Meetings on the Stair

I saw a time machine in my backyard some years back.

As I look at that sentence — despite the fact that it’s absolutely true — I think I’d better come at the subject of this article from another angle. I’ve worked in too many psychiatric hospitals to want to spend time in one as a guest.

Not just "some years" but many years ago now, I stopped in at Dell Books to visit the beautiful and talented Olga Litowinsky, my children’s-book editor there. We spent our usual hour or so shmoozing, then went off to visit the chief publicist for Dell, a sharp-eyed and charming lady named Janet Seigel, and shmoozed with her for another hour -- mostly about writing. Close to the end of that hour, Janet leaned back in her chair with a sort of “devil’s- advocate” gleam in her eye, and said, “Tell me something. Do people ever ask you if you don’t feel guilty about writing so much escapist literature for children, who’re so impressionable? And do you ever feel guilty?”

The answers, immediately, were “yes” and “no!”, for reasons that — as I tried to articulate them — multiplied until the conversation started sounding like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. Why should I? Where do grownups get this idea that kids are terminally impressionable — that someone under voting age is likely to believe everything they hear? Don’t adults understand the difference between imagination and belief? Don’t they remember that there is a difference? — (And our spiffy red uniforms....)

My editor shut me up as best she could (she’d fortunately remembered to bring the cattle prod from her office) and told me to go home and write an essay for the School Librarians’ Journal. So I did. That’s another story.

But as a result, for the following week or two the question of responsible representation of reality — the business of telling the truth to one’s readers in childrens’ writing, and adults’ as well — was much with me. I had once seen, and been very troubled by, a young man walking around a Star Trek convention in great distress. He had, he told someone, missed a timed rendezvous at a beam-up point, and he didn’t have his communicator with him; there was therefore no way for the Enterprise to find him and beam him up home. He meant it. He wasn’t role-playing. The image of him wandering those halls—“marooned,” distraught, stranded on the wrong side of reality—came back again and again to haunt me.

“Fine,” the more cowardly parts of me kept hollering from the background, “so when you write, stick to reality!” Useless advice. After seven thousand years, reality has yet to be adequately defined; given cowardice enough to obey such advice, there would be no way to know how. And anyway, truth sometimes has nothing to do with the physically “real” at all. For the first time in years, I found myself hung up in a genuine ethical crisis, and I didn’t like it. The urge to ask “What is truth?” and then go wash my hands was considerable.

In the middle of writing that essay, I stepped out late at night for a walk. You have to understand that the house I then shared with three friends in a brick-and-fieldstone suburb of Philadelphia was situated in the best neighborhood I’ve ever known for long, lazy evening at night, quiet, very few streetlights and much open sky. The Moon was out, full and ferociously silver. I walked a long time, relishing the silence, and came back up the driveway feeling quite relaxed, if not quite sure as yet about what to do in that essay. I turned the corner around the house to stretch the walk just another thirty seconds or so—and saw it.

It was lying on its side in the middle of the back yard. An oblong, boxlike shape made of some dark material, with panelled doors and small windows on the side that faced me, and with a little roundish projection jutting out at the “roof” end; a shape throwing a fat black shadow in the moonlight, and absolutely there with me and the yard and the real world and my breath going out in a cloud of amazement and cold. A London police call box, lying on its side in the back yard. They don’t use police boxes in London any more— and anyway, what would one be doing in my back yard? On its side, yet?

Only one thing. Many of you know about the TARDIS, a supra-dimensional vehicle for travel through Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Specifically, some of you recognize that one TARDIS whose chameleon exterior is or has been stuck in the shape of a police call box because it was in for repairs when it was first stolen by the renegade Time Lord called “the Doctor”. (Doctor who? Right, he’s the one.) That particular TARDIS is known, by devotees of the Dr. Who SF series, to have enough other things wrong with it to make side-on landings likely. And as for it winding up in my back yard — well, the Doctor’s been to the ends of the universe in the TARDIS, even out of this one, and back again. How much longer could it have been before he ended up in Philadelphia?.

Now those weren’t specifically the thoughts going through my mind at first sight of that police box lying on its side. But a lot of thoughts did. I’d heard, as you have, of people who, in crisis situations, saw “their whole lives pass before them” in an instant. Startled into immobility, standing there and staring at that box, my experience was similar. But it wasn’t so much my whole past life, as a whole life-to-come that was suddenly and impossibly possible.

