Where Science Cannot Follow: Dreams as the Site of Speculative Fiction

There is a great deal of speculative fiction that has been made impossible in recent years by the progression of science, technology and time. Stories that once presented a world that was not necessarily real but was still possible based on the understanding of the world that was prevalent at the time the story was being written. That isn’t to say that The War of the Worlds is no longer an enjoyable book to read because Wells didn’t know that there are no advanced aliens on Mars or that the message of 1984 is now irrelevant because Orwell got his timelines wrong. Rather, science has moved beyond the minutia of those stories and shifted the experience of reading those books. As a result, speculative fiction has had to shift if it wants to remain within the realm of possibility. One such place is the world of sleep and dreams which remain an area that science struggles to fully understand and explain. Films like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, or Hank Green’s debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing make dreams the setting of much of their world and build a speculative experience around something that science still cannot fully explain.

The entry into dreams is important, and very different, in the worlds created in Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Christopher Nolan does not give all people easy access to the world of dreaming, instead it is a process that requires drugs and no small amount of skill, especially if the dreamer wants to have the kind of high stakes adventures that are at the centre of the plot. Additionally, dreams in this form are not the benign experience of the real world but rather are filled with dangers and pitfalls that come with looking behind the curtain – implying that what science might find when it does master the details of sleep may not be as pleasant as some would like to imagine. Hank Green is one of the people who utilize dreams as a site of positive experience that is universal. His novel uses a dream world in order build a shared experience where everyone begins on equal footing across cultures. Nolan and Green’s contrasting interpretation rest on decisions about how they want their readers or viewers to interact with the notion of dreaming.

Inception feels in many ways aspirational – you sit and watch Leonardo DiCaprio run around taking on all kinds of risks and think about how great it would be to become that kind of badass. But rather than requiring a monster workout regime the dreaming of Inception is just out of reach because the world of dreams remains a mystery (also because dream sharing is not actually possible). Alternately, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing presents dreams as something amazing that will happen to you, not something that can be pursed or created by rather a phenomenon that is driven by an external force. These are very particular decisions that have been made in during the world building of the speculative stories in the same way that a fantasy writer must decide who has access to magic.

Both of these stories feature dream sharing as a pivotal mechanic. The creators are not just interested in a setting that is separate from science, they want to explore the collective experience of these places. The collaborative aspects are what are beyond science but the need for sleep and for dreams means that it much easier to accept these constructions that it is the notion that we might one day be invaded by Martians. Technology has enabled us to see Mars in detail and to send probes to collection additional information but the picture that science creates about sleep is much less clear so creators like Nolan or Green are able to fill in these spaces with their own imaginings. Dreams are still a place where we are able to collaboratively imagine a world that is not restricted by science which means they have an immense range of possibilities that Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing take full advantage of.

People do not experience these stories and necessarily believe that they will occur in the real world, but the experience doesn’t require the same level of suspension of disbelief that other texts may depend upon. The speculative worlds that Hank Green and Christopher Nolan create are based in the possibilities that arise when science is unable to provide a clear list of restrictions. Whether the creator chooses to use the world of dreams as an exclusive place that visitors must earn entry into or if dreams are a kind of magic that happens to the dreamer the dream is still a space that is protected by real world mystery. One day Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing will be made even less plausible as science explains the intricacies of sleep but until that happens dreams are a largely unexplained phenomena that make room for speculative imaginings of the future.

“I think I am becoming a god” – Harry Potter, The Magicians, and the Limitations of Power

In gaming jargon, it’s called being overpowered but even if the discussion around fantasy literature lacks the vocabulary to pinpoint what makes certain book series loose their appeal, over powered characters are often at the heart of the issue. The way that fantasy stories tend to develop, both with larger plot points and the arc of the protagonists, often lead towards overpowered characters which then have to be somehow managed by their creators. J.K Rowling gave Harry that incredible power, but she also didn’t allow him to keep it – this was a well executed and mostly well liked as a strategy, but it is perhaps the obvious narrative choice. In contrast Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy gives Quentin near absolute power but rather than confiscating the power Grossman turns the narrative focus in such a way that it is not longer the great concern of the plot. The efficacy of these strategies is tied to the ways in which the authors tie magical ability to their character’s personality as well as the impact on the emotional moments of the story. It is a moment where the world building must integrate with the events of the text seamlessly and for maximum effect.

The culmination of this effect in the Harry Potter books is at the very end of the series as Harry fixes his own wand with the Elder Wand just before the end of the Deathly Hallows. It draws together world building elements that have been building since the moment Harry gains his wand in Ollivander’s and is told that his wand has a brother that will try and kill him through the irreparable damage to Ron’s wand in the second book and into the story of the terrible power of the Elder wand. Ultimately, Rowling is using these threads to bring a satisfying conclusion to the magic of her world without leaving Harry as some kind of god with a target on his back. There is no sense of loss when Harry chooses to set the Elder wand aside, rather she ties it to victory as that unlimited power is used to break the world building rules that made wands unfixable and give Harry a trophy of sorts. It is a masterful demonstration of what is possible when world building is well done and when the power that a character holds is well managed.

