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REVIEW – Wolfsangel (2010) By M.D. Lachlan — And More on Fantastical Big Dumb Objects

July 8, 2010

THE ZONE have my review of M.D. Lachlan’s atmospheric Viking Fantasy novel Wolfsangel.

It’s an interesting novel built around a huge metaphysical construct that serves as the Fantasy equivalent of a Big Dumb Object.  I wrote about Big Dumb Objects in my review of Guy Adams’ The World House (2010) but the notion of a Fantasy Big Dumb Object is one which, I think, deserves more sustained thought.

It is surprising what weights the intellect can lift…

Cover of The Last Witchfinder

In The Last Witchfinder (2006), James Morrow points out that, far from being an example of mass hysteria, the witch-burning epidemic was actually the flowering of a deep-rooted intellectual tradition.  Indeed, witch-hunting was an intellectually rigorous discipline with its own canon (including the infamous Malleus Maleficarum), its own forms of reasoning and its own values.  In effect, the form of Christianity that allowed for the existence of witches and which demanded their detection and execution included a completely coherent set of metaphysical and epistemological rules.  It was a world-view no less complex or complete than that of the form of scientific humanism birthed by the Enlightenment.

What is surprising about the canon of witch-hunting is not that it exists, or that it is complex and rigorous.  What is surprising is that it is entirely false.  It is a beautifully constructed world-view that is entirely coherent and self-justifying but it fails to connect in a meaningful way with the real world.  Nor is it the only such form of belief.

The Cover of Conjectures and Refutations

In Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth is Scientific Knowledge (1963), Karl Popper points out that :

“Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them.”

For Popper, the difference between a scientific theory and a pre- or pseudo-scientific theory was that scientific theories could be falsified by empirical evidence.  This meant that, though the likes of astrology, phrenology and Marxism (according to Popper) were not scientific because they could not be proved false by any conceivable experiment, they could still be complex and robust theories.  It was just that we could not test their relationship to the real world and so their utility was questionable.  However, in the realms of fiction, where truth and falsity are a matter of interpretation and authorial discretion, it is possible to build hugely complex worlds and objects that follow sets of rules.  These rules need not be the rules that govern our universe.

Roz Kaveney’s term Big Dumb Object applies to a particular trope from the genre of science fiction.  Examples of Big Dumb Objects include the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), the megastructure in Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice (2005), the Matrioshka Brain and the Dyson Sphere.  These kinds of Big Dumb Object are essentially engineering thought experiments.  They are examples of what could well be built given the laws of physics if practicalities, motivation and resources were no barrier.  But if Big Dumb Objects are simply thought experiments that follow the limitations imposed by the laws of physics, might it not be possible to construct Big Dumb Objects that follow rule-sets other than that provided by cutting edge natural science?

Salvador Dali's Crucifixion (1954)

In some ways, the ultimate fantasy Big Dumb Object is God…  His nature, as written about by theologians, is the result of thought experiments carried out within the boundaries provided by religious text.

The Cover of Wolfsangel

Lachlan’s Wolfsangel is interesting when looked at through this sort of theoretical prism because his magic system is complex enough that it starts to acquire its own metaphysical rules and structures.  In this respect, the Werewolf in Wolfsangel is quite similar to the attempt to restore the power of flight to a Garuda, the nurturing of the Slake-moth or the summoning of the god-whale in China Mieville’s novels Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002): It involves the exploration of an entirely imaginary and fictitious imaginary space which, despite being fictitious and imaginary, obeys its own internal rules.  As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about not only the Werewolf but about the magical systems that allow for its existence.  In fact, one could argue that as with the Big Dumb Object stories of old, the fantasy Big Dumb Object is the point of the story.  It is not a MacGuffin.

The cover of Perdido Street Station

Mieville’s tendency to construct his magical concepts with a high degree of internal rigour is partly what is responsible for his winning three Arthur C. Clarke awards — awards created to recognise the best in science fiction, not fantasy — his central ideas are fantastical, but they are explored in a scientific manner.  This is particularly noticeable in Perdido Street Station where Mieville makes sure to drive home the fact that the character Isaac is not some mere wizard but the Bas-Lag equivalent of a scientist, complete with academic background, methodologies and jargon.  This sort of interstitial play is also found in Charles Stross’ first Laundry novel The Atrocity Archive (2001), in which a philosopher stumbles across an occult truth as a part of her routine research.  Stross’ aping of the jargon of analytical philosophy sells the story as a work that transgresses the boundaries of genre, though it should be noted that Stross’ fantastical ideas are not Big Dumb Objects as while they may be presented with a gloss of scientific realism, their internal logic is only alluded to and not actually explored.

Cover of one of the many editions of Lord of the Rings

If Stross’ technobabble is one example of a rigorous fantastical concept that is not a Fantasy Big Dumb Object then another is the One ring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Though the ring is one of the most famous fictitious magical items ever created and Tolkien may painstakingly describe the ring and give us its history, there is never any real indication of how the ring works.  We are informed that Sauron invested so much of himself in the ring that when the ring was destroyed, Sauron was destroyed too.  But the metaphysics of this process of investment are never made clear.  The ring does not obey an explicit internal logic, it obeys the rules of narrative.  Of genre.  Of literary tradition.

It will be interesting to see whether the later books in Lachlan’s series further flesh out the magic system, allowing a more thorough investigation and exploration of the concept of the werewolf as I think that this process of exploration is where the novel was at its absolute best.

12 Comments
  1. July 9, 2010 3:39 pm

    The only drawback for me in reading your excellent blog, Jonathan, is that having small kids means that I almost never go to see a film with anything other than a U certificate. And here’s a characteristically intelligent post about a novel I’ve read, and a subject (‘Fantasy’) I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and … I disagree! Oh the irony.

    The reason for my disagreement has to do with this brief post on one of my blogs. Hopefully I’ll be able to elaborate at greater length when I don’t have to intervene, UN-like, to prevent children bickering, as I now do.

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  2. July 9, 2010 4:28 pm

    Very nice site redesign, by the way. Me gusto.

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  3. July 9, 2010 7:42 pm

    Adam — I would have thought my point about Wolfsangel’s magic system and the conceptually aesthetic dimensions of theology would have been right up your street given your thoughts about instantiating the divine in Tolkien and Lewis.

    What is wrong with magical thinking in a magical context? I can see a case for avoiding it like the plague in order to do something different but is magic founded in magical thinking not simply a trope?

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  4. July 10, 2010 9:15 pm

    Not to leave you hanging (but my wife is away for the weekend, so I’m on childcare duties and without the time to respond properly): the review is right about Wolfsangel (a genuinely great novel, I think, although patently greater in the areas to discuss than in the slightly potboilerish ‘plot’ and ‘lovestory’ elements you also isolate); and this post is characteristically brilliant and thought-provoking. My niggle, in a nutshell, is that identifying a Fantasy ‘Big Dumb Object’ (aka God) is to suggest that Fantasy is oriented towards the Real, when it seems to me oriented towards the Symbolic Order. But I would say that, wouldn’t I … or else I’d write Fantasy rather than SF. Or ‘SF’.

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  5. July 10, 2010 9:15 pm

    More when I’ve time …

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  6. July 11, 2010 10:35 am

    What do you mean by “oriented towards the real”? I guess that the FBDO distinguishes itself by inviting one to approach it as though it were real even though it is ultimately fictional or at least ontologically suspect.

    So one can read the relationships and the magic that feed into the construction of the Werewolf as though they were real things and subject them to a degree of rigor when we interrogate them.

    Is that what you mean by “oriented towards the Real”?

    How might one’s approach to a book differ if said book was “oriented towards the Symbolic Order”? with less rigour because it wouldn’t need to ‘make sense’ only to ‘communicate an image’?

    Also, how does this relate to what you were saying about Tolkien Lewis and Wolfe not being in the business of producing metaphors? Wasn’t the point that Aslan, Severian and the Gandalf-Frodo Complex were not Christ-figures but were the Messiahs of their relevant worlds? Would those not be examples of Fantastical ideas that were oriented towards the real?

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  7. July 13, 2010 5:14 pm

    Sorry Jonathan … I’m not avoiding answering your questions; just peculiarly busy right now.

    The nutshell response: not ‘oriented towards the real’ (‘as though they were real things’) but ‘oriented towards the Real’, which is rather different.

    You’re developing a sophisticated critical argument here, and my objection is cranky and unlikely to be shared by many; but I’ll need something essay-length to put my thoughts in order.

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  8. mark c permalink
    July 14, 2010 6:17 pm

    I think Adam means Real and Symbolic as in Lacan, innit

    as far as I recall

    the Real = unspeakable obscenity of raw reality

    the Symbolic Order = what you get when you try and describe the above with prettifying human language

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