The spiritual journey in The reality War
Now that we’ve briefly seen something of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and its successes and criticisms (see Part 1), let’s see how they influence The Reality War.
[By the way, I've illustrated this post with some artwork. You can click on the images to bring up a larger version.]
Right from the start, I took the idea of a spiritual journey from despair toward enlightenment. My key difference is that I have de-coupled my journey from being a specifically Christian journey. I fear that if Bunyan were to read this, he would reject this approach, believing that without God, any spiritual journey is meaningless, a dangerous diversion from the one true, narrow path.
In Bunyan’s book, the first obstacle, is the Slough of Despond, a metaphorical bog that many of us sink into with little hope of escape.
My two principal characters start their journeys in this mire: Radlan, the human character, is a drunken failure in virtual exile, while non-human Karypsic is embittered, ineffectual, and humiliated. Of course, no one enjoys reading novels about losers and whiners, and so our main characters are offered both redeeming qualities and helping hands out of their respective Sloughs of Despond.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is offered divine help out of the mire; the idea being that that helping hand is always there for those who seek it. This is true of my novels, several helping hands being available until each main character seizes one and allows him to be hauled up.
You will notice I’ve just written about two principle characters: one human and one not. This is where I break away from The Pilgrim’s Progress to use the science fictional idea of parallel universes. First and foremost, I do this for fun.
This is a good point to respond to the first criticism of The Pilgrim’s Progress: that it is crude. I had some thematic and scientific ideas in mind as I wrote The Reality War. But just as Bunyan wrote his book to be a spiritual manual for regular people, I wrote mine to be an enjoyable read for regular people. I wrote these novels as entertainment, not to deliver a message. To my mind, I only earn the right to play with themes and scientific speculation once I have delivered an exciting read.
Although I write about parallel worlds because I hope that makes for an exciting story, but I also did so deliberately to take the ancient story idea of a spiritual journey towards enlightenment, and present it in a new light.
In The Reality War: the Slough of Despond, our main human character, Radlan, does something he shouldn’t. In many ways, he does the right thing, the honourable thing. Still, he is not supposed to choose that path. The multiverse is disturbed. Other realities, such as one where reptiles are the dominant species, become more likely; the probability that humanity evolved becomes increasingly unlikely.
Take a look at the cover art for my novella, Last Man Through the Gate. See all those swirling paths? Radlan did that. Last Man is a standalone story, but the worlds it travels through were made possible by Radlan.
For a while, it seems that when the multiverse settles once again into equilibrium, it looks as if the human existence we are familiar with will never have existed. Desperate measures are called for…
I’ll stop there. We’re getting into plot, where I want to look at theme.
Karypsic (the principal non-human character) and Radlan are parallel characters. Similar things happen to them. There are similarities in the ‘people’ around them and the obstacles they face; they even dream of each other. This is no coincidence. Radlan and Karypsic, together with their families, friends (and enemies!) are the unwilling champions of the two front runners in the race to become the dominant reality.
The Reality War: the clue’s in the title.
Even as each character is progressing through a journey like Christian’s in the Pilgrim’s Progress, the Reality War is the big background event. As the books progress, the war comes increasingly to the fore. The characters gain in balance, wisdom, and empathy. They improve, moving along the path toward enlightenment. But there are no easy answers here, the Reality War is not a children’s game where everyone wins a prize. There can be only one winner, and oblivion is the fate for the loser. The tragedy of the story is that even as we grow to care about both sets of characters, we become convinced that one of them is doomed. Spiritual enlightenment is not enough in this series; no matter how praiseworthy your journey might be, blind chance and physics can kill you anyway.
So for the third criticism of The Pilgrim’s Progress (that Christian has to die in order to ‘win’ — although some would dispute this reading of The Pilgrim’s Progress), I alter the message. With Bunyan and Lewis, you have to complete your spiritual journey in order to die and ‘win’. In my series, you can only ‘win’ if you make progress along your spiritual journey, but you might ‘lose’ anyway, even if you do make good progress. I chose to put my characters in an unforgiving and perilous multiverse to keep you guessing about how the story will end. It’s a good job I didn’t write these books to convey some kind of message, because it would be a stark one if I did!
Since we’re drawing references to a few common criticisms of The Pilgrim’s Progress, let’s draw to a close with the people left behind: women and children. It’s difficult to say much about how I deal with this without giving away spoilers. While the two main characters are males, very loosely based on Christian, they only make progress when they recognize and accept help from their families. In fact, the families move as a group. When one part of the family strays off the narrow path, the whole family is dragged back until they find their way back to the path and set off again.
Such a focus on family values sounds simple and rather traditional, and I suppose it is. Don’t forget, though, that my story has time travel, parallel worlds, and alternate histories with alternate individuals. Let’s just say that some of my family groupings would be impossible without these science fictional devices!
I’ll post more about locations another time. If you know Bedford or Elstow, you will think you recognise some of the locations. There are differences, though. The descriptions of The Bear on Bedford High in the early 90s are pretty much how I remember it, even down to the CDs in the juke box. But many details are altered. My descriptions of the Bunyan’s Mead cottages don’t match what I see when I walk through Elstow High Street. In fact, they don’t even stay the same as the book progresses. Reality has become unstable. As the book starts, the 1990s Bedford that I remembered never existed, replaced by something subtly different. Which version history will crystallize out of the Reality War? Read and find out!
So that’s your lot: probably more than you ever wanted to know about John Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In conclusion, The Reality War does not carry an explicitly Christian message, but some of the ideas behind The Pilgrim’s Progress, and many of the real locations too, were woven into the fabric of my stories. In the end, though, I wrote The Reality War to be entertainment, and if you read it, entertained is the reaction I hope you will feel.
The Slough of Despond, the first book of the Reality War series, is now available for Kindle at a special launch price at amazon.com (99c) and amazon.co.uk (77p) . The first book includes instructions on how to download a free copy of the second book, The City of Destruction, which will be published Easter 2012.