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Friday, November 1, 2013

GUEST POST: Gods, Monsters, Magic, and Metaphor (or How to Put Too Much Stuff In Your Story) by Max Gladstone


I like my story worlds rich.

I like books where every few minutes you turn a page and say, damn, that's here too? I like books where gods and monsters mingle. I like books with spaceships and psychic powers and sentient black holes. I like books that go all night and take me with them.

Roger Zelazny writes books like this. The Chronicles of Amber are stories about everything—any conceivable fantastic universe fits somewhere in Amber, without the story collapsing into a chaotic mush. But his myth-masterpieces Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness refine the art with brains woven into rugs, time-traveling kung fu gods, reincarnation machines, and demon-alien-oppressed natives. Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos (especially the first two) are the kind of rich I'm talking about. So are Mieville's New Crobuzon books, and LeGuin's Earthsea novels.

Since we write the stuff we read, I obviously didn't come to fantasy with an eye toward single-slight-change novels. The world of my Craft Sequence is full of stuff—necromantic lawyers, parkour, gargoyles, slam poetry, vampire addicts, traumatic experience as psychic postmodern art, soul poker, nightmare telegraphs, supernatural meatpacking plants, zombies, feathered serpents, hive-mind police, and gods living, dead, and undead. This is great, in some ways. It gives me fun and freedom. On the other hand, I need to be awfully careful about building a world where everything fits.

This is often the point where people start talking about magic systems and the underlying metaphysics of fantasy worlds. There is a bit of that in play in TWO SERPENTS RISE and my first book, THREE PARTS DEAD; I can describe why the magic works the way it does, and why the gods behave the way they do. But that isn't because I started with a binder full of metaphysics and quid pro quos. I started, rather, with strong metaphors.

There's a big difference between a metaphor and a rule set. A metaphor is expansive: if I tell you that magic burns, you might hear that magic sheds light, that magic consumes, that magic provides heat, that magic can be passed from fuel source to fuel source, that magic can be quenched under the right conditions, that magic is an excited state of matter. I might only mean one of those things at a given moment, but later on, I can draw upon all of them without contradicting myself. The only thing I can't do is say magic does something that directly contradicts the metaphor. If magic burns, it probably can't support a table, it probably can't quench your thirst, and it probably can't run tender fingers through your hair (though maybe it can, in which case beware singed follicles).

In TWO SERPENTS RISE and THREE PARTS DEAD I use a few intersecting metaphors for magic and the supernatural. Gods and spiritual constructs are networks of obligation and belief and sacrifice and faith. This suggests they behave in ways consistent with networks (scaling in power and capacity with the number of nodes, for example). They're also organisms—their powers work as subtly and fluidly as natural processes. The metaphors expand each other, since we're used to thinking about organisms as neural networks.

The Craft, meanwhile, uses metaphors of contract and argument and mechanism—a Craftswoman imposes her will on the world, and if no one opposes her, the thing she wants to happen, does. If someone opposes, then matters grow more complicated. Contracts are a binding relationship of exchange between two or more parties—so for the magic to work we need a promise to perform, and consideration, and an element of bond. These metaphors, too, are susceptible to layering. Working the Craft is cerebral and mystical, but it can also resemble combat—fortunately, the metaphors of combat (denial, redirection, counter, feint, second intention) apply well to argument and vice versa. Working the Craft also feels like building or disassembling a structure—other realms of image that expand on the core contract-argument metaphor.

As long as I keep the metaphors clear in my head, the system's infinitely extensible. As long as the reader's experience of the magic remains consistent, then she comes along for the ride while I stuff the universe with all the sentient statues, vampires, skeleton kings, demons, and serpent-people I want.

Of course, then my characters have to deal with them. But that's a story for another time.


Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Three Parts Dead
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Two Serpents Rise
Read The Mahabharata: A Recollection and Q&A with Max Gladstone
Read Max Gladstone's review of Adi Parva by Amruta Patil

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Max Gladstone has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese and was nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. He is the author of Three Parts Dead and its recently released sequel Two Serpents Rise which is about water rights, human sacrifice, dead gods, and poker.

NOTE: The Chronicles of Amber series picture courtesy of Sunil K. Gopal (Quora).  All other pictures courtesy of the author and Tor books.

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