Fantastic histories, religion and our place in the universe

I’ve finally started to read Mortal Engines, the first of Philip Reeve’s quartet. Sleep and class and other such things got in the way, but I’m about halfway through the first book and really enjoying it.

So far, I’m reminded in many ways of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. Not stylistically, but both create universes where the far superior technology of the past has been lost and is only retrievable (scavenged for, in fact) in patches, and cobbled together. Bricolage, of sorts. (Then of course both have resurrected men/zombie things, improved air travel and a major character called Cromus/Cromis. I’ll stop now.)

Between them, Reeve and Harrison have got me thinking about fantasy universes and their pasts in general.

In China Miéville’s (I know he’s a Harrison fan, at least) city of New Crobuzon, there’s a gigantic (fossilized?) ribcage just…lying there. It is immense; it towers over the city, and one of the city’s boroughs, Bonetown, is built around it. Yet we’re not told why it’s there. Obviously at some point in the distant past, utterly humoungous creatures have populated this world, and we know nothing about them. The only information one actually receives about The Ribs is this (from Perdido Street Station) –

 

She could orient herself by the Ribs. She looked up and found them above her, shoving vastly into the sky. Only one side of the cage was visible, the bleached and blistered curves poised like a bone wave about to break over the buildings to the east…
The Ribs rose from the earth at the edges of the empty ground.
Leviathan shards of yellowing ivory thicker than the oldest trees exploded out of the ground, bursting away from each other, sweeping up in a curved ascent until, more than a hundred feet above the earth, looming now over the roofs of the surrounding houses, they curled sharply back towards each other. They climbed as high again till their points nearly touched, vast crooked fingers, a god-sized ivory mantrap.
There had been plans to fill the square, to build offices and houses in the ancient chest cavity, but they had come to nothing.
Tools used on the site broke easily and went missing. Cement would not set. Something baleful in the half-exhumed bones kept the gravesite free of permanent disturbance.
Fifty feet below Lin’s feet, archaeologists had found vertebrae the size of houses; a backbone which had been quietly reburied af¬ter one too many accidents on-site. No limbs, no hips, no gargan¬tuan skull had surfaced. No one could say what manner of creature had fallen here and died millennia ago. The grubby print-vendors who worked the Ribs specialized in various lurid depictions of Gigantes Crobuzon, four-footed or bipedal, humanoid, toothed, tusked, winged, pugnacious or pornographic.

Which tells us very little. Miéville’s universe has also had a nuclear holocaust of sorts in the past, as well as whatever circumstances (we aren’t told, as far as I recall) that lead to the existence of the ‘scar’ (in The Scar), a massive wound in reality.

Another recent series I’ve really enjoyed, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards books are set in cities where unknown ancestors made gorgeous towers out of unknown substances. And so on.

[At this point I read the first two Reeve books and am halfway through the third. Okay, back to post.]

In all these books there’s a complete break from the past. I mean, characters may know something of their world’s pasts (though often they don’t) but there’s very little actual continuity between one civilization and the next. Apart from Viriconium, I wouldn’t classify any of these as being in the Dying Earth genre. Most of them are thriving civilizations, built over the ruins of others. But they all accept the possibility of apocalypse, of ending, of (and this is what I think is important) not being central to the history of their worlds.

And when I contrast these with the fantasy worlds in the epics, or even with someone like Tolkien, it is this that strikes me as the main difference. In the classical epics, it’s always man at the centre of the universe. With Tolkien, even though you have history divided into three ages and multiple races, there’s still this feeling of continuity, a place for everything and everything in its place. The races we’re made to identify with are still at the centre of everything. And significantly – Tolkien’s universe has a God.

(In the real world, of course, the dinosaurs existed and became extinct, great civilizations have risen and fallen and left hardly any trace of themselves, evolution happened and is happening and I’m not the centre of the universe, and that’s okay. This is, I assume, the worldview that most readers of this blog subscribe to*. I do not include the crazier faction of religious people who have Serious Dinosaur Issues.)

