Fate and Connection
The subject of fate comes up a lot in Empty Sky. Fate is a subject I've wrestled with since I first started reading fantasy novels, and I often find the way it's portrayed to be frustrating. I don't agree with the idea that we're bound in any unchangable way. Free will and choice are important.
And yet... I've certainly been in situations where I felt like I was at the whim of a fate beyond my control. Patti-like relationships coalesced out of nothing, I fall comfortably into the same roles in relation to the same kinds of people, certain opportunities turned up out of nowhere and click into place seamlessly. It sure felt like fate. But as I recognized that some of those relationships, and a lot of those roles, were unhealthy for me, I understood that being bound to that "fate" was intolerable and I went looking for a way out.
I discussed this briefly in the article on blankness, but essentially, our past lives stack up behind us as we go. The vast majority of people are unaware of their past lives, and this is how it's meant to be, because the lives themselves have a sort of gravity. Important or pivotal things we've done in the past create patterns and echoes, and if we have not made peace with those actions, people tend to re-enact them. This creates a sense of fate, and is widely used in epic poetry and stories for dramatic purposes- the loves reunited! The lovers re-enact their terrible fate and nothing they do can stop it! A patti comes together in recognition, only to fall apart and perhaps die tragically! Two brothers realize they are the reincarnations of great generals who opposed each other! You can guess how that will end! Usually the characters recognize what's going on on some level, maybe even try to change it, but they ultimately end up giving in to their "fates" because the immediate desire overrides that awareness of a "bad fate."
In short, fate is what happens when you're not paying attention.
This kind of fate can be short-circuited quite easily with free will - there's only <em>habit</em> drawing you into the same destructive patterns over and over again. Of course, you have to recognise the pattern, and you have to want to step out of it. Like riverbeds worn into valleys, it's easier to follow the pattern than to climb out of the grooves. But if can be done and it requires only effort, no magic or complicated rituals.
Any sort of magic or situation that pulls your past lives toward the "surface" and into the present can be fate-effecting. This especially comes into play with eclectic mages who intentionally draw out their past lives to learn from them, but can come up in other ways as well, most notably if someone runs into another person they share a strong history or patti membership with of if they find themselves in a situation that was pivotal for them in a past life. When past lives hang around, they bring their patterns with them, and the gravity of that valley is increased.
Figuring out how fate works has been a long-term project and is ongoing. Some people seem to have an over-abundance of fate, and when I'm writing them, they're clearly barrelling toward an inescapable conclusion (usually a bad one). Others are blank, or might as well be. Most people are somewhere in the middle, getting stuck in the occasional pattern until life jars them loose with something unexpected.
The biggest challenge as a writer was to put aside my assumtions about how fate worked, most of which came from reading too many fantasy novels as a teenager, and instead draw on what I saw the characters doing and what my own experience told me. It's easy to assume we know how any given concept works, but that can limit the stories you tell by making them conform to genre convention instead of allowing them to do something different and exciting.
Connecting in a Patti
“One elephant (Gaja), one chariot (Ratha), three horses (Ashwa) and five foot soldiers (Padhata) form a Patti...”
From early days to now, battles are fought with huge armies, all of whom broke down into smaller units. In ancient wars, the foundational unit, the patti, is traditionally comprised of five padhata, or foot soldiers, three ashwa, or horses, one ratha, a chariot, and one gaja, an elephant. This is the basis of Chaturanga and all the strategy games that have come down since. Some special forces units still follow the basic strategy, though actual elephants are considered rather old-fashioned for modern military service.
A ratha is one who can be ridden by the spirits. Ashwa are swift, talented, usually magically blooded. A gaja is solid, a physical fighter, usually magically insulated or a blank. Padhata aren’t necessarily magical but they may well have some magical skill as well; they’re the ones who do make sure things get done.
Of course, in life people don’t always come with tags labeling them. Ratha are the easiest to spot, and other people tend to orbit around them. A ratha and a gaja who make a strong pair may function on their own, and often a small group of ashwa and padhata will come together without any reason to think there’s something larger behind it. The numbers may not always match exactly. The roles can even shift from life to life. And yet they circle over and over, unknowing the whole time.
Each of their souls has a resonance, and they don’t have to resonate with the same others each time either. There’s usually a patti you fit best with, but you may, like an electron wandering from atom to atom, move through life from group to group. Sometimes a patti forms where the roles are filled but the personalities of the people involved are incompatible, and these tend to blow up spectacularly in the end.
