1. Powers of Language
Language can encompass not only the unseeable but also the out-and-out impossible. Working through words, we can get our minds across paradoxical states of existence that defy ordinary perception.
I remember volunteering in a stage hypnotist show. I had a fruit in my hand that I was told was a nice juicy apple, when really it was a lemon. I’m sure my eyes saw it as a lemon, but my mind knew it as an apple. It was still an apple in my mind when I sank my teeth into it. Luckily I didn’t get far through the peel!
Speculative fiction typically deals with paradoxical states of existence. Magic and mysticism in fantasy; the supernatural in horror; and counter-intuitive, trans-dimensional experiences in SF. Paradoxical language is a vital tool for the spec fic writer.
One of my favourite examples comes in Ursula le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, the third book in the original Earthsea trilogy. At the end of chapter 3, a tall lord of shadows appears, holding in his hand a tiny flame no larger than a pearl which is eternal life. A flame like a pearl, okay, that’s a striking simile; but the flame-pearl isn’t just similar to eternal life—the one is absolutely identified with the other. It’s impossible, it’s beautiful—and it’s stayed with me since I last read the book more than twenty years ago.
There are other easier magical, mystical, supernatural and trans-dimensional effects. Explosions of light, jags of blue-white energy, shimmers and auras. All of these can be done impressively in the visual media too. But how could you film the identity of eternal life and a tiny flame?
It’s the mind-bending effects I love above all. Things that are both there and not there, things that are in two states at the same time, etc, etc. To invent such forms of magic, mysticism and the supernatural seems to me the highest order of imagination, and to persuade the reader of their reality, the highest order of writing skill.