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Storms of Numbers, Chalices of Light

an interview with David Zindell

by Nick Gevers


David Zindell is one of America's most ambitious SF and Fantasy writers. His War in Heaven by David Zindellcogent poeticism and cosmic concerns are embodied in long, extravagantly inventive, and philosophically penetrating novels; his imagined universes are sublimely conceived arenas for vast spiritual and intellectual combats between the Dark and the Light. Rigorously mystical, and mystically rigorous, Zindell describes external quests with elaborate inner resonances and ramifications; his are amongst the most thematically acute adventure narratives to be found in contemporary speculative fiction.

Zindell's first great epic had its roots in an early short story, "Shanidar" (1985; available elsewhere on this site). This tale's city of Neverness, a meeting place for the cultures of a luxuriantly evoked and exotically populous far-future human-dominated Milky Way Galaxy, evolved into the setting for Neverness (1988), an impressive first novel. The narrator, Mallory Ringess, progressed from a pilot's training to literal godhood; and, secluded in divinity, he went on to tell the story of his modest but messianic son, Danlo, in the voluminous trilogy A Requiem for Homo Sapiens, consisting of The Broken God (1993), The Wild (1995), and War In Heaven (1998). Danlo is a paragon of spiritual evolution, and, in battling his blood brother and terrible foe Hanuman li Tosh, he carries with him into hopeful but understated transcendence not only Mallory's concupiscent friend, Bardo, but Neverness's resident Order of Mystic Mathematicians and probably the entire human universe as well.

Now, with The Lightstone -- his first Fantasy novel -- Zindell has commenced a second Cycle, set on the continent of Ea on one of the many Earthlike worlds of a cosmos known as Eluru. Ancient wars between good and evil factions of angels continue in the superficially mundane conflicts of feudal Ea; a Dark Lord, Morjin, seeks to control the Lightstone, a sort of ultimate Holy Grail, and is defied by the paladin Valashu Elahad and his six fated companions. The intensity of the resulting narrative is extraordinary.

I interviewed David Zindell by e-mail in June 2001, not long before The Lightstone was released in Britain by HarperCollins Voyager.


NG: All of your books are, conspicuously, epics -- long, heroic in plot and diction, full of grand confrontation and even grander aspiration. Your new novel, The Lightstone, is an enormous saga in its own right, yet it is only the first volume in a quartet. What predisposes you to the epic form?

DZ: I keep trying to cram as much of the world as I can into my work, to look at it in detail and to examine it under extraordinary pressure, and for these purposes, the epic is ideal. And as you imply, epics allow for, and practically demand, heroics, grand confrontations and grander aspirations -- all matters which are my main personal and literary concerns. I view life, if lived rightly, as essentially being heroic. Now, we live in an age where even sports superstars are called "heroes," but that is a degrading of the word. Such people do accomplish the extraordinary against great odds -- but they do it primarily for fame, money and vainglory, and sometimes, the best motive, I think, to fulfill a sense of excellence within themselves. They make sacrifices, true, but in the end for themselves. Real heroes are willing to sacrifice a great deal -- ultimately their very lives -- for love of something greater than themselves: whether a mother who literally gives of her body and the precious hours of her life for her child or a warrior who dies defending his homeland.

We're all selfish creatures, of course, and it's all too easy to fall into the evil of the war of all against all. But we're also something much more, and our deepest motivation is toward the realisation of this higher self and greater good. So I believe that the literature that moves us the most deeply is the heroic, because it shows us our best possibilities as well as stirring up a great thrill of fear of bringing forth the darkness that is also inside us. It makes us aware of the tremendous purpose and meaning of life -- and that life really is being lived for great stakes. Even those caught in existential crisis, cynicism, grinding poverty and despair must sense, in their hearts, that we are all involved in a great drama for the fate of the earth.

