Thursday, November 29

More from Peter:


On Nov 28, 2007, at 5:43 AM, Peter wrote:

Good point on the philosophy thing... I think the reason why I (being the one who argued for that genre) fit Blade in particular there was because of the advent of Cainism. I tend to think of books as 'philosophical' when they make an attempt to define or state the perspectives of its characters explicitly, separately from their actions. Hence I like to put Atlas Shrugged, some of the new Star Wars work by Karen Traviss in particular on the Mandalorians, and Blade of Tyshalle into that genre. My favorite books have a perspective so well-defined that it becomes a philosophy in my head, and one of the reasons I like Blade so much is because your characters do the same thing with people instead of books. I like seeing that done and how it works out for your people.

Thanks for the answer to my question on your Genre. I tend to think of Science Fiction when I think of your favorite themes, but now that you put it into those terms High Fantasy and Science Fiction aren't all that different. I think Science Fiction brings the themes into a more understandable format because in most SciFi the people are just us with bigger guns (or whatev) and the power that accompanies better tools, but Fantasy is the same thing, changing physics instead of our point in history.

In my experience the main problem with fantasy is that the author writes a book playing around with their new tools instead of one where the characters are using them as though, you know, they grew up with them. Always breaks the suspension of disbelief for me. I like your way of doing it, it makes much more sense for people to think magic is a big deal if it's not intrinsic to their universe.

Gah, your stating of some of your favorite themes opens up a whole new field of questions. Mostly though, I noted that they tend to be things that everyone encounters in daily life, or would if they took responsibility for their own actions.

You seem to deal neatly with the idea of someone moving beyond their 'assigned' responsibilities through the caste system and how people break it in Heroes and Blade, but I'm curious as to how you designed the Caste system itself. Did you just sort of look at the castes inherent in business and codify them a bit? I'm also a bit curious as to how someone advances in caste. It's sort of explained through Kollberg in Heroes, but I didn't quite grasp it.

Quick Question; I'm always looking for more readings. Do you have a list of some good books you've found that address or use some of those themes?

In particular, I can never seem to find good books on the responsibilities of power which take into account chaos theory. They're always a bit too clear-cut for me. Got anything?


Well . . . none of my characters is entirely a product of their intellectual convictions (unlike Ayn Rand's, for example). But because I prefer to write about really, really smart people, they often have constructed a sort of philosophical framework to explain to themselves why they do what they do . . . but sometimes (usually, in fact -- viz. Caine, Deliann, Raithe, t'Passe, Tan'elKoth and all) the truth underlying their actions doesn't match with their personal view. In fact, it seems to me (speaking now as a reader, rather than as the author) that the only characters who aren't self-deluded to a lesser or greater extent are the simpler ones . . . the ones who tend not to think about themselves too much, like Kierendal, Majesty, Tommie, Orbek . . . there's a strong undercurrent of Nietzsche's observation that "Man is not the rational animal so much as he is the rationalizing animal: the primary use to which we put our reason is to justify our unconscious drives and desires."

Caine says that dual-valued systems always break down in contact with reality, but when he doesn't mention is that ALL systems break down in contact with reality. Back to Nietzsche:

"It is we alone who have fabricated causes, succession, reciprocity, relativity, compulsion, number, law, freedom, motive, purpose; and when we falsely introduce this world of symbols into things and mingle it with them as though this symbol-world were an 'in-itself,' we once more behave as we have always behaved, namely mythologically." [Emphasis Nietzsche's]

Or, for that matter, another of Caine's favorite philosophers: "The best system is no system."

Meaning that intellectual frameworks are valuable, but only so long as one constantly bears in mind that the map is not the territory, so to speak.

I don't know of any other books that integrate chaos theory with moral philosophy; the two are kinda incompatible (another example of systems breaking down in contact with reality). The quote on chaos at the beginning of BLADE is from JURASSIC PARK . . . while that novel doesn't really delve into the implications of real chaos theory, especially the spontaneous "islands of order" that inevitably arise within the boundary conditions of chaotic systems (I suspect Crichton understands even less about chaos theory than I do, which ain't all that much), that particular quote sums up the hole it knocks in moral philosophy.

To put it another way, I'll quote the eminent (now departed) historian Arthur Schlesinger:

"The future outwits all our certitudes."

I've been thinking about putting that one at the beginning of CAINE BLACK KNIFE.

Wednesday, November 28

And now from Rob, a long-time correspondent:

On Nov 22, 2007, at 9:52 AM, Rob Suder wrote:

Hey Matt, I always appreciate you taking the time to answer emails and such. So thank you, especially considering how busy you probably are with you current works. I have a mixture of questions, a few about writing and a few observations mostly about the Caine novels. I’ve been rereading Blade of Tyshalle and I’m about three-fourths the way through it, at the point where Caine has been moved from the Pit to the Shaft. Something I’m just not sure if I caught onto the first time or not regarding Tan’elkoth, Ma’elkoth, and Hannto the Scythe is how they could be viewed as a split-personality disorder. They way there’s countless personalities, but some are more dominant than others each believing they need to be in control, rather than Ma’elkoth truly being a God it throws an interesting view into Heroes Die when Caine first meets Ma’elkoth and wonders. It also parallels Deliann’s argument to Caine, that Hari is merely a mask so Caine could get by on Earth as a parapalegic. At any rate I know you do an enormous amount of research on the background sources for your novels, and I wondered if you did any into psychiatric disorders? Of course Overwold magic is still more…traditional…than it is on Earth in the novels, and sometimes the simplest answer is correct. But with a lot of the philosophy in the story, I’ve been trying to think (and hopefully not over-think) aspects from a different point of view. In regards to the philosphies, especially in Blade of Tyshalle, I was wondering which ones much of Caine’s, Duncan’s, and Tan’elkoth’s musing are based on? Tao for example? Or Hindu beliefs? I’ll admit my knowledge of them is pretty small, but I’ve tried to research them in the past and most of the books in stores or libraries don’t seem very accessible to the average person. Okay…now I have a few writing questions I was hoping to I could pester you with. I’ve been working on an outline for a story, and I have an overall plot but I find myself constantly stuck on the catalyst at the beginning of the story. I have my main character, where he’s at emotionally/personally and where I want him to go. I know the basics of the overall journey, but I’m having trouble finding an event that starts or prompts him to move through the story. So I guess I’m hoping you would be willing to give me a different perspective, when you hit a tought spot while working on a story? Did you skip past the trouble spot, and come back to it later? Have you found it more difficult to jump around when writing in such a manner? I haven’t really tried writing later events, because I’m inclined to try to write the story from start to finish. Regardless I’m grateful for any advice you might be able to give. With that I’ll wrap this up with one last, probably always asked question: How are things going with Caine Black Knife? Any news you’re allowed to mention? Thanks again for taking the time to write!


Hey, Rob.

I didn't do any research specifically into psychiatric disorders, though I have read any number of the novelized case histories (THE THREE FACES OF EVE, SIBYL, etc) that were popular in the second half of the last century, and I do keep up, more or less, with developments in the field.

The theory of personality that underlies HD and BLADE is largely my own, cribbed from my own experience as an actor -- how a character played with sufficient conviction becomes a secondary (sometimes primary) personality. It's not so much a question of MPD as it is that personality, in my view, is a perceptual framework one uses to filter experience. Personality is not a discrete feature of life, but rather an aggregate of certain habits of mind. Tan'elKoth's view of art is specifically a metaphor for this, for example. (It's also my personal view of art, but let that go.)

Duncan's political philosophy is grounded in John Locke, by way of Abraham Lincoln . . . though its primary basis is in the works of mid-period Robert Heinlein, specifically THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. There are ways HEROES DIE, specifically, can be read as a critical reply to Heinlein's political theories, but that's a side issue.

The theory of consciousness that underlies Deliann's discussions with Caine (and, for that matter, the metaphysics of Ma'elKoth), is mostly mine . . . though I have seen a few references in neuroscience journals in support of the premise, which is that the human nervous system is not the producer of the mind, but merely its receiver, tuned to a specific frequency of a greater "field of mind," which -- you will note -- neatly explains the results of "identical twin separated at birth" studies, as well as the occasional flashes of telepathy and insights one experiences while under the influence of certain "mind-altering drugs" -- as well as the personality and cognitive changes that proceed from traumatic brain injury . . . it also explains the physical changes in the wiring of the brain that we naturally produce when we learn . . . we're re-tuning our nervous systems. It also explains the effects of differing styles of religio-mystic training, everything from yoga to Zen to Catholic mass -- each of these is designed to tune the nervous system to certain frequencies that eventually result in a specific type of mental experience . . . and the type of experience depends on the type of training, if you follow me. The inspiration for that came from the Western mystic traditions (i.e. the Greek mystery religions, druidic lore, and some of the Native American shamanic traditions, as well as the works of Teilhard de Chardin).

The conceptual framework of Cainism is an outgrowth of Nieztschean perspectivism, leavened with a dash of chaos theory.

As far as the writing problem goes, it sounds to me like you're trying to start the story too early in the plot. The genesis of any good story is in the initial problem: you need to make sure than when we first meet your protagonist, he's ALREADY in so much trouble that he MUST act . . . and then his action produces a counter-action from his antagonists (whether they be villains, society, or an uncaring universe) so that it escalates the tension rather than relieving it. If you're just writing a short, then you need to start at the climax, and fill in the plot that led there as you go along; if you're writing a longer piece -- novella-length on up -- then you want at least a couple of escalations in there before you hit the climax.

Let me know if this helps.

--Oh, and can I post this correspondence on my blog? It seems to be a good way to keep the thing going, and some of these questions are worth sharing.

Matthew Woodring Stover
numquam desisto

Thursday, November 22

More from Peter:

On Nov 20, 2007, at 3:46 PM, Peter wrote:

Yeah, you definitely answered the question I was trying to ask, whether you felt there was an implied moral imperative in publishing your writing. Good to know there's someone out there not trying to force me to be like their characters.

The pre-moral stance bit is interesting. I find that I have a liking for science fiction (and truth that approaches it) for a reason which is beyond approval for the perspectives embodied in the work. I just like reading what happens when people draw lines into the future of science, or philosophy, or morality through fantasy.

I'm curious, did you choose your genre, or did it choose you?

I've had discussions with my friends over whether your writing is sci-fi, fantasy, or philosophy, and we figured it's sort of a gray area in the middle of genre. Did you set out to create a world where that was possible, or just tell what you wanted to and place it where it fit?


I don't think of my work as philosophy at all . . . unless you take the word philosophy to its etymologic roots, in which case any form of narrative can be considered to fall under that rubric; all narrative reflects the internal metaphysic of its creator(s) willy-nilly, even something as grossly pandering as a night-time soap or Robyn Williams film. The philosophy, it seems to me, arises of the act of interpretation; what I'm putting into the work is less philosophy than it is perspective. I write the world as I see the world--even when I'm writing about someone else's world, like Mr Lucas's, for example.

As far as "my genre" goes, what I really wanted to write was comic books -- specifically superhero books; I've always loved the stew of unrestrained imagineering that goes into the best comics. Which are always a mix of fantasy, SF, and psychological honesty. My favorite comics often deal directly with many of the themes that I seem to keep coming back to: the role of performance in the nature of identity, the responsibilities of power, the consequences of imposing one's will upon one's world, and the consequences of refusing to do so . . . all that stuff, and more.

