The Real Baahubali: Legend Through The Lens of History

#SpoilerAlert for Baahubali 1 & 2. Don’t read if you haven’t watched. 

When we talk about Baahubali and we talk about history, it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that this duology of historical-fantasy/action/drama/romance movies has become the first in the history of Indian cinema to gross a 1000 crores rupees worldwide. It also just happens to be the most expensive Indian film ever made which goes to show that huge investments lead to equally huge payoffs if everyone’s heart’s in it (Peter Jackson wink wink nudge nudge). It also happens to not be a Bollywood film and not star any of the Khans.

The film also fundamentally presents itself as a history. Or does it? That’s what this post is going to explore.

Broadly, Baahubali is the story of a particular phase in the history of the fictional empire of Mahishmati (not to be confused with the real 13th century city of Mahishmati which was the principal city of the Avanti Mahajanapadha). It follows the lives of two members of the royal family, Bhallaldeva and Amarendra Baahubali who are raised together by the Queen Mother, Shivagami under the promise that the one who is wiser, stronger, more just and more fit to rule will eventually become king. Bhallaldeva is very evil because he has a scary scar and a nasty mean look and his father looks like the Grinch.

The Grinch Who Stole Navratri

Baahubali is awesome because he’s got a very friendly looking mustache, fighting skills second to none, abs, unparalleled strategic skills, more abs, the love and respect of the entire kingdom, yet more abs, the ability to charm anything sentient and did I mention the mustache?

Basically, things go south for the good guy. He wins the test, mommy says he’s going to be King, stays awesome for a bit, goes on a tour, falls in love, gets schemed against (by the grinch, no less), loses the throne, gets married, creates a fetus, loses admission to the palace, lives with the proles, stays awesome, gets schemed against by the grinch again, gets killed by his uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor.

The aforementioned fetus grows up in the bottom of a waterfall, gets raised by an old Malayalam movie actress, moves a Shiva lingam with this bare hands to the bottom of a waterfall, sees a butterfly woman in a bikini, chases after her up the mountain, finds out she’s real but not in a bikini, proceeds to get her into a bikini, goes sledding with her, takes up bikini-girl’s mission of saving the old woman tied up in the middle of Mahishmati, gets chased by Bhallaldeva’s son (in other words, the grandson of the Grinch who is still very much alive by the way) and the uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor, kills the prince, gets told the whole story by the slave, goes into battle with evil meany king, burns him and becomes king.

3743184-safeimage

The real reason people climb mountains

That’s about it.

I wasn’t a big fan the first time I watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The whole thing was very unrealistic. The Baahubalis, father and son, were both morally perfect beings of mustachioed physical and mental puissance par excellence. Nothing could ever kill either of them (other than betrayal by daddy’s closest ally, of course). Because one sword can kill a man when fifty arrows can’t. The villains were irredeemably bad, grinchy looking, brutal, uncivilised, lacking in strategic capability and cartoonishly sadistic.

On a rewatch, I got it. I understood what all of it meant.

Baahubali isn’t a history. It’s a legend. What’s the difference, you may be asking? Well, for the purposes of this discussion, think about it like this: it’s the story of this phase in Mahishmati’s history written by a dude hired Baahubali. Who happens to be the emperor of a very powerful empire with a lot of soldiers and pointy things that kill so you really don’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. So obviously, he’s handsome and upright and perfect and loved by everyone and can be killed by no one. Also obviously, his rivals are evil and mean and grinchy looking.

The movies don’t really try to hide this fact. Literally half the overall story is narrated by a very guilty man who killed the main character of his story to the son of the man he killed. And the other half is so over-the-top it’s obviously trying to be mythic or legendary.

One of the  ways the director Rajamouli pushes this theme through is with the use of divine symbols. This was very common with the myriad of rulers who established themselves through ancient and medieval India. Many of them would try to associate themselves with a particular god. Many would, without trying to outright suggest it, say that they were gods themselves. The way they would spread these messages would be through paintings, carvings and, of course, legends passed on from generation to generations.

