by Frederick Turner
Apocalypse is an epic poem about catastrophic climate change in the next several decades and a parallel catastrophic social crisis. A climate tipping-point happens, the Antarctic ice sheets collapse, and the existing answers prove ineffective. But the word “apocalypse” originally meant “unveiling,” and the story follows a group of remarkable human beings who find brilliant scientific and engineering solutions that require a very different way of looking at the world. That way also opens up profound spiritual perspectives, echoing in a twenty-first century secular scientific world the poetry of the book of revelations and the Zen parable of the ten bulls.
It’s perhaps my most important book—important to me at least—and many have asked me how I wrote it. So here goes.
1. Prophecy Comes from the Mistakes
You don’t just learn, you learn that you’ve already learned a bunch of things you didn’t know you’d learned. And now that you set finger to key you find out what they are.
Which means that you have to trust yourself and plunge in. That’s what heroes do, and poets have to do the same if they want to keep up. In medias res, in the middle of things, as Aristotle said. There is no excuse for writer’s block.
The big mistake I made was in thinking that the mistakes my critics had pointed gleefully out in my earlier epics were really mistakes. In fact the mistakes were just what made them interesting. They made people argue about them and look at things from a different perspective and remember them and keep reading the book to find out what the trouble was.
Now I was writing poetry, and epic poetry at that, and science fiction epic poetry to boot. So I was naked on stage, the royal nonesuch, and a lot of fruit got thrown at me, some of it delicious, some rotten, and some, like the durian fruit, disgusting to smell but delightful to eat. I loved being called barbarous, sentimental, reactionary, camp, “troubling.” The New World prophesied the current political civil war in America; Genesis was used in NASA’s long-range futures planning for the settlement and terraforming of Mars. Prophets are a pain in the neck: that’s why they throw prophets in pits.
So for an encore I knew I had to make trouble. I had to figure out not just the conventional wisdom, but also the conventional revolution against the conventional wisdom, and piss them both off. It’s only in the uncanny valley between the two that the future lurks, and not only the future but the meaning, the spiritual goodies.
2. The Uncanny Valley
A target-rich environment, or to change the metaphor, a hornet’s nest. I’d already violated the poetry workshop values of economy and the 17 line crafted free verse lyric, by writing poems of thousands of lines in voices not my own; told stories in verse when everyone knows the prose novel is the accepted modern way; gone back to outdated forms of meter and rhyme; mingled the nasty cheap pulp populism of sci-fi with the refined elegance of modernist verse; used a lot of scientific and technological words and thus desecrated the vocabulary of Dasein and authenticity; refused to lay at capitalism’s door all the evils of life; and gloried in the thrill of battle in a form—poetry–that was the property of very nice antiwar people.
But now in Apocalypse I learned a whole lot of new crimes. The uncanny valley in between the rhetoric of conventional environmentalism and that of climate change denial is geo-engineering. Global warming deniers hate the very suggestion that anthropogenic warming may be responsible; like evolution, the fake moon landings, and women’s rights, it’s a liberal plot against God, the free market, and America. Environmental activists hate the idea that cheap dirty technological fixes might actually work, and heal the planet, thus derailing their deeper agenda: making everybody into meek green moralists, diagnosing heroism, adventure, glory, discovery, invention, contestation and fun as symptoms of ADD, and drugging us so that we don’t fidget. If I could get both sides to get mad at the book, I would know I was on the right track.
Likewise, I could mess up poetic diction by putting the most well-worn idioms into exact snapping pentameters and make them mean something completely different. I could use all the bits of language—grammar, subordinate clauses, logical inference, abstract terms from other disciplines—that are routinely cut out of beginners’ poems by conscientious poetry workshop teachers—and make them dance in an entertainingly ghastly way. The uncanny valley between the heartfelt amateur verse that good people write about a dead friend and that la-de-da articulate croon you hear in NPR book reviews—but rendered in the unmistakable pentameter of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. Even in Genesis I had cautiously kept a certain traditional nobility of tone; now I was about making the messy language of now, with all its technical jargon and bureaucratese and media catchphrases, into something so neat, so cool, that nobility might not be far off. Maybe cool is the new beauty.
3. All Fiction Is Theater
I also learned some technical stuff that most writers always knew. Actors know it even better: whenever anyone says anything in a good play, they are trying to do something, they have what theater people call an objective. I found that the conversations only worked if each character already has an idea of what his conversational partner wants, and even an idea of what their partner thinks he wants, and is bent on altering what the other person wants, for definite ends of his own. This can obviously be a destructive process; but it can also be a way in which humans build each other into better versions of themselves. We owe it to each other to take this work on, and to allow others to work on us likewise. It’s our gift to each other. In Apocalypse there’s a character who is supremely good at this, and s/he isn’t even human in a strict sense. You’d like to meet hir.
This theatricality also implies that you can’t just be funny and witty and ironical in places. You have to be so all the time, even in the most horrifying and tragic situations, or the story will simply die, the air goes out of it, the iridescent colors fade, and people stop reading or watching the stage. Every word has to have ‘tude.
4. Change the Contract Midstream
All art is about expectations and anticipations, even ones that in a strict sense don’t change over time, like painting, sculpture, and architecture (where the eye and the foot do the action, and the artwork changes in response).
The experiencer of a work of art comes in with a sort of ticket, an implied contract with the artist. OK art fulfills the contract more or less ingeniously, and gets rewarded by the experiencers’ satisfaction as they check off another item on their “been there, done that” list. Another summer blockbuster movie or romance ended with the car chase to the airport.
But really good art does something else. It takes its guest to a place where the original contract is suddenly or gradually shown to be a big mistake or silly illusion, and the real discovery/reward/goal now begins to materialize, something one hadn’t dreamed of. And when that goal does appear, it miraculously does fulfill the original contract, almost inadvertently, as it answers a very much bigger question altogether. The Odyssey changes exactly half way through from the Arabian Nights to the Iliad, but even nastier and more splendid—and then we see that the Arabian Nights part was not a fairytale but the inside of the Iliad part. The Ten Bulls of Zen starts as an orthodox parable of how to meditate, and then goes haywire when we realize that the goal was not the goal, and that goal stuff is not the point. Beethoven’s Ninth turns from a work of art music into a gigantic hymn.
In Apocalypse the change happens in Books 6 and 7. But the new contract is really the heart of the old. The Great Flood that overwhelms us all is Time. And how do we hold that back?
5. When All Else Fails, Get Yourself a Conflicted Narrator
And let the story also be a deep study of the narrator’s own personality. This way all the implications of the story can seep their way out, and the reader’s skepticism will have its own lively voice in the argument. And also you’ve escaped from your own voice, the very thing creative writing teachers tell you that you have to discover. Unless you can escape it, you’ll be plagiarizing that voice the rest of your life.
And Number 6, which was not in the contract:
Get yourself a genius editor, like Tony Daniel at Baen and John Lemon at Ilium, and a brilliant agent, like Sara Megibow. Then you might also get a sort of publishing first, in which, for instance, the same work of fiction appears as a gripping hard-SF war story, serialized and promoted as an ebook, and at the same time as a classical epic poem, beautifully presented in a fine press library-quality book.
Frederick Turner’s science fiction epic poems led to his being a consultant for NASA. He received Hungary’s highest literary honor for his translations of Hungarian poetry with the distinguished scholar and Holocaust survivor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth. He won Poetry’s Levinson Prize, and has often been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Born in England, raised in Africa by his anthropologist parents Victor and Edie Turner, educated at Oxford University in English Language and Literature, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1977. He is a Shakespearean scholar, an environmental theorist, an authority on the philosophy of Time, poet laureate of traditional Karate, and author of over forty books. Turner is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas, having taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Kenyon College, and the University of Exeter in England. A former editor of The Kenyon Review, he is a winner of the PEN Southwest Chapter Golden Pen Award and several other literary, artistic and academic honors, and has participated in literary and TV projects that have won a Benjamin Franklin Book Award and an Emmy.