“It is one’s own daydreams that provide the mythopoeic power” – Joanna Russ
Last week I was fortunate to be part of an SF Signal panel that answered the question: “What was the last genre book that blew your mind?” There were a variety of titles chosen, and most of the discussion focused on telling other panelists and the listener what made each book “mind-blowing.” The books included Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, Paul Jessup’s Open Your Eyes, and Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, each of which is a very different book from the others. As we discussed these books, I began to wonder how these books achieved this heightened status, and from there I began to contemplate the question: how does a work of literature “blow our mind?”
The concept that something can be “mind-blowing” is a recent one. The term became popular in the 1960s first to describe the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. As it proliferated in usage its application expanded, and eventually included anything that was startling or intensely affecting. It is now found in a variety of contexts, and has been used in fantastika in book titles, in discussions about the literature, and sometimes in relation to works that might not seem to fit the term. It is a term that relates to a type of encounter, but that is often subjective and used to communicate an intense personal experience to others in a way that sets them into a similar relationship to the source or effect that is “mind-blowing.”
The words gets an enormous amount of usage; one can easily find tens of millions of hits on Google. It is applied in so many contexts, in fact, that it seems to have a multitude of uses. In fantastic literature, something that is “mindblowing” is a special sort of text; it has not just surprised us, it has managed to stimulate us into being pleased and disturbed simultaneously. “Mind-blowing” is emotional, felt sharply, and is exciting but in some degree unnerving or excessive. The term is used with a combination of hyperbole and appreciation, and it is often not easy for a reader to explain the quality’s eruption in a particular text to others.
When I talked about my candidate for the podcast topic, I found that a quick summary of the plot and theme was impoverished; I could not relate quickly what made my choice so mind-blowing. When I switched to a more literary analysis, I realized that it would take too long to demonstrate my meaning. It wasn’t until I tried to use more allusion and direct example that I felt I was getting my point across; people asked about the opening scene, where a woman is impregnated by a supernova, for example. I found this to be true in varying amounts with the other descriptions as well; it wasn’t until the speaker revealed the effects of the book on their mind and feelings, pinpointed specific moments or aspects that shook their preconceptions, that you could begin to sense what made their offering so powerful to them.
And this is the great complication with the idea of a mind-blowing work; the reaction is often a tangled one that lies in the interface between the reader and text, within the reader’s imagination stimulated and playing off of the creativity of the text’s composition. We try to refer back to feelings we had at the moment of reading, in the accumulation of reactions and struggles with preconceptions and revelations, and in the final cognitive condensation of our experience in absorbing the words and their associations, mingled with our own imagination and knowledge. It can sometimes be easy to call something “mind-blowing” but the works that really do fit that designation can be the ones we have the most trouble elucidating. I believe this is because the work’s effects are not just intense or distinctive, but that they have a profound effect on your imagination’s, subverting, overloading, perhaps even broadening them.
The definition of “psychedelic” seems as applicable as “overwhelming” when describing a mind-blowing piece of literature that really fits the bill. A mind-blowing book is not just good, it is inordinately effective, superceding the meaning of the words and bypassing our usual tastes and assumptions by delivering an unexpected, powerful message to the reader. This message lingers in our minds, and we can access the sensation again and again, engage the combination of pleasure, bewilderment, and even transcendence that was discovered in the text. It doesn’t just remain in your memory, it infiltrates your mind, changes the way you might normally look at a story, perhaps makes you look at the world or your own ideas differently.
When you experience this with a work of fiction, it becomes a psychedelic experience; the reader obtains a sensation from the text that is shocking, uplifting, perception-altering. The words are active, not just thrilling or edifying but able to change the way we normally view and interpret words. We cannot speak of it as just an organized collection of symbols, as merely a tale well-told. We have to attempt to convince others of the geniune nature of what touched and shook us about the work. We have to impart the awareness that it generated in our internal vision, the gratification of a new discovery that persists and lodges in our thoughts. We have to share the delight and dislocation, the feeling of transport into an intimate relationship with the text, the gift of something unanticipated that enlivens our imagination.
When we cultivate that, and try to pass it on to others, we don’t duplicate the experience, for them but rather invite others, dare them perhaps, to see literature, the world, and possibly even themselves in a different way.