The movie uses divine symbols not directly but not subtly either. Baahubali the Younger is named Shivu by the Malayalam actress who adopts him. The Elder uses the same sobriquet when he’s trying to charm the princess he falls in love with (so that she can see his true character instead his riches or whatevs). The musical theme that plays when Baahubali does something awesome translates to “Hail Shiva!”. There’s an extended song sequence in the second part where the princess sings a lullaby for the god Krishna as part of a festival. The song cuts between Baahubali and the idol of Krishna, some of the offerings being made to the latter reflecting to the former.

This changes the way you look at the entire story of Baahubali because you can sort of assume most of it is skewed in the favour of Baahubali & Son. But, the broad strokes of the story probably did happen, just not in the way the legend describes it.

So how do we uncover the real story? The usual approach is to find other sources. No historian in her good senses would consider a mythic or legendary story as being anywhere near authoritative. The historian would dig around for material remains (like Indiana Jones with less swag), find sculptures, reconstruct ordinary patterns of life and collate all that information together to find something that approximates to the closest extent what actually happened.

But with Baahubali, we don’t have any of that because the story didn’t actually happen. Instead we have a multi-crore budget cinematic exaggerated legend of a story that was in reality probably very different, if it would have actually happened.

So the next idea is to de-exaggerate the legend and try to come up with a more plausible version of the events that could have happened. To do this, we use the metrics of other examples from history and a fair bit of common sense.

The Baahubalis were not perfect. We know that because we know from common sense that literally no one is perfect, especially not rulers of vast empires. On a less abstract basis, we know Amarendra wasn’t perfect for the apparent reason that he died. In fact, if you trace his political history, devoid of its mythic backstory, you’ll find the story of a classic failure rather than the wounded martyr figure the legend presents to us.

Things started out pretty good for Amarendra Baahubali. We can assume that he was probably better loved by the general public than his more politically minded half brother. He was probably not loved unanimously by every living human soul in Mahishmati as the legend would have you believe but he was probably the more popular among the two. That was probably what would have swayed the Queen Mother to initially crown him King, not a moral lesson after a very cinematic battle sequence.

From there, the legend says that he falls in love with Devasena, the princess of the Kuntala Kingdom south of Mahishmati. Romance makes for delightful storytelling (and equally delightful dance sequences on lotus boats in the sky) but from what we know from the political history of India, love had little to do with marriages among royal families. We can assume a more plausible turn of events. Amarendra attempts to enter into some sort of alliance with the southern kingdom. The Queen Mother is not pleased (probably because she warned against it by the Grinch) and demands that he either break the alliance or give up his throne. He goes for the latter option for what could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps he favoured the more absolute control over the smaller kingdom rather than puppet authority over the empire. Perhaps he really was a little in love with the beautiful princess. Perhaps it was a fit of youthful rage that was not very strategically thought out.

So then, he accedes his throne to Meany McMeanypants Bhallaldeva and becomes the Commander of the Army. Then, he loses that position as well. Why? Was it because of a passionate outburst by his fiery bride like the legend says it is? Not likely, given the social position of women (especially the wives of powerful men) in early Indian history. Influential? Certainly but rarely directly. Which is why the character of Shivagami is a bit implausible as well but it makes sense as an exceptional circumstance. Things like that have happened.

573394-baahuba

No, he’s not a Power Ranger.

So why was Baahubali exiled? A conflict of interests is the most likely answer. His dethronement was because of what was most likely an alliance with a subsidiary state. If a political figure became closely linked with both the ruling hierarchy of one kingdom and the military of another empire, the rulers of that empire would obviously get a little testy.

So, Amarendra’s response was to live among the people. Again, possible but not entirely likely. What is more likely would be that he established base in his wife’s kingdom. A downgrade, for sure given the prestige he previously enjoyed.

This also explains why the new king would want to kill him. Given the guy’s general awesomeness and popularity with common folk, an uprising of the Kuntala kingdom under Baahubali’s command would be very very possible. Was he killed of by his uncle-slave-buddy? Again, great storytelling but unlikely. It could very well have been just a random assassin.

