Fiction

Cosmic Horror and Climate Change: Lovecraft’s Climate Fiction

Nothing stirred the dusty plain, the disintegrated sand of long-dry river-beds, where once coursed the gushing streams of Earth’s youth. There was little greenery in this ultimate world, this final stage of mankind’s prolonged presence upon the planet.

Till A’ the Seas- H.P. Lovecraft and R.H. Barlow

The idea of Climate Change wasn’t even a whisper on the stiffest breeze when Howard Phillips Lovecraft crafted his stories of cosmic horror. Lovecraft worlds are a constant battle between demons within and without. Conflict set against urban settings or dark cellars were one of Lovecraft’s fortes, but it was his restless relationship with the wild that made him unique. From New England’s woods to the Antarctic waste, Lovecraft’s macabre travelogue uses environment, a tangible connection to Biblical and medieval views of the wild, as demonica personified. The best and perhaps prescient example of Lovecraft’s cynical view of nature comes in the form of a dying planet in Till A’ the Seas.

In this single work we see climate change as Earth’s slow demise with rising temperatures, faltering seas and withering environment echoing today’s climate crisis. It is not difficult to see drought stricken California in Till A’ the Seas, co-written with anthropologist R.H. Barlow. Lovecraft’s survivors double for modern inhabitants of Earth, blindly lumbering forward expecting perpetual favor from the world only to be surprised by its eventual doom.

Writing of the change, Lovecraft and Barlow noted, “It had not come at once; long aeons had gone before any could feel the change.” This has a prescience as one of the major debates among social scientists gauging humanity’s physical and psychological reaction to climate change. A growing consensus that climate change is happening (why is still being debated by pundits and from pulpits) is contrasted with the lack of worry. If individuals are not feeling direct and profound effects of a devolving environment, then the urgency and worry is non-existent. For a broader look at this phenomenon check out the Finite Pool of Worry.

At its most bleak, Till A’ the Seas captures the worst case imagery of climatologists, “Steady, universal, and inexorable was the great eviction of man from the realms he had always known. No land within the widening stricken belt was spared; no people left unrouted. It was an epic, a titan tragedy whose plot was unrevealed to the actors—this wholesale desertion of the cities of men. It took not years or even centuries, but millennia of ruthless change. And still it kept on—sullen, inevitable, savagely devastating.”

In the Lovecraft and Barlow work, the Earth is drawn close to the Sun and the oceans slowly dry up. In today’s climate, we see the seas advancing, rising with each year and decade. Yet apply these words to sea-level rise and it is chilling, “Only a few inches during many centuries—but in many centuries; increasing…”

Continuing with this drought theme, lived every day by Californians, the authorial duo wrote, “And now again the peace was disturbed, for water was scarce, and found only in deep caverns. There was little enough, even of this; and men died of thirst wandering in far places. Yet so slow were these deadly changes, that each new generation of man was loath to believe what it heard from its parents.”

The author’s overall relationship with the environment is not overt, but occulted, adversarial and complex. It is a “blasted heath” ready to be leveled by mankind seeking to build a reservoir in The Colour out of Space. Lovecraft’s The Tree on the Hill, co-written with Duane Rimel, features a parcel of land so ominous, inaccessible and dreaded, ” the hillfolk will tell you that it is indeed a spot transplanted from his Satanic Majesty’s front yard.”

Nature, to Lovecraft, is a strange hybrid of the mechanistic, yet too malleable, model favored by naturalists mated with the sleeping menace of a god ready to smite dullard acolytes. It is ancient and foreboding, never a place of respite or adoration for its natural marvels. To Lovecraft the climate, the environment, is a fiendish horror in-waiting.

Asymmetric Creativity: World Building a Relgion

foundationSince my World Building post was so well received I wanted to return to the subject with a bit more detail. Specifically I wanted to delve into one of the most critical aspects of fantasy or speculative worlds- religions.

This can be a delicate subject, religion and faith, but it is something defines a good portion of men and women around the globe. It informs decisions of cultures, affects politics, economies and even directs the outcomes of war. The complexity of faith is one that could spend a dozen posts on and just scratch the surface. So I wanted to get into the idea of religion by asking the question that was asked of me by a professor- what does ‘religion’ mean to you?

What does Religion mean to you– This is an important question because you would be surprised at the variety and scope of answers one produces with that question. There is no right or wrong answer, but it serves as your personal baseline as to your creative vision for your fictional faith. This will give you an idea for building blocks- are you a rules and ritual person, or a spiritual fulfillment person of faith or perhaps you’re simply excited by the imagery of religion. Once you have defined what religion means to you, then its time to start working on the religion of your fictional world. There are many ways of going about this, but I would suggest starting by reading about religions from across the millennia.

Research– Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole with this one. You can easily get caught in a the research trap when it comes to religions as they history and variety is literally as old as man. However, that being said, I would suggest picking periods of history- Bronze and Iron ages- to identify the faiths and religions practiced during those times. Choose religions that served as inspiration or building blocks to later, larger or well known faiths. Again, think and look asymmetrically at the subject of religion and you’d be surprised what you’d find. To do online research I would recommend Patheos religion library, a reliable site encouraged by my religion professor. Important, as you read about religions and take notes, keep in mind how you answered what you religion means to you.

Fictional Syncretism– One of the creative tools a writer can apply to constructing a new faith for a universe is by applying syncrestism to some faiths you’ve found in your research. The best explination of syncretism is the cooping or borrowing elements of older faiths by a new faith that is either  moving into or converting a population. Try looking at an old, mist shrouded faith, and looking at it with new eyes. If an old faith considers fire the element of a creator, perhaps your fictional creator employs it in a  different way. Perhaps your deities use it only on one day, therefore it becomes the symbol of a festival, month or day. Some of the best examples of syncretism in our world come from the Christian conversion of Scandinavian pagans (Thor’s Day =Thursday, etc.)

Avoid Egyptian and Greco-Roman Gods–  I cannot stress this enough. For me nothing is the kiss of death when reading a blurb about a new novel or short story and it is yet another retread of Egyptian gods or ancient Greece deities. It happens all too often and taints otherwise original stories and universes when a thinly veiled Ra or Zeus wanders into a oily back alley.

Express the idea of Religion in the voice of a character– You’ve undoubtedly created a pantheon, a creator goddess, her sons or daughters, their kin, creatures and beasts. Once its all sorted out, build a temple to that deity- whether its an open field or stone ediface- and have a character spend one afternoon inside it. Express the journey of fact, the act itself, in a peaceful setting. Perhaps create a regular man or woman, have them experience the sights, sounds and smells of the religious movement. Sit and think how your own religious experience affected you and rewrite that thought through the eyes of the fictional devotee. Express the act of devotion and the very important interaction the character has with the mystery of their deity.

All of these ideas, I hope, will aid fellow writers in creating inventive, exciting and engaging religions in the world of speculative fiction.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric Creativity: Righting World Building Gone Wrong

YggdrasilI have an ongoing wrestling match with world building in speculative fiction. I revel in new writers producing ideas that challenge conventional story frameworks or characters. As one of those new writers I still learn as I go, producing some successes and tossing narrative failures. I plug forward with confidence and hope that my stories, short or long, will entertain readers around the world.

All that said, I do have an issue with the idea of world building some writers use in their works. To call it world building is a misnomer, as often we see a hodge-podge of cherry picked pieces of cultural and religious history cobbled together to form new faiths, nations or histories. I would suggest there is a cleaner, more energetic way at world building that harnesses creativity, while keeping the new world authentic to our shared historical knowledge.

Appreciating that many writers lavish countless hours to research before launching into a new story (a research fetishist myself) I feel sometimes the creative energy is lost in the action of stitching together. There needs to be a cohesive view of the world, not a patch work or “everything and the kitchen sink.” Perhaps other readers do not notice or take issue with such incongruities, but as a devotee of history, folklore and religion, I am sometimes distracted by the world building method employed by some writers. Sometimes speculative fiction is like the infamous movie scene where a Roman soldier wears a wrist watch. On the face of it, they seem authentic, but on closer inspection it doesn’t match up.

One of the reasons I started Asymmetric Creativity was to put down ideas that encouraged unconventional thinking that produced exciting results. World building is one such creative endeavor that I think benefits from asymmetric thinking. If I were to offer advice on how to find asymmetric influence in world building I would propose the following:

1- Museum Visits– Seems like a no brainer, but if you live in a part of the world with a robust museum community I would suggest getting outside of your intellectual comfort zone and visit a museum you would not be drawn to. If you are a classic art fan, go to a modern art museum and seek out unconventional sculpture or paintings. If you are a writer interested in world building, avoid the well worn museum galleries of Roman or Egyptian antiquities. Seek out the remnants of other cultures outside the big exhibits or popular galleries. Seek inspiration in the mundane household items or shard of pottery as often they provide insights into the greater culture. Also, spend time at local, smaller cultural institutions as regional history can provide creative triggers.

2- Seek Cultures Old or Overlooked– Unless I am constructing a story set in those culture, I avoid the typical empires or dominant societies favored by most world building writers. While I have non-fiction interest in Roman, Chinese, Egyptian and Medieval England I avoid using them as templates or research starting points for world building. Piecing together Roman imperial system with Chinese cosmology may seem new and inventive, but often they read incongruous or even silly. Find those precursor cultures which we continue to learn of their influence and astounding vibrancy. How do you find obscure or ancient societies?

