The Gray Tradition Monomyth

I think it’s probably useful if I try to list the characteristics the books in what I’m calling the ‘Gray Tradition’ have. This is a working list, not a complete one. Not every book does all of these, and I’m not at the stage yet where I can say which of these are necessary or sufficient. As I say, I’m at the stage where I’m seeing what I think are patterns, where I’m starting to make links. I don’t have conclusions at this stage.

Note that the treatments of the subjects can be extremely varied. Also: some of these concepts are in ancient folklore and as old as storytelling, while, looking at them, some are clearly rooted far more locally: in the counterculture of the sixties. I would like to look at how these things originated, how they were popularised.

As you can probably tell from those caveats, I’m thinking aloud here, rather than carving into stone and I would welcome any help. I don’t give any examples here, I’m going to come up with a (similarly rough) list of books that I think fit soon. For some sense of who I’m talking about, I named some authors in the first post in this series.

So, the books of the Gray Tradition tend to:

Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.

Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.

Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.

Be written by men.

Have a protagonist who starts in the mundane world, even a hyper-mundane one. He either lives in some grimy, dark city or occasionally a faceless suburb. Their life is one of routine, although it’s often monotonous rather than actively dangerous.

The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.

People are conformist. Even a counterculture, if one is presented, is bound up in rules and hierarchies.

History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.

The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.

Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.

Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.

The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.

Characters play strategy games, often chess, and see the game board as a microcosm of real life.

They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.

There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).

There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.

The protagonist undergoes some profound and permanent physical transformation, often disfiguring or at least which leaves them unable to pass as a normal human. They often choose to do this, even though they don’t (can’t) understand all the implications until the transformation is complete.

The protagonist often develops some psychic ability: precognition, telepathy or some form of mind control. The implication is that the protagonist is the first homo superior – the next stage of human development. The characters with these gifts tend to have weird eyes – a straightforward concrete way of indicating ‘they see differently’.

The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.

Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.

Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.

The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.

If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.

The books often have utopian themes. We see a better society, or even a plan to enact utopia in our world.

They are violent. There are disasters and wars that kill millions, the protagonist often fights hand-to-hand battles. He, or at least his allies, often have no compunction about killing. (One of the things the hero must do, in fact, is lose his compunction to kill). Building a better world inevitably means destroying the old one – many will die.

Again, I don’t know if it’s significant or why it would be, but the weapon of choice is often a blade.

They tend not to explore identity issues like race or gender. At first glance, this is a very white, male genre. This is changing, I think.

Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.

17 responses to “The Gray Tradition Monomyth

  1. Why do you call this tradition “Gray”?

    • Lawrence Burton

      I think it’s to do with Alasdair Gray (if I have that right), though for some reason I initially thought it was something to do with the Gray Man from Justice League of America comics.

  2. That’s right – Alisdair Gray’s book Lanark is clearly influential on a lot of the people who followed. As with all traditions, you can always find earlier examples, but I think if you read Lanark, you see a really good example of the sort of book I’m discussing.

    Plus, at the risk of dissecting a pun, FR Leavis came up with the Great Tradition more generally for English literature. Also, aliens in abduction myths have come to be known as ‘Grays’, and I think there’s something of a crossover there. Important note: I am not saying these authors are aliens or have been abducted by aliens – although Dick, Morrison, Moore and no doubt a few others have claimed an inspirational supernatural encounter, and I suppose we could say the same of CS Lewis.

    Is ‘Gray Tradition’ the best name for it? Probably not. As I say, at this stage I’m trying to assemble lists and notes, really. I’m not sure I can argue with a straight face that Iain Banks, CS Lewis, Douglas Adams and Alan Moore are ‘hidden’ authors. I think what’s hidden, what I’m hoping to trace the lines of, is that they are linked, and not just as ‘science fiction authors’, or whatever, but a specific strain, almost a genre.

    At the moment, the best I can explain it is: ‘if you read Lanark – books like that’.

  3. Oh dear… I’m working on a novel proposal, and about 3/4 of this is in it…

    • Ha! I should have set this up as a checklist, and awarded points.

      Every idea has been done before. There is a book ‘like’ yours on the shelf already. This is true of every book. If you haven’t found it, you haven’t looked in the right place. I think there’s an optimistic and pessimistic way of looking at this.

      1. Look, best advice I ever got: trees are pretty. If you want to be a writer, then you damn well better have something prettier than a tree to write because lots of pretty trees will be dying in your name. Oh, hang on. In this day of ereaders made of mercury and lithium, this doesn’t hold quite as true. Er … where do they get mercury from? Is it really ‘swamps’ or is that just in The Power of the Daleks? Oh wait, I know – you get mercury from HG wells. You get my point, I’m sure.

      2. The more optimistic version: everyone’s different. It isn’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. You have a guy with a knife and weird eyes in your book? Well, make it a good book.

      • Andrew Hickey

        Oh, absolutely agreed – and since some of your own books fit this rather well (Warlords Of Utopia for example) I know you wouldn’t argue against writing in this genre. And given that your original post on this subject listed a huge number of my favourite writers, it’s hardly surprising.
        It’s just interesting to see not only broad strokes but also tiny details of something I’ve been working on shown up as being fairly commonplace. It won’t stop me writing it though – just stop me thinking of it as hugely original (I haven’t stopped writing three minute pop songs with verses, choruses, middle eights and a key change for the fade either…)

  4. Pingback: Linkblogging For 13/03/11 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  5. Well, indeed. Mark Clapham has observed that the reason Father Time’s ending is a bit dodgy is that Bryan Talbot hadn’t finished Heart of Empire at that point, so I couldn’t just copy that, too. This is cheeky, yet contains a kernel of truth. As I noted in my Eyeless blog, there was a point where I was taking the ‘do it Pullman style’ guidance so literally I was basically just paraphrasing The Subtle Knife. The trick is to catch yourself, be honest and adopt and adapt.