I specifically chose to work in heroic fantasy because when I was starting out, HF was considered the lowest kind of trash-reading, with only very few exceptions (Donaldson, late Moorcock, Vonnegut, a few others) -- but from my reading, grounded in Greek and Roman myth, it could (and should) be the HIGHEST form of literature. It's the one where Everything's on the Table. Nothing's off-limits. But sadly, very very few writers can make a decent living at it, and I don't seem to be one of the few. I started strong, but (due to issues with my health) my average income from writing has been been static over the course of my career. Money that looks pretty good when you're thirty-three isn't so swell when you're forty-five . . . especially when it's not even keeping up with inflation.

The "tell what you want to tell" thing is great in theory, but when your work doesn't fall squarely into a pre-defined publishing category, a publisher has no idea how to market it, and such works tend to fell through the cracks. Kind of like HEROES DIE and BLADE did. I suspect that Del Rey has a better idea how to handle CBK, though. We'll see.

Matthew Woodring Stover
numquam desisto

Tuesday, November 20

Hey. I have risen. Or something.

Got the following e-mail from some thoughtful fellow upon finishing BLADE, and it's led to some correspondence that I think fans of the Acts of Caine might find interesting. So I'm putting it up here.

Hey, I finished Blade of Tyshalle and am rereading Heroes Die. I'm finding that the philosophies of Cainism resonate with the perspectives I use to act and am a bit curious as to whether you're planning on releasing a Cainist Philosophy book. Sort of seeing you as an Ayn Rand, with a book that shows your philosophies through characters and the potential for a more clear statement.

I don't know if that sort of thing would appeal to you, but I'm curious, so sue me.




No, BLADE OF TYSHALLE is itself my Cainist Philosophy book. Unlike Ms Rand, Cainism is descriptive, not prescriptive. It's not about how people should live, it's about how they do live, whether they want to or not. Caine's just the most extreme case . . . if you see what I mean.

And my philosophy isn't really my philosophy; it's (roughly speaking) a blend of Nietzschean perspectivism with classical Taoism, leavened with chaos theory. In other words (as some critics have pointed out), there's nothing particularly original about it. Which is okay with me, because I don't actually care about being original. I care about telling the truth as I see it, and about writing novels that people will want to read more than once . . . not necessarily in that order.

Thanks for your interest, and thanks for writing.

Matthew Woodring Stover
numquam desisto


I think that's why I like it so much, it's a more real philosophy than most stuff I get smacked around with. More true to life instead of how things should be.

Aren't all philosophies just blends of ideas from before? Methinks you give yourself too little credit... or maybe this is the 'be humble in front of my fans' act. Either way, I like the ideas a lot. The chaos theory bit in particular.

Question; if your books aren't meant to be prescriptive, why do you pick a cast of characters? Heroes Die was all Caine, but showing a cast leads me to assume the people have something in common worth noting in your story. I know assumption is the first step into a shallow grave (or something like that), but how is it possible to write without being prescriptive while using more than one character?


Hmm. Some readers might take the story as prescriptive: "You should act like Caine, and you'll always win," or "If you act like Caine, your victories will always cost more than they're worth," or whatever (gods help them if they do . . .). That's a factor of interpretation, which is not my business. My business is telling a story as honestly as I can, given the limitations of my subject matter and the limitations of my personal insight and authorial skill. I don't approach my characters from a moral stance, but from an esthetic one; in other words, I don't much care whether they're Good or Bad, only whether I Like 'Em or I Don't. My bias in that regard might be read as an implicit moral endorsement or moral condemnation of their behavior, but it is not intended that way. The things BLADE's characters have in common are not moral factors, but mythological ones.

As I implied in BLADE -- and stated explicitly in STAR WARS ON TRIAL -- interpretation is subjective. What anything means, as Caine says, depends on how you tell the story. It also depends on who's hearing/reading/watching it. A book, as I've said elsewhere, is nothing but words on a page. The actual novel is what happens inside your head when you read that book. If there's something you can take away from that experience that you feel deepens your understanding of your own life, then that's a bonus -- but it's not necessarily thanks to me; people can find things in books that the author had no intention of putting there. A novel (a good one, anyway) is like a shovel you can use to excavate your own mind . . . find the treasures buried in there, polish 'em a bit, then hold 'em up to see how much they sparkle . . .

