The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente
Folks, Cat Valente is one of my favorite people, and she’s a hell of a writer, and her new book The Habitation of the Blessed is very cool, and she’s brought audiovisual aids for her Big Idea piece, so I’m just going to step out of the way here and let her tell you all about her book.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
It is indeed true that due to an overabundance of post-graduate education I have managed to write an entire series of novels about an obscure historical hoax, the first of which came out yesterday. It is doubly true that much as I spent the last two years defining, pronouncing, and spelling the word “palimpsest,” I will now spend the next three explaining who and what Prester John was, why he is important, and making poor medieval puns. I am comfortable with this fate—but that is not what I’m going to talk about today! The fact is, as a speculative fiction author I used my powers of imagination to see my future as a professorial background-info exposition-bot—Giles in a tight black dress. And I made a handy little video to explain all the historical hilarity that is Prester John and his madcap pwning of the medieval mind.
Now that you’re back, what I want to tell you is that this is not a fantasy novel.
This is a science fiction novel.
What? (I imagine you say. I also imagine you with a very fetching smoking jacket and crystal goblet full of morning coffee, gesturing grandly at your computer.) Isn’t this a book about a bunch of immortal monsters living in India in 1140 or so, planting cannon-orchards and sheep-trees and messing around with magic stones? Yes, yes it is. And normally I’d give that to you—it does sound a lot like fantasy. It has that familial look. But since genre distinctions are blurring all over the place and even works that would once be called science fiction are often called fantasy due to lack of compelling science, I’m gonna call this one right out of the gate: The Habitation of the Blessed is a science fiction novel. Its concerns are SFnal; its science (mostly) rigorous.
It’s a first contact story. I couldn’t just let the story lie as it was, with Prester John as a (literal, according to the Marvel Universe) superhero whose awesome Godliness and general fabulosity allowed him to live forever, crush infidels, and land Sexiest Man Alive 1165. He was also less filling, yet tasted great. The fact is, given the story as it is, Prester John is the only human in the place, and he is king despite having no family in the kingdom and no particular reason to be king. That, friends, is a colonial story.
I didn’t want to lionize my man PJ—history’s done that part. I wanted to tell a story about a man from the West arriving on what is essentially an alien planet, with no one who looks like him, and what he is willing to do to control it, to convert it, to make it like his own land. I wanted to deal with how very much like a natural disaster the arrival of such a person would be, opening up an isolated country to the predations of a burgeoning Europe and a Church hungry for conquest. And I wanted to tell the better part of it all from the point of view of the aliens and monsters who became subsumed into Prester John’s missionary zeal, who make up the complicated folklore we mean when we say: “Prester John’s Kingdom.”
It’s a post-scarcity story—or at least a pre-scarcity one. The economics and politics of Pentexore (the name finally given to that kingdom by John Mandeville, the second John and second hilarious liar to lay claim to the narrative) are predicated on a reversal of Aristotle’s Physics: where our man in Athens says that you can discern things made from things born by the fact that if one plants a bed, one cannot reasonably expect a bed-tree to arise come spring. (All right, I admit it. I’ve actually been writing this book since I translated the Physics in undergrad, when I looked up form my Greek and said: but a bed-tree would be so awesome.) Anything planted in the Pentexore ground grows, no matter whether it is made or born: bed-trees and sheep-trees and corpse-trees and jewel-trees.
Between that and the Fountain of Youth, there is no poverty and no death in the Kingdom of Prester John. It is a transhumanist nation isolated from the rest of the world, struggling toward those goals the slow way. How they have learned to live without those constraints is a major concern of the novel—the central mechanism is a lottery held once every two hundred years that determines each creature’s profession, relationships, and home for the next pair of centuries, staving off boredom and a good deal of cruelty. The rest is more complicated.
It is a story rooted in science—just not 21st century science. The series takes as a given that every legend and folktale concerning Prester John was true, including the Fountain of Youth, which came into Western myth with this very letter, and the various grotesque monsters which may or may not have been allegories for human failings, but here are given serious considerations as races and cultures with their own deep histories. So too Ptolemaic cosmology is taken wholly seriously, with the Crystalline Spheres a hard fact of the world. How this world changes into and acquired the physics of our own is part of the long game of the series.
But no physical fact of the world is not centered and grounded in the science of the time, which after all was as hard and fast to them as our own rules of the universe are to us—with the sole exception of the middle finger to Aristotle, though of course he was mightily argued with even in his own time. There is no actual magic in Prester John’s Kingdom, only the properties of stones and plants that were taken as knowable fact at the time, even to the Fountain of Youth, and tales of the world which were believed as surely as we believe any blogger on holiday in Asia today.
This is my medieval science fiction novel. It’s a weird beast with oversized parts and a warped sense of humor. It’s a 21st century girl spinning remixes 12th century style. Of course, the legend of Prester John is itself a bizarre combination of modern concerns and ancient methods—essentially, it was Ye Olde Tyme EweTubbe video, hitting the medieval internet. Which was, like, your brother who knew a guy in the next village over. It’s the first word in taking a freaky story and just running with it. And in that noble tradition, I’m thrilled to see The Habitation of the Blessed out there in the world.