The interminable humorist and philosopher, Douglas Adams, once said: “For us, there is no longer a fundamental mystery about Life. It is all the process of extraordinary eruptions of information, and it is information which gives us this fantastically rich, complex world in which we live.”
Have we lost mystery? Is there a difference between a fundamental mystery and processes that we know exist but are, as yet unable to describe?
It’s not just as a writer that these questions intrigue me, but also as someone who does research and data analysis for a living. Part of me is inclined to say that we have no mysteries, per se, merely questions that we haven’t been able to fully answer and theories we haven’t been able to prove – yet.
In this age of quantification, everything has an explanation. And people like me turn to the numbers, to the science, to the existing literature, to find viable reasons, to parse through the variables, to study the correlations. In my line of work, there are no mysteries – merely mediating variables that I haven’t identified yet.
I turn to the writer in me to invoke the mysterious – and my mind always returns to faeries. The realm of the fae was once blamed for all manner of things that weren’t understood, and also became the personification of dangerous places – such as heavily wooded areas. The woods may not scare us so much anymore, but there was a time when travel was risky, and the woods were full of threats – both actual and supernatural. Faeries were not benign cartoonish creatures, but entities that could be mischievous and malicious.
In my work in progress, the mysteries of the setting have both magical and scientific explanations. But there are people within this world who prefer magical thinking, who mourn the loss of the mystery, who cling to their cultural mythology as if something fundamental to who they are would be lost if it was simply dismissed as fairy tale.
I realize what’s influenced me in that regard. All I have to do is look around to see a plethora of examples of people refusing to put down their magical thinking in favor of science. As for me, I will never choose any explanation above science – I will never listen to any philosophical framework that asks me to reject facts.
But the romantic in me wants the mystery. I drown myself in faery lore; I pull it into my writing. I try to put myself in the mindset of a pre-science mind, a mind that doesn’t instinctively quantify. A mind to whom the world was understood within a framework of religion and lore. That’s why my characters hold so tightly to traditions and mythology, why the prioritize the romantic over the scientific. Because they feel intruded upon by external forces, they hold space for the supernatural. Even if they don’t believe it, per se, they respect it. The allow it to exist side by side with science.
Though, to be fair, even mythology seeks explanation – God is angry with you. The faeries are fucking with you. You’re prosperous because you’re good; you’re suffering because you’ve sinned. But what those things leave is room for interpretation, room for alternate narratives, room for other mythologies. Room – dare I say it? – for control. One can confess to God and repent. One can placate the faeries – or avoid them.
Really, the world has always been full of extraordinary eruptions of information – it’s simply the nature of the information that has evolved over time. It’s harder to build a lore around scientific theory. It’s too clinical, too process-driven.
What my current novel in progress has taught me is that I can hold space for mythology in my world of research methodology and statistical assurance. That all of it – the stories and the theorems, the myths and the mathematics – it’s all information. It’s all a way of understanding the world, of exploring universal truths and struggles – which is, of course, what both artists and scientists do.
I can write a story about selkies and climate change, where a phenomenon caused by a particular strain of algae is no less magical for it’s scientific explanation. As a writer, it’s all important – it creates tension and captivates the imagination.
And it’s all extraordinary.