Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
Karmic Law Revealed
Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: Circus of the Damned by Laurell K. Hamilton (ACE Fantasy, May 1995). (This is a sequel to Guilty Pleasures and The Laughing Corpse.)
Invader by C. J. Cherryh (DAW hardcover May 1995). (This is a sequel to Foreigner also from DAW and currently in paperback.)
Forever Knight - syndicated television show now moved back to the after-midnight slots.
Death Masque by P. N. Elrod (ACE Fantasy pb. Feb 1995).
The Woman in White by Jane Toombs (Silhouette Shadows, 1995).
House of Moons by K. D. Wentworth (Del Rey Science Fiction, May 1995).
Last month, I made the point that writers use tricks to seduce readers into strange worlds, and I promised to reveal some of those tricks.
There are two purposes to stripping the veil from the writers' magic here in a review column which excludes both criticism and writing instruction: #1) to armor the fiction consumer who might be in too vulnerable a state of mind, and #2) to further the original stated purpose of this column.
Originally, more than two years ago, I started out to demonstrate that fiction reading is a necessary adjunct to any serious course of Initiatory or Magickal instruction. Along the way, I have pointed out how fiction can be an adventure onto the astral plane, and how it can reveal hidden facets of your own mind. We have discussed Art and its place in the social matrix. And we have explored works of fantasy that faithfully illustrate lessons from your occult textbooks.
I also pointed out that a work of fiction is not a sourcebook of magick, and that truly knowledgeable writers deliberately "fake" magickal information in novels to keep people from hurting themselves and others.
At the same time, I've insisted that there is much for the student of magick to learn from novels, especially sf/f novels, no matter what category label a publisher puts on the book. Through these reviews I've pointed out books that show lessons of power and power-abuse, lessons of emotional intimacy and subconscious compulsion, lessons of perspective via vampire novels, and lessons of growth via confronting fears.
It is crucial to all these lessons that the fiction be rooted in an illusion of reality, not reality itself because the lessons in sf/f novels are lessons about the abstract concepts underlying the idea that reality exists.
Because it often deals with non-human intelligence, the sf/f genre is uniquely suited to challenging cultural programing we don't even know we have. And that is its value to the student of the Occult not as a textbook of magickal technology but as a training ground for the strength of character an occultist needs to survive the beginner's lessons and still have soul, body, mind, and spirit intact and integrated.
But to use sf/f novels as a gymnasium for character building, one must participate in the writer's illusion with informed consent and always keep in mind that the author you are learning from may in fact have a shakier mastery of these lessons than you do. However, "by your students you'll be taught" so herewith the information necessary to learn from your juniors.
So now we're ready to challenge a "sacred cow" central to American pop culture: "Don't pass value judgements." Phrased another way, "There's no accounting for taste."
In the seventies, when I was writing Classic Trek fanzine stories (my Kraith Series, which is still available in fanzine format) featuring Vulcan culture in massive collision with a human-dominated Federation culture, I took as my overall theme, "Logic is Beautiful." And I included the converse, "Beauty is Logical." I still hold that beauty cannot be non-logical, and all logic has beauty.
One of the tenets I hold dear that irks some people no end is that some works of art are inherently better than others, that some books are better than others, that there is a way to account for taste and that way involves passing judgement upon other people's values.
People see this attitude of mine as a call
But it's not. After you've passed judgement on another person's values, after you've formed your opinion of their values, you have several options regarding what to do about it. I, personally, feel no particular inner compulsion to change other people's values, even if I disapprove of them.
And here we come to the Laws of Karma mentioned in the title of this column. The key Law of Karma that unlocks understanding of all other laws is that there is a way to account for taste - especially taste in Art.
People develop a taste for the kind of Art that expresses their own personal inner conflicts, neurotic blockages and tangled webs of emotional scar tissue. People develop a taste for Art that depicts the Ultimate Truths of the world they see when they look out of their mundane eyes. People develop a taste for art that validates their current view of the universe, their most cherished philosophy of life.
And of course taste changes with mood, so on one occasion a person might read for pleasure and on another might desire an exploration of their fears, or at yet another time want to discharge aggressions or wallow in self-pity. (Self-pity can be a lot of fun and very instructive don't knock it.) Likewise, taste changes with age and experience. We tend to "outgrow" some tastes.