So the end result is that this person was first the most powerful person alive in a very powerful empire and eventually ended up dethroned, weakened, exiled and finally killed. Doesn’t sound very perfect to me.

Machiavelli would have called him a bad prince.

So Baahubali the legend is flawless. Baahubali the man is quite obviously flawed. What are those flaws?

We know for sure that he wasn’t the real son of the Queen Mother. Perfectly plausible there. People get adopted all the time, even into royal families. That fact was most likely a psychological complex, clouding Amarendra’s political judgement with this strong sense of loyalty and adoration to the woman who elevated someone who wasn’t even the fruit of her womb to the highest position in the empire. The Queen Mother had Baahubali wrapped around her finger. Any order that came from her would be followed without question. That is quite a strong weakness in a man with the hopes of ruling over the empire.

Added to that is this naivete about the people around him whom he expected would all follow the dharma or righteous law his mother had so earnestly taught him.

He probably never saw it coming. The literally-on-fire sequence where he gets stabbed in the back probably never happened. It is much more likely that he was lying on a hammock in the Kuntala backyard, combing his mustache and thinking he wasn’t a threat to anyone in the world out here when he was shot by a poisoned dart or something. Idk.

So Baahubali isn’t perfect. By extension, Mahishmati probably isn’t perfect either. This is openly alluded to by Baahuballi’s waifu in a fiery, impassioned speech which is just the kind of thing that would get you exiled. The empire was operating on the basis of an extrapolated edition of the dharma that left plenty of loopholes for characters like the grinch to manipulate to achieve their own ends. Bureaucracy outweighed righteousness. Protocol trumped justice. The popular choice was chilling out with waifu while Evil McEvilpants was allowed to rule.

Speaking of Mister Evil, the reality is that nobody could really ever be that evil. In brief chinks in  the fabric of the legend, Rajamouli gives us a glimpse of the real Bhallaldeva behind the grey highlights and abs. A political man, perhaps. A lot more ambitious than his adopted sibling and a lot more aware of the people’s love for said sibling than the sibling himself. A little insecure. A little too much of a daddy’s boy just as Baahubali’s a little too much of a mommy’s boy.

And what of daddy himself, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas? He was probably just very resentful. Resentful that the throne went to a woman instead of him. Resentful of his disability. Maybe he suffered from the same ailment most Indian parents suffer from: the need to vicariously live out their fantasies through their children. My beta will be an engineer/King because I couldn’t be.

And that leaves us with Baahubali the Son. He suffers from essentially the same character flaws as his dad (probably because he is the same character as his dad). His obsession with what his mother(s) want him to do and truckloads of naivete. We can envision a similar future for the real Mahishmati, backseat ruled by Devasena instead of Shivagami.

Which is why the ending of the movie is rather curious. The movie is expected to end when the S.S. Rajamouli seal is stamped right next to Baahubali II’s face at the end of his speech. But it doesn’t. It’s followed by this sequence where the golden head of the statue of Bhallaldeva rolls down the same path that Shivu followed up the mountain to chase his destiny. The statue eventually comes to a stop in front of the Shiva lingam that Shivu moved with his bare hands so long ago in Movie 1. Plaintive, sad music plays throughout this sequence and you’re left a little confused. What does that mean? That good triumphs over evil? That the will of God prevailed over human greed and ambition? Or is it trying to draw attention to the fact that this is the legend of a god among men? But who decides who god is? The person who tells the story, of course. But like I said, the story is obviously skewed in Baahubali’s favour.

Baahubali is a treasure trove for the amateur historian. It is the work of a confident film-maker who operates on multiple levels. The legend of Baahubali is a stirring story of good triumphing over evil. The history of Baahubali is a more complicated affair concerned with the politics of managing a large empire, the ambitions of two aristocrats and the women behind them and human flaws in human beings on both sides. And both stories and in there. It’s just that one of them takes a little digging.

Music Musings – Laura Marling’s Semper Femina and Kanye West’s Yeezus are two sides of the same coin

 

Chill.

Fans of either artist who read this (lol, who am I kidding, I pray every night for more than one person to read these scraps of nonsense also thank you mom) will go through the whole tearing their hair out, sackcloth and ashes routine.

A more likely question to be floating around in your noggin right now, dear reader (mom), would be: “Why are you talking about that chauvinistic egomaniac freak in 2017 and also who the fuck is Laura Marling?”

To answer your first question, because he’s interesting. We have more than enough bland reflections on life and the inner journey pumped out year after year by independant record labels and listened to by pubescent girls in their chokers and winged eyeliner pretending that abhorring Justin Bieber, Drake and those four Irish boys with peculiar hair whilst adoring electronic indie trite (OH WONDER) ridden with more ‘piercing the fabric of the intellect’ platitudes than  the bedroom of an educated stoner. Where’s the edge? Where’s the balls to do something properly different in the confines of pop-expectations? Kanye stole all of the balls.

Who’s Laura Marling? Laura Marling is the only one all the critics took seriously from the whole Communion group that we called nu-folk that was taking over London in 2010. She’s also the one who’s been most artistically consistent out of the whole lot. Noah and the Whale wrote a break up album and then disappeared. Mumford & Sons remodelled themselves into a rock outfit and wove out and then back into my heart. But Laura Marling has been singing about the same things she’s been singing about since she was seventeen. Melancholia and the burden of womanhood.

Only, with her, you could always buy that. She always looked burdened by something very elusive. Maybe she didn’t know it was femininity when she was sixteen. But this has been a sort of touchstone for almost every album she’s ever done. The juxtaposition (I love that word, can’t you tell) between so many different emotions, all relating to womanhood has been something she’s been obsessed with. The power it brings, the responsibility, the frailty, the fickle nature, the vulnerability, the demand to deny that vulnerability, &ct. Her feminism is always heartfelt and earnest.

So is Kanye’s masculinity. This is where things get a little un-PC because I’m going to have to defend Kanye’s chauvinism. I like to think of it more as violent masculinity, though. And that violence permeates the album Yeezus from the word go. It is abrasive and hostile from the beginning to end. But, there’s something very insecure in the middle of all of this as well. The art isn’t insecure, for certain. And it isn’t overcompensating, whatever that means. People who make claims like that don’t really understand Kanye as an art form.

Kanye as a person, I’ll be the first to admit, even I don’t understand. But Kanye the artist is undeniably extremely talented. We could talk for hours here about his production skills (and Miss Marling’s guitar skills) but let’s cut right to the chase and explore what both these artists are all about and also what they have in common. Which happens to be the same thing.

If you pick apart all of Kanye’s oeuvre for a theme, the best answer would be identity. That identity is a  fluid concept is something Kanye knows all too well. There is something very self obsessed with Kanye’s sense of identity but that is what is so genius about the whole thing. In the framework of rap, introspection (and it’s leaner, meaner cousin narcissism) rarely ever stand out. To brag is the norm. And that basically gives Kanye a ticket to explore every facet of his own psyche and identity he wishes to from his Christianity to his heartbreak to his race and sex.

Race and sex happens to be what Laura Marling is interested in as well, only she’s a lot more soothing than Kanye. So soothing that you’re tempted to almost stop listening to what she’s saying and hear legit the most beautiful voice on the planet overlaid with Blake Mills’s sweet sweet production. Ah. Eargasms. But if you actually listen, what Marling’s trying to do with femininity is interesting. As a concept album, the guist of it is that it is about women from the perspective of men, only written by a woman. So it goes sort of like the Ouroboros. How much of the album is written to herself, I do not know. But, buried under the standoffish subtlety that has come to define Laura Marling, you have a healthy vein of introspection that is most Kanye like.

The first song from Semper Femina is a song about sex. Soothing (arranged like an inevitable, tribal doom ritual) follows a protagonist who is forced to grapple between her reluctance to allow someone to enter her life and her burning lust for this person. That’s what the album title is all about. The Virgil reference. Woman is fickle and changeable always.

