Regular readers of this blog (all six of you, hi there) know I've been practicing zazen and generally interested in Zen Buddhism for some time now. It's kinda inevitable that what goes on there would influence my work directly, to the point where the story embodies some principles of what those practices are about. Summerworld and the upcoming The Fall Of The Hammer are good examples. But I never wanted to consciously cultivate any kind of mission or labeling as a "Zen SF&F author" or anything like that. In fact, if that did happen, I think I'd be very unhappy about it.
Labels are weird. On the one hand, we can't live without them. We need labels to know whether or not the bottle we've got in our hand is baking powder or ant poison. On the other hand, labels bind us up in ways we never know about until it's too late. If I call someone a "militant", without you knowing anything else about them, that will color everything else you learn — even if you learn they're not even remotely a "militant", but it'll take longer to unlearn any presuppositions about them than if I had just said "they're politically engaged" or something.
Most people have strange and uninformed ideas about what Zen and Buddhism are about, because few people experience anything like the genuine versions of such things, just the crummy pop-culture incarnations of same. They know the labels and that's about it, and the labels tell them nothing truly useful. Save for me talking about it on my blog (which, again, is read by a sum total of about six people), I don't mention my interest in the topic to people until I've gotten to know them fairly well. It makes them draw unfounded conclusions, both about me and about the kind of work I want to produce.
I've written before how what the practice gave me was not new kinds of work — "Zen SF" or any of that — but new ways to do the work I already do, ways to do them with less between me and what's in front of me. I also realize now what it gives me is how to see all the more clearly how to talk about this stuff without ever having to resort to terms like "Zen".
For one, I was never going to explicitly identify my work as being part of some spiritual label, not because I think spiritual things are to be disdained but because I knew it wouldn't help, and would probably only hurt. Self-consciously producing things to fit the label just results in bad art. Someone else I know spent a few years working on a series of fantasy novels that were informed by a certain spiritual practice. The books were awful — and again, not because of the spiritual side, but because apart from that the writing was ghastly and the story was a farrago of clichés. A bad story is a bad story no matter how pretty the dust jacket or good the intentions around it.
Flight Of The Vajra has some stuff in its in-universe belief system that is informed by things like Zen and Unitarian Universalism, but isn't intended to be a functional replacement for them. It was never the point to come up with something that people could look at and go, "It would be cool if we had that here." The point wasn't to come up with an answer, but pose a question. I never wanted to use my curiosities about how spiritual institutions work to use SF to say, "This is how it would work," but rather to say, "If it did work this way, what then?" The latter is fiction. The former is, for lack of any better word, dogma. No prizes for guessing which one I'm aiming for.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind