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Last night I had the strangest dream — to abuse an Ed McCurdy song — and it started me thinking about how dreams are used in writing fantasy. More so than in other genres, the presentation of dreams in fantasy is an inheritance from antecedents in myth, legend, and folk-tale, where the act of dreaming is always of significance, and where the dream warns, foreshadows, or parallels the action of the story in some metaphorical way. In modern fantasy a character may dream in a realistic, primary world way — disjointed images of the day, anxieties, nonsense, codfish lying on the feet because the blankets have fallen off — but very often, authors will use dream in a way that is consistent with the reality of the fantasy, but which would seem over-artful if presented in a ‘realistic’ novel set in the primary world. If magic — the interconnection of things through unseen forces, the sympathetic bond between ‘soul’ and matter, or however the story presents it — is allowed, then dream is allowed to become more as well, and that is — useful.
Dreams become a device for flashbacks, for rapid switches from action (recalled in dream) to contemplation on the meaning or of the aftermath of the action, for recapping or reminding of a crucial moment for those whose memory of the event in the first book needs refreshed. They function to foretell and create suspense. They warn, ominously, and provide clues the characters cannot decode but which the reader, with the benefit of hindsight several chapters later, can enjoy interpreting. They can be used as metaphor, to explore a character’s state of mind or stir up hidden depths the author doesn’t yet want to lay out in the waking world, but which need to begin stirring, to emerge in due course.
Like all literary devices, it’s possible to overuse dreams. I like dreams and do find them very useful, so I worry, of course, that sometimes I’m overdoing it. I’ve been writing a character suffering from a great burden of psychological trauma — something akin to PTSD, shellshock. There’s no equivalent term used in a pre-psychology world for that aftermath of horrors. The modern psychological understanding of PTSD needs to have a more metaphoric terminology to sit comfortably with the cosmology here. Nightmares are only one of his symptoms, and his nightmares are pretty much just that, flashbacks in the psychological rather than the narrative sense, though they can function usefully as those too. I’d written several versions of a scene where this person, in discussion with another who knows something of dreams in the context of this world, in both their realistic, ‘psychological’, and their magical aspects, did begin to find a way to grapple with some of his various problems (so as to have some energy to deal with the external side of the plot, which was not hanging about twiddling its thumbs — I wanted the two things running in parallel). The problem I kept running up against was that I could not believe in this person ever baring his soul to the extent that he would discuss — what I needed him to discuss — with this other character. Or with anyone, but she’s the one he ought to talk to.
This brings me back to my strange dream, in which (amidst some interesting but irrelevant set dressing involving a barn, a 1930’s passenger plane, and a grey rainstorm), I had a long conversation with a friend about something that has been preying on my waking mind for a while now. In my dream, I was definitely playing myself; I said all the things and made all the arguments and excuses I know I would have made had the conversation been taking place in real life. My friend pointed out things and made arguments that were deeply perceptive, pertinent, occasionally angering and upsetting, and persuasive. I woke up feeling I had gotten to the truth of the matter and that my friend was right and had shed a great deal of light on things, except of course, that I had been writing both halves of the dialogue, putting the words in their mouth.
That, I thought almost at once, is how I need to handle some aspects of this character’s problem. Not a real discussion with the character who might help him, the one it just doesn’t seem plausible he’d ever unburden himself to, but a dream, in which his dreaming subconscious can use the other character to put into words what he is coming to understand but can’t get out where he can see it. (And no, my dream wasn’t about anything half so serious, or I would not be prattling about it here!) The thing is, if I had just had the notion to do this, have my character dream his discussion, I’m pretty sure I would have then discarded the idea as unrealistic and too contrived: too artificial as primary-world dream, and too unsuited to this secondary world’s understanding of psychology. Now, having had a dream myself where I wrote, as it were, the whole thing, and yet surprised and unsettled myself by what was being dragged out into the light, I can’t deny it is realistic. Having granted that such a dream is realistic, it’s simply a matter of casting it into correct form for my character’s world, and for his understanding of that world. Which, I suppose, means he might feel he did discuss things, in his dream, with this other character or some aspect of her that had a separate existence from himself, rather than in the complexity of his own subconscious — and that he might be right. I read Don Camillo at an early age, and now I recall that all of Don Camillo’s arguments with his crucified Christ above the altar are doing the same thing, though they aren’t usually cast as dreams. Is Don Camillo’s Christ real within the story, or merely the priest’s own conscience or subconscious? One can read it both ways, and either interpretation is valid within the reality of those stories, which is why the device works so well.
So there’s another use of dreams that I’m likely going to resort to, the almost Socratic self-analysis with the dreamer’s own unconscious playing the role of the interrogator/mentor/counsellor/analyst; looked at from a certain angle, it actually seems a lot more probable in my character’s world than mine, and since I now know the mind really can work that way, I can do it with a clear conscience. Unless, of course, my friend shows up tonight to argue me out of it. #SFWApro
It’s a bit difficult to keep up with things this fall. We’ve moved house and I’m still not unpacked, with so many things looming that Must Be Done in the next month or so — making insulating curtains, getting my poor migrated perennials out of their pots and into the ground before the frost, making an insulated trapdoor for the attic to forestall the escape of most of our heat upwards … the laws of thermodynamics have become a significant concern. Meanwhile, such minor matters as unpacking my clothes and the boxes of books which occupy every square foot of the study not claimed by my desk get put on hold, and the kitchen cupboards still have labels to tell us where to look for the plates. It’s been a week since DragonCon, though; time to get something up.
