Sunday, July 22, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Waxing Philosophical

I don't think I've done this one before, though I know I've talked about it in public.

Sometimes I want to tell a story that also communicates a theme that's important to me. In particular, I would really like to write the Great American Agnostic Novel.

The Great British Agnostic Novel has already been written. It's called Small Gods, it's by Terry Pratchett, it's a Discworld novel, and it demonstrates that it's possible to write fiction with a strong moral and philosophical outlook and not be preachy, didactic, or boring. I'm not sure anybody but me would call it an agnostic novel, but I felt, on closing it, that my own hard-won philosophy is about as well-expressed there as it gets.

Shame it's the only one I've run across like that. I'm always having to explain to people what an agnostic even is - for some reason the idea of openly admitting that you don't know how the universe works is hard for them to wrap their minds around. The universe is infinite, my mind is finite. Any version of reality small enough to fit inside my head is inevitably too limited.

That doesn't mean it's wrong. Maybe Jesus did die for my sins in a meaningful way, maybe God spoke through Mohammed, maybe there is an endless wheel of karma that we're all caught on and Gautama Buddha's methods are the best way to get off it, maybe a big guy with a hammer controls the thunder. Given that in order to talk about these things at all one must speak symbolically, I don't see why all of those things might not be true at the same time.

I haven't read up on a single religion that didn't encode in its mythology important truths about life, the universe, and our place as humans within it, or that didn't, in practice, enable its professed believers to do terrible things to each other, often in flat opposition to the truths most clearly expressed in the mythology. The most popular means of subverting an innocent religion into a great evil is to pick out details to squabble over that aren't germane to anything in particular. I believe Jesus called it "picking the mote out of the other guy's eye while ignoring the beam in your own," neatly demonstrating that merely describing and proscribing a fault clearly does not prevent people from committing it in your name.

So I would really like to write a story that illustrated the way religions function in society, showing up the strengths and weaknesses of the system, how they can be used for good and for evil, and the intellectual benefits and social costs of keeping clear of whatever philosophical framework is trying to engulf you. I want to lead people to a place in which they can listen to the universe and be comfortable with it as it is, without having to ignore every bit of it that can't be limited or labelled into a pre-existing category. I want to role model the process of thinking rationally about things that are beyond your intellectual capacity; I want to illustrate the difference between ethics and dogma; I want to show that we all believe what we are convinced of and that if we decide to believe something, we don't in fact believe it.

I want, of course, to write it for young people; and I want it to not be banned in high and middle schools in the Bible Belt, where such a thing is desperately needed.

This is a technical challenge of the highest order and the trouble is, I'm approaching it from the wrong way round when I think like this, and I know it.

Any time you start with the theme, you're condemning your book to mediocrity. This is why I avoid fiction written for religious markets - not because I don't want to read stories with Christian or Jewish or Wiccan viewpoints, but because the characters tend to be two-dimensional, the plots contrived, and the dialog stilted. This is just as true for books written for pagans as for books written for the major mainstream religions. I don't give a care what the author believes - convince me of what the characters believe, and make that belief system work within the story, or you've failed at writing a story, though you might have written an interesting tract.

As garage sale ideas go, therefore, this one's a bit dull. But I remain convinced there's a way to do it, if I can get hold of the right character and the right situation.

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