The confrontations of epic fantasy only mirror the very great and very real confrontations occurring all around us. Will we finally have the nuclear war that has been threatening for nearly sixty years? Will we surrender to the tyranny of our corporate masters who spend vast sums of money to buy politicians and destroy democracy -- thus destroying the will of the people to act together and face the great crises of our times? George W. Bush recently suggested that any action to forestall global warming is "unrealistic." Unrealistic? It's as if Sauron and his orcs were at the gates, and the merchant-rulers inside were trying to figure out how to squeeze out more profit from their slaves for a few more hours. Make no mistake, this is true evil, in its modern form. And it must be defeated, even as Hitler and his murderers were defeated. If it's not, we'll call forth a nightmare here on earth rather than realising our deepest dreams. But finding the heroic within ourselves to oppose such evil is a terrifying task, at least for me. So in the end I write these big, heroic epics to give myself courage and hope, and to remind myself that we really are creators of both our hells and our heavens. And, of course, I write in hope of passing the torch on to others, as it was passed to me upon reading The Odyssey, Parzival and the Mahabharata, to say nothing of The Lord of the Rings.

NG: Your writing is consistently poetic, in a decidedly romantic and visionary way. How did your highly distinctive prose style come about?

DZ: I think that any author's style develops as a solution to the fundamental literary problem: how to say what one wishes to say in the truest and most effective way? Much of what I wish to say has to do with our deepest aspirations and longing for a deeper experience of life. This requires looking beneath the surfaces of the phenomenal world to the deeper reality that lies within. But how does one do this, through the lens of mere words? I've often thought that literature is the most difficult of the arts through which to convey a sense of the transcendent. Both music and painting, for example, open one to more immediate apprehensions of the Good, the Beautiful and the True. All that I have, however, as a writer, is words. Which ones should I choose? If my prose tends toward the poetic, it's because I'm continually trying to make extensions from this world to the realm that lies beneath and beyond it; in the end, I hope to convey a sense of the interconnectedness, and even identity, of all things. The language of poetry, with its metaphors and similes, is precisely that which connects: ideas to objects, images to emotions, and in some small way, outer events to great, blazing, inner realisations.

NG: In line with what you've just said: from Neverness onwards, you've evoked, in immense and exceptionally vivid detail, contemplative states of mind -- meditative disciplines, openings of portals on to the infinite without and within. What Eastern traditions have you most specifically drawn upon in this? Do your protagonists, in particular Danlo Peacewise and Valashu Elahad, function as exemplars of your own philosophical and spiritual beliefs?

DZ: Ramana Maharshi, as the great, modern light of Advaita Vedanta, has been a huge personal influence. But strangely, he mostly eschewed the more traditional meditative traditions that have a prominent place in my novels for the more simple and pure practice of what he called Self-inquiry. This is basically the process of asking, "Who am I?" and then discovering that the "I" who asks this question is ultimately a deeper self that is pure consciousness -- the same consciousness that is the source and essence of all things and their true reality. Strangely, too, I was led to Ramana Maharshi and the eastern traditions in general through two very Western authors: Somerset Maugham and Hermann Hesse. Maugham's The Razor's Edge had much inspiration in Ramana Maharshi; Hesse, I think, looked to the East as much as he did to the contemplative traditions closer to home, such as those of Meister Eckhart and Saint Teresa of Avila. But he was quite capable of synthesising all that he knew into the highly original and amazing The Glass Bead Game. Certainly the Order of the Neverness novels takes more from Hesse's Castalia than it does the forest academies or ashrams of India.

As for a general theory undergirding my books, which essentially explore the connection between mysticism and evolution: Plotinus' Great Chain of Being, and its modern elaboration through Aurobindo and Ken Wilber, has been key. I've also drawn upon such mavericks as Timothy Leary: what is the remembrancer's drug of Requiem, after all, if not a very powerful and very specific psychedelic? All of this, of course, has in some way been an influence on both Danlo and Valashu. They are exemplars of my spiritual beliefs in the sense that they both set out on heroic journeys in order to gain a higher and deeper level of being for the sake of the worlds in which they live. But even more, they are sharers of the great and defining mystical experiences of my life. In the end, it's not my beliefs that I would wish to convey to my readers but simply the incredible possibilities of life lived to its infinite depths, in all its terrible and beautiful glory.

NG: In the Neverness cycle, you convey, even to people of an entirely non-mathematical bent, the ecstasy of numbers -- "the number storm", the pure joy of the theorem. What role has your training as a mathematician played in your creative development and technique?

