January 25th, 2010

New Salt of the Air

Introduction to Wonder

The following essay is my introduction to the anthology Sky Whales and Other Wonders.

When my favorite author Tanith Lee sent me an amazing lyrical tale of flying pods of sky whales in alternate SFnal ancient Egypt, of haunting love, and of ghostly nostalgic power of memory, I was blown away. And I knew I had to build an anthology around it.

The one thing that stood out most for me was the emotional resonance that “The Sky Won’t Listen” seemed to create. If such a thing were possible, you might say I was subjected to a lingering emotional haunting, a sweetly painful sense of loss of something I’ve never had in the first place. And as a result of such odd dissonance, there was a permanent imprint upon the mind.

I believe it’s how all our most important long-term life memories are formed, our “seared imprints” on the psyche, our traumas, both good and bad. It’s when we simply cannot find the logical resources to “resolve” any given experience; when indeed our logic finds it too full of irreconcilables, too overpowering in scope, or otherwise impossible to set aside. The mind simply places such a memory in the unresolved “in-box” of the brain, “to be done later.” Only, of course the “later” is in fact “never,” because it is an impossibility. As a result, we can never forget the incident or event or experience, because it has been permanently loaded into our RAM for instant retrieval anytime, since the mind considers it a work-in-progress. And yes, this is important, as you will see when you read the story in question.

It became apparent to me that the rest of the stories in this anthology should not simply be about sky whales or fantasy takes on Moby Dick or the Flying Dutchman, or sea creatures, or ships and tales of sailing through the cosmos. Instead, they should be stories that create permanent hauntings, seared memories, mind imprints. No theme at all, indeed.

Only a sense of wonder.

And not just any wonder—the kind that leaves you breathless with new insight.

* * *

I am a strong believer in theme. Theme is one of the least understood and most under-appreciated notions in literature. Some of you might remember having to write that book report essay in grade school where you are rigidly assigned the development of Character, Plot, Setting, Description, and finally, Theme—all of which you had to talk about, usually in five paragraphs. You were likely told that “theme is, for example, Good versus Evil, or Growing Up, or Man versus Nature, etc.” But after being told this, it was still all vague and nebulous. Still annoyingly difficult to put your finger on it; to understand what in the world you were expected to find, isolate, and describe.

Really, what is it? How is one to capture that sneaky, vague, slippery thing or concept called theme and identify it in any given book or story? Remember hating that part of the book report?

Well, your teacher—and mine—was to blame for not explaining it properly. And maybe they were not to blame either, since no one had properly explained it to them back when they were tykes.

Because theme is the single most important part of the book report, and indeed of that book.

While Plot is what happens, Character is who it happens to, Setting is where it happens, Description is how does it look, taste, feel, smell, sound, while happening, Theme is really what the book is about.

It’s a significant reason we read books, and one of the reasons we pick up one book and not another. It is the method of classification our brains use to think of books and file them away in the hoary recesses of gray matter. Unwittingly we look for stories with certain themes, when we go in search of stories in the first place.

And nothing can better bring the understanding of any given theme enacted in any given book than that powerful electrical mind-jolt combining the elements of insight, emotional reaction, and that inner stirring of something altogether undefinable (but possibly an awareness of a kind of affinity, the recognition of self in other, an accretion of meaning), that all suddenly takes root and drops anchor inside you—all of that together, that magical powerful load, I call wonder.

Wonder can strike like a lightning bolt.

Or it can come crawling softly, slithering out of the recesses of the story unraveling before you until all the right things click in place. And suddenly, it’s as if you are seeing it all in 3D glasses—things are shifted, and the world takes on an extra rich layer of solid reality.

Wonder is like that, a step into the next place.

But not all wonder is based on love, light and sunshine. Indeed, much of it is the result of overwhelming darkness, as it closes in, and the world seems bleak and hopeless, until, like a shooting rocket of hope, it comes, the moment of transcendence.

In the following excerpt from my new Compass Rose milieu story “Niola’s Last Stand” forthcoming in Black Gate magazine, I introduce the concept of the deity that personifies wonder, a goddess who eventually appears in my new novel Gods of the Compass Rose:

It was said in the desert lands of the Compass Rose that one of the stars was in fact the Goddess of Wonder, for she hid in the velvet abyss of night sky from the relentless pursuit of the Lord of Illusion. And sometimes mortals would find her as their gaze searched the heavens, unwitting. . . . And in that moment they would experience a transcendent pang of joy, a reeling sense of the world’s profundity and glory overhead. . . .

This is my interpretation of the moment of wonder. It is born out of utter darkness, as a single star, a pinprick of contrast.

Wonder is a thing of difference. Indeed it can be inherently defined as the one thing that is different from the rest of the things around it. A dark spot on the face of the sun. A bird in flight silhouetted against the blazing sky. A drop of water on desiccated soil. An enlightened mind among ignorance.

Wonder can indeed be startling, cutting, painful, even seemingly dark—at least in its initial effect. The agony of realization of permanent loss. A close encounter with death. The loss of love. A reconciliation with disappointment. The acceptance of the self with all its imperfections.

Indeed, many of the stories included between these pages evoke that dark wonder. What then separates “dark wonder” from acute misfortune or life’s random suffering? One might say it is like a reboot of the spirit. Ordinary despair weighs us down, but dark wonder is like a lifesaving blow upon the chest to restart the stopped heart. The button that restarts perception, clears the road ahead of you of painful debris, and allows you to go on, despite whatever has just happened, dark or bright.

Wonder clears the way.

And how then is wonder different from mere insight?

Wonder is insight-plus. Extra-strength insight. It is insight given wings and a propulsion engine. Insight empowered with the ability to act. Insight ready in turn to make an impact on others.

May these curious stories before you, selected for their measure of wonder and impact—both dark and illuminated with hopeful light—provide at least a cleansing moment of such clarity, and in one way or another, serve to provide the next step, the next dream, the next thought, the next breath.

I trust they will do as much for you as they have done for me.

Copyright © 2009 by Vera Nazarian