you’ll be getting a flower.

You won’t be.

Meet the main cast

Sometimes I forget, after years of working with my characters and nattering about them to any friends who are willing to stand still, that all everybody else has by way of introduction to them is the cover blurb and jacket copy. So here is a brief introduction to the five characters who serve as our eyes for the story of Ryswyck.

Stephanie Speir

Speir was the first character to develop a viewpoint in the embryonic story, and she is our ‘in’ to the world of Ryswyck Academy. By necessity she’s capable of reflecting on what she encounters, but given a choice, she really wants something to do. She has the fighter’s addiction to total abandon — in whatever arena she finds herself in. Her greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is her drive to set things right for people she cares about. Her motivating force is velocity.

(Disclaimer: The person in this picture is a real swordfighter and not an actor, and though I’ve been fascinated by this image ever since I first encountered it, I don’t know how much she’d appreciate being made the avatar of some rando’s original character. So I use it with cautious respect. Forgiveness, permission, &c.)

Walter Douglas

My first outline notes for “the Academy story,” to my amusement, contain the parenthetical aside: Is any of this in Douglas’s POV? It takes a while to draw him out, but once his presence unfolds, the pull of his gravity is irresistible. Continuously aware of the big picture, Douglas is not hasty to act, but when he does, it’s decisive. He loves deeply, and so can be hurt deeply. He’s not a visionary by nature, but he is a determined idealist. His motivating force is integrity.

(The image: Luigi Lucioni, Paul Cadmus, from the Brooklyn Museum.)

General Thaddeys Barklay

Ah, Barklay. In this story, everybody has an Opinion about Barklay. And nearly all of them are right. Like many visionaries, he is wilfully blind to his own compromises, and skates over the discrepancies between his visions and reality. Is he a good man who does terrible things, or a bad man who does some good things? My advice: don’t get hung up on the question. I write from his point of view because I wanted to evoke what it feels like from the inside to want to be justified, even when you know you shouldn’t be. His primary grace? He knows it’s not about him.

(The image: Hugh Bonneville, looking appropriately seedy.)

Emmerich du Rau, Lord Bernhelm

One of these days I’ll write a post about the collapsing option trees of choosing a structure. And du Rau will be at the center of it. An elusive man, du Rau is the Lord Executive of the country of Berenia, the antagonist of Ilona, the island country of my other characters. I wanted to write from his POV because I was tired of stories in which the enemy is the Other whose perspective is either given no place or depicted as evil. Forget that. Du Rau knows intimately the desperation of his water-starved people, and has leveraged all his leadership behind his plans to make Berenia stable and safe. He has more than one secret weakness, which he guards from view with the help of his wife, Lady Ingrid. In his youth he was friends with Barklay, before the war. Now he is an implacable enemy. Like every other member of the main extended cast, he is indispensable: without him, the ultimate situation would utterly deteriorate.

(The image: just imagine Diego Luna here aged up a little.)

General Eamon Inslee

In this landscape of idealists and antagonists, Inslee is just a practical man trying to run a military installation on an inhospitable rock. He views the Ryswyckian culture of courtesy with an ironic skepticism tempered by suspended judgment. Wise and (mostly) patient, he has a sneaking admiration for passionate skill, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he has to do. His POV is there to remind us that there’s more than one valid approach to the grind of military duty, even if those approaches come into conflict. Plus, I really enjoyed writing his dry sense of humor.

(The image: it’s hard to find a good type of what my idea of Inslee looks like, but here’s Kevin McKidd doing his level best.)

So there you have it: the people whose perspectives open the world of Ryswyck to our eyes.

Psst! Wanna read the book early?

Well, fam, I just discovered an unpleasant truth. Which is that KDP doesn’t do preorders for paperback versions of a title. So, if I publish the Ryswyck paperback, it goes live right then, and leaves my e-book twisting in the wind till Memorial Day. Damn!

So here’s what I’m going to do. If I can sell 100 e-books in the next two weeks, I will release the paperback early at what would have been the promotional price for preorders. If I hit 100 e-book sales before May 11, I will release the paperback then.

At Amazon you can set it so that if someone buys the paperback they can get a discount on the ebook version; pity you can’t do it the other way round. But think of it this way: for a preorder price of just 3 bucks, you can get an absorbing and “impeccably written” (according to an early reader-reviewer) epic tale and make it possible for someone to get the same enjoyable experience in paperback for less. And if you’re one of those committed souls ready to purchase both an e-book and a paperback in the next month, I will find some damn way to reward you.

So there you have it. The e-book is available for preorder at the distributor of your choice. Fly, my pretties. Spread the word! Spread the love! Someone who doesn’t own a Kindle and wants to read Ryswyck will thank you!

Charted waters: map reveal!

Happy Friday to all you cats and kittens! I am about to go out and have some beer with my church, because that is how we roll, one Friday a month anyway. But before I do that, I will announce: we have achieved mappage!

Tori McDonald was both kind enough and intrepid enough to expand her portfolio and draw me a map of Ilona based on my sketch, and I have to say, the results are awesome. I’m working on the incorporation of the image into my manuscripts as we speak, a week ahead of my planned schedule, which is also awesome. Check her out and give her the love she so richly deserves.