There was no way for Rowling to turn the series away from Harry as a hero or the Elder wand as a tool, but Lev Grossman’s Magicians is far less dependant on Quentin as savior so instead of placing limitations on him Grossman instead turns the reader away from Quentin’s arc. What makes Quentin successful as a narrator of Grossman’s world is his awe, and desire for absolute power without necessarily being a villain. Quentin’s awe made him a good student, it led him into Fillory and helped him become a magician for whom little if anything is out of reach. Early in the series Alice describes this state as the “wasteland of adult magic” and Grossman is faced with the challenge of creating tension in the conclusion to his trilogy even when his protagonist has few limitations. The solution that Grossman utilizes is not one of imposed restrictions on Quentin’s power, rather Quentin’s journey of magical learning begins to play second fiddle to the quests of those around him. While serving in a teacher role to Plum, the true protagonist of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s power is far less of a concern. He has his own narrative arc in this book that considers how to use that virtually unlimited power but much of the character growth is centered on his place as mentor.

Both Rowling and Grossman are capitalizing on the elements of their world building that are unique and captivating for the reader in order to solve inevitable problems with over powered characters. Readers are still able to enjoy the connection between wizards, their wands, and the lore of the wizarding world at the end of the Deathly Hallows. There is a sense that these elements will continue to exist in balance with each other and that there may be future stories to come. Similarly, the joy of magical discovery is not lost in Grossman’s world even though Quentin is past the point at which his primary goal is the acquisition of skill and power because he is facing the new challenge of how to pass that power onto a student. Quentin takes his place in a chain of teachers and students that was obscured by his perspective in earlier books but is the bigger picture conclusion that the trilogy needed. These successes are built on the back of masterful world building by authors who take the time to consider the ways in which their world operates and how to use their own rules to shape characters who seem to have moved beyond limitations on their power.

 

Note: I have not watched the Magicians television show and am only speaking about the books.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Hollow Knight and the exploration of Joseph Anderson

Video games are considered the domain of a very particular type of people, and those people are often not the same ones who create or curate more traditional arts. However, the ways in which traditional arts are understood still provide a framework through which the huge variety of video games can be understood. Not only is game critic Joseph Anderson seemingly aware of some of these traditions he actively considers what makes a game beautiful and arguably a work of art: it isn’t about having a particular type of game play but rather is about how the game impacts the player. Hollow Knight is a game that is in many ways an aesthetic experience that just happens to also include the elements of a Metroidvania game, where the player is forced to build the story by interpreting a decaying land. These are the types of issues that are vital to traditional fine art studies and Anderson is able to address these considerations without stepping away from his own genre of game critic.

Online coverage of video games often includes a lot of shouting and truly terrible audio, but Joseph Anderson is a critic whose videos are always calm, well organized and rational. He makes the videos that I think art people would want to watch because he goes into them prepared to have an educated discussion without assuming the person watching has experienced the works that he is talking about. In fact, this is a part of Anderson’s work that I think both the world of video game criticism and art criticism could learn a lot from since his videos are accessible without feeling overly contrived. His YouTube channel is worth watching for that educational value alone, but he also has an impressive way of handling some of the important questions around the overlap of video games and art.

Hollow Knight is part of a clear genre that has emerged in recent years as nostalgia for early gaming – the Metroidvania genre. However, this is not the angle through which Anderson approaches the game, rather he debates whether the flaws of Hollow Knight as a game are actually assets to Hollow Knight as an art. He is still working within the conventions of game review and criticism (he discusses the fact that the game is spectacular value for money purely based on length and challenge) but much of this feeds back into a consideration of what it means for a video game to be an art. Among the factors that play into this conversation is that this is a game produced by a very small team of developers. It doesn’t have the large commercialist tone that often sterilizes the games produced by major developers. Anderson connects these elements to the aesthetic quality of Hollow Knight and the kind of mental energy that exploring its world requires – the player is shaping the art that they experience. It is not dissimilar to how art theory considers the reciprocal looking process that creates meaning through the idea of ‘the gaze’. In the end it is about how the art object and the viewer collaborate to make meaning – something that is evident in games like Hollow Knight where the viewer must build a narrative of a fallen city largely on their own. These are elements that would make the game ‘good’ for anyone who decided to pick it up, but Anderson is able to draw together the elements into a true discussion of the piece as an art.

