“I prefer perplexity, doubt, uncertainty, not just because it provides a more ‘productive’ literary raw material, but because that is the way we humans really are.” – Jose Saramago

“It led to what I shall call a culture of uncertainty taking ahold of the artistic imagination. Intellectual uncertainties challenged the greatest artists and writers to explore the limits of human knowledge, and the problems and dilemmas that result from these, and in doing so examine the complex relationship between reality and illusion, fact and fiction. This led to the creation of works of art and literature which in turn sought to challenge the viewer/reader.” – Jeremy Robbins

Some of you may have noticed that I took a sort of break last week, turning in a review instead of the regular column. I was finishing what will hopefully be my first non-fiction sale in some time and preparing for my yearly pilgrimage to Readercon, which is my favorite convention, bar none. The panels and conversations and the unique sensory overload of discussing and being around books for a long weekend has a profound, nearly hallucinogenic effect upon my mind, and I come away from Readercon brimming with new insights and ideas and a renewed vigor to write. The next few columns will be meditations and cogitations on some of the thoughts and revelations bubbling out of my head from those three days.

The first topic I want to discuss is uncertainty in fantastika, which popped up not just during the panel “The (Re)turn of the Screw.” The panel was asked to discuss the return of a certain lack of clarity in the fantastic, but much more time was spent refuting the premise and focusing instead on the question of uncertainty. This notion surfaced as an issue in a few other panels, such as the one on “Surrealism and Strong Emotions” and, in somewhat different fashion, during the panel on “Plausible Miracles and Eucatastrophe.” What arose frequently in the panel discussions, and most strongly in the first one I have listed, was a question about the intersection between intention, interpretation, and the instability that arises between expectation and assimilation of a text. Uncertainly is decried by some readers, lauded by others, and an issue which writers often struggle with both creatively and in the aftermath of their texts’ reception. At the same time, the production and experience of uncertainty is ambivalent and, well, uncertain. As the quotation from Robbins above demonstrates, uncertainty has been a part of literature for some time, although we should probably resist comparisons between the current era and the Baroque. Rather than see it as a problem, or merely a variable of language, which would just make it into a state, I want to ponder this disturbing, fluid contention in relation to the vitality of fantastika and how it appears in a few instances.


The term uncertainty has several meanings; it both represents a state of being not certain, “an instance of uncertainty, doubt, etc.,” but also means “unpredictability; indeterminacy; indefiniteness.” I am interested in the more dynamic, indefinite form, as something active that is produced by interaction with a text and takes on a life of its own. When the idea of uncertainty came up during the panels, it was a disquietous effect in progress, a reaction or understanding that arose from reading the text. It was linked to language and intention, and more specifically embedded in the question of the stability of the fantastic, of the moments where a reader must determine the nature of the quirk and the effect of the warp (with apologies to Hal Duncan if I improperly use his terms for discussing narrative modality; they are still rather new to me but in need of more application). Shoulds and woulds and coulds must be sorted with the added elements of refuting realism and redefining what is natural. Uncertainty was not just of the “normal” sort, but further empowered by weirdness and the slipperiness of the accumulated meaning of words referring to the unreal.

It was not until Caitlín R. Kiernan pointed out the thread of uncertainty running through other discussions during the “Screw” panel (which was on Sunday and thus the last of the three panels) that I immediately started scrolling back through my notes and tweets about previous panels. Uncertainty hung from the edges of other conversations, like a curling thread you want to pull to see if it actually unravels your garment. In the Eucatastrophe panel there was talk about the suddenness of and joy in unexpected salvation, but soon the panelists decided that these miracles of the moment were deeply embedded, had to be deeply embedded, in a story for the unhoped for boon to be believable to the readers. Dei ex machina, noted to be a pejorative term, defied logic and were used by authors to address problems that had cropped up in their story that they could not organically deal with; a eucatastrophe, like the resolution of a good mystery novel, had to have the clues to its coming woven into the narrative at some level, so that the reader could see that it was, if not inevitable, at least trying to not be late for the climax. A eucatastrophe, then, is all about a meta- certitude, whether divine or logically engineered by the narrative.

In the Surrealism panel, which also included Kiernan and Michael Cisco, there was uncertainty about what surrealism actually was, and what it should be used for. I was quite taken with Peter Dubé‘s idea that surrealism should be “bringing together disparate objections to create a sudden shock of recognition beyond the parameters of what we normally experience.” But while this can be crafted intentionally, or hopefully, what creates the false feeling of electricity crawling up your nerves is uncertainty, a poignancy you cannot trace, as Michael Cisco put it. Sometimes there is a formalism to the surreal, and sometimes it is brashly uncertain. Consider, for example, the opening of Paul Jessup’s Open Your Eyes, which has a character making love to, and being impregnated by, a supernova. Uncertainty is fully present until the reader accepts this premise, and in that acceptance does not find certainty, but is opened up to uncertainty as central to the story.