In rapid succession (and you understand, I’m translating images, or swift successions of images, into words) the thoughts went something like this:

The show’s based on reality, after all!

Oh Lord, he’s here! (With, behind the mere statement, a composite background image of what many episodes of Doctor Who have shown this particular Time Lord to be like inside: witty, merry, compassionate, clever, resourceful, insatiably curious and adventurous, powerfully ethical, courageous, courteous, loving and wise — the best possible travelling companion.) And knowing him, he won’t be here for long. Wonder who he’s with? And whether they’d mind a hitchhiker? --

— got to tell the housemates! No, they’re all out for the night —

—one phone call, then. Got to tell that one friend that I might be missing for a while, but that I’ll be all right. Leave a check for a month’s rent and expenses — better make it two — Thank God the computer’s portable!! [Yes, this was a long time ago. -- DD] I can still write while I’m gone!

— No motion, no sound yet— Are they all right in there? (For the TARDIS, like most other habituées of Faery/the Twilight Zone/the Outer Limits, is much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside; a many-roomed mansion that even the Doctor has never completely explored — all now suddenly lying crashed over on its side.) In fact, the bad landing might have been caused by someone’s injury. Suppose there are bad guys in there with them! Cybermen! Daleks! Anyway, got to—

—and the one step forward, as in many another fairy tale, broke the spell. Just the one step revealed to me that the (ostensible) TARDIS had only one side—there was no real “top” to it; that it had no back or sides, either, except those born of a trick of night and shadow; that the protuberance at the top, where the police box’s light had seemingly been, was merely the corner of our old rotted backyard picnic table; that the whole TARDIS, in fact, was nothing more than a newly retired mattress leaned up against the table, waiting for the people from Lower Merion Township to come and take it away. The mattress’s slats and fabric-pattern and the angle at which it lay had all conspired with the moonlight to evoke doors and windows, familiar forms, and someone who wasn’t really there.

I stood there, coasting down the far side of one of the great adrenalin rushes of my life—recovering, slowly, both from a taste of my own medicine, and (more oddly) from a fierce attack of sheer joy. I spent the first few seconds being incredibly annoyed with my own gullibility. I felt pretty much the way I had one day when I spent about forty-five seconds staring at a stuffed squirrel on a prop tree that overhung the sidewalk at the old 20th Century Fox backlot, thinking that the poor squirrel must be sick, it held so still. This was even worse; I’d helped my roomies carry this wretched mattress outside and prop it against the table in the first place!

But no. It wasn’t nearly the same sort of experience. My feeling that day in LA had been almost entirely embarrassment at what I perceived as my own dimness. But what I was feeling now was far stronger stuff. It was sorrow, and loss. For the barest moment, an opportunity had seemed to have been held out to me, one for which I would cheerfully have left the familiar and the secure behind. I had reached out for it, delighted—and now it was gone. Or more accurately, it had never been there. After all, I knew quite well—had known before, and know now—that Doctor Who isn’t real —

Oh, remarked a cool voice down in the logic department. Do you really? And what were you saying about ‘reality’, not half an hour ago? Can’t you tell the difference between imagination and belief? You imagined the TARDIS there. Doesn’t mean you believe in it....

That made sense, but just then sense was no comfort. I kept thinking of that old poem I had stumbled across and liked as a kid (and am probably about to misquote): Last evening as I climbed the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there. / He wasn’t there again today: / I wish, I wish he’d go away!....

But did I really?....

I went inside, shaken and unsatisfied, to think about it. “Shaken” because that wild inrush of joy I’d felt, and the sorrow at discovering the nonexistence of its cause, both suggested something most unsettling: that I didn’t want not to imagine or believe in that man Who wasn’t there. “Unsatisfied” because I knew I was missing a piece of the argument, and couldn’t figure out what it was.

The problem was a knotty one for me. As a fantasy writer, I spend most of my time studying and describing places that have no physical existence — and I spend more time yet in vivid, intimate observation of and interaction with people who inhabit those places, people who aren’t there. I do this by seeing and hearing those nonexistent persons, places and things with my eyes open, while awake. As a psychiatric nurse, I have several fancy shrink-names for what I do: “guided imagery”, “persona-fragment transference”, “extrojection”. Often enough, when I’ve tried to tell some friend the truth about my writing process, and the friend gets that look on his or her face, I’ve waved these words around as a sort of substitute for holding up a sign that says “NOT INSANE, REALLY!”. Unfortunately, whenever I do that, the back of my mind (nasty nagging thing) always insists on reminding me that the “hard word” for this phenomenon, when it slips out of control, is “hallucination”.

So what about this last incident, then? Was I over the edge? Losing control? And that rush of joy about that? Was I becoming pathologically dissatisfied with the reality I lived in? Was what I had felt actually the often-described “seductiveness” of insanity, coming after me at last? If it was, what possible right did I have to drag anyone down this road after me? What good could I be said to be doing anyone, child or adult, by postulating —hell, celebrating—things that don’t, apparently can’t, exist?

I wasn’t at all sure. But I felt deep down—and was ready to fight to prove it—that the things I was celebrating were good.

It only remained to see if that attitude was a sane one or not.

Well, what’s a good sane reason to imagine weird things? Or, while we’re at it, anything else? What’s imagination for?

I started taking the word apart for clues and found one immediately, without even having to check its Latin roots or early usages. “Image-ination”: making pictures in your head, of things you want to happen. And most specifically, making pictures of things. If you consider it thoroughly, you’ll discover that every made thing, every physical artifact of what we call “civilization”, started as a picture in someone’s head — a dream or idea or image, working its way out of the nonphysical, through the human mind, to realization.

This being so, one could make a case for imagination as the single most important function of the human mind. It is the problem-solver, the arch-survival characteristic. Even time-binding is impossible without it. Imagination suggests to us how we can get that fruit down out of the tree, what to do about the sabertooth tiger, how to use the sharpened stick on the mammoth. Data about the real world feeds imagination, but only constant practice at it will train the ability itself. Imagination is a muscle that becomes stronger, more agile, more useful, with use.

In the old days, there was a simple way that the muscle got stronger, without needing volition. If you imagined a successful way to get away from the sabertooth, you survived to have children...and probably taught them, all unawares, to imagine too.

Things aren’t so simple nowadays. The modern world no longer forces so much use of that muscle on the young. Schools are increasingly turning into places where one is fed raw data and expected to spit it back unchanged as proof of assimilation. Imagination happens, if anywhere, in play; and the adult world, the “real” world, looks condescendingly down on it as something that (with luck) you’ll outgrow. Notice particularly the prejudicial definitions and implications often attached to words like “dreamer”, “daydreaming”, “imaginary”, “fantastic”, and phrases like “making it up”, “seeing things”, and “imagination running wild”.

The problem is that once the unnerved adult mind considering this subject has proved what it wants to by way of definition, it tends to drop the tool and run. You can’t do that. Logic demands that you define completely; what makes one definition any more accurate than another? For example: “running wild” mast also be able to mean, not just something gone dangerously out of control, but an object or faculty—in this case, imagination—in its original, natural, normal state, living free in the ecology of the mind, the way it was it was “supposed” to be.

And if imagination is a natural thing, a survival characteristic, the mere fact leads us straight to what imagination (including, by derivation, the imagination that goes on in fantasy and SF) is good for. It trains those mental muscles: positing, again and again, unlikely-seeming situations, and teaching the kind of thinking that’s useful in dealing with them. In these days when the solutions of the past are hopelessly inadequate to the problems of the present and future, SF and fantasy—the most purely imaginative branches of literature—become a kind of circuit training for the mind. The problem-solving patterns, the leaps of both intuition and logic, that we learn from fantastic literature, can be powerful forces in making our lives work better than they would otherwise. The expanded ability to imagine and cope with bizarre situations will later also be applicable to “adult” problems, helping one find novel solutions to them: ways to make that computer program work out, to solve that problem with a co-worker, a superior, a spouse, a child; ways to find your way through a maze, put that kit together, set up a budget, plan a life.

And there’s a delightful fringe benefit to this strengthening of the imagining muscle by use of SF and fantasy. You meet the most interesting people in the process—characters (in both senses of the word) who can affect your life profoundly. I know that I wouldn’t be the same person—and probably a worse one—without the influence of those people who aren’t there. Who would I be without (picking an example at random) Spock of Vulcan? That dry, dark, faintly ironic, fiercely rational shape has haunted me since I was twelve...first (I have to be truthful) as a safely un-haveable lech-object; then as a non-”real” person remotely (and erroneously) admired for his apparent non-involvement with the sticky business of emotion; finally, and best, as an old friend whose words and behavior I find have taught me more about the uses and joys of both logic and loyalty than either my symbolic logic instructor or my childhood companions ever managed to. Nowadays, while writing Trek, how many times have I looked up from the computer to find that dark, sharp regard seemingly fixed on me from across the desk, from out of “nowhere”? — a cool and slightly mocking look past steepled fingers, one eyebrow cocked in wordless comment on some hasty, incorrect conclusion or off-angle assumption of mine about his universe. The experience is definitely nonphysical; an un-“guided imagery”, maybe a “hallucination”. But, if unreal, it’s a harmless, amusing, useful unreality, and I embrace it. This would be a weary life without that wry, hypercompetent, steadfast presence to leaven it now and then. It’s been a privilege to work with him. Had Spock never existed at all, I would be much the poorer for it.

And what about all the other names and shapes that come crowding into my mind — old companions who’ve passed through my life and taught me love, danger, anger, humor, compassion? What kind of a life would it be without them? The good Doctor, of course, and many others: Eilonwy, Trente, Morgaine, Worsel, Archy, Reepicheep, Obi-wan, Brunnhilde, Prezmyra, Gro, Morgon, Severian, Sparrowhawk, Pyanfar, Fiorinda, Shevek, Ae’Lau, Ramoth, Yoda.... And hundreds more crowding in behind them, friends of childhood or adulthood. What an odd lot they are. Humans and tentacly things arm in arm; herds of Hokas, flights of dragons, computers with names like Mike and Harlie; creatures that have to live in portable iceboxes or travelling ovens; starships that sing or just go boldly. And that special group of people over there with whom my interaction has been even deeper than with the rest; people whom (it says here) I “created”. A tall slender man with a peculiar sword; his special friends, a scruffy king minus his throne, a brushfire looking for a place to happen, and a woman with a very strange shadow; a couple of kids in company with a talking white hole, a Lotus Turbo Esprit, various whales, and a hundred-foot great white shark; and many more.... An odd lot. But my friends.

Far from doing me harm, these people are innocent of anything but enriching my life. There have been times when I’ve found it easier to be kind to some person who drives me crazy, because of the impression made on me by the way Frodo let Gollum off easy on Mount Doom: times when taking a slightly dangerous stand, at a time when it might have been more politic to keep quiet, was just a shade easier because of the memory of Luke Skywalker throwing his lightsaber across that dark chamber in the new Deathstar and telling the Emperor, in that voice that’s finally found its certainty, “I am a Jedi, as my father was before me!” How many chances at the great heroisms do any of us have, after all?...and what harm is there in committing the little ones of everyday life in the names of one’s friends? Later in life—next week, next year—you may see your way through the names to the issue, the virtue, of heroism for its own sake. Or you may never see it. But in the meantime, enacting those small heroisms with the old friends in mind is better than not doing them at all.

If this is insanity, so be it. I doubt it is. But in any case, I refuse to renounce those people. I want their company. I want to meet them on the stairs.

More than that: I want to walk where those people walk, live where they live. Don’t mistake my meaning! Frost said it best: let no willful power mistake me and snatch me away from Earth forever. I can’t think where love is likely to go better. But Earth isn’t everything. I want to walk down a London street and run into four children, one with a suspicious bulge under his greatcoat that sticks its golden Phoenix-head out, peers at me with golden eyes, and says in kindly (if supercilious) tones, “Excuse me, my good woman, but would you be so kind as to direct us to my temple?” I want to sit at the crude wooden table in Caer Dallben, eating Dallben’s bread and drinking his milk, while Princess Eilonwy talks my head off. I want to lean over the railing of a ship striking eastward over a twilit summer sea, close to the bold Mouse who’s perched on the bowsprit and softly singing the song that the Dryad made for him at his birth. I want to climb Roke Knoll on a starry night and spend long nights listening to the whisper of the waters of Earthsea, the endless murmuring of a Name I will never fully know. I want to spend an evening in front of a roaring fire with Prospero and his old friend Roger Bacon — the three of us working on Cheshire and mugs of old ale, while Roger tells about that brass wall he tried to make for the British, and upstairs the magic mirror screams out bad lightbulb jokes and shows the special edition DVD video of Star Trek 16.