Ultimately what makes Joseph Anderson unique, and interesting to listen to even for a non-gamer is his abilities to work within the conventions of game review while moving beyond the kinds of questions that are normally the focus of this kind of writing. It is his brand of thoughtful critique that might help to build the recognition of video game projects as fine art. Because in reality the discourse that surrounds art objects is often what defines them as art. Anderson even begins to put forward some of the questions that will become important when (or if) interactive media become a part of the art world: How do you display a video game in a museum? How would these kinds of works integrate with art history courses?

If art is about aesthetic experiences or about implicating the viewer in the making of meaning than video games certainly have the means to do so. Joseph Anderson makes wonderful defenses of these games as art in his videos while remaining firmly in line with the video game community while also steering viewers towards important questions about what will happen when the video game as art becomes more widely recognized.  These are not questions with easy answers but they are ones that I think will become increasingly relevant as video games continue to ask valuable and challenging questions of the people who play them.

Authorship as an Act of Feminism: Virginia Woolf and Olivia Sudjic

Note: I am perhaps not the best person to be writing this given that I identify as non-binary rather than as a woman but I rationalize this because there isn’t really a lot of essays about the challenge of writing outside the gender binary (and feminist writers tend not to leave a lot of space for these identities) so I think it is still acceptable for me to put forward an argument on this topic.

The accessibility of writers and other public figures through the internet has brought to the forefront issues that remain over the way women writers are viewed. Misogynistic abuse, or comments over the appropriateness of women addressing various issues in their work can now be directed to authors which brings feminist back to the forefront after a period where the public may have considered these issues solved. Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy, published an essay about the experience of female author which joins a tradition of women authors addressing their positions. Virginia Woolf wrote and delivered a paper about female authorship to the National Society for Women’s Service in 1931. These are texts separated by a great deal of change in the feminist landscape but due to the influence of other factors in Sudjic’s essay Woolf’s treatment of the topic stands as better suited to the well being of today’s women writers.

Both Woolf and Sudjic have chosen particular ways of framing their commentary on being a woman writer but there are very different implications to those devises. Olivia Sudjic brings her argument out of her experiences as a writer in residence in Berlin – a time when she experienced crippling anxiety that rendered her not only unable to write but also unable to function in her everyday life. She builds this experience of anxiety into a comment on the challenges of female authorship and ultimately concludes that her anxiety is what enables her to write, not just in general but with a “strong female I” that works against patriarchal expectations. She has chosen the experience of anxiety as the frame for how she speaks not just about her own experience of female authorship but in general about the often-hostile world that female writers encounter. Woolf’s paper is one that was written with the intent of being delivered as a speech to a woman’s college, so it is very much a product of that context and of Woolf’s time as the framing device is the Victorian idea of the Angel in the House. In her essay Woolf speaks of her own journey as a woman writer, the need to not just write but to rise above societal expectations for what a female writer was but she frames this as an argument for killing the Angel in the House. She speaks of societal expectations as if they are a supernatural entity that must be battled constantly until it is finally defeated.

Ultimately, I think that Sudjic’s choice of anxiety as a way of framing female authorship could have worked if that argument was made in a slightly different context. If Sudjic herself wasn’t experiencing what is clearly a clinical mental illness, or if she was able to recognize and address that illness by demonstrating an attempt to recover. Sudjic’s justification of her illness is not unique to her, most people who suffer from similar disorders do justify their illness but it always falls apart in the end (my anxiety got me the top graduating average in my high school, a scholarship and then top grades in my first year classes but it also got me a year in bed, a hospital stay and an inability to do simple things like ride the bus). There is also the fact that mental illness has long been used as a way to stigmatize the experiences of women and invalidate their experiences or achievements so perhaps that is also part of Sudjic’s rational. So, the close connection of her mental illness and her activism is understandable but that doesn’t mean it is a view that should be promoted or taken up.

Reading Sudjic’s book is a deeply uncomfortable experience, and not in the ways one would think she intended. The weaknesses of her argument and the danger of her framing of what is really a mental illness is much clearer when read beside the Virginia Woolf essay with its metaphor. Like Sudjic’s anxiety the Angel in the House metaphor allows for the sense of outside imposition. It is not the female author that creates the angel, rather that is a specter of society that follows her. Woolf develops this angel as something that tries to sway her writing, to trap her into some less opinionated version of herself, and then shows the act of writing as one wishes to be essential to the killing of the angel in the house. There is even a consideration of the challenges that come after the defeat of expectation, Woolf addresses how hard it can be to find and stay strong in an identity of her own. Even though the context that readers encounter Woolf’s essay in is far removed from the context that it was written in the angel in the house is still a metaphor that allows for a worthwhile discussion of the female author. Except this is a version of female authorship that allows for strength and resistance without promoting an acceptance of mental illness as valuable.

