Tue
Jul 2 2013 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Divine Possibilities and the Clash of Expectations

The Curse of Chalion I’ve recently had the privilege of introducing a good friend to the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold, starting with The Curse of Chalion and proceeding through the Miles Vorkosigan novels.

Discussing books that mean a great deal to you with someone who’s reading them for the first time has the odd effect of highlighting both their best points, and their greatest flaws: where they work for one person and not another. Ista’s journey in Paladin of Souls still takes me by the throat and shortens my breath with its power, but its moments of greatest impact—for me—slid off my friend like water, like butter off a hot knife.

The moment where Ista asks the Bastard for her true eyes:

I have denied my eyes, both inner and outer. I am not a child, or virgin, or modest wife, fearing to offend. No one owns my eyes now but me. If I have not the stomach by now to look upon any sight in the world, good or evil, beautiful or vile, when shall I? It is far too late for innocence. My only hope is the much more painful consolation of wisdom. Which can grow out of knowledge alone. Give me my true eyes. I want to see. I have to know.

When Ista encounters the Father on the stair, and passes his blessing to poor doomed Arhys:

Your father calls you to his court. You need not pack. You go garbed in glory as you stand. He waits eagerly by his palace doors to welcome you, and has prepared a place at the high table, by his side, in the company of the great-souled, honored, and best-beloved.

Those passages give me chills, still. And yet, discussing them with others, the depth and power of their impact is far from universal. They seem to hit those of us who are or were once inclined to religious sentiment hardest. I may have been an atheist/agnostic since before I could vote, but I’ve still had what persons of deistical bent call “religious experiences.” One of the most powerful things about Bujold’s Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, one of the things which gives it such emotional weight, is the sense of divinity. Oh. Oh. That’s divinity. That’s how it could be. A sense that calls back cathedrals, roadside shrines, the immense sweep of Delphi.

Numinous is a word sometimes misused. But the Chalion books have betimes been characterised as speculative theology, and it’s not a poor description in the least.

But that sense of divine presence only works if you have a background with divine possibility.

 

Contemporary with watching my friend devour the Vorkosiverse, I’ve been reading Bujold’s latest work myself. Sidelines: Talks and Essays collects Bujold’s never prolific nonfiction as an ebook: her speeches; her occasional essays; introductions and afterwords; three travel diaries, from Russia, Croatia, and Finland; a selection of blog posts.

Bujold is never less than interesting. Sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes wise, sometimes frustratingly facile—but never less than interesting. The development of her thought across decades is intriguing to watch, the hazy outline of an intellect whose effects on the SFF pond might not be visible on the surface but who’s left profound ripples underneath.

Naturally, this is a work for completists, but it may well appeal to the casual reader who cares to find something brief to dip into to illuminate Bujold’s career.

Although Sidelines fails to illuminate why the Vorkosigan series reached a pinnacle of emotional impact in Memory and Komarr, only thereafter to shy from emotionally challenging its protagonist in any serious way. It is difficult to return to reading space adventure stories in a series where one has seen one’s heart wrenched from one’s chest and put back in differently: going forward, expectations clash.

 

Speaking of a clash of expectations: Susan Jane Bigelow’s The Daughter Star. Its flap copy makes it sound like military science fiction/space adventure, but inside it’s a different can of worms entirely, and I’m not sure all the worms are baiting the right hooks. (But the protagonist Marta Grayline is a lesbian; in my view that’s at least one point in its favour.)

In many ways—the slow opening, Marta’s struggle with her parents and their oppressive mores, her strong connection to her sister—The Daughter Star reads like a YA coming-of-age, a discovery of agency and choice. But Marta is in her twenties, and what would be a reasonable reaction to buffeting-by-fate in a younger person reads like passive lack of direction and cop-on in an adult.

But there are psychic, mysterious aliens, and a destroyed Earth that may not in fact be dead; secret organisations, war and revolution. Give Bigelow credit for putting much Cool Shit(tm) on her skiffy canvas: this would be a good bridge novel between YA and the adult section for people complaining about the lack of non-dystopic YA science fiction.

 

If you’re wondering why this week’s column is meandering and meditative, it’s because I’m travelling back from Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: A Science Fiction Foundation Conference. Talk among yourselves meanwhile.

Next week we’ll have the first of a series of four posts on noteworthy epic fantasist Kate Elliott. Mark your calendars.


Liz Bourke needs to read faster. Her blog. Her twitter.

18 comments
Ursula L
1. Ursula
Regarding the two passages from Paladin which you quoted, I wonder if some of the difference in impact comes from doing rereads?

Because this is a very intense book, with a powerful mystery. And when you're devouring it the first time, wanting to know what is going to happen, a lyrical passage like this is easily rushed past without full appriciation.

I find with a lot of Bujold, paricularly the books with ths stronger emotional punches, the strength of her plotting can distract from the strength of her language on the first read. There is just too much to appriciate it all in one go.
C C
2. Hatgirl
You've inspired me to hunt out my favourite passage from Paladin of Souls...
“And the Bastard grant us . . .”—dy Cabon’s voice, fallen into the soothing singsong of ceremony, stumbled for the first time, slowing—“in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word. In darkness, understanding.” He blinked, looking startled.
Now that's how you do prophetic foreshadowing.
Michael Green
3. greenazoth
I'm a complete atheist, and haven't had anything like a religious experience in my entire life, but both of those passages hit me like a pole-arm. Her speech to Arhys makes me weep every time.

I have no problem sinking into the world view of a book -- I've believed in (and ocasionally wept for) talking mice, sea monsters, and
hyper-intelligent shades of the color blue. Divine presence isn't really that heavy a load to bear, especially when it's done beautifully.
Michael Grosberg
4. Michael_GR
Ursula - I don't know what it was like for Liz's friend, but for me, reading it for the first time 3-4 years ago, it was exactly the same thing that Liz was talking about, the sense of divinity, that made me fall in love with the series. I've read many fantasy novels; many of them featured gods. If I were to live in one of those fantasy worlds, I'd have probably believed in their existence. But here were gods that I could not only believe in, but love. I've never seen it done before or since.
Mary Beth
5. Mary Beth
I got chills rereading Ista's blessing to Arhys, as I do every time I read that book--and the Daughter's scene with Caz in CURSE, and Ingrey's insight into the bitterness of the gods' separation from the beast-burdened souls in HUNT. I love these books fiercely, and as much as Bujold's prose is enchanting and her characters delightful and her plots enthralling, it's the gods that keep me coming back.

I'm religious myself, and the Five Gods are just enough like my God--in their love for humanity, in the way they work through poor, shattered mortals, in the necessity of willing self-sacrifice in order to grow great-souled--that some passages of PALADIN, especially, read like scripture to me.

I can't wait for the Mother and the Father's books. I hope she writes them.
Mary Beth
6. Darren A Jones
Bujold's Chalion books are some of my very favorites, for both the mystery and the religious passages you pointed out. As a religious person, I felt she got the "essence" of a god better than a lot of fantasy writers.
Lon Bailey
7. lgwbailey
I am not religious but I was very touched by her prose (the quotes in the article). I just think Bujold is generally one of the best writer in SFF and good writing has that effect on the reader.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
I also got chills at scenes in Chalion like the ones you quoted, Liz. Regardless of whether or not one hews to a particular organized faith, some people are just more open to the idea of the spiritual world than others. And what I like about Chalion (and the later Sharing Knife series) is that Bujold brings the same logical approach to her worlds of gods and fantasy that she does to her SF, and builds utterly consistent, and something that we can easily accept once we suspend our disbelief. And she does a beautiful job at expressing those moments of transcendence where we touch something beyond the material world around us.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
Another series I have grown to love is S.M. Stirling's Emberverse books. At first they were gripping tales of contemporary people trying to survive in a world where physical laws changed, and technology stopped working. But then, when the series turned to the second generation of protagonists, he began to introduce spiritual and magical themes, and I started to enjoy the series even more. His past stories have often felt too grim to me, but this twist really brought the whole series to life, and it has become a favorite. One thing he has done, which I like, is showing that different people experience transcendent moments in the context of their own belief systems, a very ecumenical approach. Although, I must admit that my Christian faith came through when I read of the character Father Ignatius having a vision of the Blessed Virgin, and I found myself weeping.
Mary Beth
10. TomT
Yes those quotes get me. Every interaction of Bujold's characters and their gods is well done and sets my spine tingling. Oh and Ista's blessing of Arhys always brings tears. Always.

Oh and how is this for coincidence? I reread Curse of Chalion last night finishing the last few chapters this morning.
Mary Beth
11. Colona
The three Chalion universe books are my favorite Bujolds, although the Vorkosiverse comes second and I've enjoyed everything she has written, fiction and non. I agree with folks who are deeply moved by depth of language in the Chalion books, which I think is necessary to explain the complexity of the 5 Gods. Switching tracks to Liz's thoughts about Memory and Komarr; my problem with series is that too much trauma can happen to one guy (or one society or one universe). I felt Miles deserved a break after Komarr. He'd suffered enough.
Mary Beth
12. AMG
Sitting at work, reading this article, the second passage about Ahrys actually brought tears to my eyes. Had to blink rapidly so colleagues wouldn't notice. Gorgeous.
Jenny Kristine
13. jennygadget
(Apologies to the mods if I am overstepping here. Last night was the second night I couldn't sleep, and by the time I decided that contacting you would be best, you had already left for vacation. And I'd really like to sleep sometime between now and Friday morning.)

The moderation policy for these here parts wisely says that we are supposed to disagree with ideas, not people.

Unfortunately, this puts me in a bit of a bind, since my prior anonymity seems to have left some of you with the impression that I am an idea, and not a person. I'm not quite sure how I'm supposed to discuss ideas on equal terms with other people when I've been reduced to an abstract. Because that means you get to disagree with me - or, rather, your construct of me - but I can't disagree with you.

So, since some of you clearly need reminding:

I am an actual person, not just an idea of a person. I'm not a thought experiment created so that you can speculate about why I feel what I feel. The fact that I gave Liz permission to talk about our conversations does not mean that it's appropriate for you to make conjectures about me. If you want to know something about my feelings, actions, or experiences I suggest you ask. Because not only can I read what you are saying about me, I'm capable of speaking back! Although, to be perfectly honest, I'm very much not in the mood to talk to people who think that my difference is a thing that needs to be fixed.

Because it doesn't. I don't. Need to be fixed, I mean. Just because I reacted differently to a book than you did. I don't need you to make excuses for me. I don't need you to suggest that maybe I just need to read more carefully. Or be more "open." Or do a better job of "sinking into the world view of a book."

While I can't speak for everyone who responds as I did to these particular books, I want to make it clear that I don't feel I need to justify or excuse how I react to what I read. And I find it rather presumptuous, to put it mildly, that so many of you felt the need to do so for me, and others like me.

I now return you to the part of this thread that is about the books and people talking about how the books made them feel.
Liz Bourke
14. hawkwing-lb
Thank you, jennygadget, for commenting.

One of the things I wanted to get across in this column, which I suspect I rather failed in, was that our responses to certain books can be very, intensely, personal, and that different people will have different experiences. And that this is a good thing.

My own response to the Chalion books is naturally coloured by a certain - well, a predisposition, if you like, to sentiments of religious awe. It doesn't hurt that Bujold has a good hand with prose and character, but absent that personal predisposition, my reaction to the books would be very different. Responses are far from universal, and it's always interesting - and sometimes, to be honest, pure joy - to see what other people see in books and texts and media that I didn't. "This thing affected me thus" and "this is an excellent thing-in-itself" are separate statements. Bujold's Chalion books are excellent art, by me. But they mean different things to different readers.