Peace and quiet aren’t everything. I want to go have lunch at Jocko’s place on Nevia—preferably on a day when the Empress of the Twenty Universes and her consort are there. I want to be somewhere nearby when King Clode and his three sons hunt the White Deer to the bottom of the magic mountain, and the sky rings with the sound of something aimed at the King missing him and hitting the Moon instead. I want to ride behind Dernhelm of Rohan, through a day nearly twilit at noon, knowing the two secrets she hides under her cloak, and not giving either away. I want to add a little willpower to the massed Lensman-mind bearing down on the Eddorians in the last battle for Civilization and the Universe. I want to clutch for dear life at the back of Han’s seat, only slightly reassured by the feel of Obi-wan behind me and the lightsaber bumping against my thigh, as we dive away from the Imperial cruisers and get ready for the jump to lightspeed.

I want to be there when the door dilates and someone comes through. Anyone. I want to run for my post in a round, railed room while the Red Alert sirens whoop all around, and a slim dark-haired figure in the command chair says quietly, “All hands, battle stations: Captain Kirk to the Bridge!” And I wouldn’t mind it a bit if I should hear a peculiar wheezing, grinding sound out in the back yard, and upon investigation find a London police call-box standing there—one from which a man wearing a charcoal suit and sneakers, whose hair apparently has a life of its own (possibly involving sentient hair gel) pokes out his head and says, “What? What? What??

Many of you want these same things — or other scenes and company derived from other SF or fantasy. You know quite well how much fun it is to duck out to Kedrinh or Orsinia, and how much good it does you. There’s no replacement for the delight of strange places, the fascination of odd ideas carried to their logical conclusions — or for the joy of discovering that nobility and power and hope aren’t some writer’s heart, if nowhere else. After sharing such experiences, you can’t avoid being a little bigger inside than you were before.

Those grounds alone are sufficient for SF’s and fantasy’s acquittal. So as regards Spock and the good Doctor, and all the rest of them, the defense rests.

But there’s still some unfinished business before the court. Imagination is, as mentioned above, a survival characteristic. Survival characteristics can themselves become threats to survival once surviving isn’t so much of an issue for a given organism. Aggression is a good example of this. And imagination is in just as much danger of being warped this way. Here the image of that lost young Trek fan, wandering the halls, looms large. If we don’t make some conscious, positive use of what we have, that’s the way we could be headed.

One constructive use for this sort of imagination comes to mind in a hurry. If you and I find that some piece of SF or fantasy suggests a workable solution to a problem in our lives, we might consider actually using it — trying it out in the real world and seeing how it stands up.

Of course, to do that you have to live in the real world.

“Oh God,” some of you are thinking, “as if we have a choice.” You have more of a choice than you think; therein lies the danger of the situation. I know many people (and I bet you do too) who consider themselves hardcore “realists”; people practiced at paying their utility bills and working out budgets, who nevertheless pay no attention to world affairs, to the news, because it “doesn’t interest them”, or “doesn’t affect them”. Three quarters of the world—more than that, if you include the water —is as tacitly unreal to them as the Narnia or Demonland that they openly scorn. More unreal, because these people don’t themselves realize that they consider it so. Equally, I know other people who are fairly well versed in what’s happening on Earth, but think that the Universe beyond it is unimportant, and don’t consider it worth spending money to find out what’s going on out there. This deliberate disdain for the ongoing business of Terra’s great back yard sometimes (during fits of pique) makes me wish briefly for a nice little solar flare, or a supernova barely outside the lethal limit, just to bring home how “unimportant” to this planet are the things that go on in Space.

But do you see the problem? It’s all too easy to go on from day to day in this world, despite interacting with the TV and the telephone and the newspaper, and not really be living in the world—not be affected or moved by it nearly as much as by, say, Middle-earth or Pern.

