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  • Writer's pictureJason Dias

Welcome to the realm of abstraction.

Welcome to the realm of abstraction.

Frank Herbert coined the phrase “Alam al mithal” to mean “the realm of abstraction.” His Sufi-ZenSunni philosophers refer to it a couple of times in the course of the Dune novels. It’s the place where numbers are real and the Platonic solids exist.

So I’m sitting around thinking about my writing. The endings of my stories tend to be grim. I like it that way. But it occurred to me that there’s a special quality to the grimness. They aren’t just sad or unexpected; they’re ambiguous. If there’s a hero in the story, by the end she’s transmuted into the realm of abstraction in some fashion.

The Girlfriend Project, my first novel, isn’t genre. It’s pure literary (in which the main conflicts occur within one character). Ernest learns that love is much more than an emotion. His inability to connect to his emotions doesn’t preclude him from meaningful love as he’s always believed. At the end, things come out well. But to get to that point, Ernest has to experience ambiguity. He enters a coma and dreams about his relationships.

This explicates my own journey from alienated autistic to integrated neurodivergent. Learning to tolerate and even embrace ambiguity has saved more than my life. It’s made me a real person, capable of real relationships and even, occasionally, the feeling of love.

The second book I published was The Worst of Us. At the end, the heroine has escaped imprisonment. No longer locked into a cell in an abandoned psych ward, she nevertheless remains inside the ward itself. She’s free. She passed through horrors and survived her own inner landscape to get that way. And yes she cannot enact that freedom. She’s gone into a kind of limbo, between freedom and unfreedom, between the end of crisis and the satisfying resolution. The alam al mithal.

I wrote Finding Life on Mars before The Worst of Us, but then I rewrote it and worried over it for two more years. This story has the same feature. Jaye is as much an analogue for my experiences as Ernest in TGP. To solve her existential crisis, she too has to enter a trance state in which her selfhood dissolves. From inside this no-being, she is able to create herself in a new way, like a butterfly in its chrysalis. This is the fate of the existential hero, in the end: to choose how to be. She escapes limbo because she makes active choices, while Lisa Jayne in The Worst of Us ultimately never does. Lisa sees the choice and regrets it, electing to let someone else save her. In the end, when the crisis is over, no-one remains to come to the rescue. She’s as trapped with herself as if she were still in her cell. But Jaye has acted into the world and earned her ultimate freedom. Trapped in a cave under the Martian planes, she is nonetheless free.

Still, the story ends on an ambiguous note. I won’t say what it is, just in case I ever want to write the sequel.

I won’t go through every story here, but it’s become clear to me this feature—grappling with ambiguity and transmuting into it—is a central feature of my storytelling.


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