I haven't time or energy, this week, to be as active in the comments as I'd like to've been. I'd like to point out something that I've noticed, though - and I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

We live in a culture that sees "openness" or such vis-a-vis religious/spiritual experience as a good thing. A lot of the ways in which we talk about it imply that it's better than the obverse, when in reality, it's just one point on the spectrum of human experience - neither good nor bad in and of itself. Which way of speaking is, I'm coming to realise, really rather unfair.

(It's hard to talk about this stuff without at least implying a positive moral value to religious/spiritual experience. Because we're culturally saturated with religious ideations. Which makes it complicated all around.)
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
jennygadget, if when you were referring to being more open, you were referring to my comment, "some people are just more open to the idea of the spiritual world than others", please be assured, there was no value judgement in that comment. Some people are, some aren't. If my statement caused any offense, I certainly apologize, because none was intended.
Jenny Kristine
16. jennygadget
AlanBrown,

I do appreciate the apology, but honestly...

"Open" itself implies a value judgement, because of the way we talk about what we are suppposed to be open to. Open minds. Open to ideas. Open to change. We don't talk about being "open" to to being mean to other people, or doing self harm.

And it mirrors the way that people have talked about me, and my lack of religious experience/feeling/whathaveyou, all my life. As if I could just choose to open my heart to Jesus, or some more general idea of the Divine. I can't. No more than I can "open" myself to being good at music or enjoying coconut or being an extrovert.

Regarding this part of what Liz said:

"It's hard to talk about this stuff without at least implying a positive moral value to religious/spiritual experience."

Perhaps it might be helpful think of religious/spiritual experience as being much like music or art or sexual orientation. That finding joy in each of these things is a positive good in people's lives, and should be celebrated. But it's absense is not something to wring ones hands over or find excuses for.

And I don't know about all of you, but I would never talk about sexuality/asexuality in terms of people being more or less open to sex/desire.
C C
17. Hatgirl
I have noticed that when the subject of my Athiesm comes up, people try to reassure me that I must still be "spiritual" person. Um... no, I'm not. If I believed there was any sort of... Influencing Power, for want of a better phrase... affecting my life or the Universe in general I wouldn't use the term "athiest" to describe myself. But I think, maybe, those people are confusing Kindness and Joy with Spiritualism. Tales of kindness make me cry, beautiful vistas fill me with awe, and co-incidences make me laugh. Knowing that there is no form of Spirit World doesn't make me the
equivalent of the traditional SF robot who needs to ask "why does
flower=beauty?"

(Aside: it was actually an SF&F book that let me know that atheism was even an option - Terry Pratchett's "Truckers". Shh.... keep quiet about that or it might start getting banned... )

I love Ista's speech to Arhys. I love the rhythmic, lyrical use of language. I love its place in the plot - it tells us Ista has reached a place of calm in her life, and implies a happy ending for Arhys at the end of his struggle. I haven't a spiritual bone in my body. And I really want jennygadget to reread the passage until she "gets" it because that's human nature. We just can't grasp on an emotional level that something that affects us profoundly doesn't affect someone else the same way. The "thing" is static, so the problem must lie in the other person's perception of it. And if we fix that problem the other person is going to experience SO MUCH JOY! It's almost irresponsible not to try and help....

... but I'm sorry, Mum. You've been trying for 30 years, you need to accept that I'm never going to enjoy watching rugby with you.
Michael Green
18. greenazoth
I'm very sorry -- I was responding with annoyance to the "They seem to hit those of us who are or were once inclined to religious sentiment hardest," part of the essay, and didn't think about any further implications of my words, which I really regret.

I certainly don't think you or anyone else needs to "do a better job of "sinking into the world view of a book" just because you didn't respond in the same way to the passage that I did. That's totally a valid interpretation of what I wrote, though, and I'm an idiot for not realizing it.

Once again, to jennygadget I am very sorry, and I'll endeavor not to be such an ass in the future.

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