The writing of female authors is undoubtedly empowering, both for the women who write the texts and the people who read them. But the way these writers speak about their authorship can have implications beyond feminism and in an increasingly complicated world there needs to be far more attention paid to the ways that activism can end up being damaging. The Angel in the House may not be the recognizable figure that it used to be but Woolf’s essay stands the test of time in a way that Sudjic’s should not. Women can be strong without having to accept their own suffering and the battle for recognition is one that should not ride upon the back of mental illness. Woolf killed the angel in her house and now it is time for Sudjic to kill hers.

Owners of the World: The Surrender Of or To Humanity

Humanity threatening disasters of debatable evilness are prerequisites for most speculative fiction. Although these stories tend to also include character growth arcs, romances, and some degree of environment survival as well, there is always some looming threat that needs to be defeated. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings typifies this kind of threat as Sauron is undeniably evil and lacks the kind of moral tension that appear in some other narratives. Tolkien’s trilogy is the story of humanity and the other races of Middle Earth fighting back against that evil until ultimately the world is left to the humans as magic steps back. However, there is a reversal of this narrative where in humanity faces its great threat, one of much more debatable morality, and looses. This is the story in the 2016 film The Girl With All the Gifts which grapples with what will happen when new beings rise up to replace us.

The end of Lord of the Rings is poignant, and powerful because even though the heroes won there is a sense of consequences, of something lost. The elves are leaving, so is Frodo and even the hobbits are being slowly enveloped into the ranks of men. The Third Age of Middle Earth has ended to make way for the Age of Man. This is the kind of melancholy that pervades Tolkien’s work and it is incredibly effective, but it does show a very particular view of humanity’s place. There is a sense of entitlement to the world of Middle Earth, as if the great evil was a product of magic and since that evil is gone it is also time for magic to step aside. I think some of this feeling is tied to the world in which Tolkien was writing, that is in and around the two World Wars. Humanity was definitely seen as flawed, but it was a very particular kind of moral flaw that lead to the carnage of the two wars.

In the present moment we face a different kind of failing in humanity, one that poses a threat to everyone’s survival rather than the extreme moral stakes of the World Wars. Climate change and all the politics surrounding it lead to questions about whether or not humanity is worth saving, if we deserve the kind of heroic measures that the magical peoples of Middle Earth pull off for humanity. So where the complexities of the 20th centuries crisis (which should not be down played, it was a critical moment of history and we should take the time to appreciate the people who fought and died for the world we live in today) become a black and white battle that leaves a near blank slate for humanity to progress from in Lord of the Rings – The Girl With All the Gifts considers the broken world that will be left to those who come after.

There are no real heroes by the end of The Girl with All the Gifts, the teacher figure who begins the story as the protector of the vulnerable protagonist is by the end just a last vestige of defeated humanity, there to stand in for the viewer. Instead it is the zombie hybrids who are left in control after a zombie plague breaks out and the children born of mothers who became zombies existed in a place that is neither human nor monstrous. When Melanie, the little girl who is the narrator and protagonist of the film lights the tower of zombie spores alight and locks the teacher in the pod it is the final moment of humanity’s defeat. Rather than being a film about the heroic quest to find a cure and rebuild it is the story of a new species rising up to take their place. And as the tower of spores burns and destroys any hope reclaiming the world for humans there is a sense that this is a righteous victory on the part of Melanie.

I don’t think the writers and directors are arguing that humanity should be abandoned, nor do I think Tolkien considers morality to be as simplistic as it is in parts of Lord of the Rings. But the contrast between these speculative stories does show a shift in the way creators are envisioning the place of humanity in a world that contains other beings. The Girl With All the Gifts suggest that humans have had their moment with the world, their moment to build a legacy for themselves, but that moment has passed and space needs to be made for what comes next. A more optimistic view would be to find a balancing point between surrender and the domination of Lord of the Rings. The real world doesn’t contain magical beings, or zombies (at least as of yet) but there is a growing environmental crisis and a legacy of colonial abuses around the world that need to be addressed. So perhaps the balancing point is not just about how humans will ensure that the world will still support human life but also about how we got to this moment and moving towards a future on the earth for both people and the natural world.

Singular: The Oddities of Standalone Fantasy Fiction

Picking up a fantasy book is an investment, one that may or may not pay off, but usually requires putting lots of time into reading very large books and then even more time waiting for the next book in the series to come along and continue the story. However, there are occasionally exceptions that break this paradigm and offer a fantasy experience in a single volume. Books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char are oddities of the fantasy world that are both wildly popular and without sequels. Reading either of these books is an experience of becoming quickly immersed and attacked only to be confronted with a letting go that isn’t normally required at the end of a fantasy book.