And while I certainly don’t think that all religious people fly in the face of science and history to believe that man is the centre of everything, ever, I’m wondering if you have to be religious in some way to be able to see worlds as that connected, with everything so tidily in its place that it inevitably hints at intent.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, so please assume that rocks have fallen and that I have died, and that therefore this post is over. FSM knows it was long enough.

*Though if any you want to think I’m the centre of the universe, hey. Feel free.

5 Comments to “Fantastic histories, religion and our place in the universe”

  1. George R Stewart’s Earth Abides also deals with a post-apocalyptic, scavenging world. What’s interesting there is the question of how to preserve (and know to use) all the knowledge that humans have acquired.

    And talking about Mieville, have you read Un Lun Dun yet?

  2. I must look for the Stewart book. Do you have a copy, by any chance?

    Also, need you ask? I grabbed a copy of Un Lun Dun as soon as it came out. Really enjoyed it, and loved the illustrations.

  3. I think there’s an argument to be made that the real turning point in the non-anthropocentric universe in fantasy is the influence of Lovecraft. (I know Mieville’s on record as being a Lovecraft fan, as are lots of others in the so-called New Weird school, and I think even more are affected by Lovecraftian ideas second- or third-hand.) It’s easy to lose sight of just what an upheaval it was in the literature of the fantastic when HPL described humanity as “a placid island of ignorance admidst the black seas of infinity,” and the ripples of that idea went out across all the genres he touched, creating profound changes in the possibilities of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and the desmesnes adjacent thereto. And, of course, what Lovecraft was doing was extrapolating from the cutting-edge science of his own time and the truths that were becoming steadily more apparent about the universe and our place in it; his stroke of brilliance was to make this into a literary device with its own implications in imaginative world-building.

    Now, I don’t think it’s necessary to be religious to imagine a universe that works differently than this, with more order and a central place for humankind, though I’m sure Tolkien was deeply informed by his own faith when he did his very deliberate myth-building (and it helps to remember that the non-Christian epic and mythic literature that influence what we think of as Tolkienesque fantasy are themselves human-centric in various ways). Nor do I think that being “religious” (at least, under a generous definition of the term) is a preventative to creating worlds that don’t privilege the role of humanity. Indeed, I think there’s probably too much made of correlations between the beliefs of authors and the worth of their creations. To be honest, I think this idea, taken to its extreme, is something of an unfortunate side-effect of the political conscientiousness of writers like Mieville, who I sometimes think overanalyze the “politics” of novels to the detriment of their other merits. (Which is not to say that social consciousness shouldn’t be a factor in either creation or criticism; only that I object to, for instance, Mieville’s distaste for LotR on the grounds that it advocates feudalism, as though that were the only light in which it were possible to read it and that its other, considerable, virtues are negated by this.)

    Um, now I’m the one who’s gone on for too long and without much point. Is this the part where I get eaten by bears?

  4. For a bunch of reasons, your post triggers memories of A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller sees organized religion (Roman Catholicism) as the means through which civilization is preserved and rebuilds, as well as the saving of humanity from cycles of growth, apocalypse and rebuilding.

    >if you have to be religious in some way to be able to see worlds as that connected, with everything so tidily in its place that it inevitably hints at intent

    I suspect that part of the answer is that you don’t have to be religious to see everything as connected. We call the connect-y bits “laws of nature”. However, lots of people have experienced Awwww at the size and scale of our complex universe. cf. Carl Sagan’s famous quote about spirituality:

    “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality…The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a profound disservice to both.”

    Is this religious? I wouldn’t say so, though the experience Sagan talks of may be similar to certain kinds of religious experience. The closest analogy I can think of in religion is, perhaps, pantheism of some sort. Anthropocentrism is irrelevant here.

    But imputing intent to the connectored bits- that, I suspect, is different. I can’t immediately come up with non-religious examples.

    -r

  5. George R Stewart’s Earth Abides also deals with a post-apocalyptic, scavenging world.
    Also, the Shannara series. Although I do wish he hadn’t started the current series linking the Word and Void series with the Shannara books. It was more interesting to imagine what had happened.

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