a python is (almost) conceived

On 6 May 2011 I made a final post to my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel, entitled “a python is born”, announcing the e-publication of my novel Truth of the Python. But I want to explore how that novel came to be. If that post was about its birth, I suppose I’d like to trace its conception and gestation.

I get lots of ideas for creative projects, and always have done. A shortage of ideas has never been my problem. (This is what I tell people who try to get me to write their stories when they find out I’m a writer.) My problem has been rather which ideas to commit to—which ones to invest my time and energy in, and bring to a conclusion. There have been few of these in my life, and many abandoned projects lie at the roadside of my past. It’s all connected to that basic problem: what to write about?

When I was still at UBC—a short single-term career in 1979—I had an idea for an epic sci-fi work. I’m not sure exactly when I conceived it, but it was probably in the summer of 1979, just before that single term. Because of its large scale (the only way I think of anything, it seems), I imagined it would be a trilogy, the first volume of which I gave the title More Things to Come, intended, among other things, as an allusion to the 1933 future-fiction epic The Shape of Things to Come by H. G. Wells (of which I’d only seen the movie on TV).

The story was to be complex and satirical, but part of the premise was that a small army of female robots, which I called gynoids, under the power of a single artificially intelligent computer, would, using their synthetic wiles, take over part or all of the U.S. land-based nuclear missile system, and from there hold the world hostage. My hero was a young, neurotic mathematical genius who had developed the intellectual property that had enabled the computer to become (apparently) sentient, and he would find himself drawn into a vortex of strange events and groups that all had a stake in the situation, its outcome, and its meaning.

The major inspiration for this work was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which I had read the previous fall while traveling in Europe. It made an enormous impression on me, and as I read I often thought, “Man, this is what I wanted to write!” Ah, if only it were that easy. Did I even understand Gravity’s Rainbow? Probably not very well. But no matter: it was the word-by-word reading experience that I really loved—the jarring and shocking mix of satire, science, politics, and intensely evocative description, and all around world-changing geopolitical events. I knew I couldn’t write just like Pynchon, but I did have talent, plus desire.

I read, I planned, I made notes, I drafted chapters. I used large sheets of chart-paper to make interconnected diagrams like flowcharts. I faced problem after problem, and I solved quite a few of them. I went traveling in 1981–82 to visit locations I planned to use in London, Switzerland, Jerusalem, and Kenya. But 1982 melted into 1983, and ’83 into ’84, and I was still far from finishing my first volume. I became filled with doubts and felt my motivation flag.

The question nagged at me: was this story saying what I wanted to say? Was this what I wanted to be talking about as a writer?

On an earlier trip to Europe in 1978 with my friend Tim, I had had my spirit awakened. It happened near the end of our trip, in February 1979, when we were in Rome. At an English bookstore there I came across a Pelican paperback called The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. (I’d been primed by reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shortly before.) I started reading this book as we rolled out of Rome, and I found myself electrified. I became convinced that there is such a thing as profound spiritual truth, and that it was not possible for a human life to be fulfilled without gaining a relationship to it.

At this point the thought was only a seed, a feeling. Indeed, it may have been the spark that actually kindled my More Things to Come project which was created shortly thereafter, and which had a significant spiritual dimension of its own. But as time went on I found I wanted to relate with that aspect of it in a more heartfelt way.

A big problem confronted me: what did I know about spirituality or ultimate truth? Precious little. And therefore, I thought, I had precious little to say to my fellow humans. But the talent and desire were still there, burning, seeking expression. What to do?

It was a problem that was to bother me for some time, and would keep me as, in some ways, more of a reader than a writer in the coming years. But the practical part of me thought: well, I’d better learn more about this spiritual truth stuff. So that’s what I did.

To be continued. . . .

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