Does this mean I am close to releasing the paperback for preorder? Why yes, yes it does. Watch this space.

Full, perfect, and sufficient

It’s funny how you read something referencing a particular text or situation, and then lo and behold, you run into another reference to that thing soon after. There’s a word for this, a Greek one, I think, which basically says that the only thing funny about it is that you noticed it. But never mind that.

So last month I picked up Fleming Rutledge’s massive book on the Crucifixion — which includes a whole section devoted to rehabilitating Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? — and yesterday I ran across a link to this article by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian I greatly admire, dismissing both Anselm and the whole theory of substitutionary atonement, root and branch.

Now, I’m not sure I really want to get in the middle of this. I like both Rutledge and Johnson, and I agree with much of what each has to say, and enjoy engaging with the rest, and if they were guest speakers on a panel together I would happily sit in my seat and not trouble myself to go to the audience mic with a question.

But this is my blog, and it’s Holy Week, and not only have I been thinking about the exigencies of forgiveness for a long, long time, it’s baked into the original story I told myself that then eventually became Ryswyck. So I guess we’re doing this. If theology is not your thing, feel free to jump back onto the platform before this train pulls out.

One of the arguments that Fleming Rutledge made so powerfully was that when we talk about sin in this context, we’re not talking about an aggregate of discrete and somewhat arbitrary infractions, to which God’s wrathful response is equally arbitrary. No, what we’re talking about is the Power that moves us to gloat over others’ misfortunes, to torture, dehumanize, and deface — in defiance, seemingly, of social and mental health — both collectively and in the secret of our own hearts. I could pull ten headlines at random from today’s news in illustration of this, so I won’t belabor the point. Today and every day, things are being made horribly, infuriatingly wrong: and on more than one level we are helpless to put them right.

I doubt Johnson has a serious disagreement with this. But Johnson isn’t the only one to find the narrative theme of substitution-as-atonement dissatisfying, arbitrary, and facile. It’s made worse by contemporary evangelistic churches who insist that this narrative theme is the only theme of the cross that has any theological meaning. If you don’t acknowledge that Jesus died for your sins…well, you know what awaits you.

So far so obvious. But one of the problems I wound up having with Rutledge’s book is her dismissal of “forgiveness” as an ineffective response to the gravity of the evil we are wreaking on this world and on one another. And “forgiveness” as generally understood really isn’t adequate: but even before reading Rutledge’s book I have long thought that the general understanding of “forgiveness” leaves people not knowing what forgiveness really is.

So for this here blog I am going to outline the narrative theme of forgiveness as I’ve worked over in my mind for twenty years.

It started with a reread of Hannah Hurnard’s allegory Hinds’ Feet on High Places. In this story, Much-Afraid is brought by the Shepherd’s path to the Precipice Injury. At first she refuses in panic to try to climb it, but eventually she obeys and toils her way upward. Halfway up the cliff she rests in a cleft, where she meets a small flower growing from a tiny crack in the rock. When she asks the flower its name, it says, “My name is ‘Bearing the Cost,’ but some call me Forgiveness.”

That name stuck with me, more than anything else in that story did. I hadn’t really thought of forgiveness as bearing the cost before, but I could see that it was true, that when someone wrongs another, it’s the hurt one who has to pay the damages. Even on the grossest monetary level, if you empty my bank account, you may be sorry and give the money back later, but in the meantime I still have to figure out how to pay my rent and buy my groceries. And if you do harm to my soul with physical or psychological abuse, it might make things easier if you were sorry, but it would still have to be me who cleans up the inner mess.

Forgiveness isn’t anything to do with repairing a relationship with the wronger, or finding a sense of compassion for them, or even acknowledging the wronger in any way; it isn’t about devising a comfortable way to think about the situation, or superficially dismissing the charges, or contorting oneself into believing it’s one’s own fault after all. No, it’s definitely the wronger’s fault. To forgive is to say, “I am not going to wait for an apology; I’m going to own this mess and get on with cleaning it up.” It is entirely possible to forgive a wrong and still be angry at the person who did it. And sometimes the hurts we do to one another are so great that we just don’t have the wherewithal to repair the damages. We seek for help wherever we can find it, with varying success.

We can’t hurt God in the same way we can hurt one another. But sin is damage that God cares about and has to fix. So then, narratively speaking, it makes complete sense to understand the cross, “an instrument of shameful death” that takes to an extreme all the public degradation, dehumanizing, humiliating, torturous abuse we humans can devise, as God’s way of “bearing the cost” of not just our “sins,” our discrete and piddling infractions and dishonesties, but the power of evil that has roots in every one of us.

So why doesn’t Anselm discuss the resurrection in his treatise? I don’t know, maybe because it’s implied? How many thousands of people were tortured to death on crosses? To take all that cost upon oneself and then rise victorious — that is what the Christian draws upon for hope. Not just hope for the wrongs they have done, but for the wrongs done against them, that they are too poor to pay the damages of. Our insurance policies are a mockery of this divine subsidy; there are no premiums, no deductibles, no schedules of benefits. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s all one thing.

