I’m so pleased to welcome Carole Cummings to The Novel Approach today, not as an interviewer for DSP Publications’ Genre Talk, but to chat about a subject near and dear to my heart–symbolism–in a series that’s near and dear to my heart–Wolf’s-own. Enjoy Carole’s article, then be sure to click on the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win a signed copy of Wolf’s-own: Ghost, a full set of the four books in the series, or, the grand prize, a Kindle Fire.
ALIENS AND OTHER PHALLIC THINGS—ER, I MEAN SYMBOLS IN SPECULATIVE FICTION
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with symbolism in literature. I love finding it. I love analyzing it. But I hate it when I’m told “This is the symbol and this is what it means. It doesn’t matter what the author intended. It doesn’t matter what another might see and extrapolate from the same image. This is what it means and there is no other answer.”
I had a professor once with whom I argued quite vociferously about the symbolism of the white whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To this professor, the whale and its whiteness represented the juxtaposition of Evil hiding behind a façade of Good, how one cannot exist without the other, and just as Ahab wanted to be the instrument by which Evil was defeated, so too would the whale be the instrument by which Good fell with it. And since Ahab ultimately failed, Evil remains in the guise of Good, and humanity continues to fall.
Plausible, certainly. But still. I thought it was bullshit. I thought Ahab was a crazy bastard who had delusions of grandeur, and I saw the whale as something he couldn’t control—something beyond him, something with powers he couldn’t understand, something with motivations that were unfathomable. Something that was, when you think about it, godlike. And it was my theory that Ahab wanted to justify his need to slay his god, to—as mankind always does—exert his own will by thwarting his gods and turning that god into a demon to rationalize his megalomania.
It’s a theme that’s pretty much everywhere. Prometheus and his hubris in his attempt to touch the face of his god and getting brutally thwarted for it. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, the full title of which is, of course, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Here, again, a man attempts to wield powers reserved for gods, and not only is he punished, he’s punished by the thing he created with those powers. We see this same theme again in the not-really-a-prequel to Alien, Ridley Scott’s aptly named Prometheus, which was fairly universally hissed at, but thematically and symbolically speaking, it was pretty damned spot-on.
And it’s fitting how the symbolism in Prometheus piggybacks the violent aftermath of that hubris with the subsequent symbolism in Alien and gives us a look at how we keep reaching, and the gods keep trying to cut us off at the knees for it. Because the thread that links Prometheus to Alien is that weare responsible for the creation of the monsters, monsters which then tried to destroy us through symbolic rape. (Because gods throughout history and various religions are, by and large, weirdly rapey.) Seriously—look at the sets and the creatures and… pretty much everything. Penises and vaginas everywhere! And it’s not only about rape but brutal rape. (Not that there’s any other kind.) Brutal rape followed by an unwanted “pregnancy” that really doesn’t end well for anyone.
It gives whole new meaning to that final scene, where Ripley’s getting ready to put herself into hypersleep for the trip home. She’s down to her panties and a tiny tank—obviously asking for it, right?—when the alien drags its giant phallic head out from the guts of the little ship and tries to have its way with her. The fact that it doesn’t succeed, that Ripley thwarts the gods’ revenge, tells us how we’ve evolved intellectually since Prometheus and Frankenstein’s monster, how we’ve become less naïve about gods and their omnipotence, their right to punish us for our curious natures.
Not only does it turn the Prometheus theme on its head, but it says something quite profound about us and our gods, and who really wields the power in that relationship.
And the movie relayed all of it without once preaching at the audience with words that would just as likely have been either ignored or mocked. It did it with images, with subtleties, with symbols the conscious mind might never see clearly, but that the subconscious can’t help but assimilate. Maybe another viewer would never see that symbolism, and maybe, even if they did, they wouldn’t agree it’s there or that it means what I see in it. But that’s the point—that’s what I see. That’s what it means to me. No one has to agree with me for me to see it there and to take the meaning from it that I do.
Speculative Fiction—whether it be literature or film or any other medium—has a rich history of taking these kinds of broad concepts and encapsulating them into symbols that resonate. Tolkien symbolically warning the world of the dangers of Industrialism in The Lord of the Rings. The proliferation of shadow imagery throughout Ursula K. Le Guin’sA Wizard of Earthsea giving us hope because a shadow cannot exist without light. The systematic oppression and attempted genocide of magical people in the BBC series Merlinas allegory for the discrimination of the LGBTQ community. The shadow of a Guinevere slipping ever-so-briefly but still heartbreakingly and inevitably between Arthur and Bedwyr in Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave series. The hybrid mockingjay in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, accidentally created through the Capitol’s attempt to—quite literally—steal the opposition’s voices, its ultimate failure and then its subsequent neglect. Much like how Katniss herself was created.
Are these symbols definitive? Did the creators put them there on purpose? Do they mean what I think they mean?
Who knows? Some of them, probably yes, since the authors have told us so. But that’s the great thing about symbolism—even if the author put it there and knows exactly what it means and why it’s there and what it’s meant to convey, it doesn’t matter if a reader gets something else entirely out of it. Maybe the shadows were merely moody setting. Maybe the mockinjay was just a pretty bird. Maybe Ishmael was simply telling us the mother of all fish tales. (“No, seriously, it was this big!”)
To me, that’s the best part. It’s all subjective, like pretty much anything that’s interesting and has resonance. The Prometheus theme I saw in Moby Dick helped me to appreciate the tale in a way the Good –vs– Evil theme upon which the professor insisted just couldn’t. It gave new depth to Ahab and helped me to understand him as a person, terribly flawed and kind of awful, but still sympathetic because who wouldn’t like to look their god in the eye, if they had the chance? Who wouldn’t want to rage and scream and throw their harpoons at the unfairness of a force of nature? What I saw in the symbolism of that book took it from an ordinary academic assignment and elevated it to something that has stayed with me for the *mumblety mumble* years since. It showed me that we will see what we will see, no matter what the “right” answer may be, and we will take away from a story what it’s important for us, as individuals, to take away.
I came here today to talk to you about symbolism in speculative fiction, and more specifically the symbolism in Wolf’s-own. And there’s a lot of it—some of it was intentional; some of it I only realized was there well after I’d written it. I had a whole list to go through—the symbolism of twins and how Shig’s arc parallels Fen’s; the real meaning of those petals that keep haunting Fen; Morin and the fish; Fen’s dreams; the scent of almonds; the colors of the moons and the names of the gods; Malick’s hand around Fen’s throat.
There’s more. And believe me, like any author, I could go on and on and on about what all of it means and how understanding it all could enhance a reader’s perception of the overall arcs. I’m not going to do that, though. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. The symbolism in Wolf’s-own is really what you make of it, not me. I hope you give it a try. And I hope you get out of it exactly what you want to get out of it.
Me, I’m just going to float off on Queequeg’s coffin and ponder Eve’s “apple”. Or maybe two dragons—one red, one white—battling it out beneath a mountain. Or maybe even the poignant thwip-thwip-thwip of a moth’s ragged gray wings and the pursuit of a freedom that’s being sought in all the wrong places. Maybe none of those things mean anything to anyone else, but that’s okay—I know what all of them mean to me.
For what it’s worth, that professor and I never did agree on Moby Dick. But I aced the class anyway. ;)
About the Author: Carole lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is currently in the process of developing several other works, including more short stories than anyone will ever want to read, and novels that turn into series when she’s not looking.
(She also has accounts on Google+, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Pinterest, but has no idea how to use any of them. Shut up.)