by Aliya Whiteley
When I'm feeling overwhelmed by life I often reread the ultimate comfort books: The Belgariad and the Malloreon series by David Eddings. They allow me to relax into a world of absolutes. A small boy, Garion, travels with his aunt and his grandfather, and slowly realises along the road that these relatives are powerful magicians. Not only that, but Garion is a powerful magician too. And a prophecy controls not only his destiny, but the destiny of every single person he meets. They all have a role to play.
Sometimes I wish I lived in that world too. What could be easier than to have your role in life mapped out for you, and to be told there's a point to it all? To be fair, I also reread those books because I love the characters and the magic system and lots of others things about it, but certainly a big draw is the sense of fate as a straight line that leads from A to Z.
Some would argue that's all stories are really about anyway – giving meaning to the incomprehensible business of living. If that's true, then fantasy books that contain prophecies are the pinnacle of literature. But for all the safety and reassurance they can bring, I sometimes find dark thoughts sneaking in. If I lived in that world who is to say that I would be the unassuming child who grows to become a ruler? Or that I would even be the villain, which is at least still of importance? No, I'd probably be the third farm girl on the left, unnoticed and unloved by destiny.
So perhaps it's not the sense of a decided fate that both appeals to me and worries me, but the sense of a shared one. The inescapability of it for everyone, whether they're the king or the beggar, smacks of knowing your place – unless literature can find a way to suggest that just one story can have multiple successful outcomes, which makes me wonder if, in fact, adventure gamebooks that allow you to choose your own destiny many times over (such as Ian Livingstone's Deathtrap Dungeon) are as good as it gets. No, let me amend that to the grown-up version of choosing your own adventure – Kim Newman's marvellous Life's Lottery gives you many paths to decide to walk down, and takes the game one step further still. If you decide to ignore all the choices and simply read in a linear fashion you find one more hidden story within.
But wait – I've remembered the reason why choosing your own adventure isn't as good as it can get when it comes to words on paper; it requires too much input by the reader, and mistakes can be made. It's the sure hand of the writer that appeals to us, taking all the responsibility for the outcome. We want them to lead us down the path to personal freedom while building a cohesive sense of personality from the linear approach that the novel allows. Cautionary tales such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol illustrate this. If Ebenezer Scrooge continues on his current path he will die hated and suffer in eternal torment. It's the interjection of the spirits of the past, present and future (that paint him a clear picture of where he's going wrong and how to fix it) by the authorial hand that save him from his own character:
'I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!' Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. 'The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.'
For character, and how it impacts on fate, is surely one of the greatest subjects of the novelist. Fate (as a straight line of experience) does not have to appear as a spirit to make its impact felt, and yet it pervades the pages of so many books. Can we overcome our upbringing, our circumstances, our own natures, to make our own destinies?
From Thomas Hardy to Rupert Thomson, this question is still being addressed. Thomson does it with such subtlety and wonderful writing, using a different conceit for each novel. Soft! is the tale of an advertising strategy that involves implanting the suggestion of needing to purchase a certain soft drink while customers are sleeping. The suggestions have interesting consequences, affecting behaviour and changing fates. The Book of Revelation discusses how being a victim of sexual violence changes behaviour and, ultimately, character.
The internal struggle against what we might define as our own characters dominates Thomson's Divided Kingdom; the UK is split into four quarters and the inhabitants allocated to them by personality type, defined by the humours. If you are melancholic by nature, can you overcome it? Who makes these definitions, if not you - and can you change them?
Nobody can, of course, overcome our ultimate fate of death but that doesn't stop novelists from trying. Often the act of attempting to live on is enough to trigger dire reprisals; perhaps these stories can be seen as an extension of the Cautionary Tale. Shelley's Frankenstein could fall into this category, and there's a gruesome and entertaining short story by Edgar Allan Poe ('The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar') in which a man at death's door is hypnotised to see if his spirit will obey the command to stay even while his flesh expires. Answer: it will, for a moment or two, but it won't be pretty.
In Roald Dahl's short story 'William and Mary', William agrees to have his brain kept alive after the death of his body, along with one eye that floats in an enamel basin. A controlling man, he leaves his wife Mary with a set of instructions to obey:
'Be good when I am gone, and always remember that is it harder to be a widow than a wife. Do not drink cocktails. Do not waste money. Do not smoke cigarettes. Do not eat pastry. Do not use lipstick. Do not buy a television apparatus. Keep my rose bed and my rockery well weeded in the summers.'
To extend your own timeline is to affect the timelines of all who surround you, but as William has rebelled against death so Mary rebels against William, getting her own sweet revenge upon him through that one floating eye. You can't control other people's fates any more than you can cheat your own.
What all these stories might, in the surface, seem to warn against is science. But, for me, science is only portrayed here as the instrument of man to defy nature. Actual scientific method or discovery is hardly mentioned, or shown to be at fault. Science is simply the means to the end of controlling your own fate.
The fate of those supporting characters who aren't lucky enough to be thought of as important also gets a look-in sometimes. John Scalzi's Redshirts took those poor Star Trek extras who have realised their fate is to die a grisly death and gave them a shot at carrying the story, but before that Jean Rhys wrote the compelling Wide Sargasso Sea. The protagonist is none other than the first wife of Mr Rochester; she haunts the attic, labelled insane, when we meet her in Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel that gives shape to the madness, and the character, labelled as dangerous to suit others around her.
'Have all beautiful things sad destinies?' asks the character, and the novelist, acting as one.
But this raises the additional question of whether these set destinies of tragic characters create their own beauty through the inescapability of their fates? Tragedy, it seems, breeds beauty. Guy Gavriel Kay finds beauty in those characters who must experience the same patterns of sadness, love and loss over and over again in the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Five students are transported to a magical realm where they discover they are to play the parts of heroes and heroines, some of which have long histories behind them. Jennifer must face the fact that in this land she is Guinevere, lover in the doomed triangle of Arthur and Lancelot, as well as being a medical student from Toronto. Multiple fates can overlay characters, making for fascinating reading as one destiny battles against another.
The more stories there are (within our own internal narratives or as part of our communities) the less likely it seems that our versions of the world will be compatible. This is where sweeping science fiction, the kind that deals in universes, can come into its own; it's almost as if the Earth alone is not big enough for some explorations of human nature. And so we have Dune, Frank Herbert's grand examination of vying destinies. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood has a plan for the future of humanity, and the Fremen on the desert planet of Arrakis have their own myth of a coming saviour. How can these visions, and others, come together? The truth is that such vast forces cannot be accommodated peacefully.
For war is a choice, and the ultimate railing against fate. When we don't like our destinies, we can always choose to obliterate all destinies. One of my favourite books on this theme is Octavia Butler's trilogy Lilith's Brood. Lilith Iyapo, a survivor of a nuclear war on Earth, awakes hundreds of years later upon a spaceship that belongs to an alien race called the Oankali. They want to use the unique genetic properties of humanity to further both species, but does humanity want to live on if it is no longer human? The right to say no exists, even if it ends in destruction, and the Oankali find this very difficult to understand:
'Sometimes they need to prove to themselves that they still own themselves, that they can still care for themselves, that they still have things — customs — that are their own.'
'Sounds like an expression of the Human conflict,' Aaor said.
'It is,' I agreed. 'They’re proving their independence at a time when they’re no longer independent... '
Destiny, beauty, tragedy: these are painted so often with a nobility at the hands of the novelist, but the right to make the nonsensical choice is the most human of attributes. No matter how beautiful suffering and fate might seem to be when presented as part of a grand scheme, the choice to get ugly about it all must exist to provide it with meaning.
These are ideas that I wanted to explore when I set out to write my new novel The Arrival of Missives. The quest narrative, and the way it appeals by sweeping aside all concerns of unimportance in the world, leaves so many minor characters out in the cold, but do they have to accept that role? Why would somebody accept a group destiny, no matter how beautiful, if it offered no place for them within that group?
I wonder, when I reread The Belgariad and The Malloreon, if I would prefer being the third farm girl on the left to the mainstay of a prophecy. Readers give up their freedom to choose a path when they put themselves in the hands of the novelist, but in real life many of us prize our right to choose, no matter how ridiculous our choices might be. I might make a decent farm girl, and who would complain if I wandered off and tried my hand at scuba diving or office work instead?
But if that prophecy came my way and demanded my obeisance, I'm not sure I would fight for that future that made no discernable difference to me. I like to pretend by losing myself within the pages of a book every now and again, but my fate is much better off being my own business. I like the idea that I've been able to give my main character in The Arrival of Missives the same freedom of choice.