What all of this uncertainty emerges from is, of course, language. As Edward L. Galligan put it:

“Outrageous as it may seem to ideologues, a generous amount of uncertainty is an essential lubricant for human communication. If the same word couldn’t carry different meanings under different circumstances and different contexts, if many words didn’t possess emotional connotations as well as intellectual denotations, if we didn’t have to keep finding different ways of saying much the same thing, conversation would lose all of its savor and social life would wither. If words were in a simple, firm, one-to-one relationship with the concepts and things they refer to, the simplest books would be too heavy to carry in a wheelbarrow.”

Uncertainty is about play, in both its common and root meaning, which is to “move freely.” A great example of the play of uncertainty (for it is, even in dire and failing moments, playful, potentially ludic and chimeric) is Ekaterina Sedia’s recent novel The House of Discarded Dreams. Even with its bildungsroman, quest-like framework, its fusion of portal and liminal fantasy, and its references to folklore, Dreams is about uncertainty in many forms. Any certainties are quickly unmoored (literally) by the start of the heroine’s journey, and both rich metaphors and surreal moments conspire to undermine the reader’s sense of stability. There are rules, but they are constantly broken. Miracles happen, but they are created by the characters themselves, by their ability to create unreliable narratives, to rethink stories, to discover their power to rewrite the rules. Uncertainty, bucking the narrative, is essential to progress and liberation.

In fact, without the cacophony of uncertainties that blossom and wither throughout the novel, the heroine’s journey of understanding would be impossible.

Uncertainty is highly productive, as Saramago noted. What do you learn from a text that strives for certainty other than what the storyteller wants you to learn? What do you learn about yourself? So many stories overlay a veneer of uncertainty, of quirkiness or surprise, onto conventional structures and progressions to give them the appearance of difference, that sometimes the truly original and provocative are lost or devalued because what many readers want is the illusion of certainty substantiated with some inconsequential uncertainty, a combination that leads to an end, a real dead-stop or a clear continuation. But what is certainty productive of, other than a false moment of security that fades away when your mind ponders it for too long, or it just gets discarded or forgotten?

I mean, consider the lilies:

Comedic effects aside (but only a little bit to the side, since they are fused with the uncertainty), this scene is a lovely example of uncertainty in action. The only certitude here is that everyone will act foolishly, that no one will really see what’s going on, even our implicit narrator Brian, who misreads the situation and can only think obsessively of getting away. His attempt to trick the Romans works despite its horrible execution, and his ability to escape his sudden coterie of followers only works because they are too wrapped up in sudden rhapsody at their new master’s cryptic teachings which hint at a promise that comes solely from their own hopes (for, as Henri Frederic Amiel has pointed out, “”Uncertainty is the refuge of hope.”). What makes this effective, and memorable, and even something to ponder long after the film is over, is the brimming, well-timed uncertainty that twists and enlivens every part of the scene.

Of course, movies cheat, especially the best ones.

The fantastic is conjured from uncertainty, from flashes of insight, from fevered writing that digs the inexplicable from the recesses of a writer’s mind, from heat on the skin and the textures of dreams. Its stories emergesfrom uncertainty, and cannot explain it, only try to communicate it, try to bridge the gaps between writer and reader and words and the real and refractions of the real that we take in with our vision. If magic were to be “real,” as Geoff Ryman characterized it, it would be uncertain, just like life, just like our struggle to live. All narrators are unreliable (as Kiernan noted), whether they are writing a story, “talking” from within it, or in its retelling it in a reader’s head as their eyes flicker across the page. We are all unreliable, and perhaps that is why many of us look for certitude, why stories that give that to us are more prevalent and validated and sought after

Perhaps all of those realist, certitudinous, unquirky stories are the most uncertain works of all, desperately or meticulously trying to stave off uncertainty with a veneer of unity and actuality, trying to control language and perception and cogitation to make a single path, a discernable, concretized ending in their narrative. They create an edifice that tries to hide its imperfections, ignore its asides and faults, shores up weak points by trying to smooth the surface for the reader’s eye, leading them most willingly to a point of satisfaction that does its best to ignore the world around it, the way we and story continues to move through time and percolate in the mind.

Filed under: ColumnsThe Bellowing Ogre

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