Most of the songs from Yeezus are about the same thing. The pressures of married life choking away his previously vibrant sex life. This may seem terrifically banal and gauche compared to Marling’s contemplative reflections on womanhood but scratch the surface and you’ll find he’s railing against the same thing. It isn’t a entirely societal, the expectation for male promiscuity. It is something deep rooted in our collective psyche and he feels the need to live up to that. But he also wants something rich and meaningful from his marriage, as Bound 2 shows us.

Both of them are railing against norms put on them by things they do not fully comprehend. And both speak their pieces beautifully.

But you know what they say. Speaking about music is like dancing about architecture. So I’ll leave you with these:

 

 

The Philosophy of Fanfiction – The Genre of Cognitive Familiarity

Tell me the last literary conference you attended (or watched) where someone didn’t bring up the whole ‘What are we going to do about Fifty Shades selling so many copies?’ question? Published writers (and perhaps more scarily, readers) are reacting with a kind of abject, existential horror at the idea that something so degenerative, misogynistic and poor in quality became published and is selling more copies than them. Or they were for a bit but I think everyone has reached a point where they can forgive E.L. James and move on.

The allegations thrown against her have ranged from “She wrote it on her BlackBerry!” (le gasp) to “She’s never even been to Seattle!” (le even gasper).

But the most interesting issue people seem to have found with the series is this terror at the idea that it is basically a find-and-replace edit of a fanfiction story starring Edward and Bella from Twilight. Which is intriguing in itself because one of the things Twilight got very very right was sexual tension. That steam that was getting pent up over the course of the first three novels was only let out a little with the fourth novel in the official series. Fifty Shades is like breaking the pipe open.

But it also explains the flatness and lack of motivation of the characters. To put it simply, they aren’t James’s flat and uninspired characters. They’re Meyer’s. And as such, they tick all the right boxes for blank slates the readers can project themselves onto. Only, in the case of Edward, with the abstinence element gone, he is just pure power and menace and nothing else as Christian Grey. So, Edward Cullen was made even flatter.

But we sit and pick this apart and complain but the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon has been going on for a long time. No, not in fanfiction but in porn. This is essentially an SNM porn parody of Twilight. And in porn, the sex is paramount.

So then we can establish that Fifty Shades of Grey is fanfiction for erotica. So why read fanfiction?

We’ve been toying with the idea of Suvin’s Cognitive Estrangement for a while now. I think fanfiction may be about anti-estrangement. It is the genre of cognitive familiarity.

There is, surprisingly, no glut of academic papers relating to fanfiction but the one I did find corroborates this to an extent.

 Because the text appears to describe a fictional space, systematically tracing its salient features, it projects “a map” in the mind of the reader (see Ryan, Narrative 124-25). Fan readers can imagine this space’s layout with great accuracy. They know that relative to the door, the table is located on the left with the whiteboard in front of it and that the desk is in the far right corner. They also know that Cameron is standing with her back to a corridor and next to House’s office. What is more, they can fill out generic references (for example to a “small desk in the corner”) with specific images from the show (in this case, of a desk with a computer, positioned near a large window). While the text establishes a body on the scene, the reader’s projection helps to create an impression of complete access.

The Writing and Reading of Fan Fiction and Transformation Theory, Veerle Van Steenhuyse, Ghent University

Van Steenhuyse goes on to elaborate about the concept of immersion, transportation and flow. Flow is greatly increased in fanfiction because the cognitive buffer period of having to imagine the look and feel of the world is eliminated. But that brings on new challenges. The writer does not simply describe the world in fanfiction. The writer often describes the world through the eyes of someone the original author (or director) hasn’t given a perspective to. Van Steenhuyse has taken the character of Allison Cameron from the House MD TV show and shows how the same locale is not described as it is in traditional fiction but described through the eyes of someone different in fanfiction. And that is the extent of differentiation.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, who or what is a fan?

someone who admires and supports a person, sport, sports team, etc.

is how the Cambridge Dictionary defines a fan. And that obviously entails a degree of loyalty and fidelity to the object being admired. But beyond that, it entails familiarity.

