Thursday, February 25, 2010

Past Lives in Fiction

Ah. What a week! Apologies for being a little absent from the blogging. I had a three day short story Masterclass this week in Brisbane - part of the prize for the 2009 One Book Many Brisbanes short story competition. The Masterclass was excellent, and exhausting!

Past Lives.

Everybody has had past lives of some sort. For example, I had a past life as a pizza cook, but unfortunately used to burn way too many garlic breads. At one time I was a Shift Chemist in a sugar mill (I could not get out of town fast enough). Then I had various stints of Engineering with quite a few years spent running a Speech Pathology practice in the middle.

But there is the other type of past life. The one that many believe predates the current one. It’s a completely fascinating idea. I mean so much of what we are – and the meaning we ascribe to our lives – comes out of the examination of our past. Writer’s particularly, being very comfortable in their own headspace, often pore obsessively over the relics and flotsam of their own experience.

The idea of a past life – a prior incarnation – means that we have this whole other resource there – a whole other lifetime (or lifetimes) of experiences to draw on to put our own existence into perspective, to give it meaning, or divine some sort of path to the future. In fiction it gives a whole other dimension to the plot and the characterization. I guess in theory if you had time travel and past lives as possibilities, the very same person (or at least their ‘soul’) could be the prime mover, adversary and bystander in the story at the same time. Now that’s pretty interesting.

It seems like such a rich resource for a speculative fiction setting, but I could not for the life of me remember one story that featured it.


What are some examples of past lives in speculative fiction that really caught your interest? Who has done it best? Were you really a grasshopper in your past life or were you Napoleon? Or Cleopatra?

11 comments:

matapam said...

I feel so little identification with other cultures that I rather doubt I had a past life. Maybe I'm going backwards, identifying with future societies on space ships and other planets.

The only fiction I can remember using the idea was an Andre Norton YA (runs off to shelves) Wraiths of Time.

C Kelsey said...

There was a thriller that came out in the late 90's that dealt with a man who was increasingly remembering his past life and those memories were messing up his current life. The book started out great, but the ending turned really weird and left me cold. I've been cold on the past life thing every since. Can't remember the name of the book at all.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I knew there had to one out there somewhere.

I'm not sure about the whole past life thing. The regression would be so open to free association I would think. Fascinating idea though.

Just makes me think of the end of the film of the Shadow with Alec Baldwin. The bad guy, the Khan, is locked up in an asylum at the end. He starts yelling that he is the last descendant of Genghis Khan, then the guy in the cell next door says - 'I'm Napolean.' That next says. 'I'm Josephine'. Then the next say no I'M Josephine.' :)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. Your post really jogged my memory. There was one book I read that looked at lives over three 'incarnations' as I recall. Set in England. In the earliest period the bad guys was only an innocent child, who was abused. The book showed how he was gradually twisted until he become the nasty fellow in the current day. The early time period about the late 18th early 19th Centuries. Interesting idea, but as I recall it didn't quite gel with me either.

Must be a good example out there.

C Kelsey said...

Chris,

Yeah, I think that's it!

Chris McMahon said...

Ah!! I'm glad you thought the ending sucked as well. Its so frustrating. Someone should be able to write a kick-ass story with that premise.

Cheers, mate!

Stephen Simmons said...

Have all of you ignored the bowl of petunias intentionally, or did you merely overlook the Argravargg story-line in "Mostly Harmless"?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Stephen,

LOL. Doesn't the whale think 'Not again?' as it falls towards earth?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris,

Mega congratulations on winning a place in the 'One Brisbnae Many Stories' anthology, again.

Isn't this the second time one of ur stories has been picked?

Stephen Simmons said...

Rowena,

No, it's the petunias that think that. Which is why the scene is relevant to this post. When the petunias are abruptly summonsed into existence, they are inhabited by a soul which has died at Arthur Dent's hands dozens of times in past incarnations (as various insects, or a cow he had a steak from, or a rabbit whose pelt he used, etc.). That's why the petunias, brought into existence through Arthur's actions, had that particular reaction.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen and Rowena. Sorry - had a babel fish in my ear.

Cheers,