Hey, would you mind very much if I posted this correspondence on my blog? I only update the damned thing every three or four months, and I think it's due.

Matthew Woodring Stover
numquam desisto


I would be honored to be on your blog. Just high-fived my roommate at the very thought.

One more question. For now. :)

If you're telling a story that you like and I like it too, i assume we have something in common. Some sort of shared perspective or common sense of entertainment which gives us that commonality.

If we both like Caine because he does what we've always wanted to do (true or not) or at least wanted to see done, and you put it there, are you pulling a sort of Studio shield? I just give the people, myself included, what they say they want, and how they take it isn't what I did it for. I'm in it for the money, so to speak.

Not saying that the Studio is wrong, I can often empathize with the idea of wanting a shield, saying that when you write a story the way you do, true to life's inner forms, it's more likely to cater to the people who don't want a shield. They're the ones looking for sparkly things in their heads, instead of in their bodies. Dunno if you know what i mean by that.

The question of this mini-rant is; are the 'moral factors' what makes a story prescriptive (more likely to be insubstantial), or is the knowledge of the idea of potentially prescriptive elements in the mind of the reader a sort of lens which causes stories which could lead to the sort of digging we both like to lose their potency.

Basically, do we make 'superficial' stories that way because we've got a heuristic for it, or do they perpetuate their own demise?

Your fault, or mine?

If it's my fault, do you think that the people looking for jewels do so out of a trained impulse, like others looking for prescriptions, or out of a desire to find what really entertains them?

wow. lotsa questions there. Running on no sleep... sorry.


I confess to not being entirely clear on the question. I'll do my best to answer what I THINK you're asking . . . then if I'm wrong, we can work it out from there.

The question, it seems to me, proceeds from a flawed premise: that our shared affection for the character of Caine proceeds from approval of his actions, and that this (presumed) approval translates into some sort of Kantian categorical imperative (which is something Cainism explicitly rejects -- see t'Passe's observation on sheep and wolves). I just don't see it that way. My affection for Caine (and that of most of his fans, I think) proceeds from what I would call a pre-moral stance, or even an anti-moral stance. It's a largely visceral reaction -- a hormone-driven one, I believe, with the dominant hormone being adrenaline, closely followed by testosterone. We like him because he gets us charged up . . . a reaction that takes place without regard to our moral sensibilities, whatever they may be.

Which is not to say he's without intellectual virtues or admirable qualities, but that's another discussion.

For the record, I DON'T give the people what they want. I give the people what I want. What the hypothetical people make of it, however, is inherently beyond my control. And I don't do it for the money (God knows!). I do it because I want to tell you a story that will keep you up at night . . . and maybe get you to spend some time, now and then, just thinking about your reaction to it.

I don't disavow responsibility for my readers' reactions, because much of what I write is intended to provoke reaction. I just can't control what that reaction will be, you follow? It's very much like Cainism itself: I control what I can control, and let the rest go. Because I have to; it's out of my hands.

In fact, I tend to disapprove of artists who insist on controlling your reaction to their work; that strikes me as crossing the line from art to propaganda. Ayn Rand would be a prime example, as would Steven Spielberg. We tend to find such things less objectionable when the points being hammered home are ones we already agree with . . . but I'm no great fan of the concept. I mean, when was the last time you re-read Aesop's Fables and found yourself thinking that "Geez, now that I'm older, I find myself kind of LIKING King Stork . . ."

I do think that readers who are looking for prescriptive elements in fiction are going to inherently miss some of the simple pleasures of reading -- because they're adding a layer of intellectual filtering that keeps them that much more removed from the immersive experience that good fiction should be.

I hope that no one's looking for jewels . . . because of that intellectual filtering thing, see? Besides, jewels sparkle all the more when you come upon them unexpectedly.

Again: I hope you find this response pertinent. If it isn't, please feel free to clarify your question.

Matthew Woodring Stover
numquam desisto