The concept of fanfiction ties in to a greater concept called fandom. 

The community that surrounds a tv show/movie/book etc. Fanfiction writers, artists, poets, and cosplayers are all members of that fandom. Fandoms often consist of message boards, livejournal communities, and people.

That’s Urban Dictionary.

The purpose of exploring these things is to move on from the question of ‘Why read these?’ (because familiarity entails faster flow and alternate approaches to very well known worlds) to ‘Who reads these?’

Well? The fandom does. And the nature of the fandom is such that they have watched every episode, read every page or watched every movie the original creator has put out. In addition to that, they have picked these characters, worlds and locales apart on their own and collaboratively. They know these characters as well as the author does, sometimes even better. So, they are very familiar. And familiarity is a necessity for enjoying fanfiction the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Which brings us to the next question. Why write them?

To understand this, I asked the community of fanfiction writers on Wattpad and got very illuminating answers.

epichorn31 approaches it largely from the perspective of being a fan themselves.

When you get into a fandom enough, whether it’s a book, movie, TV show, band, etc., sometimes you come up with wild theories or ideas that just weren’t explored in the original work. Alternately, you just want to ship your favorite characters. It’s mostly the last one.

So it’s all about playing with the familiar and exploring new concepts with what has already been established. This extends even to the concept of shipping where romantic partnerships are created between characters who were not romantically paired in the original work.

For Getting_to_Know_Them, writing fanfiction is a way to practice  writing.

In all honesty it is a great way to get started with writing, not only are some of the harder parts such as Character Design, Plot navigation and world building already done for you allowing you to focus on the story but you also have a solid base to start exploring and experimenting and figuring out what works in terms of design. Due to writing within the constraints of another persons writing you will find yourself thinking about why they wrote the world to be in that particular way and you will also start to think of the problems that come from designing and creating worlds and characters.

jettmanas  shares a similar perspective.

This idea extends to characterization as well, as Getting_To_Know_Them puts it.

After the basics most people move on to OC’s where they are looking at the basics of character design and melding their own characters to another persons set of rules. Most initial characters from younger writers will end up being Mary / Gary Stu’s due to the lack of experience in character design that allows for the person to understand the strengths and flaws of characters and how they work into a narrative (Good Fandom to see bad Examples: Harry Potter – 90% of fics re-balance the story by having Harry become some sort of God-like character with 6 different “secret” magical abilities and being a shifter etc) Eventually a writer will learn to balance characters.

These writers explore a very intriguing aspect of fanfiction writing. What do you learn from writing fanfiction? Well, fanfiction must (to an extent) entail being part of the fandom which must entail familiarity. But writing good fanfiction must go a lot deeper than that. The writer must have a firm grasp on the way the world operates. The writer of good fanfiction is forced to pick apart the worldbuilding of the original work which is always good practice for any writer.

As far as characterization is concerned, the challenge becomes even harder because to achieve cognitive familiarity, the portrayal of the  character in the fanfiction has to have a high degree of fidelity to the character in the original work. And that isn’t easy writing to accomplish, especially if the work in question involves complex characters with difficult motivations (Harry Potter works as a fair example.

The challenge ramps up when the characters are real people. Which is why I have this longstanding theory about why 1D fanfics are better than Justin Beiber ones and outnumber the latter vastly. It’s because 1D seem to be more interesting characters, personally. This even extends to the Phan fandom. Real human beings have to be picked apart for flaws, traits and insecurities. What better way to learn how to invent fake people?

A third reason is a lot more commercial.

As DysgraphicBen  puts it:

The first (goal of fanfiction) would be to entertain fellow fans, especially when something new is either so far off or no longer possible.

According to jettmanas :

Another advantage is people are familiar with the brand, and are typically more likely to read it than something random.