DZ: It was my mathematical development, as much as the mystical, that first alerted me to the existence of another world. Now, I wouldn't say that mathematics has the same degree of intense reality as the world as perceived through the eye of meditation or Self-inquiry, but it is its own fantastic construction, existing in the Platonic realm of the Ideal. To understand very much of it, and even to perceive it, requires the continual opening of the eye of Reason, which we all possess. Few people, though, care to accomplish this opening process, because learning mathematics is a lot of very hard work. So it's almost impossible for most people to appreciate that mathematics can be so strangely and breathtakingly beautiful. When I began writing Neverness, I realized that in order to show the pilots of the Order as having their beings steeped in the strangeness of this otherworld, I was going to have to call upon, and try to convey, this secret beauty. It was a daunting task, to say the least. It was the first time that I intensely employed a poetic language, with all its metaphors, to try to describe something that is very nearly ineffable. This, of course, led me to think that I might possibly attempt the description of the more transcendent mystical apprehensions, which many believe really are ineffable.

NG: In the Neverness quartet, what motivated your move from Mallory Ringess to his son Danlo as principal character (even though Mallory remains the narrator)? Why your shift from a complicated, conflicted hero to a saint, a superhuman paragon?

DZ: At the end of Neverness, Mallory Ringess undergoes an apotheosis, so I felt that his development and usefulness as a character, especially as a protagonist, were finished. There is simply not that much that can be done with a man who has transcended his all-too-human foibles, to say nothing of shuffling off his mortal coil, so to speak. And, to be truthful, when I began writing Neverness and for some time after, I had no intention of writing a sequel. But then it occurred to me that there was another story -- and a very large story at that -- as to what happens in the Neverness universe after Mallory attains to the godly. I never state explicitly the nature of his transcendence, but it's quite clear that with all these nano-computers replacing parts of his brain, he is becoming something more than human in form and possibly in function. But I was never quite at ease with that as a model for human possibilities; in fact, it repulses me -- as do parts of Mallory himself. And so one day it suddenly came to me that I could write the story of his son, who experiences an even greater transcendence -- the greatest that I could imagine -- all the while retaining his humanity in the perfect immanence of his human form. So it was only natural that Danlo should wind up being very different from his father. To be blunt, Mallory was simply not worthy of Danlo's marvellous fate; it really was necessary, I think, for Danlo to be something of a saint to achieve what he did.

NG: When I read War In Heaven, I felt that you had perhaps lost some of your interest in the huge, space-operatic struggle in the background, not for example bringing the subplot regarding Bertram Jaspari and his genocidal Iviomils to a very resounding or detailed conclusion. Instead, you concentrated on Danlo's maturation through icy ordeals in and around Neverness. This is your preferred emphasis, isn't it -- not external detail (although you do that very well too), but the extremity and intimacy of a character's inner growth?

DZ: Well, I'm embarrassed to say that you've uncovered an essential flaw in the way that A Requiem For Homo Sapiens was structured. I tried to do at least two very ambitious things with the trilogy that as far as I knew had never been attempted. The first was to write three novels, each of a different type and feel. The Broken God was to be somewhat of a Bildungsroman: the story of Danlo's coming of age and education. The Wild was to be a quest novel, while War In Heaven was to be the great war story. The second thing I did was to have a semi-divine Mallory narrate the whole shebang; I hoped that this would give new meaning to the term "limited omniscient point of view." Although Mallory, as a god, had a great knowledge of events occurring in the universe, he had full sight into the mind and soul of Danlo, and no one else. So as Mallory's voice fades into the background, the whole story, except at a few, very key moments, essentially devolves into being told in third person from Danlo's point of view. This works much better in the first two books than in the third. In that book, Danlo, as an ambassador for peace who has taken a vow of ahimsa, is pretty much taken out of action in the great battles of the war. I was therefore reduced to having to describe these offstage, as it were. And so it wasn't so much that I lost interest in these space-operatic struggles as it was impossible to make them immediate through Danlo's struggles. Ideally, a character's inner conflicts and realisations should be reflected and resolved in outward actions as dramatically as possible. To accomplish this in War In Heaven, I had to choose that part of the war -- mostly Danlo's battle with Hanuman -- that occurred in and around the city of Neverness. And so that meant, to some extent, abandoning Bertram Jaspari and his insane Iviomils.

NG: Would it be accurate to say that a good deal of the thematic burden of the Neverness novels, especially The Wild and War in Heaven, is the necessity that we prefer our actual, physical environment over virtual realities, no matter how beguiling?

DZ: I would say that is exactly true. And more, I would say that the so-called virtual realities are misnamed: they should be called something like "simulated experiences." Because they aren't real, and can never be so, any more than a map can be the territory. And more, for the same reason that a map is necessarily less detailed than the territory that it describes, a virtual reality can only ever be a pale shadow of the real thing. Such constructs might prove amusing, or even useful and illuminating, but how could they ever take the place of the essential reality that they represent?

NG: You've now, after a long immersion in visionary space opera, moved on to the extended quest fantasy. The Lightstone has obvious affinities with your earlier work, but there are critical differences too; how have the two experiences contrasted -- writing SF and writing Fantasy?

DZ: In many ways the kind of science fiction that I've written is very close to fantasy: far future, space-operatic, heroic, epic, quest-oriented and requiring a great deal of world-building and invention with a fantastic feel to it. That having been said, I have to admit that in one way, science fiction has been much harder for me to write. At its best, science fiction would demand all that's best of literature, in terms of character, setting, plot, theme, etc. -- and in addition, it would work in science and scientific ideas gracefully and seamlessly. As well, in works that take place in the future, there is the necessity of extrapolating and creating believable sciences and societies, and of course, doing the immense amount of research to make all this come together. It has been the hardest thing I've ever done.

Writing fantasy, by contrast, has been for me much more of a natural and organic The Lightstone by David Zindellexperience. I've felt as if I've touched something very deep and ancient in the human soul and been swept away to the realm of pure Story. It's been, quite simply, much more fun. And in one strange way, it has been even harder: I've been so juiced by writing The Lightstone, so absorbed into the story, that each of my writing sessions has been very intense, almost more like an athletic or musical performance for which I have to psych myself up. At times, as after a battle scene, I've found myself typing furiously, with pounding heart and drenched in sweat. As The Lightstone is a very long book, and there have been many of these scenes and sessions, the whole process has been arduous. At times, I've written without a break for as long as two months without taking a day off. And so I've had to subject myself to a greater discipline than I've ever known and arrange my outer life as strictly as possible to serve my writing.

NG: Those who look for material linkages, however tenuous, between an author's different opuses (a la the connections between Asimov's Foundation and Robot sequences) may seize on the Ieldra, those luminous predecessors of humanity, as a common presence in the Neverness and Ea Cycles. Do you intend any physical overlap between the series?

DZ: Not at this time. The Ea universe, Eluru, is one ordered by magic, or rather a science of the gelstei crystals, mysticism and human potentials that looks very much like magic. It's a universe very like ours, but very different as well. For example, in Eluru, human beings have evolved as they have in our universe -- but on millions of worlds, simultaneously, by the design of the One. And there has been a Big Bang to kick everything off. But this has been the result of a host of gods -- I call them Galadin or angels -- in another universe exploding their bodies into light and transcending themselves as the Ieldra of the new universe. Now, it's hard to see how evolution by grand design, without natural selection, and such a miraculous creation can easily be reconciled with modern Darwinian and physical theories. (Though the creation through angel fire, so to speak, might just possibly be supported by the inflation models.) So it's hard to see how there can be an actual physical overlap between the two universes. I am, though, certainly interested in playing with thematic overlaps and resonances.

And there is definitely a sense in which Eluru and our universe have emerged out of the same greater cosmos, and have evolved in different, if weirdly parallel, directions.

NG: Indeed so: at various points in The Lightstone, you strike overt echoes off recorded myth, legend, history. There's the Lightstone as Holy Grail; there's Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), Morjin's mentor as Dark Lord; there are "Aryans" as conquerors in the historical background; there's the Lady of the Lake handing Valashu Elahad Excalibur, I mean Alkaladur. How systematically will the Ea Cycle recapitulate the mythic foundations of the "real world"?

DZ: I'm aiming here at less a systematic recapitulation than a resonance between the two universes. The effect for which I'm striving is that Ea, the key world of the Eluran universe, is more ancient than ours and is in some strange and vital way the "real world." There is a sense that much of what has occurred in the Eaean world has been communicated imperfectly to ours and been recorded primarily as myth. Of course, Tolkien does something very similar in his cosmology: the mythical world of Arda gradually loses its magic as the elves fade and diminish, and in the Fourth Age, evolves into the human-ruled world of the earth we know too well. His genius with languages permitted him, without specifically naming figures or places out of myth, to create a very strong feeling that Middle Earth is the more real reality and existed as the homeland of our distant past. But when I say "our," I mean primarily northern and western European, for the root words of his languages, as well as the actual myths that he drew upon, were taken from those places. I haven't Tolkien's facility at making up new languages. And since I'm hoping to create a sort of ur-myth for the entire world, or at least to cast a new light upon it, I've called upon myths from all across the globe to add depth and resonance to my story.

NG: A global emphasis, yes. Your UK publishers are billing The Lightstone as "The Lord of the Rings meets Le Morte D'Arthur". Are Tolkien and Sir Thomas Malory indeed your premier influences in writing the Ea Cycle? Or are there Asian predecessor texts as well, given the Asiatic texture of so many of the names and settings in The Lightstone?

DZ: I don't think I've ever told anyone this, but Le Morte D'Arthur was actually much more of a direct influence on the Neverness books. In fact, I had originally conceived Neverness as a sort of Morte D'Arthur in space: Neverness, the city, was Camelot, and the pilots of the Order were to be knights zipping around the universe in search of the Holy Grail: the Elder Eddas. Soli was to be Arthur and Justine Guinevere. As I had originally plotted it, she had a lover in Neville (Lancelot). Moira was something very like Morgan Le Fay. And Mallory was originally named Uella and played the part of Modred. Somewhere along the way, I lost Neville, and decided that Uella would be much more interesting as a protagonist who tells a story in which he overcomes his evil side eventually to do great good. I don't recall how he came to be Mallory. And then things evolved from there.

In the Ea Cycle, Thomas Malory's influence isn't nearly as great as Tolkien's. Asian predecessors include the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but more as sources very much in the background. From western Asia, of course, I've drawn upon the Epic of Kalkamesh -- I mean, Gilgamesh. I've been inspired by many Hindu and Buddhist myths (Kalkin is the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu as the Maitreya is the last earthly buddha); I'll probably wind up using myths from China and Japan, but at this time, I have great ignorance of them.

NG: Is Valashu Elahad essentially a second Danlo, with similar attitudes and aptitudes? Is his friend, Maram, another Bardo, and his enemy, Morjin, another Hanuman?

DZ: One of the resonances between our universe and Eluru is that of incarnation. And so, yes, Maram is very nearly Bardo, while Valashu is somewhat less a Danlo. And least of all is Morjin another Hanuman -- though enough so that there are many similarities.

NG: A particularly fascinating component of the Ea Cycle is its background of space travel in the distant past, and a prophesied return to the stars. What form does interstellar transportation take in a Fantasy universe?

DZ: Certainly not through spaceships -- although there is a hint, in the tale of King Koru-ki, that the oceans of all Eluru's worlds are somehow connected and so it might be possible to sail from one world to another. It is the case that the telluric currents of all worlds touch upon every other and so open portals to other worlds through which various creatures and peoples pass back and forth. This winds up being, functionally, no different from the star gates of science fiction. The Galadin, I should say, possess a slightly different means of walking between worlds, but I don't think I want to say much more about this at this early stage of the Ea Cycle's genesis.

NG: Have you fully plotted out the titles and content of the remaining three books of Ea as yet? Will there be dramatic changes in period, setting, or the identity of the narrator?

DZ: The titles I've had from the beginning but I expect that they might have to be changed: the second book is The Red Dragon, which is perfect but already used by Thomas Harris for one of his Hannibal novels. The narrator will remain Valashu. At this time, I've no plans either to kill him off or divinise him and begin telling the story of his son. The setting will remain on Ea, at the end of the Age of the Dragon. And I have plotted out the remaining books, but only the second one in detail. And as for there being four books altogether, who knows?

These series have a way of growing, don't they? But I can say I have no intention of letting it metastasise, of sending my characters off on meaningless side quests or in developing too many subplots and story arcs. One of the constraints of telling a story in first person is that it's very difficult to go off on all these story-wrecking tangents.

This interview was first published in Interzone, December 2001.

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