So I don’t subscribe to crude notions of arbitrary sacrifice, no. But anyone who’s ever had something to forgive knows that it is a labor and a struggle, even without the question of reconciliation. This is how the story goes.

It’s a story that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and it’s the kernel of the story that Ryswyck is now. When I first conceived this story, I sketched the character of General Barklay as a simple monster, and the story as being about the struggle of various characters to forgive his wrongs. But as I wrote, Barklay himself refused to be that simple. He insisted on being a mix of decency and selfishness, honesty and mendacity. He wanted both to repent and to hold out for justification. His wrongs are both personal and systemic, not his fault and entirely his fault. No mere substitutionary sacrifice could address his situation. Yet the costs are really there, and have to be borne.

There are endless stories to be written on this theme. Because it’s written on the walls of the world itself.

Proof proof of life

Look what came today!

I’ve already changed the document since ordering this proof, but I’m not sorry because holding this book is amazing. I am so stoked, in case the pic doesn’t give that away.

Just a few more ducks to line up and then the paperback, too, will go up for preorder.

Stay tuned!

A Gnosticism Taco

For numerous reasons, this Sunday blogging is brought to you by my dear friend and fellow community member V. I have, in the past, shared living space with her for longer than I have anyone else except family, and she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together, so I reckon that as the mark of a good friend.

It was V who recently recommended Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, and since I already knew Rutledge to be a fine writer and preacher, I bought it on Kindle — and am finding it just as amazing as advertised. It has the kind of academic rigor and respect for ecumenical reality that you would hope for from a 21st-century treatment of the topic, and just my kind of humor as well. (To people who argue about whether to focus more on Good Friday or Easter, she retorts: “If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich.” This occasional flippancy is just the right leavening for a serious and complex topic.)

What really got me thinking, however — at least as far as this blog post is concerned — is the way she begins her approach: with a serious and thorough critique of gnosticism as it has leached into our beliefs and practices even in churches, displacing the importance of the cross. I know, I know: we’re supposed to think of gnostics as the good guys — after all, “gnosis” is knowledge, and knowledge is better than ignorance, right? “I thought I was all set to read a blog by a smart person. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

No one ever does.

I mean, I get it. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in New Age shops, read Jung and learned Tarot, fought my way free of the creeping despair of fundamentalism; my friends constellate the widest varieties of belief and nonbelief, and I have no reason or desire not to honor that, even enjoy and affirm it. But Rutledge is right about one thing: gnosticism is not actually democratic in nature. It seems like it might be: though the cross is a picture of abject helplessness and degradation, we know instinctively that we are more done-to than doing when we face God in a Christian arena. To take the initiative into our own hands, to go out and seek knowledge or to hold still and grasp it from within: that’s more like it. It certainly is more appealing to me.

But democratic it is not. Some people are better equipped for meditation, get more out of walking labyrinths, find more opportunities of learning from teachers. Transcending the difficulties of the body — being spiritual — is a matter of becoming adept. And if you don’t make the grade, you roll down the bank as the train barrels past.

I think we’re supposed to care about that. Not least because I’ve rolled down any number of spiritual banks myself; but also because in some limited areas I have impressed people far more than I deserved to, better people who were not aware as I was that it ought to be the other way around.

So naturally my thoughts turned to the worldbuilding I had done for Ryswyck. As a secondary-world speculative story, it doesn’t carry the same factual history of our world but is an analogue to it. In the story we only meet people from two countries in a backwater region of a global community more or less united against nuclearization anywhere in the world. The two peoples of the story share, with some differences, a religious tradition — a worship of wisdom without resort to images. As I feigned it, destruction and loss on such a massive worldwide scale led to an iconoclasm similar to the Simplification of A Canticle for Leibowitz: it is better to know nothing than to know how to harm people. For my world, the axiom is that it is better to worship no image than to identify the image only with ourselves.

My characters stoop to enter the low lintels of meditation halls; they burn lights in witness to their prayers; they pray alone and they chant together; they consider themselves more or less adept in comparison with others. I questioned myself: did I feign a gnostic religion for my world?

I mean, I don’t think I’m going to hell if I did. But on consideration…I don’t think so. I think what I did was a photo negative to what I experience in this world. After all, I wrote Ryswyck because I wanted to read a story that I couldn’t find out there six years ago. I wanted to read a story driven by friendship, ensconced in community, making use of Charles Williams’s concept of substitutionary love but anchoring a truly feminine point of view: plus all my favorite SFF tropes and the kitchen sink. It makes sense that if my daily fare is a Christian pita with a gnostic filling, I would serve up substitutionary love in a gnostic taco.

So pour me a Dos Equis and pass the hot sauce.

Cover reveal!

Mark your calendars for Memorial Day: Ryswyck will be released in ebook and print on May 27, 2019!

Cover art by Elizabeth Leggett at archwayportico.com

I’m excited! And great thanks are due to Beth Leggett, who was gracious enough to take my commission and did a hero’s work producing the cover art.

Preorder information for Ryswyck is pending, so watch this space.