The danger’s easily understandable. Some of it is simple avoidance of the overwhelmingly unpleasant. One of the best damn writers on this planet can be heard to ask again and again, in his work, “Do you know how much pain there is in the world?” He’s quite right to point that out; and in the face of what he’s pointing at, what sane mind would not sometimes feel the urge to ignore it all and go read a good book (or write one)? I’m no less guilty than anyone else on this count. When the famines and the terrorism and the worldwide credit crunch and the shattered bodies of young soldiers and the thirty children dying every minute of hunger all get to be too much, sometimes it’s a relief to slip off to the black beaches of Darthen, or the bridge of the Enterprise, or the alternate New York where wizards work— places where one can at least do something about the problems: punt a reluctant King in the general direction of his throne, stitch up a nasty gash in the Universe, make Manhattan safe for magic.

But one must always come back. LeGuin says somewhere, “An explorer who does not come back, or send back, to tell of his discoveries, is no explorer but merely an adventurer; and his children are born in exile.” On pain of being exiles in our own world, we must come back every time we leave—or transgress against our responsibility to this world, as well as (eventually) against our own sanity. And the terror of it all is that many of us not only don’t come back, but aren’t even here when we are here. Some of us (not just SF freaks, either) act as if nothing really mattered much, as if this were all a dress rehearsal; as if the world will take care of itself without us … as if everything will turn out all right somewhere else, some other time. But while in the body, there is no other time. This is it.

I can guarantee you don’t want to hear that. God knows, there are days when I don’t.

But it isn’t as horrible as it sounds. Really! The other side of Harlan Ellison’s cry of anguish is the question, “Do you know how much love there is in the world—and how much joy?” Even accidentally, without people consciously working for it, there’s a great deal. There’s room for more. We can make more. And this world, besides pain and joy, has something priceless that (beautiful though they are) the Otherworlds don’t have. Our world is here. It has hard corners and sharp cutting edges and the wonderful, frightening weight of physical reality—and it’s filled with the terrible beauty of finite lives moving through time and space, and interacting with them. We can do something with this world, those lives. They’re ours to transform; and the lessons of heroism we pick up in the Otherworlds will work just as well here as they did elsewhere—though Palantiri and burning swords and wizards’ Manuals may be lacking. Those are all just tools, anyway: no good unless people use them.

And people we’ve got. Six billion of them. One of them is reading this right now.

One of them is writing this, too; and this is where my moral dilemma abruptly came undone, all that while back, as I started to suspect part of my own answer to the pain. If what I do best is imagine—it looks that way to me right now—and if imagination is truly the arch-survival characteristic—then what better to offer the people around me? If I do it right, through what I write I can teach the delight of dreaming for its own sake, the joy of creativity. And though I’d prefer not to be sneaky about it, I can even sucker people into dreaming if necessary...attaching joy so securely to imagination and exploration that my readers will never quite dissolve the connection—to their continuing good, and the world’s. For where imagination wakes up, impossibility begins to come undone: in a back yard, a job, a relationship, a life.

Any use you make of the tool is likely to be as powerful. So what do you do? Don’t ask me. That’s your business. You figure it out.

Just don’t be afraid of your answer, once you do. For in this context, it turns out to be perfectly all right for us all to really want nonexistent places and things. The strength of the desire becomes an indication of the strength of a much larger one: the hunger for what’s more beautiful, more joyous, more workable than our own world....and the desire to bring such beauty and joy and workability to the place where we do live. That hunger is a basic function (and possibly the most basic function) of our humanity; the “best destiny”, as my favorite Vulcan would put it, of that ancient survival instinct that caused our remote relatives/ancestors, once upon a time, to first pick up a bone and hit something with it, or first look up at a star and wish on it. If I were in one of my philosophical moods, I’d say that that hunger might well be a reflection of the first great act of creation, still reverberating in our bones and our brains—a smaller version of the arch-Desire that made a World of an empty void, and found Creation “good”. Read it in whatever way you like. Our survival and our dreams are inextricably tangled up with one another.

So work on your dreaming. Dream as well, as responsibly, as powerfully as you can. And afterward, act accordingly.

And while you’re doing that, I’ll be spending most of my time upstairs. Don’t expect to see too much of me. I’ll drop you a hundred thousand words every now and then to let you know how things are going with the people who aren’t there.

And, just in case, I’ll make sure the laptop is always fully charged up.

After all, you never can tell.....