Why did God give writers blogs? He didn’t; we invented them; it’s obviously a bad idea, but I’m going to sally out in the happy knowledge that nobody reads mine. Don’t start now.
I’m in the thinking-about-the-next stage. But not deliberately thinking; on the contrary, I’m distracted by a dozen tangents; but in this phase of conception, everything feeds in. Nothing is not relevant. Even if I try: I thought I was whiling away the empty time between books by putting up on my Goodreads shelves my early history, influential books I’ve half-forgotten. But no, and I’m even tempted to read them again, to gather the threads together, into this that is my culmination – at least the biggest canvas I’ll ever get, if not my last chance at a book. It has to go in Three, if it didn’t get into One or Two.
Much of the old stuff that meant a lot to me is sf. Science fiction I believe excellent for historical; both are world-building; there’s the alien thought to undo your mental stuckness-in-now; and sf, like nothing else, enlargens the imagination, yes? I need a dose of space opera in my past to write the kind of wars that… had not been seen in the world, although in retrospect we’re used to them. (On retrospect and war, see Peter C. Perdue, who hammers into your head, people did not know, as we do, the next event. To be conscious of this, he teaches, ‘to recapture the sense of uncertainty’, is crucial for an historian; hey, only more so for a novelist. It makes him exciting to read, and you see that most historians do not operate this way).
When the cauldron’s bubbling, nothing is not relevant. However farfetched. In the empty space between books I took up Joseph Frank’s five-set on Dostoyevsky: the writer in his time, a portrait of the Russian 19th century, its world of ideas. That crazy Russian 19th century, with every species of leftist, under a Tsar, anarchists and aristocrats and the gamut of religious opinion, all in collision (yes, no wonder Dostoyevsky wrote the books he did). So what do I think of? Thirteenth-century China. Either that’s an absurd application of the principle ‘everything is (seems) relevant (to a one-track-mind)’ or it’s an opening of the imagination to potentials. Ideas in conflict… I don’t want to waste my opportunities in 13thC China. First off we have a society in collapse, a society (use the Perdue principle) that thought – I kid you not – what they saw around them was the Fall of Civilization. Or that was one strand of thought. There was a school of poetry that came out of the Mongol conquest, called the Death and Chaos school. I have always been fascinated by ruin, and by the barbarians over the gates. I can’t wait to get my teeth stuck into this – to give a story account of those Death and Chaos poems.
There was also ‘intellectual ferment’ in Jurchen China, before the Mongols descended. A wide choice of philosophies with political implications. I’m not a China expert. Frankly, I don’t even want to become one; besides you can’t come late to a study like that. For years I’ve thought, isn’t it mission impossible for me to write in China? The first comfort I found (comfort, not solution) is that China, often, stands for Us, in my novel. I believe no other society on earth, in the 13th century, can so conveniently stand for us – at least on the issues I pursue. War: you find attitudes to war that are not foreign to yours and mine – that are exactly mine. Where else? And then there’s the civil service government, that’s familiar. In the second book, already, China has been us (example: Ile Ahai on the ‘great man’ theory of history). As a side-effect this salves my conscience, since I have to take sides. I’m afraid I haven’t had a good word to say about China yet; when I feel awkward about that I remind myself China is us.
Nor is this – I argue – invalid in the times. They thought this way. China identified itself as Civilization: so I make China stand for civilization, and that works. The worst of them, if you like, similarly to ourselves, thought in terms of Civilization (them) and the other, which I’ll just call the uncivilized for now. So when my book makes a case for the uncivilized and critiques civilization, I am doing nowise other than what they did in centuries past. Am I justified yet?
Where was I? Ah yes. I’ve never been into Chinese history, but I discovered my other solution – this one claims the name of solution – that Jurchen China fascinates me. It’s far under-studied, too, and precisely because of what fascinates me: it’s an intersection-culture of civilized and uncivilized; very traditional China scholars discount it – they simply don’t care. But intersections are what I explore on every path. Tchingis never met undiluted Civilization: he never went to South China or to Europe or to Russia. He found himself in intersections, cross-overs, melting pots, frontiers, where nomad cultures have seeped into settled cultures or the other way around, and he sees the results thereof. Well, that does capture me, that’s up my street, and I feel confidant to write about that.
There are only 2-3 books on Jurchen China in English, but they are rich in hints. Of course the reason I never studied China… I shouldn’t crudely put this into words, but obviously, pit the nomads against China and you know whose side I’m on. I can be said to be a dead-cert anti-Confucian. I study what I am in sympathy with, and that was never traditional China (again I’ll use my phrase, China is us). But Jurchen China, ah… Right before they conquered north China the Jurchen were a ‘primitive’ forest people. Their trials and tribulations in China – intellectual, philosophical, religious – can you see why the Russian 19th century is not so far afield, for a sense of ideas in conflict? And in resolution, attempted resolutions. Jurchen China has unique features, under-studied. A movement began to weld or meld the Three Doctrines – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism – into a universal, and this happened just at the time that universalism was the big new idea on the steppe. The Chinese guy (in fact he’s Qatat) Tchingis became tight with, Ile Jutzai, was a believer in this unity of doctrines, and he can be my champion of what is unique to Jurchen China. That’s why my Tchingis gets along with him.
Onto the title of this post. Book One seems to me to be histfic, Two scarcely, and Three is going to stretch the definition. It’s T.H. White who taught me to put in my vital interests. What the hell else are you meant to write about but your vital interests? He did Nazi ants, and I promise you I won’t; he began with legend-fic, not histfic, and I won’t take his whole license. But in One, that might pass as conventional histfic, early human politics rears its head, because I care. Because I found two wonderful books and I want to tell you what they say. What is the default politics of our species? Can we even do liberty? Hey, I have determined to my satisfaction a part of an answer – that is, I have decided which books to put my trust or vest my faith in – and sorry, you’ve got to know about that. It fits into the story. It’s why I chose the story. To me, this remains how to write, and I bet that early scifi wears a little of the blame.
I hope nobody has read this far, and I mean that. A blog is a dangerous thing, in a writer’s hands. I did not do my post on the wobbles I had about Book Two. This is just as bad, though.