Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Everything is Metaphor

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.

For HALF WAY HOME, the message was too personal to leave out. In the afterward, which I’m not sure if the e-book edition has, I talk about the struggle for ethical progress. The original cover of the person scaling the tree is tied into the harrowing climb up to the canopy in the book. For me, Porter’s struggle with his gender identity speaks to my generation’s fight for equality. Previous generations fought for gender and race equality. Or to end slavery. Or poverty. But the book is really about what things we do today that future generations will find barbaric. The key scene in the book is the butchering and eating of Vinnies, which Porter finds disturbing without understanding why. He is also mocked for this.
I consider myself a Jeffersonian Vegetarian. That’s someone who eats meat but thinks it’s wrong to do so. Future generations will move on, and what seems ludicrous to us today will one day be normal, and our views will seem backwards. We’ve seen this happen throughout history; expecting it to stop with us is absurd. It makes you wonder how many of these things we do that a future us wouldn’t want us to do.
The PLAGIARIST is about something that has always stood out to me. We tend to be envious of the gifts of others while we take our own gifts for granted. I want to be able to sing precisely because I can’t. I was an excellent chess player with very little instruction, and so it didn’t hold my attention. I placed third in a major tournament, beating one state champion and drawing with another along the way, and that was the last time I ever competed. When I see someone pick up a guitar and strum a few chords or play a song and then admit that they never play anymore, it troubles me. What I wouldn’t give for their ability! What someone else probably wouldn’t give for something I can do that I don’t take advantage of. And we all do this, I believe. The people I admire are those who are truly great at something, find joy in it, and devote their time into it.
In THE PLAGIARIST, Adam Griffey takes his poetry for granted as he stalks those who write prose. His plagiarism isn’t the tragedy. It’s all the original works that go unwritten.
The MOLLY series is all about extremism. If there’s one thing in my life that I rail against as a cause, it’s extremism. I can go a bit far with it. Maybe because it’s something I see in myself. My theory is that the things we yell the most about are the things we secretly harbor. The politician who rails against prostitution is discovered with a prostitute. The talk show host who is anti-drug had a drug problem. I think we assume the inner demons we are hiding from others is also the demons they are hiding from us. It’s because we lack imagination (or real empathy). Other people’s demons are foreign to us. We fear in them ourselves. I’m pretty sure Freud had a thing for his mom; his fuckup was assuming we are all like him.
That probably makes me an extremist, because it’s the thing that bothers me most about people. It’s also the thing I’ve worked the most hard not to succumb to. With the first MOLLY book, I tackled this on each planet. I exaggerated a facet of the human condition to explore how damaging its extreme form could become. In book two, the planet of Drenard is tidally locked in way that makes one side boiling hot and the other side inhospitably cold. The section breaks for all three books was a version of Omega that has two dots opposite one another. While placing those in the original manuscript, I had a quote from Clint Eastwood in mind, which I think is the most brilliant thing ever said of extremism:

“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.

8 replies to “Everything is Metaphor”

I’m surprised this has somewhat languished in the amount of comments you’ve received on it. I wrote a similar post about the trilogy I’m writing, but I actually exposed the underlying layers for what the books are attempting to accomplish. Here you are saying that might not be a good idea. I’m also a nobody on the scene still, so maybe I can get away with it. I’m hoping that when all 3 of the books are done, people will find my blog and read that very old (by then) post of what the whole thing was supposed to be about.

Thanks for being an inspiration to indie writers all over!

Hugh, I can make that T-shirt happen if you are brave enough to walk around with it. I have connections! Hell, yeah! Let me know what color and size you prefer. ;)

Now, I would argue that it’s not the fact of being extreme as such, but WHAT one is extreme about. Without the context, decrying extremism has no meaning. Now you do mention a number of things such as the thing one is most vocally opposed to is the thing one is guilty of, but isn’t that an example of hypocrisy?

I’m an extremist when it comes to concepts like independence and being responsible for oneself. I think being extreme is a good thing IF we carefully define our terms. The other big nasty word these days is judgemental. We constantly hear how one must not judge people, but this is silly. We have to constantly assess people’s ideas and actions to know if and to what degree we want to deal with them. If a friend or partner lies to us, for example, then we have to deem that person unworthy of our friendship or love.

Again, the problem with words like extremism and judgement isn’t that the things are bad, it’s that people often fail to define them properly.

If you are within the bounds of reason, you aren’t being extreme. If you are pro-freedom to the point of anarchy (which some are these days), then I would say that’s extremism. Or if you express your beliefs by shouting down others, not listening to dissenting points of view, and so on, I see that as extremism.

My guess is that you are passionate about some things but don’t take them to the extreme. An example of what I rail against is someone who takes pro-choice to the point of being pro-abortion. Or someone who is pro-life to the point of being anti-mother (even if she’s raped or her life is in jeopardy).

Every position can be argued too vehemently and taken too far. Those are the things that rile me up. And yes, it’s because I harbor those exact tendencies. It is the hypocrisy of our choice of causes.

Hugh, this is a great post… “What am I exploring? And let me be clear: I am exploring for my own benefit.”

As a writer, I feel the same way. I’m exploring a fictional world on one hand, while endeavouring to express and articulate and idea on the other. At the outset, I often only have a hazy appreciation of the mountain I’m climbing, but I’m itching to break through the clouds and enjoy the view. If readers want to come along for the ride, bonus :)

“Everything is Metaphor” – that’s exactly what I love about your books :)

I love this post. I have always been an avid reader, but dissecting the hidden meaning in books and writing essays about it for English classes–ugh. It was like being an animal lover and dissecting frogs (that happened, too).

When I write, though, it’s a whole different story. Those deeper themes and ideas are my playground. Sometimes, I am surprised to discover what I deeply believe while moving characters from place to place. I have some subconscious convictions and ideas that bubble up while I’m writing fiction, and I delight in the discoveries.

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