In Wattpad, a fanfiction story collects reads, votes and comments a lot faster than stories in the other genres precisely because of the fandom. Which acts as a motivation for others in the fandom to write. And those will also be read, motivating others to write and so on.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Why are we horrified by this phenomenon? What does it mean?

China Mieville (yes, him again) in his talk about The Future of the Novel at the EWWC, discusses the idea of the liberation of the narrative. The text will no longer be closed but will open with everyone given the ability to mashup, remix, muck around with and enjoy a text in a vastly different way from what is already happening. And I was all like, dude, that’s already happened.

Fanfiction represents something beautiful. It shows that the text has already been liberated. It does not deny the originator any credit (on the contrary, the originator is often worshipped) but adds to an existing canon with ideas ranging from the crowd-pleasing to the outre and the bizarre. And it ushers in a cadre of new writers who know how worldbuilding works, how good characterization is to be done and how to constuct a plot.

Fanfiction is like a self-taught Creative Writing course when done well. It deserves not scorn but close, careful study and a lot of respect.

My thanks to @epichorn31  @DysgraphicBen  @jettmanas and @Getting_to_Know_Them for their well thought out, detailed responses to my queries. 

The Weird and Structure

If you sort of grub about with critical analyses of science fiction and speculative fiction in general (as I have done, in a very elementary, baby-steps sort of way) you’ll come across a concept called cognitive estrangement soon enough. This comes from Darko Suvin, a Croatian-born academic who has written what many consider to be the seminal work of critical theory in science fiction: The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction.

Cognitive Estrangement revolves around a concept called the novum, something we haven’t encountered or seen in life as it revolves around us.

When it comes to the weird, cognitive estrangement is definitely something we should be interested in because we are usually dealing with multiple nova at the same time at a rate significantly higher than regular spec-fic. Or, we may be dealing with a novum that fundamentally challenges the entire basis of our existence. A novum exceptionally wide in its reach.

Once we’ve established that, the next challenge is to find out the ideal way to present that to the reader. Lovecraft, more often than not, played it straight and gave us a form of gradual discovery. The protagonist would be introduced to the nova as the story progresses and in the end, comprehension of the cosmic terror that underpins our universe would drive him mad. Which is fun but not weird enough, I think.

The next approach is more modern, a lot more experimental and can definitely lead to a dip in your sales. But, it is worth attempting precisely because it highlights the ideas of estrangement so well. It totally subverts your expectations. It is a lot of fun to experience. This revolves around the concept that the narrator takes the nova for granted. This is accepted. We don’t really like infodumps and we rarely let writers get away with it. But the scale to which it is practiced separates the weird from traditional spec-fic.

In weird fiction, you find narrators taking very peculiar nova entirely for granted at the risk of alienating, or shall we say estranging the reader. And it is precisely for that reason that we return again and again to stories like these. It is difficult fiction to grapple with. We have to be on our toes always as readers for the writer will not go out of his way to explain something to you that you have never encountered before.

The City & The City is a prime example of this. If your concept is that two cities somehow occupy the same physical space and you use concepts like unsee and crosshatch, you should probably explain it to us, right? Well what if you don’t? That’s where the weird comes in. This concept transforms a police procedural set in East Europe into something that can definitely be shelved in the weird section of your library. Because the story lets us find out for ourselves that the universe is fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever seen before.

So where does that distinction lie? In the prose? Perhaps. But to a much greater extent, I think it lies in the structure of the story being told.

Unstructured narratives don’t work very well in the weird. You can tell immediately that the author has a lot of ideas but you can also tell that he’s just riffing between them. His excuse that he was trying to be outre and rococo is unacceptable.

Structured narratives that play games with the way that structure is presented to us, on the other hand, do very well in the weirder side of things. Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching is a very good example of something like this. The prose (despite a few games with person and tense) remains relatively straightforward. It is the games with structure that really set it apart. There must be an inciting incident. There must be a climax. There must be a denoument.

But it is delightfully creepy when we aren’t quite sure when those things happen. So jump around with time. Play with the format of your text. The sky is your limit. But remember, make sure there is a structure underpinning everything.