Mostly, we outgrow a taste when we've resolved the deep inner conflicts that gave rise to the taste. Very often, the growth occurs because we indulged the taste that we now see as pointless or unhealthy.
True classic literature is literature you can't outgrow because once you've resolved one of the thematic issues highlighted in the story, you reread it and discover there were other issues there as well.
Thus a person might grow up watching classic Trek as a true-blue Spock fan. Then they might abandon Trek for many years, and finally return to discover they've become a Kirk fan or more astonishing, a McCoy fan.
I have, in recent months, noticed a dearth of new "enduring classic literature" and I know that, with the spiraling rise in paper costs, the shortage of my favorite reading material is going to get worse.
How do I know that? Because I know how to account for taste. And I understand (as discussed in my April column) that the American fiction delivery system is driven by commercial requirements, and thus serves the majority most efficiently.
The current American group mind is wrestling with a pattern of neuroses, fears and traumas that are the result of the "melting pot" phenomena which created this country. "Melting Pot" is a term that refers to the second generation immigrants from all over the world shedding the culture of their parents and acquiring the cultural pattern of America while America melted and reformed around them. That melting was the strength of this country, and may now have become the bane.
The problem is that the American "public" has shed Old World value systems (remember, it takes at least four generations to change a value system, and that's with Divine Assistance) and embraced the American value system which hasn't fully crystallized out of the "melt" yet.
A pervasive subconscious insecurity is generated by the lack of a solid, definable, immutable, good-everywhere value system. This insecurity is creating the taste for violence and destruction in movies and TV.
Of course, it's not that simple, and of course that's just my personal opinion. But watch some of the old b&w movies on AMC and compare to the newest Blockbuster Video best-seller, and you'll see how our public values have changed.
We used to believe that life made sense, that if you were "good" your life would be "good." That wasn't propaganda. We really believed it. That's because it was true. When a very large group shares a value system, those who conform thrive and those who buck the system are destroyed. "Good" means not bucking the system. But nowadays, there is no system, and thus no way to be "good," thus guaranteeing success in life.
It will be another two generations before we begin to see the new value-system emerge. Meanwhile, the majority is suffering through "interesting times" and a minority who can see what's happening are struggling to help. But the commercial fiction delivery system does not serve minorities well except when paper is cheap.
Therefore I treasure beyond price books like Laurell K. Hamilton's Circus of the Damned.
Like Sharon Green (whose most recent novels I reviewed last month), Laurell K. Hamilton sees what's happening and is helping. She is explaining the laws of Karma in the clearest and most explicit way possible and giving us a rollicking good read while she's about it. Nothing seats a lesson deep into the psyche so well as associating it with pleasure. And in this case the "pleasure" is Anita Blake's personal attitude toward herself, her job (raising the dead and executing rogue vampires), her life, and the Master Vampire who loves her.
This series is set in an alternate universe Earth where psi-talented magicians routinely reanimate the dead to settle court battles over a will and where vampires are legally acknowledged and have their own society and their own night clubs (clubs after which each of the books is titled). This is an exaggerated caricature of our own "melting pot," and leads to many hilarious takeoffs on our reality.
Yet this series is not a comedy, not played for laughs. It's humor is like the humor in Star Trek, respectful of the reader's intelligence, and utterly believable. Anita Blake has a complete loathing for vampires in general while she suffers an intractable sexual response to the Master Vampire of the City. Anita refuses to acknowledge, except in her most private thoughts, that she's well on her way to being in love with this Master Vampire. The one thing she really holds against him is that he's been acquiring power over her - vampiric power to command her mind and her magic.
Three times in this series, Blake must choose whether to side with the Master who loves her and fight his enemies (vampires more powerful than he). She makes those decisions on her assessment of the relative moral character and values of the Master versus his enemy, and for the good of the city, she lets this Master gain increments of power over her.
Her inner conflict which keeps her locked in an untenable position is between her opinion of vampires in general versus her opinion of this individual Master Vampire.
Her self-image is founded on her magical talent which wakened at puberty, and her very, very low opinion of the Walking Dead such as vampires. She's more charitable in her opinion of werewolves, even those who are reporters.
Her inner conflict is exactly mirrored in the conflict the city faces as the legalization of vampires (and other such) produces a political backlash.
Without ever explicitly referring to karma, this novel depicts a relationship between a person's inner subconscious tensions and the external life the conscious mind must deal with daily. And, of course, that relationship is what generates karma.
