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A New Story: The Passing of the Dragon
... and a few other notes
The Passing of the Dragon
The top news item this time is a new story from me, titled as above, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Tor.com. It’s my favorite story I’ve written since the conclusion of the Dandelion Dynasty. Read it here.
Here’s the beautiful illustration by Mary Haasdyk. I love it because it captures the mood of the piece perfectly. It says everything by not saying any particular thing; it paints the dragon by not painting the dragon.
This is a story about a woman who sees a dragon and tries to tell the world about it; it’s about poetry and painting and being an artist in the world; it’s about dragons and Dao and how sometimes the world is so beautiful it hurts; it’s about friendship and artist co-ops and Connecticut and swimming next to nuclear submarines; it’s about Twitter and hot takes and performative communications…
No. Those statements are all true. But they are not what the story is about.
I’ve often talked about this essential ambivalence in art: is it communicative or not? On the one hand, artists have something to say in their art. I’m not just babbling into the void when I write a story. There’s an intent to articulate something about the world, about human nature, about what it’s like to be a consciousness in the universe. But on the other hand, readers (and audiences) don’t engage with a piece of art (solely, or even primarily) to discern that “something” that motivated the artist to create the art in the first place. (Btw, the idea that art can be boiled down to a statement is why so many people despise “literary analysis” as practiced in badly taught literature classes.) The aesthetic experience they have is an act of re-creation, in which the artwork is merely a departure point for the reader’s own journey of self-discovery.
The metaphor I often use is the construction of a house. The artist builds a house that fits the shape of her own vision of humanity, that contains the echoes and shadows of her own experiences, that embodies a particular understanding of the ineluctable flow of reality. The reader then moves in, carrying their own baggage of lived experience, laden with their own hard-won interpretive frameworks and stained-glass reality filters, weighed down (as well as lifted up) by their own personal mythologies and multi-tongued memories. The reader must then turn the house into a home, a place to dwell, to live, to think. The reader explores the house’s nooks and crannies, puts up their own pictures and Post-It notes, rearranges the furniture to suit the mood and the season, and makes a life for themself.
This movement of the artwork from author to reader, this collaborative dance, this co-creation, is nothing like the prototypical communicative act, in which Alice sends a “message” to Bob, and the success of the communication is measured by the degree to which that message passed without “distortion” or “loss.” But in art, “loss” and “distortion” are inevitable, for they are the price of “gain” and “revelation” — the very purpose of art is only achieved when we read beyond the lines. Perhaps the entire point of art is to misunderstand the artist.
And yet … and yet … that feels unsatisfying; it’s not right. If an artwork succeeded in creating an aesthetic experience, we would feel incomplete if that experience were utterly devoid of connection with what motivated the artist to create it in the first place. I cannot enjoy Paradise Lost without thinking about what Milton was “trying to say” — however inadequate that phrase may be at capturing all the complicated, ineffable sparks, all the strange, contradictory impulses that animate an artist. We cannot, in fact, completely separate the artwork from the artist, for in consuming a work of art, we also incorporate a bit of the artist’s soul into ourselves. Le Guin once noted that novelists try to say in words what cannot be said in words. This is why we read. We yearn to understand, to know (and feel) the inarticulable passion that moved the author as she put the tip of her pen to paper.
If this story is “about” anything, that’s it.
On AI and Creativity
Outside of dragons, I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about AI and creativity. I’m not particularly interested in whether AI-written books will “replace” human-authored books, whatever “replace” means. Machines imitating humans … I just can’t get all that excited about it.
I am, however, interested in how machines can help us be more human, be more us. (This is old news to those of you who have been reading me for a while).
So, onto some of my recent publications around this topic.
First, “Good Spells” in The Book of Witches, edited by Jonathan Strahan. The anthology includes contributions from fantastic authors like P. Djèlí Clark, Amal El Mohtar, Garth Nix, Sheree Renée Thomas, and others, and I highly recommend it. My story is a take on the idea of a witch in a world of technology (magic is essential for technology, I would argue). Embedded in the story is also a specific scenario of machines collaboratively writing books with people — not as a way to generate massive profits, but as a kind of magic mirror to allow individuals to voice the stories they need to hear.
Second, Orion published an essay from me, “The Magic in the Machine,” in which I try to co-write a fairytale with an AI and reflect on meaning and intentionality in art. I’m happy with the idea, even if the current level of AI falls so short of achieving it.
Third, over the summer, Slate published a fun story by Jeff Hewitt, “The Big Four vs. ORWELL,” in which a group of publishers sue an AI that has become a bestselling author after reading the books they publish. I wrote a response essay to the story, “The Imitation Game,” in which I reflect on the story as well as my own hopes and fears about generative AI in the arts.
One last thing: I’m about to set up a bookshop (like all novelists, I end up with more copies of my books than I know what do with). I’m excited to sign copies for readers who want them, so stay tuned for an announcement in the next update.