  6. (Replying to Mike’s comment)
    Wells is certainly a very obvious influence on some of these writers – and something like The Invisible Man fits parts of the checklist fairly well – but I think he’s fundamentally different, in that he’s too much of a scientific rationalist to fit in comfortably with them.
    Wells, for all that he was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, was ultimately a nineteenth-century thinker, the kind of socialist who saw socialism as the natural end point of Whiggism (like Bernard Shaw, who I think is probably closer to this strand of writing than Wells is in many ways). His entire worldview is tied up in the idea of there being a single, real, reality which can be understood by the scientific method, and the inexorable progression of history to a point where there will be bicycles for everyone and all cultural differences will have disappeared because everyone will have got a grip and started applying good common sense.
    The writers being discussed here – even people like Lewis who was mentally in the past in many ways – are a reaction to that kind of nineteenth-century materialistic optimism. They’re generally looking back at the Romantics, and especially Blake, and also at Plato and St Paul, and trying to reconcile that mystical worldview with the evident facts of science and the success of the scientific method. As Aleister Crowley put it (and I think Crowley’s influence on some of these writers can’t be overestimated, daft as the man himself was) “Our method is science, our aim is religion”.
    (This is one reason why I think Lewis fits in so well with a group of writers who are otherwise almost all avowed atheists or neo-pagans – Lewis was clearly inspired by the beauty of ancient myths, but tried to put that on as sound a logical footing as possible).

    I think fundamentally what we’re looking at here is a group of people who are inspired by what they see as self-evident truths in various myths, legends, philosophies or religions, and are trying to reconcile those truths with a world whose scientific explanations seem increasingly to leave no room for them. Whereas I think Orwell summed up Wells’ worldview quite well when he said “…because he belonged to the nineteenth century and to a non-military tradition and class, he could not grasp the tremendous strength of the old world which was symbolised in his mind by fox-hunting Tories. He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.”

    Wells is certainly a huge influence on these people, but he doesn’t quite fit, I think.

    • Wells is an influence, clearly, but I think it’s more the utopian stuff (fiction and non fiction) that’s got into the gene pool. I think most people, across the political spectrum, assumed that his vision of the future – a United World with superstition giving way to science – would play out. It’s the backstory of Star Trek, for example, almost word for word.

      Of his contemporaries, I think the interesting ‘is he or isn’t he?’ is Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is a hugely influential character, that Oscar Wilde era stuff is a playground a lot of authors I’m talking about like. A fair few of them – Moorcock, Chabon, Moore, others I’m sure – have written Holmes stories. And Conan Doyle has a supernatural side – a very rationalist one, though. He doesn’t go all mystical. For him, it’s something that can be observed and measured.

      And Wilde himself is a huge influence. Although I think that’s because we writers like the idea of getting away with poncing around in velvet jackets throwing off bon mots. In real life, this doesn’t work. Hint: telling US Customs officials you have nothing to declare but your genius is not a tactic that will increase the speed you get through immigration. But when I get around to my essays on utopias, it’s Wilde who seems to lay a lot of the groundwork and offer a more forward-looking vision than Morris or Signac.

      • Andrew Hickey

        Yeah. Had my comment not been so epic in length already, I would definitely have mentioned that The Picture Of Dorian Gray in particular is a precursor to this tradition. And you’re right of course about Doyle.

      • On Conan-Doyle as a “rationalist” supernaturalist: UWGB Geology Professor Steven Dutch makes a convincing case that he was anything but, in his article at

        Key quote: “Holmes is infallible because Doyle writes him that way. He scans the evidence, zeroes in unerringly on the correct interpretation, and rarely has to revise his hypotheses. That’s part of his immense appeal. Holmes invariably arrives at the correct solutions, rarely examines alternative explanations except to dispose of them, never encounters evidence that is so ambiguous it cannot be used, and generally views formulating a plausible hypothesis as the solution to the problem.

        Given this essentially mystical view of the scientific method, where intuitive methods are infallible and never need correction, it is no mystery at all how Doyle could be a credulous spiritualist. Holmes embodies Conan Doyle’s fantasies of omnipotent scientific intuition, which Doyle acted out himself in his investigations of spiritualism. The contrast between Holmes and Doyle is the contrast between how well this approach works in fantasy versus how well it works in real life.”

        BTW., I highly recommend Dutch’s collection of essays on the broad topic of “Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism”, of which this is one.

  7. And after writing all that I realise Mike was commenting on the aside about mercury, not suggesting that Wells belongs to this group of authors. Oh well.

    • Yes, I was indeed only tweaking the capitalisation. But not to fear, I read your comment anyway and found it typically insightful and thought-provoking. (Oh, and I read all of S:JL this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.)

      • Andrew Hickey

        Glad you liked it – it was in part your criticisms of the book before that that got me to get some reader feedback before publishing, and the structural changes from that added a lot. (And I’ll shut up now because this isn’t my blog…)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s