When I was learning to write, I discovered that the key question to ask about a character in order to find his karma, his external life, is, "What is the most diabolical thing that could happen to this person?" And the answer lies, of course, in that person's innermost fears, desires, unfulfilled ambition, cherished dignity, etc. Engineers call it "testing to destruction."
C. J. Cherryh shows us a different but equally believable relationship between inner and outer life. Her new hardcover, Invader, continues the story begun in Foreigner. Invader picks up just hours after the end of the first book, and ends at the point where I, as a reader and a writer, felt the story becomes unbearably gripping.
In my rave review of Foreigner a few months ago, I noted that it begged for a sequel. Well, Invader demands one. It is a book to devour breathlessly, and if I were you, I wouldn't wait for the sequel. You can always reread this one once the next has been announced.
In these two C. J. Cherryh novels, we have an interstellar setting. A human colony ship sent out to build a space station, not colonize a world, gets lost. The station crew ends up trying to set up a colony on a world where they are stranded. The ship's crew takes their ship off to search for a way home.
Problem: this world has an alien species in residence, and it's not a space-going civilization. The fragile local culture could be destroyed by the impact of human technology (Star Trek's Prime Directive).
After a terrible war, the two species hack out an uneasy alliance and truce. To keep this political situation in balance, the humans appoint one person the best student of the natives' language to go to the natives and live among them as an ambassador and translator, feeding human technology to the natives slowly and carefully, they hope.
Both books are tightly focused into the point of view of this one human who inherits this translating job at the time when the spaceship finally returns upsetting the political balance that has been kept for two hundred years.
Bren Cameron, the lone human among the natives experiences being cut off from his human roots in a sink-or-swim situation where he must understand the native's motivations, tell the good guys from the bad guys in native politics, or die. He knows beyond doubt that the way to fail is to project human sentiment onto these nonhumans whose "hardwiring" is truly alien to human thinking/feeling.
Squelching his human responses, Cameron discovers in himself the capacity to resonate to a nonhuman response pattern. He finds it harder and harder to switch back to human values. He even finds sex appeal among the nonhumans, and can't quite deal with that.
Then he is presented with a living human who is not part of the colony, who is from the ship, a totally different culture but a human culture nonetheless.
Compare: Anita Blake is a character alienated from her society by her magical talent, and she makes the best of it (she thinks). Bren Cameron has chosen a profession that wraps him in unwanted alienation, and is sure he ought to be doing better.
Each of these authors is working with the Law of Karma that says there is a relationship between your subconscious conflicts and the life you're living. Folk Wisdom describes this law thusly: "You've made your own bed; now lie in it." The Tarot card for this is "Justice," especially when it turns up with Hanged Man and/or Hermit. The "Initiation" is the "Mirror Degree."
Each of these fictional characters is anguished by the mess their life is in. But the author allows the reader to see clearly how that mess is the result of the character's decisions and actions and how those decisions and actions originate in the character's internal conflicts and neuroses, and how those internal conflicts and neuroses bring that character into harmony or conflict with his/her society.
Now, the writer's secret: the relationship between the inner conflicts and the mess of the outer life is different in Circus than in Invader.
The Law of Karma only says there exists a relationship. It doesn't say what exactly that relationship is. It doesn't say exactly what to do to get such-and-so to happen for you. So each artist looks at the world and tries to find a pattern that can explain your life to you. That pattern is what I referred to last month as "poetic justice."
When you state the nature of that relationship between your inner conflicts and your messed up life you express a "theme." A theme is a repeating pattern that can be expressed in a philosophy. Examples: Might makes right. The good guy always wins. Life is hard; then you die. Home is where the heart is. Don't tug on Superman's cape. There's a sucker born every minute. As you sow; so shall you reap. By your students you'll be taught.
Here's another example of "poetic justice." At the end of April, Forever Knight was moved out of its prime time Sunday night slot in the New York Metro Area and ended up in an after-midnight slot. I suspect I missed one or two, then I found it and caught a wonderful episode about a sacred harp that carried a curse. Absolutely perfect script. And the magickal principles were absolutely accurate.
As usual in the Rhysher shows about immortals, they used flashbacks to tell a tale in present time and eight hundred years ago, and used the same actors in both sets of roles, thus indicating the possibility of reincarnation and a karmic circle closing. The man who killed to destroy the magick of the harp eight hundred years ago walked himself into the path of a truck and was killed in present time again trying to get the harp in order to destroy it and lift the curse from his family. Knight saw to it that the harp ended up back where it belonged, in the hands of the reincarnated priestess who could restore its magick to the Land.