Why the patti? The idea of a group of fated connections between people is well-known in media; Stephen King’s ka-tet comes easily to mind. More often you see the single string of fate connecting a couple – soulmate, lifebond, and so on.
The patti structure describes how I’ve seen this resolve in my own life. There are certainly people I seem drawn to for no real reason, with whom I feel kinship without the explanation of time or blood. There are roles I fall into almost without realizing I’m doing it, depending on the kind of person I’m around.
But at the same time, nothing is guaranteed. No bond, no group, no relationship is bulletproof, automatic and easy. Sometimes they explode, sometimes they just end quietly. It’s tempting to say the connection was never there in the first place, but that explanation doesn’t match my experience.
It’s not about any specific fate, most of the time. Some people just have certain qualities or personalities or talents – some people are ratha, some are gaja, and so on. I’ve met a lot of people with whom I seemed to plug into those connections, enough that I had to learn to unplug when we’re of incompatible voltage.
What I’ve learned is that there’s never just one chance. I wanted to convey that, as it’s not very common in fiction – yes, there’s the rush of excitement that comes from connection, but it also doesn’t have to mean the end of everything if things fall apart.
Empty Sky is about picking up the pieces. Over and over again, everything falls apart, for individuals all the way up to the world as a whole. Over and over again, everything changes, everything falls apart, the world ends and life goes on.
That’s important. That matters.
Blank and Null
To be blank – or to call someone a blank – has a complex series of associations. Among the percentage of the population who can use magic without the assistance of tools, it’s often thrown around as a slang term where you might expect to hear “muggle” or “squib” in the Potterverse.
In the oldest manuscripts, to call someone a clean soul, an unwritten or erased scroll or palimpsest, or, yes, a blank fate, meant that they had no echoes of past lives, obligations, failures or patterns to play out. In many esoteric and mystery traditions this is something to aspire to – unless you have not incarnated before, to have a blank fate means you have paid out all of your debts and scraped the tally clean. On an Enlightenment path, it precedes being subsumed into the Light itself, assuming you can make it through your blank life without incurring any new echoes or obligations. The ones recognized as blank often spend their lives in quiet temples or hermitage in an attempt to avoid attachment, training in the use of magic but choosing to forgo it except in defense or absorption.
It is this last trait that led to the misunderstanding in modern magical practice that referring to someone as blank means they are magically blind or even act as a null. Acting as a null was a highly trained skill for the traditional blank fated person, and is also a natural trait of those drawn to the role of the gaja, and in neither case is it a sign of someone lacking in magical skill or talent. Despite the cutting snark of many a magic-user, there is no such thing as being so bad at magic that you suck it out of other people.
Many of these esoteric paths have been lost over the years as one religion eclipsed another in popularity or as one government or another ferreted out those who resisted the wisdom of this or that emperor or king. Some documents remain in dead languages, and a few temples maintain their quiet ways.
Around the time the Emperor of Shenzhou fled to Mei Guo, there was a resurgence of interest in ancient techniques and a small handful of blooded scholars and adepts did their best to translate existing manuscripts into modern languages and techniques. This fashion for the wisdom of the ancients set two relevant sets of ripples into motion, one the attempts to standardize magical techniques and apply them to technology the way the medical knowledge of herbs and elements had been standardized and applied to biology and health care, the other the spread of magical practice by individuals and small groups of those with blood talent who lacked access to traditional teachers.
The scientists had no trouble applying their own vocabulary and understanding to what they were looking at, while the eclectics were left to patch together the language and techniques of translations of varying quality. An early book building on those translations with original techniques began the modern use of blank when the author wrote of appealing to one’s past lives and echoes to teach magic. Someone who doesn’t have echoes to learn from is, yes, blank – but this is where the idea that blankness means non-magical comes from.
Figuring out how “blank” is used took some time, as I had to work backwards from the way various people used it in casual conversation, as well as how I was prompted to use it in metacommentary. This is very common in fictional recon, where language carries the weight of history but we don’t necessarily have access to that history or etymology. As you would learn any slang, the trick is to observe the usage as much as possible and pin down the commonalities.
The technique referred to above, where one calls on one’s past lives or echoes to teach them, is actually one I’ve used. It’s basically the metaphysical equivalent of someone standing behind you as you swing a golf club, controlling your movement so you can see what it’s meant to feel like. It is a very useful trick for learning things quickly, but requires you to put a lot of trust in the one teaching you. It’s tempting to believe they must have your best interest at heart because they are you, but to be able to use the technique, they must have will, and if they have will, there’s no telling what their goals are.