The World Beyond the HillCory Panshin on March 11, 2010
Shortly after I wrote Alexei that fan letter on Star Well in October 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president — and from that point on, the world grew steadily darker and more paranoid.
Alexei had begun working on the third Villiers book by then, and where the first two had poured out of him quickly and easily, this one came slow and hard. It was darker as well — a story set entirely at night — and there was an air of doubt and apprehension underlying the wackiness. By the time he finished, just before our wedding that June, it was clear that to push on with the fourth book would only lead further in the direction of negativity, violence, and disintegration.
All we knew at the time was that real-world events were making it difficult to hold onto the light-hearted spirit these books required. But in retrospect, there was something deeper going on. The chaos vision, which had provided the central organizing principle for the Villiers books, was breaking down under pressure, falling into self-doubt and turning bleak and violent and increasingly paranoid.
Alexei was faced with a choice between two paths. One was to follow the chaos vision into decadence and despair, as so many did over those next few years. The other was to set chaos aside, along with the Villiers books, and focus instead on holism, multiculturalism, and the successor to chaos, all of which retained their idealistic sheen. And in the course of 1969-70, that was exactly what he did.
He started by trying to open up the universe of Rite of Passage and expand on the suggestions of cultural diversity and environmental awareness that had been present around the edges of the original novel. He also turned out one long novelette, “How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?” which brought a naive time traveler from a near-future eco-utopia back to view the world of 1970 with dismay.
But perhaps the greatest part of both our energies went into exploring the inner experience vision following chaos — and that was work we did together.
During the winter of 1968-69, I had purchased a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and shared it with Alexei. A few months later we splurged on a four-volume boxed set of Campbell’s Masks of God as a kind of wedding present to ourselves.
As we read Campbell, it seemed obvious to both of us that if the ancient magical stories he was writing about were myth, then so was science fiction. And, conversely, that ancient myths had been the science fiction of their day — not merely philosophically meaningful fantasies but an attempt to extract archetypal truths from the best available scientific and cosmological knowledge of their time.
In October 1969, Alexei wrote a twelve-page essay titled “The World Beyond the Hill.” It never found a publisher, but it set the keynote for our critical work over the next twenty years. After many mutations, it would evolve into a lengthy historical study of the mythic development of science fiction, also titled The World Beyond the Hill.
That initial essay began with the words, “Literature is creative mythmaking.” And it went on to argue that the universe of space and time which provides the background for science fiction is merely a modern incarnation of the natural realm of myth:
“The World Beyond the Hill is the exotic land that lies beyond experience, that fantasy world which is the home not just of the supernatural, but of greater men than ourselves and tighter webs than any we know, of strange countries and unknown beasts and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders. In place of the narrow specificity of the Village, with its little prejudices, its bric-a-brac, and its established order, the world of mind can offer uncertainty, the relevant detail, concentration of meaning and the power of universal statement. It is the true mythic world of literature.”
That essay was a first and very tentative step into new territory. Most of it was devoted to making two arguments that appeared far more urgent in 1969 than they do now — that science fiction was not really fiction about science and that it deserved to be taken seriously as literature. It invoked myth more as a means of establishing those claims than as an end in itself.
But in a few places, the essay provided revealing glimpses of something important and valuable that we would continue to pursue. The opening definition of literature as “creative mythmaking” was one such glimpse, and the central metaphor of “the world beyond the hill” was another.
From the perspective of 2010, those two phrases can be seen as early intimations of the successor to chaos as it has developed over the forty years since. From the perspective of 1969, however, they were nothing that obvious. They were more like the Indian rope trick or Jack’s beanstalk — a ladder to nowhere, propped up on nothingness, that somehow offered a promise that if we could only reach the top we would find new lands and a system of roads by which to explore them.
It seems as though every inner experience vision has two complementary parts. One is a theory of the nature of higher reality and how it interacts with our everyday world. The other involves the cultivation of a particular human mental capacity that appears to be able to tap into that interface in pursuit of higher knowledge.
The concept of a spirit world and the apparent ability of prehistorical shamans to visit it in trances formed the first such construction. The visions of heaven and hell and cosmic struggle shown in mystical revelations to ancient prophets provided the second. But in recent centuries, we have grown more skeptical about the truthfulness of our dreams and hallucinations, and our paradigms of higher reality have become more subtle.
In the reason vision, for example, mysticism got short shrift, and higher reality was conceived in logical or even geometrical terms as a kind of abstract blueprint in the Mind of God. Human reason was regarded as made in the image of Divine Reason and thus fully up to the task of reverse-engineering that blueprint based on nothing more than indirect observations of its manifestation in Nature.
But both the indirection and the certainty of the reason vision eventually wore thin and were tossed aside in favor of chaos. True reality came to be seen as formless, incoherent, and following either no logic at all or only a wild, shifting dream logic. And those aspects of mind associated with dream, madness, and intoxication were regarded as most attuned to this incoherence and best able to resonate with it.
It is still early days to attempt to define the successor to chaos, but a large part of it has to do with a reaction against the purposelessness and lack of rigor of its predecessor. Reality is coming to be perceived not as formless but as highly patterned on a level that eludes ordinary human understanding.
And just as the human eye converts electromagnetic waves into images, and the ear converts vibrations in the air into sounds, so it seems possible that the human imagination converts the underlying source code of the universe into symbols, archetypes, and myths that offer our best hope of grasping deeper truths.
This concept of the imagination as a kind of graphical user interface is potentially very powerful. For one thing, it allows us to acknowledge the validity of all the great inner experience visions, while we recognize that none of them — including our own — is literally true.
It also means we are free to regard wisdom as something which can be learned through experience, even if it has no actual information content. And once we divorce wisdom from information, it becomes imperative for our own survival to embrace the wisdom of all present-day cultures, even those that may be scientifically or socially less complex than our own.
That active embrace of cultural diversity is, in turn, why what might tentatively be called the “creative imagination” vision is able to serve as a beacon for multiculturalism — one that frees it from any past hints of condescension. Where the reason vision scorned “savages” as inferior and brutish, and chaos saw “primitives” as fascinating but dangerous creatures of impulse, creative imagination values every culture as offering a unique and irreplaceable perspective on reality.
The potentials of multiculturalism-touched-by-creative imagination were becoming vaguely apparent to Alexei and me as early as the fall of 1970, at a time when he was revising a couple of older stories set in the Rite of Passage universe.
One of those stories, “The Sons of Prometheus,” focused not on the great ships but on the plight of the peasant-level colonies that the ships had established and then neglected or exploited. I recall saying something like, “If you’re trying to develop sympathy for the colonies, why are the people there always primitive and superstitious? Even the Middle Ages had its Roger Bacons. Why isn’t there anybody like that in your stories?”
Alexei picked that suggestion up and ran with it. He introduced an entirely new character, based loosely on Père Teilhard de Chardin, the early 20th century holist whose writings were suppressed by the Catholic Church during his lifetime. And that single change transformed his account of a hapless do-gooder unsuccessfully trying to bring a backwards colony planet up to ship standards of enlightenment from a story of failure and pain into one of compassion and understanding.
That was clearly the direction we needed to take. But actually getting there was something else again.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
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