Monday, January 21, 2008

Off-"Color"--and the end of this string of puns

I wrote these blogs ahead and intended to let them stand unaltered by others' posts, but this is important. Rebecca Miller pointed out that Overstreet himself denies that the Keeper represents God.

Poppycock, as one of my friends would say. Here are quotes that I think define the Keeper quite differently:

Her mouth moved, searching to name that creature, that force of water, wind, or fire the presence so clearly resembled. But after a timeless moment, she knew--it reminded her of everything. Or maybe, as she looked at the forest and the sky, everything reminded her of the Keeper. All things in the landscape seemed to yearn, leaning toward the creature the way flowers lean toward the sun. Through the Keeper, all things seemed to draw color and vigor. And for the Keeper, waves splashed, trees swayed, stones protected knowledge, and wind waited for orders. (p. 267)

Then the Keeper reared up, and a roar came from the trees above as if they had split their trunks from their crowns. But it was not a challenge, nor was it a threat. It was a roar of affirmation, of completion. She could not comprehend it, nor could she translate it into words. But she had been given an answer, one that dissolved all her fears, leaving only laughter.

Her name was in the music of that voice. She was part of its secretive scheme. It would not forget her, had never forgotten her. (pp. 268-269)

There are other references, but they require more context. Basically, though, the characters are to follow the "tracks of the Keeper" (pp. 312, 334) to fulfill their destiny, and in at least one case, the Keeper is present at the hour of death to take the deceased home (pp 312-313). That is why I consider Overstreet's protestations disingenuous.

The following is my original post for today, unchanged except the conclusion.

One of the problems I had with Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet was errors of genre or physics.

Moderate Spoiler Alert!
There is a major explosion toward the end of the story. There shouldn't be. I'm not saying that it's bad in terms of the story; I'm saying it wouldn't happen if the story world has anything like our physical laws. The explosion is alcohol-based--or booze-based, anyway. But alcohol isn't generally explosive, just flammable. And that's technically the fumes more than the liquid. You can light up in a leaky wine cellar without sending the house overhead into orbit. Yet here, the blast is enough to topple buildings and incinerate people quite a ways off.

Overstreet must have realized that it was a bit much, because he later adds that some of the blast came from weapons stockpiles. But how did the fire reach them? There's a cute bit with a trail of clothing acting as a fuse, but even old-fashioned clothes without flame retardant didn't work well as fuses, especially over long distances. That's why people soaked rags in alcohol, added gunpowder, and so on.

Another problem is that right next to the wine cellar is a large and supposedly bottomless cavern. You see, an explosion involves something expanding rapidly and forcefully, sweeping aside obstacles. The real power of an explosion involves blowing things out of the way. So if you have a load of dynamite and put it next to a house, the result will be very different than if you put it in the house, especially in a closet, for example. The blast outside will mostly displace air, because the air will move more readily than the house. Very little damage will occur. The blast inside the house will displace whatever's handy, including not just air but doors, supports, and so on. The bottomless pit means that the blast (such as it might be) will occur effectively outdoors. It will burn those nearby, but the damage will be trivial: most of the force will simply displace the air in the pit. There is no chance that any fire released will incinerate someone hundreds of yards away through a maze of tunnels.

If I had to do this, I would ditch the booze and go right to the explosives. I would minimize the fire aspect and say instead that the structural damage to the already honeycombed foundation led to catastrophic failure and practically everything went into the bottomless pit.
End of Spoiler.

There is also a standard fantasy bug: gratuitous weirdness. Unlike Tolkien and Lewis (and many others), who presented a largely familiar world with a few strange elements, Overstreet seems to introduce a pointless oddity every chapter or so. I think he's flipping a coin. Thus we have various oddball animals: cawba birds, fangbears, vawns, plumspiders, and so on. Yet there are familiar elements as well, especially fruit such as apples and plums. Why?

Now, there is a type of fantasy that does this: weird or nonsense fantasy (Carrol's Alice books, the Oz books). But the feel of Auralia's Colors owes more to Tolkien than to Baum, so encountering a trick from another sub-genre just feels odd. (There are also some general conworld/conlang issues that bother me, but only a fellow geek would care. Linguistically, the story world is confusing, especially where names are concerned: English elements mingle with non-English ones in a way that would've made Tolkien hack up a hobbit.)

