Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Making the Leap

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One of September’s THIN AIR Mainstages introduced audiences to new work by three high-powered science fiction writers: Nick DiChario read from Valley of Day-Glo, Robert Charles Wilson read from Julian Comstock, and Robert J Sawyer read from Wake. After the intermission, the four of us had a free-wheeling conversation about these books and this genre.

It’s exciting to travel alongside practiced dreamers like these guys. They allow present trajectories of politics and economics and environmental challenge to carry us away and deposit us in places that are both familiar and strange. Their alternate realities, whether near or far, have such impact because they observe very frankly what is true now. They see how we live and what we value, they cast back on historical patterns—and then they speculate. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but it certainly is compelling.

Each of these novels is serious, and the writers are too. But I was struck by how often even dire situations are lit up by wit, so I asked them about that. Sawyer was first out of the gate. He pointed out that science fiction (or speculative fiction, as some writers prefer) is explicitly engaged in pushing past what is known, confronting the reader with new possibilities that are often surprising. That surprise factor is also what generates laughter. As he put it, there’s only the smallest leap between “a-ha!” and “ha-ha!” I would happily have settled for that, but his stage-mates were already riffing on possibilities, adding “ah…” and “awe” and “aaaahhhhh” to the equation.

In essence these three thinkers were lining up curiosity, discovery, delight, wonder—I think that’s a great way to think about wit. It’s so often equated with humour but ultimately wit is much bigger than that. It calls on one’s ability (and willingness) to consider competing notions at once, in the moment, and to find delight and insight in that mental effort.

I’m willing to wager that all art forms depend on wit. Artists make connections, it’s what they do. I think jazz is a special case, though—it actually celebrates wit. The whole impulse of this music is to hold different angles and points of view in suspension, to challenge structures while upholding them, to push against personal limits while offering your most intimate awareness—and to share the joy and danger of making these leaps on the fly, without a safety net.

Even those who aren’t accomplished writers or musicians can benefit from living with a little more wit. I used to challenge my writing students to choose three wildly different words, then find a meaningful sentence to hold them together. They never got stumped. Try it. With some practice, you’ll be surprising yourself with your own flashes of dexterity, subtlety, extravagance, depth, daring. You might even laugh.

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