Of course, this doesn't exactly settle matters because the killer still doesn't quite get the point and will return to contest it again, but the story is about the relentless power of a group-soul, and the series' premise is that Knight is "repaying society for his sins."
In a recent episode, Natalie found a biotech product that was almost a "cure" for his "vampiric condition" and Knight had a small taste of sunlight. As he repays, he is gaining "grace." Knight has had "poetic justice" for his efforts; the priestess who was killed for the harp has had her "poetic justice." Harmony is prevailing gradually.
The episode about the magic harp illustrates the theme of Forever Knight. It's a Kabbalistic principle called Tschuvah: Return or The Path of Return. Christians might call it repentance but it's more than that. It is the very essence of how to change your karma and it's uphill all the way. Knight is changing his karma right before our eyes, which is theoretically impossible for a vampire, frozen into eternal repetition of the same mistakes. The theme might be stated as "It's never too late."
Circus of the Damned has a major theme of "You can't win by abusing power." Or, "However good you are, there's always somebody better." Or, "Teamwork carries the day." Or "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't." Or, "If you keep your head while everyone else is losing theirs, better ask what they know that you don't." - i.e. "humility."
Invader could be said to share that last one. But more to the point, it says, "Don't bite off more than you can chew."
A writer uses theme to cast the compelling magical spell over the reader and seduce them into another world. This is done by choosing each of the elements in the background and foreground, and each of the characters and each of their traits to exemplify or illuminate that theme.
Beginning writers often choose elements in their stories because they find the element intrinsically interesting without regard for the pattern made by juxtaposing this element with that one. But Art is Art only if it reveals a pattern, and in fiction the "pattern" is the theme.
In sf/f the theme must be unobscured because the theme is the pattern that reminds the reader of real-reality, that casts the seductive illusion that this fantasy is reality and allows the willing suspension of disbelief, thus facilitating entry to the astral plane where truths are revealed and lessons learned cheaply.
For example, in Invader the whole story is generated by a space ship that gets lost. The people who sent the ship out, the ship's crew, and the passengers who were to build and operate the space station, bit off more than they could chew and got into a bigger mess than they could get out of. Their descendents are still paying for that mistake by having to bite off more than they can chew (introducing the natives to human technology) to keep the natives from killing them.
Bren Cameron, hero of the story, brilliant, bold and audacious, keeps attempting things beyond his ability. As in real life, sometimes he succeeds, which makes it hard to distinguish what he's doing wrong from what he's doing right.
And the leader of the natives has promised his people results beyond his ability to deliver bitten off more than he can chew.
No doubt, in the third book, we will see the spaceship crew biting off more than they
Those who read this column carefully will remember my shamefaced confession earlier this year and instantly understand why I absolutely adore this new Cherryh series. The secret of accounting for my taste is now in your hands.
Karmically, when you are overextended, you will reap as you have sown (10 Swords in Tarot which is related to Justice, of course). There are half a dozen other themes in Invader having to do with consequences, honor and ultimate truth, each one well worked and gripping, and all woven into a balanced portrait of Life.
While the divine forces are more visible in Circus, they are still present in Invader in the pattern Cherryh reveals: that life makes sense, the universe talks back.
Circus of the Damned and Invader each have several multiplex themes, and thus fall into the category I call "classic." These are books which will mean something different to you twenty years from now, but they will still have powerful meaning. You won't outgrow them. In fact, you may not yet have grown into them. You will surely recommend them to your children.
They're both short books, but they are part of a series or serialized story, and thus they are fragments of a greater work. A short story or short novel can't have more than one main theme. A longer work can have many. Thus I tend to favor longer works which will suddenly become unpublishable as paper prices rise faster than inflation.
So grab and cherish these books while
And again we come back to value judgements. I maintain that certain books are inherently better than others, and that there is a way to account for taste. I will pass judgement against books that depict an absence of relationship between a character's internal emotional life and his/her external conflicts, enemies, situation and challenges. I sense "poetic justice" in situations where I can see such a relationship, even if the artist doesn't depict the exact relationship I normally see in the reality I see out of my own eyes.
