If you think about it, there are practical issues to seeing the future. This fact was not lost on Sonia Orin Lyris, and in today’s Big Idea, she delves into some of those issues and what they mean for the characters in her novel The Seer.
SONIA ORIN LYRIS:
In the opening scene of The Seer, I attempted to transcend one of my favorite cliches: in the darkest hours of the night, in a blustering storm, comes an urgent pounding on a weather-beaten door.
I wanted to start by addressing something that has been nagging at me for years: high fantasy’s tendency to not include women and babies and young children. Do we think them too fragile and vulnerable to be a part of the main action? Is that the problem?
Hmm, I thought. We’ll see about that.
Inside the shack is a mother, an infant child, and a young girl. The man at the door has wealth and power and weapons. He wants answers.
When I pick up a book, I want to travel somewhere. I want to sink into the author’s world and see through the eyes of the people who live there. As an author, it is my job to make that journey come alive. For myself and for my reader. So I make it as real as I can.
In our real world, women have sex, get pregnant, and have babies. Food must be procured. Diapers must be changed. When they choose, the powerful — unless restrained — take advantage of the weak.
Let’s go there, I thought.
I discovered that the young girl inside the shack, named Amarta, sees into the future. I looked around the wretched, poor hovel in which they lived, and I had all kinds of questions.
If she can see the future, why isn’t she rich? What does her family think of her? How does it feel to glimpse what will come?
Who is she?
I wrote The Seer to find out.
It was quickly clear to me that, given how useful a genuine seer would be to those in power, one of the major challenges Amarta would face would be pursuit and capture. I was intrigued by all the ways that might play out.
To make the story plausible, Amarta’s ability had to make sense in all the circumstances in which she found herself. Her ability would have to change as she changed, to mature as she did. Not only the content of what she was foreseeing, but how she understood herself in the context of her culture, family, and purpose.
So many questions arose for me. How does her foresight work? Does knowing the future change it? What can she do with this ability?
Can it be stopped?
Then I slammed into the hardest problem that a precognitive character brings to a story: if she can see into the future, what kind of story conflict is realistically possible? That is, why wouldn’t she simply foresee the problems and avoid them, like any sensible precognitive person?
That was when I started muttering, “What have I gotten myself into?”
There were more challenges yet. I came to realize I had stepped into a very large pile of metaphysics; if someone can see the future, this implies significant truths about the nature of reality, truths that ripple out across this created world. The genre doesn’t matter — I could be writing high fantasy or science fiction or mainstream — or poetry — and I would still have to make decisions about causality and determinism, and how information affects the physical. All those decisions expand out into the world, story, and characters.
And again, I found myself staring at the question: why didn’t she just see this coming?
The answer turned out to be both simpler and more complicated than I expected.
I have a passion for creating characters who are smart and insightful. Far smarter than me, if I can manage it, and more capable, too. This meant that any question I had about Amarta’s precognitive ability, someone else in the story would also be having. Similarly, any test or strategy I could devise to understand or track her, someone else would also be devising.
This, it turned out, was part of the answer; everyone concerned with Amarta was asking the same questions I was.
That was when it all started to come together for me, when I realized that the questions themselves were central to the story, and that the story would answer them in its own good time. As those around Amarta came to understand her better, they would react. They would have new questions. They would change. Nothing would be static.
And Amarta was not standing still either.
So, then: why couldn’t she simply avoid the problems that faced her?
Well, sometimes she could. Sometimes not.
She’s not a machine, you see; she has desires and passions, fears and dreams. How does a character with foresight, immersed in the consequences of what happens around her by virtue of her ability to foresee it, figure out what she wants in the first place?
If you can see the future, what choices are left to you?
If you can see the future, do you even want to see it?
In the end, I realized that the questions surrounding Amarta’s choices were universal questions: what do we want, and what are we willing to do to get it?
The answer also lay in an old adage: the map is not the territory. Regardless of what we understand, in our past, our present, or our future, we always understand through the lens of what we want, the way we see ourselves in our world, and the coalescing experiences of our lives. The best map in the world will not prevent us from getting lost, because it is, after all, only a map, and the territory is never its equal.
At one point in the book, someone asks Amarta this: “Are you ever surprised?”
“All the time,” she replies.
Yeah. Me, too.