World building is about making the setting of a book seem just as believable and consistent as the real world that readers are moving away from. The Night Circus and The Library at Mount Char both abut the real world, with characters moving between the reality readers will recognize and something much more unique that the author has constructed. This actually changes very little of what is required to make the world believable. Instead of worrying about geography between cities these authors must create a sense of space inside a building like in The Library at Mount Char or a feeling of connection through a sprawling city of tents in The Night Circus. The consistency of these details is much easier to maintain over a single book than a multi book series which is ones of the great benefits of single book works.  And a single book is certainly enough time for a reader to fall in love with a world. Ultimately these authors are very successful, they draw readers in an create worlds that are memorable, believable and very consistent.

For a reader who enjoys fantasy and tends to read a great deal of it these kinds of stand-alone books can be a shock to the system. There is an immediate urge to find the next book, if not in that series than in that world, but that book ends up being absent and you feel stranded in the real world since the prospect of future escapism to that particular local has been ripped away. Readers of fantasy are used to epic sagas that take potential decades (and possibly multiple authors) to complete like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George R.R. Martin’s as yet uncompleted Saga of Ice and Fire. There are also authors like R.A. Salvatore who create immense worlds that unrelated stories can take place in while still providing the enjoyment of that particular fictional universe. Even stories that are fantasy only in the loosest sense like Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone are expanded to a series where the mechanics of magic and other strange happenings are consistent with that first book. If fantasy is about heading into a different world than stand alone fantasy places tight restrictions on what is possible because in the end there is a limit on what you can fit into a single physical book.

In this way stand alone books are also a commentary on the author and the world building process. It isn’t necessarily that the author is lazy or unwilling to put the work into world building, The Night Circus and Library at Mount Char both contain incredibly compelling settings and magic as established earlier, so the choice to abandon those worlds is actually impressive. Hawkins hasn’t published anything since Library at Mount Char but Erin Morgenstern actually has a new book coming in November of 2019. World building once is hard, so it is unsurprising that most writers of fantasy spread that development over a whole collection of books rather than starting from scratch for each project, but Erin Morgenstern has done just that. She has left the much beloved world of the circus and has instead started building anew. The book isn’t out yet so it is impossible to say how close it will be to the world of her first novel but the simple choice not to write a sequel says something interesting about Morgenstern as a write. Just as the reader reaction will say something about what people look for when they become invested in a given author’s creation.

The value of reading fantasy fiction is often debated but regardless of what is decided in that discussion of value there are general things that most fantasy readers expect from the worlds that they enter. Singular fantasy books move against the grain of these expectations and show how fantasy cn be successful even without the promise of multivolume series of epic novels. Books like The Night Circus or The Library at Mount Char demonstrate the depth which is possible even within a single book. The worlds in these books are still incredibly enjoyable despite the fact that there are no follow ups, but the stand-alone nature of their stories leaves the reader with a great sense of loss at the end. The sense of loss reinforces the idea that reading fantasy is a form of escape, but the popularity of Morgenstern and Hawkins work shows that singular fantasy fiction offers an experience that is enjoyable on its own.

 

P.S. I am about to post this and was googling to check spelling on Scott Hawkins’ name only to discover that at some point while I wasn’t looking (ie this summer) his website got updated and apparently, he to might have another book coming. It isn’t a direct sequel to Library at Mount Char so I think this post still stands but maybe not with the kind of strength the idea had when I originally started writing this post.

The House That MineCraft Built: Monumental Buildings in the World of the Internet

Humans like to build large impressive structures. It’s one of the general truths that history can speak to given that monumental architecture appears all over the globe while there continues to be few nations today who trade off tallest tower titles. A perhaps under appreciated subsection of the human drive to build great things in the modern age is the amount of problem solving and creativity that goes into large scale builds in games like MineCraft. Building in virtual worlds is an incredibly diverse hobby and sweeping generalizations are probably not a good idea both because generalizations usually aren’t and because it is near impossible to actually survey the entire breath of anything on the internet. So, for the sake of explorations and argument the MineCraft community that plays on the HermitCraft server as well as the people who watch them is a good point of reference. HermitCraft gathers some of the top talented builders and creative types of the MineCraft internet (at least as I have been exposed to it) to build in a shared world on projects that are both collaborative and individual.

Beyond that its hard to make any kind of statement about what gets built because it varies widely and includes no small amount of ‘because I can’ type projects. A personal favorite was a multi weeklong building battle that included, dragons, spaceships and Pixar references all built at a truly impressive scale while occasionally fighting off raiders.  HermitCraft is an opportunity to see top level players working together, or at the very least in proximity to each other, but there are multitudes of other MineCraft projects that are easily found through the internet. People recreate real world buildings or entire fictional worlds like Middle Earth and most of the time it is all put up for everyone to see free of charge. Many creators even have a particular style, either aesthetically or in the types of things they build ranging from houses, to resource farms to restone contraptions which are the pseudo-tech of the in game world.The popular players who are playing on serves like HermitCraft probably make some kind of income through Patreon, YouTube ads or other sponsorships but for the most part the people who build online are not getting paid or praised yet they continue to pour their time into the game.

While the creative mode in the game is tailored for those kinds of building projects there are a great many people who choose to work in the much less forgiving survival environment in which the plot-based part of the game occurs. And with survival MineCraft comes logistics concerns because materials aren’t always easy to come by and there are zombies, skeleton and assorted other creatures coming to kill you. These are not the kind of logistical concerns that come up in real world building, where ensuring project survival across the multiple generations required for cathedral building was a pressing concern or in global resource purchasing that is an integral part of building practice today. However, the choice of these players to build their creations in a virtual environment that makes some attempt to replicate the concerns of real world architects is another reflection of the purpose that MineCraft is serving when it is played in this way. It also offers the opportunity for different types of buildings, ones that actually benefit the player’s ability to function in the virtual world and improve success rates on future projects. They don’t just want to build something that is aesthetically pleasing, these players enjoy the process and challenge of executing a plan in that kind of hostile environment.

None of this is to say that building projects in game like MineCraft are just as challenging as building in the real world. Instead a consideration of how architectural, history, trends, and ongoing progress is mimicked in a created world – exposing the parts of the design and building process that fascinate people. If working on these projects, both in the real world and on the computer, wasn’t rewarding no one would do it. MineCraft though proves that the process of designing and constructing something is incredibly rewarding since millions of people pay for the game and sink hours of unpaid, usually unacknowledged, time into creating impressive large-scale builds. That willingness to work and created in an unrecognized sector shows that this is a kind of creative practice that offers something incredibly rewarding to the players – beyond the considerations of real-world success. This is a fascinating part of any artistic practice, the benefit to the artist regardless of the recognition they may gain and the expansion of this aspect of art onto the internet is something worth considering.

The people who play on the HermitCraft server and the multitude of other creative building practices on the internet live in a strange place between the art of the real world and the beauties of the internet. They are not trying to make hyper visual monuments of human achievement, but they are still building things that are undeniably large. They sink hours of largely unpaid, unacknowledged time into the games that they play and figure out how to monetize their practices later, through Youtube or other platforms. The world of the internet has opened these kinds of opportunities for new forms of creative practice and while some aspects of these communities mimic the real world practices, they are based on MineCraft in general and HermitCraft in particular show the impressive range that is possible in the virtual realm.

 

The Believability of a Heretic: Religion in The Scarlet Letter and The Priory of the Orange Tree

Novels that also serves as religious commentary have a long history and a continuing relevance in a world where religious extremism or intolerance are growing problems. However, the strength of these books, whether they be reflections of history or a fictional construction that mirrors the real world, lies in their believability and internal consistency. When that element of consistency is lacking the characters come across as flat and their faith as patronizing. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of early American fiction that captures a journey that is heart wrenchingly plausible. In contrast Samantha Shannon’s recent fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree has characters who abandon their beliefs at a moments notice making them feel contrived and sometimes frustrating. Reading these novels sets up a stark dichotomy of what a success representation of religion looks like and why these narratives are compelling.

There is a wide range in the level of restriction in any given religion or religious community but in both Hawthorne’s and Shannon’s novels the religious attitudes are conservative and fairly extreme in their reaction to different beliefs. Hawthorne is drawing from historical Puritan communities in late 17th century Massachusetts and as such doesn’t have as much work to do in his world building because his audience is already familiar with both Christianity and the extreme interpretations that the Puritans favoured. Shannon on the other hand is working within a fantasy world and, although there are strong similarities with Christianity, she has to build a religious world that is believable to her readers. For the most part this is fairly well done, her characters call on religious figures in normal conversation and show clear aversion to any form of ‘otherness’. Some of this may be that the reader is filling her constructed faith in with elements that are familiar from the real world, but there has also clearly been attention paid to the norms of Virtudom and their relationship to the world outside.

Despite extreme environments, both historical and fictional, there is change that occurs as new theology is developed and the old becomes less relevant. This is where Shannon’s construction falls apart as unlike the consistently fanatical figures of Hawthorne’s characters the supposed faithful of The Priory of the Orange Tree are quick to let go of their beliefs when an alternative is presented. In the Scarlet Letter it is only Hester’s belief that manifests meaningful change over the course of the novel, and it is a change that only happens when she is forced away from her previous beliefs. She becomes more liberal because her options are either to change or to accept herself and her daughter as products of sin that are headed for damnation. This is not an abandonment of Christianity; it is just a softening of her Puritan beliefs to adapt to the situation. It is this kind of transformation that Shannon was probably trying to achieve but her characters lack the motivation arcs that make Hawthorne’s characters so successful. Meg, Loth, and other characters who are initially presented as faithful followers of the Saint are willing to accept the validity of the alternate history that Ead presents even before there is any indication that this is going to be vital to the world’s survival. These are not characters that are being in anyway victimized by their faith, which is the impetus that makes Hester’s transformation believable, which makes their change feel arbitrary and hard to invest in.

Individual spiritual change is often contrasted with larger societal change on that front, or lack there of. It is actually a lack of change that feels more realistic when reading about extreme religious communities because of how firmly held the beliefs tend to be. Hawthorne constructs this fairly successfully in The Scarlet Letter as it is small moments of ‘mercy’ that represent the extent of the change characters are capable of. These are moments like allowing Hester to keep her child or her estranges husband’s moment of calm after Dimmesdale’s death. For a modern reader these are basic acts of common decency but with the context of the historical setting Hawthorne is creating it is realistic and powerful. Shannon also seems to realize that full scale conversions of entire nations would be unbelievable and jarring for a reader but there are still moments when the realism of a religious nation is pushed. History is full of moments where interfaith cooperation could have saved millions of lives, such as the Crusades which seem to inform parts of Shannon’s novel, but unwillingness to accept religious difference resulted in even greater violence. This however is not the world that is reflected in The Priory of the Orange Tree where alliances are made with relative ease and only minor backlash. It is not that the politics of Virtuedom and Seikii are boring to read, this is the climactic part of the novel and is executed well in other ways. Rather, the quick cooperation by not just individuals, but nations of differing faiths makes a truly immersive experience impossible to achieve.

The ways in which Shannon’s novel fall flat or the rigid puritan world that is maintained through A Scarlet Letter are not arguments that extremely strict religious communities are impossible to change or interact positively with. Instead the reading experience of these books shows demonstrates that questions of religion are complicated and difficult to handle even in fiction. By thinking about what makes representations of religion in fiction effective some of the real world challenges of inter-faith communication are made clear. Fictional worlds are made believable by their internal consistency and any discussion of religion is shaped by a willingness to consider complexity.

Confronting the Terror of the Infinite: The Romantic Poets and Interstellar

In the grand scheme of the universe humans are very small and probably lacking any degree of importance – a fact that humanity has been aware of and sought to minimize through an understanding of the world we exist in. The works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth look back on a concept developed by Immanuel Kant out of even earlier models: the idea of sublime beauty in ideas or places that are terrifying in scope but also ultimately positive to experience. For the Romantic poets this was a notion that was heavily connected to nature and the place of humans as simply an observe in a natural world that they cannot change but much more recently the sublime seems to appear in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar film. These are artistic explorations of the natural world and of philosophical ideal that can be simultaneously frightening and inspiring.

The idea of the sublime is traced back to the Greek philosophical tradition but the concept as it is used today in philosophy originates with Immanuel Kant. He built on the work of earlier philosophers who viewed the sublime as a general kind of terrifying beauty and developed the sublime into something that is tied to the cerebral rather than the physical world. However, throughout these developments the central themes remained the same – the world is frightening but also aesthetically impressive. As with many important and enduring philosophical concepts the sublime seeped into the artistic tradition. The early English Romantic poets explicitly aligned themselves with exploring the concept of the sublime while later poets and artists of other disciplines show strong influences from the philosophical tradition without explicit ties.

Representations of the sublime in art is much more closely relate to the natural world than it is to the largely theoretical sublime that Kant wrote about. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were close friends and collaborated over a shared fascination with the sublime. Wordsworth was captivated by nature, its seeming infinite complexity or beauty while Coleridge stayed closer to Kant’s conception of the sublime with a focus on bleak landscapes like deserts or oceans. It is Coleridge’s approach that is most closely related to Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar which released in 2014, 180 years after Coleridge’s death. Nolan films are always masterfully created which supports the kind of terrible beauty that is showcased in the movie. It is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the science of the universe and both the characters and the audience are both in awe of and frighten by the uncaring universe that is revealed.

There is a continuity in the natural world that is fascinating to the Romantic poets. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner has repeating lines throughout of the sun rising and setting over the drifting ship. While some of Wordsworth later works grapple with his sense that there is a part of the natural world that he is consistently just a few moments too late to see. There is a sense that time, and nature are moving on without the observer and that feeling comes through in Interstellar as well because the characters are constantly trying to manipulate space-time phenomena to their advantage. Much of the plot of Interstellar hinges not just on human created technology but also on the potentially overwhelming inner workings of the universe. Where cryo-sleep and years of space travel can make the protagonists a mere seven minutes late to stage a rescue operation on a distant water world.

Even separated by several centuries the Romantic Poets and Nolan seem to share a fascination with the uncaring world around them. They both seek to represent their view of the world to an audience and they have arguably succeeded. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner in particular is a poem that most English students will encounter and Interstellar is quickly becoming a gateway for young people into the sciences. This may not indicate that wider society is suddenly going to start having intellectual discussions about the nature of beauty and the sublime but it does show that the central principle remains solid: we are fascinated by the awe inspiring power of the universe and all the ways it doesn’t care if we die.

Looking into the overwhelming power of the natural world, or the natural universe, is an exercise in willpower and sometimes fear. In Interstellar, the characters are not scared by what they don’t know, they are confronting the terrors of a universe that is uncaring of human concerns forcing humans to just try and find a way to continue along inside of it. This is the same essential problem that the early romantic poets are exploring, nature exists in its own terms and especially at the time of writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth there was very little humans could do to try and tame it. However, those poets as well as modern creators like Christopher Nolan capture the concept of the sublime, a world that is enormous, terrifying and beyond our control but also ultimately beautiful and worth examining.

Translated Into Relevance: An Under-Researched Opinion on Modern Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare is often one of the most reviled parts of high school English for the average student while beyond the walls of the classroom there is still a large theatre community that is built around keeping Shakespeare’s plays alive. William Shakespeare died in 1616 so his plays are far from recent which raises questions about the place they should have in contemporary culture both as a piece of history and as works still relevant to people’s lives. By considering the many versions of Shakespeare that have appeared in modern times that debate can be seen and the implications of changing the great playwright’s work can be considered.

No Fear Shakespeare and it many competitors are targeted at the apparently suffering high school students who are being forcible pulled through a study of one play or another. They attempt to make the experience of reading Shakespeare less taxing by moving the original Elizabethan English into more modern language. However, this often goes beyond just defining a word or two that has fallen out of common usage, instead there is an entire modern version of the text that is created. These versions usually lack the beautiful iambic pentameter of the original and many of Shakespeare’s hilarious and surprisingly juvenile jokes are also lost. For some students this might be the only way they are going to make it through a Shakespeare play, in which cased No Fear Shakespeare can be a fantastic tool for academic success, but the prevalence of full translations creates a general negative attitude about Shakespeare. There is an increasing feeling that Shakespeare is impossible to read in its original form and many students no longer bother to try since it is so easy to access modern translations.

The theater world is also very much aware of the challenge that modern audiences have with understanding and enjoying Shakespeare. However, they have moved in a slightly different direction with stage adaptations that take place in modern, or at least slightly more recent, times. For example in the 2018 summer season at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, Robert Lepage staged a modernized version of Coriolanus that included an iPhone texting scene that always drew many laughs from the audience. In versions like this the language of the play is largely if not entirely unchanged, but the setting and costuming is shifted forward in time. This can draw attention to particular themes or make the story seem more accessible since the modern context is so different from the one Shakespeare wrote in. Despite the many advantages of modernization there can also be real challenges associated with a Shakespeare play that has been taken out of its original framing. In the case of Lepage’s Coriolanus the modernization actually made several elements of the play more difficult to understand. Coriolanus is one of the Roman plays and features the rather unique political structure of Republican Rome, many of the positions that are central to the text haven’t existed in over a thousand years so the late 20th century setting that Lepage chose couldn’t account for these figures. Watching the play without a clear understanding of Shakespeare’s original would have been extremely challenging as the relationships between various characters is not at all clear in the modern adaptation. Modernizing Shakespeare on the stage revolves around a similar concern for accessibility that leads to translations while presenting a different set of problems.

There is a third option that exists somewhat outside of the dichotomy presented by translation or adaptation which is simply to write an entirely new creation that comments on the original. This is what Aime Cesaire undertook when he wrote Une Tempete which rather than just being a version of Shakespeare’s original that was staged in such a way that it emphasizes the discussion of colonialism is a completely new text that shows the story from another perspective. Rather than playing second fiddle to Prospero’s revenge quest, Ariel and Caliban are at the center of Une Tempete using discussions of race and colonization that are explicit rather than implied. It isn’t just the text of the play that is changed, Cesaire’s suggested staging as shown through additional scenes at the beginning and end of the play incorporate the culture of the African Diaspora through traditional masks, drawing attention to the vibrant cultures that Shakespeare’s work and colonialism in general are painting over. Even though the plot follows that of Shakespeare’s Tempest in many ways it is hard to read this play as simply a version or adaptation of the original as it has its own unique tone, meaning and emotion.

There are academics who spend their careers researching Shakespeare, his plays, and their place in society but that research is most often quite distance from the average person as they encounter Shakespeare. Whether in a high school classroom, on a stage or in more hidden forms that defy easy categorization – like Hamlet in the Lion King – these encounters are a point of contact between Shakespeare’s past and our present. Translations and modernizations attempt to force a connection between the audience and the text with some argument of relevance, while works like Cesaire’s show the gaps or failings of the original. However, if there is some relevance to be had perhaps there should be more faith placed in the audience to find it, or in new creators to come up and build their own work on the base that Shakespeare built.