I don't need people to agree with me. I much prefer that they disagree because that spurs learning. I love books that challenge my notion of reality while explaining clearly where I made my mistake. The books recommended in this column express diverse opinions on the nature of reality, but they express those opinions with clarity. The clarity I look for is in the Artistic Pattern revealed in the writer's choice of story elements and in techniques such as handling point of view.
I have three books this time in the Honorable Mention category, not because they are lesser books but because they support the Karmic Law exemplified perfectly by Hamilton and Cherryh.
Death Masque by P. N. Elrod continues the story of her vampire, Jonathan Barrett. I didn't care for him so much when he was first introduced in The Vampire Files series. He still didn't grab me in the historicals Red Death and Death and the Maiden, though I loved those books, adore these vampires, and am enchanted by Elrod's sense of humor. But in this book, I finally connected with Barrett on a more personal, inner level. Perhaps it's a matter of taste.
The Woman in White shows us Jane Toombs playing with her occult knowledge but within the Romance genre. Having read Toombs' werewolf stories, I find it delightful to watch her educating a different readership in occult principles. This book occurs on two levels the present and the past and relentlessly illustrates the laws of Karma and when the trap of Revenge as a motive closes on the characters, Poetic Justice reigns supreme. It's got interesting ghosts, too.
House of Moons is by an author I haven't seen before. This one is, I believe, a sequel to Moonspeaker but it stands alone quite well. This book might appeal to readers of this magazine because it deals interestingly with telepathy.
The lead character is a woman who has founded a school for mindtalent training for girls in a society where only boys were allowed such training. She has changed her world. Only now an embittered and disenfranchised person attempts to change it back, gaining power over his world and her.
Again we have a group of humans living on a planet where there is an indigenous species and the main plot complication comes from the biology of the natives. This time, the eggs of the natives can be used to provide a boost to mindpower, but doing that destroys the egg before it can hatch.
This last book may be the most important one of this group because it illustrates my point about clarity. It has all the same elements of the others, equally well chosen and clearly depicted characters, dynamite situation, sweeping thematic depths, resonant spiritual matters. But it lacks the clear, precise depiction of a relationship between the subconscious conflicts of the main character and her messed up life.
It is written like much sf, as a pure adventure in which the characters have conscious thoughts and motives, a visible external problem, and enemies that keep thwarting them and complicating matters. As often in sf, these characters show only a few volatile intimate moments when you might discern a subconscious reaction in progress . . . but it's not clearly drawn. The elements the author has chosen don't exactly, quite precisely go together. The pattern doesn't crystalize out of the melt. The author is shouting the message, but the signal is "breaking up."
I would not have drawn it to your attention except that as a writer, I read differently. I do not know this author, but this seems to be her third novel, and the others are very recent. I suspect she simply doesn't have control of all the necessary skills to show us what is in her mind. I suspect that she will come to stand beside Marion Zimmer Bradley and Katherine Kurtz and C. J. Cherryh when she hits her stride.
But this novel is worth studying for contrast because, despite the wonderfully sympathetic characters, it lacks the element of Poetic Justice even though ostensibly events work out "correctly." The ending is poignant and powerful.
The main character even verbalizes the theme nicely: Perhaps all endings carried the seeds for something better, she thought, if you could find the strength to see it.
Like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Wentworth shows us that the blackest villains are heroes in their own eyes. The problem is that Wentworth doesn't have the skills fully controlled yet, and so doesn't handle point of view too well. This book shifts point of view wildly making it seem the author couldn't figure out any other way to tell the reader various things the reader didn't really need to know.
The net result is that we can't see why various people deserved the things that happened to them; we can't see the Poetic Justice or the Literary Irony. It's there, it's just not clear.
Most books of this shifting point of view type are built on the theme that nothing you are can affect what happens to you, and nothing that happens to you is really deserved. Only intellect counts, only what you do counts, not what you are and certainly not what you feel.
The Kabbalistic principle of Tshuvah mentioned above is about changing what you are and what you feel, and therefore changing what happens to you, changing your karma. The Law of Karma in the title of this column could be stated: changing what you do won't change what happens to you unless you first change what you are and what you feel.
I've included House of Moons here because it has tantalizing hints that this author is hunting for such a pattern but just wrote too fast to be able to find it. Let's watch Wentworth for a few years before we make up our minds. I think this book "carried the seeds for something better."
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.
Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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The Re-Readable Collection
Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg