“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
–Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (London: Corgi, 1997), p. 422
This blog has recently undergone a move from WordPress.com to a real domain, as well as a re-design that includes a new name – something more vivid and less technical than ‘Neo-Historical Monsters’. The new name, ‘Angels and Apes’, is taken from one of my favourite quotes on the use and nature of fantasy, from one of my favourite authors. To get me in the mood for the holidays I was recently re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, which is part of the extensive and excellent Discworld series. In it, Death (who speaks in all-caps) and his granddaughter Susan fight to save the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas, because otherwise the sun will never rise again. In the novel’s climax, a sceptical Susan asks Death what would really happen if belief in the Hogfather died out. In the following – rather long – conversation, Death replies:
THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.
They walked in silence for a moment.
“Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have though you’d have been more literal-minded than that.”
I AM NOTHING IF NOT LITERAL-MINDED. TRICKERY WITH WORDS IS WHERE HUMANS LIVE.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IT IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little-”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A… A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.
OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.
“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…
NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death.
Though this is probably not specifically intended to be a posthuman quote, the two fit very well together. The universe would keep on existing without humans, but it would exist in a very different way – especially for us. We are creatures of experience and imagination. Everything in our world ultimately exists because we recognise it’s there; because we have decided it does in fact exist, and that it does so in a particular way. Our existence is, in fact, a kind of fantasy. With that in mind, imagining things beyond our current conception of ‘reality’ is a very important way for us to change that reality, and to push the boundaries of human experience.
This idea is a foundational part of my research. The idea that we create our own reality is what first drew me to the study of genre fiction, and it resonates with me on a deeper level as someone who embraces the postmodern philosophy that the most important questions are ontological rather than epistemological: so not ‘how did I come to be?’ but ‘who and what am I?’. The possibility of infinite imagination in identity creation is an important concept in things like revisionist mythmaking and afrofuturism, or re-writing the past to make space for different voices in the present. This is also a central question in posthumanism, which continuously tries to redefine the human from the outside in, ultimately rejecting the idea that a ‘perfect human’ can exist.
Angels and apes represent two very different human identities. One is part of classical and religious narrative, one is part of modern and scientific narrative. The angel Death’s comment about falling angels and rising apes in Hogfather is a reference to a famous paragraph from a study by playwright/anthropologist Robert Audrey:
We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted to battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.
–Robert Audrey, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (New York: Dell Publishing, 1961), p. 354
Whether we identify as rising apes, falling angels, or something in between, it’s important that we keep on asking ourselves who we are and what we believe, and that we keep on imagining difference.
Unless of course we no longer want to grow as people, or as a species. Then we should definitely never write or read fantasy, especially not fantasy by Terry Pratchett.