3- Monitor Archaeology News– Social Media has provided an immediate and constantly updating flow of news about our past. I follow over a dozen archaeology and history organizations, websites and blogs. If you have the ability consider joining organizations like ASOR or at least following their social media updates. Or for a treasure trove of historical, anthropological and archaeological information, possibly join JSTOR. Read reputable history or archaeological periodicals.

4- Read Non-Fiction for Fun. Not Just Research– I have been a reader of non-fiction all my adult life. Currently I read 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, with the non-fiction primarily folklore, religion and global histories. I read non-fiction for the enrichment, helping me keep the modern world in perspective knowing what came before and how it parallels today. This enrichment helps fill in the imagination, providing credible and realistic starting points for my fiction. World building fiction can only come by understand the way the world of the past operated on every level. Avoid confining the richness of your worlds to capes, armor, sword or sexual debauchery. Look at the names of men and women in 19th century America to forge characters in a strange future. Read about the faiths of Central Asia in the Bronze age to conjure a strange, yet authentic religion. While we all cannot be Tolkein, we can aspire to build authentic, individual and engrossing worlds on our own and not create a Frankenstein’s monster.

5- Write a History– If you feel compelled to create a world, then write a brief “paper” on the world you’ve imagine. Consider going back in time to your youth, to college, when you crafted papers with purpose. Now, as a fiction writer, you have a purpose to craft a world as authentic as any real society you would have profiled in college. Break it down in any form as you want, but create a level by level history of the world or society you imagined. Also, write the history with an authenticity and in a way that has a solid academic underpinning. Don’t worry about footnotes or following MLA standards, but take it seriously as you write a report on the layers of your imagined society. This becomes your history resource and creates a cohesive, authentic vision for your imagined world.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric Fiction: Spawn of the Lost Moon Pt. 1

Galileo_moon_phasesEverything changed in a flash of the darkest night. Nearly three months after the destruction of the moon, resulting in global panic and steady maleficent affects on the environment, a rumor emerged that a fragment of our lost orbital mate may have landed in the remote Berkshire Mountains.

As part of an ongoing series about ‘The Loss,’ my newspaper sent me to the Berkshires to meet residents of Massachusetts and see how they were adjusting to the new normal without the moon, how they are surviving the turmoil and doubts about our ability to endure this strangest of calamities. I also hoped to join the search for the moon artifact in an effort to find an answer as to why it burst into cosmic dust.

Life in Boston remains strange and strained as I boarded the train at Back Bay Station last night. The city was recovering from the initial panic that crushed many metropolis around the globe. The Internet and cell phone service that crashed mightily in those hours right after the moon exploded at 2:45 a.m. on June 21 struggled to come back. Banks and Wall Street are limited to two hours of exchanges each week. Commodities, like oil and cotton, shot up to inconceivable values. Those first few weeks of no more moon rises were bleak. Most nations declared varying degrees of martial law or loosed draconian economic sanctions upon their populace. Churches, mosques and synagogues all remained packed full of expectants of an impending Apocalypse.

Three months in, however, the world has not ended entirely. And people are trying to figure out what life will be like next. Most are worried. They should be, according to a New England-based scientist.

“We’re seeing the first stages of ecosystem collapse in the world’s oceans,” said Harvard scientist Sarah LeBlanc who accompanied me on the train ride to the Berkshires in search of the fallen moon stone.

“The coastal ecosystems are declining dramatically without the tidal effects of the moon. A vast majority of the world’s population live within 60 miles of the sea and almost four billion people rely on the ocean for daily sustenance. Sea life in the valuable coast zones have essentially plummeted to extinction,” explained LeBlanc.

“We believe the lack of tides, coupled with the shift of ocean volume towards the poles, along with mans previous abuse and pressure on the sea have put the entire ecosystem on the brink.”

According to LeBlanc, the moon of course, influenced tides, but its push and pull also kept the sea water evenly distributed around the surface of the globe. With the moon gone, she explained, the volume of water is moving towards places like Iceland and Greenland, Norway and Scotland to the north; and the to the south Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, resulting in sea-level rises of inches per month that has already taken several thousand acres of land in those nations.

The final outcome, LeBlanc believes will be the speeding up of the Earth’s rotation, “Without the moon to act as a gravity ball and chain, if you will, the Earth appears to be accelerating. It is possible that within a year, our days will be as short as six hours. Same for the night. Weather systems appear to be moving faster and more violently as well. You can imagine the devastating affect this will have on not only man, but more importantly, crops and livestock may not be able to adjust to these diminished cycles and aggressive weather changes. If mankind falls, it will occur in the next 12 months and it will happen because of a complete collapse of the food system.

I asked LeBlanc if mankind could survive without the moon, she watched the countryside sped by the train window.

“Most experts will say yes, the moon didn’t make life on Earth possible. But do I think mankind will survive? No.”

To Be Continued…


 

© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.