This mini-site serves as companion to Moonbound, the new novel by Robin Sloan, coming from MCD×FSG in June 2024.

Discovering donegality

Balancing and patterning

Over the past year, I’ve been pondering C. S. Lewis, rereading some (not all) of his Chron­i­cles of Narnia, learning more about his influences. I read:

In that last book, I encountered a new-to-me line of thinking from Lewis that both mirrored and deepened a feeling that has haunted my own reading and writing as far back as I can remember.

It has to do with vibes.

C. S. Lewis could never quite explain it; here’s Ward describing his attempts:

[Lewis] uses a variety of words in his efforts to catch his meaning. They include: “the ipseitas, the peculiar unity of effect produced by a special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts”; “a state or quality”; “flavour or atmosphere”; “smell or taste”; “mood”; “quiddity.” [ … ]

The phrase “balancing and patterning” made me gasp, at least inwardly. It sounds exactly right; I believe it is what I have felt myself doing when I have been happiest and most excited about my writing.

A few lines later:

Again and again, in defending works of romance [in the chivalric sense], Lewis argues that it is the quality or tone of the whole story that is its main attraction. The invented world of romance is conceived with this kind of qual­i­ta­tive richness because romancers feel the real world itself to be “cryptic, significant, full of voices and the mystery of life.” Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go “back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for … what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere — to Donegal for its Done­gality and London for its Londonness. It is noto­ri­ously difficult to put these tastes into words.”

“Donegality” becomes a key term in Planet Narnia, which, for all its academic sobriety, is honestly a sort of gonzo puzzle adventure — very Umberto Eco, almost Dan Brown.

Here’s more from Ward on C. S. Lewis and his vibes:

That this atmos­pheric quality is virtually inex­press­ible leads Lewis to speak of it at times as a spiritual thing. For instance, it is “the vast, empty vision” of Hamlet that is, in his view, Shakespeare’s chief accomplishment — the sense that “a certain spiritual region” has somehow been captured by the use of images such as night, ghosts, a sea cliff, a graveyard, and a pale man in black clothes. Within the mesh of these images the myste­rious epiphe­nom­enal flavour of Hamlet is caught and commu­ni­cated to the attentive reader or theatregoer. Likewise, in David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, the planet Tormance is so described that it amounts to an encap­su­la­tion of “a region of the spirit.” The net of the story — the events, the characters, the back­ground descriptions — has temporarily ensnared, as if it were an elusive bird, a sheer state of being; and for the duration of the read, this bird’s plumage may be “enjoyed.”

I like Ward’s use of the words “mesh” and “net” there; I might add “web” and “network”, even “game”—the sense of pieces arranged on a patterned board.

Here, perhaps, is language for my own most powerful responses.

An example: William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy in the 2000s was profoundly important to me — electrifying, the discovery that novels can feel like this—but/and I have always struggled to explain what about the books was so appealing. It wasn’t their prose, exactly, even though it’s terrific, or their plots, which I cannot recount, or their characters, who were gnomic slabs of style; yet there was in those novels something that I found nowhere else.

Perhaps it WAS the “spiritual region” they mapped out, the “special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts” they achieved. Perhaps they DID catch something in their “net”: a “sheer state of being” that had to do with sublimely cool jackets and was clearly (it was the 2000s) some kind of zeitgeist.

William Gibson probably thinks this is stupid, but I don’t care.

It’s important to say these “regions” are not genres — way too coarse — and they are not authors, either. I have enjoyed William Gibson’s recent novels, but they do not possess, for me, the flavor of the Blue Ant trilogy. That elusive bird has slipped the net.

Reading about Lewis, learning that he floun­dered in this partic­ular bucket, has made me feel more confident about my own compulsions. Tolkien called the invention of languages his “secret vice”. It’s clear that Lewis’s was the contem­pla­tion of symbols and symmetries. It is mine, too — one of them, anyway.

The good stuff can’t be named, only sensed; we are like deer desper­ately licking our snouts, straining after faint molecules. Even so, it’s helpful to have some language to throw around. Balancing and patterning. Meshes and nets. Done­gality!

I wish I could go back in time and offer C. S. Lewis the language of “vibes” in return.