One of the examples of gratuitous weirdness occurred early, and I never quite recovered. The typical animal for riding is not anything horselike; it is a giant lizard called a vawn. Now, riding lizards is a sci-fi or sci-fantasy trope; you don't see it much in classical fantasy. (Part of the trouble is that horses are a deep-set literary image in Western culture, and even in much non-Western culture. It's almost like doing without swords.) What's even more curious, we eventually learn that horses do exist, but they are reserved for the very rich. (For some reason the Prince uses a vawn when we see him, though.)

Vawns aren't standard lizards, however. For one thing, they have hair--specifically manes--and it's evidently not a wig. But then, they also go traipsing about in the winter snow, which most lizards wouldn't do. They don't start on cold mornings.

There are definitely problems here, but Overstreet strives for moral balance and mostly achieves it. His writing is far better than average, but the story itself is problematic. I wasn't looking for an allegory--neither the Chronicles of Narnia nor The Lord of the Rings is allegorical--but I do look for a world where God exists, even if the author doesn't acknowledge him. In this case, given some of the author's own statements, I'm not sure that Auralia's Colors fits that. As Mr. Beaver said about humanity in creatures, "But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that's going to be Human and isn't yet, or used to be Human once and isn't now, or ought to be Human and isn't, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet." (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, pp. 77-78) Substitute "Christian" (not the "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" kind, the kind that acknowledges God frankly), and you have my viewpoint and my disquiet summarized.

Following an e-mail discussion with Overstreet, I've modified my views slightly; I explain here.

Other reviews:
Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Grace Bridges
Jackie Castle
Carol Bruce Collett
Valerie Comer
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Marcus Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Timothy Hicks
Heather R. Hunt
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Rachel Marks
Shannon McNear
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirtika or Mir's Here
Pamela Morrisson
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Deena Peterson
Cheryl Russel
Ashley Rutherford
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Rachelle Sperling
Donna Swanson
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise


John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Well thought argument. I think that if a author denies something though, you ought to take it at face value.

Sure, the Keeper sound like God, but that is becasue Overstreet is drawing on his knowledge of Biblical language and our monotheistic religion. He can't help but make the Keeper sound like God, because that is what he knows.

If he were a budhhist, the Keeper might sound more like Buddha, ans so on.

Steve said...

I do take an author's claims and denials seriously. But I accept them as true only if that is logically possible. Here it is not. The only way to accept this denial is to blow one's brains out. It is logically impossible to maintain the idea.

Think about it: because he's coming from a Christian worldview, when he describes a character in terms that can only be valid for God in a Christian worldview, he cannot honestly deny that the character is God, even if the identity crept in unintentionally on his part. He should say, "I didn't mean for this to be an Aslan-type character, but it happened anyway."

As it stands, his claim that a character described as the Christian God is not that God can only mean that this is not truly a Christian book from a Christian worldview. So either he is too cowardly or mendacious to admit a self-evident truth, or the worldview here is only pseudo-Christian, which would make it significantly more dangerous than anything Pullman has written.

I find no logical alternative.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

As always, Steve, you give lots to think about in your post.

As to the Keeper, I tend to agree with you, especially with the comment you left at my site. It would be unheard of for Lewis to deny that Aslan was a type of Christ. Clearly Overstreet is trying to follow in Tolkien and Lewis's footsteps, so why the reticence to admit he's got some intentional symbols?

I suspect he is influenced in part by postmodernism and in part by a school of creative thought that disavows theme.

All of which I would like to discuss with him!


Jeffrey Overstreet said...

So many interesting questions and critiques and comments here!

Thanks for taking Auralia's Colors so seriously, folks. I'm flattered and blessed by that.

If an interviewer asks me about:
- the Keeper/God issue,
- the Abascar collapse,
- vawns, or
- the possibility that I might be "cowardly" and "mendacious,"

... well, I'll be happy to address them! And I promise you that the answers have nothing to do with postmodernism. ;)

As for following in Tolkien and Lewis's footsteps... well... chronologically, I am writing books after those two are dead and buried. So yes, I do follow them, in a manner of speaking. :)

But as I've said before, I'd be proud if my work amounts to a flicker of candelight compared to the bonfire built by those two men.

Thanks again for thinking through Auralia's Colors.


Steve said...

For what it's worth, "cowardly" and "mendacious" aren't the only options I gave. It's also possible that the story's worldview is "pseudo-Christian."

This was a hurried response, and the Keeper is the major issue for me. I originally gave a guarded recommendation.

Yet I admit that I should have tried to contact Mr. Overstreet about this matter. The statements I've made are serious, but so is the topic. I normally try to abide by Nicodemus' counsel in John 7:51, however, and I do give authors fair warning, though in this case the group review had that effect to some extent.

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