I should have seen the question coming. It was one I used to pose to my professors in high school and college. I never believed all the supposed “meaning” injected into works that we were supposed to learn to spot. Not until I started writing.
And then I gave a talk at my wife’s university, and the first question out of the audience of college freshmen was whether or not authors deliberately put in the metaphors and allegories they are expected to learn. I remembered being that student. I told him, “Hell yes it’s there on purpose.”
When I write, it has to be about something more than the plot and the characters and the conflict. What’s the central idea behind the story? What am I exploring? And let me be clear: I am exploring for my own benefit. These are the layers added to keep myself engaged. I don’t expect them to be uncovered or appreciated. In fact, I halfway expect them to annoy if spotted, these deliberate repetitions of theme and circumstance. But when you plan on doing seven or ten passes through the same work, you better make it entertaining for yourself. Otherwise, you’ll write a rough draft and hit “publish.” You will not have any desire to immerse yourself in the work any further. Well, that’s my approach; every author is different.
The interesting thing about these layers of meaning is that you rarely get to discuss them with anyone. You don’t want to spoil the work for those who haven’t read them. I don’t want to post anything about these themes because there are always new readers. So stop reading if you don’t want spoilers. They’re coming.
An Amazon review of THE WALK UP NAMELESS RIDGE showed me how important it can be to have this discussion. The reviewer enjoyed the work but felt as though she was missing some vital piece, some message. I responded by explaining what the story meant to me:
A man who secretly wishes others to die so that he can be the “first” to conquer a goal is saved by a climber who cares nothing for notoriety. Ziba is a diminutive woman who ends up being the bigger man (pardon a sexist phrase; it’s meant to be ironic).
What would our nameless protagonist have done if he’d found one of the earlier climbers dying on the summit? I can picture him shoving the body off and staggering back to camp a fingerless and footless hero. I can’t see him trying to save the man’s life and thereby creating a hero in another. To Ziba and Cardhill, saving the life is all that matters. And climbing the peak is all that matters. Being famous for anything never crosses their minds.
Mountaineering seems to me a good metaphor for ego. Not because climbers are egoistic, but because mountains are stand-ins for every sort of accomplishment. This, then, is a story with that framework but the opposite message. And the real protagonist is Ziba, not the nameless observer. It’s her story, slyly told by a witness. Why is she nearly invisible in the tale? Because that’s what the narrator’s audience does to her after he survives the climb. He tells them the true story, but all they hear is that he was the first to make it. They (we) care more about primacy and less about worth. In this way, the short story is also about us.
“Extremism is so easy. You’ve got your position, and that’s it. It doesn’t take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right you meet the same idiots coming around from the left.”
The other theme taken throughout the Molly works is the idea of life and the universe being circular. This colors the cosmology of the fictional world in that the Big Bang is really a massive loop with everything in the universe coming back around on itself over and over. It also plays into how the books end similar to another book in the series. The first two books have identical endings in several ways, all done purposefully. Molly’s confrontation with Lucin and Byrne, with a shot from a distance, sets up the parallel between Walter and Cole that plays out in their backstories in book four. The last line in both epilogues brings Molly’s parents into play. But my favorite gimmick (if that’s what these are) is the name of each book seeming to have meaning in each section, but that meaning not playing out until the epilogue.
What is “The Parsona Rescue?” Is it the discover of the Parsona rescuing Molly from school and from Earth? Is it the rescue of the ship from Palan? Or from disassembly on Glemot? Is it the rescue of Cole in the Darrin system as Molly takes out the Firehawk from the cargo bay? It’s none of those things and all of them. It’s really the epilogue, which shares the name of the book. It’s rescuing her mother from the nav computer.
The Land of Light is the same way. It could refer to the bright side of Drenard, where the Wadi Rite takes place. Or, when they go to rescue Molly’s mother, it could be the false paradise she’s locked inside of. The clue here is when Walter starts to say of the drums full of fiber optic cabling, that they are like “Lands of light.” (He is cut off at “Lands of li-” to keep it from being too obvious). In the end, it is the epilogue again, with the reference to hyperspace, where Cole finds Molly’s father.
The same with The Blood of Billions. It’s the blood of immigrants, the blood of the voters, the blood taken for fusion fuel, until you get to the epilogue and find out it’s the blood on the hands of the Seer. With Fight for Peace, those who bought the original print edition know the fight is within the last surviving Glemot elder, who watched his planet burn and lived for hundreds of years in orbit. I removed this epilogue from the e-book edition later. It alludes to the next two books in the series, and I saw that it was going to be a while before I released them. The meaning of the fight for peace throughout the work is revealed from the backstory of each character, and how that plays into their fears and redemption at the conclusion of the book.
Now, does any of this matter? Not really. Not for the reading or enjoyment of the books. But for me, it matters greatly. I don’t think I would write if I didn’t have something beneath to really write about. The last thing I completed was a science fiction western. The challenge was to write a story that takes place during and in the American West, but with a science fiction plot. That negated the ability to teleport a cowboy to Mars, a’la John Carter. And I couldn’t tell a sci-fi story with a western style, like Firefly. What I ended up writing was a story about alien invasion in the context that we were aliens who invaded this continent. We fear what we ourselves have done. It’s a lot like Freud having something for his mom. Or the fact that my ideal T-Shirt, if only someone would make them, would read: “Fuck the fucking extremists.” Or something worded a bit more strongly.