So what did I think of my first DragonCon? There was a lot standing in queues in the scorching sun, and that was just to pick up my badge. I’m not sure that combining people needing to pick up prepaid badges into a many-blocks-long line with people who wanted to buy a day pass is an idea that will win the organizers any friends, though. Printing the map very, very small, on newsprint, in pale grey, is likewise not really the best notion anyone ever had. However, once I finally was permitted to be admitted, and had found the Pyr Books booth, my home away from home for the duration, I greatly enjoyed the chance to meet people and talk books with them. It was particularly great to connect with some longtime fans face to face. (Jay, that means you!)
Jon Sprunk, Joel Shepherd, Clay and Susan Griffith, E.C. Myers, J.F. Lewis, and I pretty much moved into the booth for the duration, to hang out with our editor Lou Anders and Meghan Quinn and Mariel Bard, the pool-playing publicists, while Mike Resnick dropped by a couple of times. We did a lot of people-watching as well as bookselling, as you can imagine. Quite a lot of that involved me saying to Jon or his wife Jenny, “Um, so what’s that one?” since I’m not really that up on recent TV. I did see a very well-executed Moist von Lipwig in Postmaster regalia, although I didn’t get a photo as I hadn’t brought my camera. I met up with Rob Sawyer on the flight home, so it was a chance to renew old acquaintances too.
I staggered into my house at about 2:30 in the morning, home at last, to be met by a very excited dog, who, after the obligatory greeting, headed straight for my backpack. He was somewhat disappointed to find it a) zippered and b) devoid of exotic foreign biscuits, after the Marks and Spencer Almond Biscuit Incident of the prior week. (Those who follow on Twitter will recall that I brought home my long-remembered favourite M&S biscuits from London, since M&S abandoned the Canadian market some time ago, only to have Mr Wicked discover them in my backpack and devour half the package before I had been home ten minutes.)
This gallery contains 15 photos.
Loncon 3 was my first Worldcon, and in fact my first really big con at all. When I try to get my thoughts in order, I find I’m still a bit overwhelmed by it all, though London itself has a lot to do with that. How to give it all a focus ….
Well, I can’t. It’s just too big an experience. All I can say is, I had a great time. I began with the SFF Masterclass, which in itself was also a great time, and at which I met some great people. For three days, we were centred in Greenwich, in the Endeavour Room at the Royal Observatory, and you can’t get much more central in Greenwich than that, right up in a former telescope dome. I have to confess that on the occasions when I wasn’t instructing, I played truant, rather than sitting in on the sessions that Neil Easterbrook and Andy Duncan were doing, and went wandering. I explored the Royal Park at Greenwich and spent a (hot) day at the British Museum. Seeing the latter has been a lifelong ambition of mine. But I really enjoyed the masterclass sessions I was there for (my own) and found the discussion elicited by the books I’d assigned to be quite stimulating.
Actually, I did sit in for part of one other session, since while I was in London, a number of copyedited chapters of The Lady: Marakand Part Two arrived for me to deal with. As my computer chose those days to have a serious crisis, once I did get it restored to functioning (thinking, right, I’m in London sitting up to one a.m. trying to fix my computer — successfully, after a couple of days), I needed to do some real work. So I sat in the telescope dome at Greenwich Observatory and worked on The Lady. Appropriate, I suppose, since the most noteworthy architectural features of the temple of the Lady are the two domes.
I had a friend’s Oyster card and found getting around London by Dock Light Rail, Tube, London Overground and Thames Clipper mostly straightforward with a few bursts of confusion, the rare occasions when I’ve been anywhere with public transit being Toronto, where there are hardly any transfers between subway lines or to West Berlin of the eighties, where the system was a time-punched card.
I was thinking about what a literary city London is; not a real place at all, but an assemblage of associations. What is the British Museum? Sutton Hoo and The Story of the Amulet, The Magician’s Nephew and Greenwitch. What is the Thames? So many things — most recently the geographical thread binding Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels — but so much history. And Our Mutual Friend, and the waters of the Isis and Handel, “the fever is abroad in Rotherhithe”, the Docklands and the Blitz . . . . So many streets and neighbourhoods resonate with so many stories, known names. One walks on the heels of Paddington, of Holmes and Watson, of Psmith and Wooster, Peter and Harriet, just in reading the names on the signage or of the Tube stations.
Loncon itself was a lot of fun; to be honest, I had expected to be a bit oppressed by crowds, which I don’t enjoy, but it was far less crowded and frenzied than I expected, because the venue, the Excel Centre, was actually big enough to hold the thousands comfortably. There were a few long queues — the one for the theatrical adaptation of The Anubis Gates was the length of the Excel. Compared to other cons I’ve gone to, admittedly only a few and much smaller, it was admirably well organized, too. Even eating was easy; the central boulevard of the Excel, which is almost a km long, was lined with fast food places, some of them very good and none with huge lineups, which is a bonus at a con. The panels I was on or attended were all very interesting, well-moderated and with a lot of good discussion. Taken all in all, Loncon 3 is going to be the con against which I judge all others. (And the takeaway curry from the Mint Leaves a new standard in basic curries.) Went to some parties and receptions, met some old friends in person for the first time, made some new ones, discovered that some of my work as a feral academic is rather better known than I thought
And then there was my voyage up and down the Thames on the riverbus, a walking tour of the heart of the city, and a day at Kew Gardens. More to come. Mostly photos! I’m going to make a couple of galleries, I think.
I’m very grateful to the friends and relatives who helped me make this trip possible, and to ArtsNB, the New Brunswick Arts Board, which offered a grant to assist with travel expenses. #SFWApro