On the Mungly PlanetCory Panshin on March 17, 2010
It’s not easy to introduce a new vision that goes against the grain of all conventional assumptions. Especially in fiction, it may be necessary to smuggle much of it in under banners that read “this is only a joke” and “don’t take this too seriously.”
That was more or less what Horace Walpole did when he offered intimations of the chaos vision in The Castle of Otranto to a generation living under the sway of reason. He had to pretend that he was just doing his best to accurately represent a superstitious past era and explain apologetically that “belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them.”
Walpole’s pretense of embarrassment over the prodigies which were the very heart of his story might seem laughable now — except that Alexei and I did something very similar in “The Sons of Prometheus” when we located our man of wisdom on a backward and superstition-ridden colony planet. The hapless do-gooder from the ships might gain insight from contact with such a man, but he could never share his beliefs or understand the source of his wisdom.
In the same way, it was possible to imply strange beliefs on the part of a wacky alien like Torve the Trog, but only as long as there was no chance Villiers would ever manage to fathom Torve’s thought-patterns, much less emulate them.
And yet, despite these barriers, the question of how someone with a late 20th century mindset might make the transition to a level of higher understanding became our chief preoccupation in one story after another through the early 70’s.
We started by collaborating on a few short stories — including “When the Vertical World Turns Horizontal” — which attempted to depict such a transition in a deliberately dreamlike and non-literal manner. But we managed the trick only by starting with naive and childlike protagonists and then faking our way through the crucial leap with a lot of hand-waving.
Our most successful attempt, however, came in the form of fantasy, where we could start off with a character who was willing to believe in prodigies, despite being something of a hard-head, and build on that.
There had been a great wave of interest in heroic fantasy following the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings, and in 1967 Alexei had worked up an outline and several chapters of a four-novel fantasy series which he saw as a kind of companion piece to Rite of Passage — a realistic portrayal of a young person growing up in a world of low-level magic.
It hadn’t sold, but in early 1971 Alexei pulled out the partial manuscript and suggested that I try my hand at adding to it. I never warmed to the task — it wasn’t nearly fantastic enough for my taste — but after I’d struggled through a few chapters, Alexei was inspired to reclaim it and do a complete rewrite from the beginning. And as he worked, with the two of us swapping ideas back and forth, the book discarded any pretense to realism and became increasingly strange and surreal.
A lot of what later came to be called New Age material was being published around then, and we tossed in every odd thing we’d come across — Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Carlos Castaneda’s peyote-fueled hallucinations, ideas about megaliths and ley lines lifted from John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis, a triple goddess out of Robert Graves — along with stuff we just plain made up.
By the time we were done, we had a book that started in chaos — the dark, violent side of chaos that we couldn’t quite tolerate in the Villiers universe — moved through holism, crossed a bridge that stretched over nothingness and was supported by nothing, and wound up in multiculturalism-touched-by-creative imagination.
And in the course of those transitions, the main character was transformed over and over — from the son of a barbarian warlord, to a fugitive fleeing for his life, to someone who could draw power from the patterns woven into in the land, to the master of one narrow form of magic in a world where there were many different autonomous magics.
The novel was completed in March 1973, and before the month was out we were back at the problem of presenting that same transition from chaos to creative imagination in more plausible science fictional terms. But the story that resulted, although not without its virtues, was once again fuzzy and dreamlike and resorted to hand-waving at the climax.
It seemed as though we were able to present multiculturalism-touched-by-creative-imagination in terms of metaphor or fantasy, but we couldn’t graft it onto the existing premises of science fiction. As a result, we largely turned to writing non-fiction, in which we attempted to redefine science fiction as creative mythmaking and reinvent its history in terms of a sequence of shifting worldviews.
But late in 1975, Alexei made a final stab at the problem — in a novel to which we jokingly gave the working title The Adventures of Heriberto Pabon on the Mungly Planet — and he managed to produce one-third of a really good book before hitting a wall.
The story is set in the same universe as Rite of Passage but a couple of generations earlier, and there is an uneasy, frantic edge to ship society. Even its sanest members are caught up in trivial obsessions, and there are many whose sanity might be doubted. There are dark corridors on the ship where crime and violence run unchecked and it is not safe to walk unaccompanied.
If we had written an entire novel like that, it would probably have looked a lot like 1980’s cyberpunk. But our intention was to take societal breakdown as merely a starting point and conclude with our protagonist, Heriberto Pabon, assuming the role of a world-mender.
The idea was that Pabon would arrive at a realization that the ships — which had originally been designed to plant colonies on a hundred different worlds before Earth destroyed itself through overpopulation and pollution — were now without any purpose of their own. That was the source of their psychic imbalance, and Pabon’s solution would be to start nudging the ship-folk towards sharing their greater technological and social sophistication with the colonies, thereby paving the way for a true interstellar civilization.
That would have been a conclusion completely in line with a version of the democracy-and-chaos partnership very different from the one based on free market economics which actually came to dominate American society. From that point of view, I’m sorry we never wrote it.
But we were determined that Pabon’s realization should not be just an intellectual solution and should not be imposed on the planets from above. To be true to multiculturalism-touched-by-creative imagination, he would have to arrive at it only after fully accepting the wisdom of the most backward imaginable colony planet.
Alexei’s plan was that in trying to find out why things on the ships had gone so wrong, Pabon would attract the attention of people with secrets to protect and would wind up being dumped on one of the colony planets to get him out of the way. Stuck there and forced to go native, he would absorb a new way of relating to that world which would ultimately transform his view of his own society as well.
That seemed straightforward enough. But, as always, the devil was in the details — and the problem was how to get Pabon from point A to point B.
Given the assumptions of 1975, it seemed most natural to use holism as an intermediary. We decided that the colony to which Pabon was exiled would be a world where the human inhabitants were not even operating at peasant level but had taken to wallowing in the local psychedelic mud, leading them into a symbiotic relationship with all life on the planet.
Pabon would become part of this symbiosis, as well, losing himself in the group mind. And even after he was retrieved by his friends and restored to himself, he would be able to recognize that each ship was also a single symbiotic organism — as was the entire system of ships and planets — and would know what was needed for their healing.
That seemed to cover all the bases, and it should have worked — but somehow it never did. Where the initial chapters of the book were sharp and hard and crackling with energy, our conception of Pabon’s time on the planet remained soft and mushy and, quite frankly, something of a bore. And I finally believe I know why.
There’s no doubt that creative imagination owed a great deal to holism at the start for providing the image of a universe of structure and pattern — just as chaos owed its own image of a universe in flux to scientific materialism. But beyond that, holism and creative imagination are very much at odds.
Most significantly, holism tends to interpret higher consciousness in terms of the hivemind, and that cannot be matched up with the ideal of greater individuation essential to creative imagination. This is why Heriberto Pabon’s adventures on the Mungly Planet, which involved losing his sense of self, could never have been a true path to wisdom.
At the present moment, creative imagination is not yet a fully-developed vision. That will happen only when it is able to reject holism — as chaos rejected scientific materialism in the 1860’s — and turn towards holism’s own successor, which is just now appearing in the form of scattered intimations.
So this particular game still has a long way to go.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
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