“Fiction helps me to reconnect with the true, deep weirdness inherent in everyday reality, in our dealings with one another, in just being alive.”– Karen Russell
I am currently working on two projects that have the side effect of encouraging me to look at my personal history of reading and literary engagement. One question that comes up over and over is that of why I gravitated towards fantastika and weird fiction and various strange and challenging writings. Last week I talked about one aspect of that, of how I engaged fantastic literature to deal with my fears of death and grasp my mortality. But I realized as I talked about Samuel Delany’s Nova on the Three Hoarsemen podcast this week that I had only dealt with part of the question. It wasn’t just the inevitable end that concerned me, but the conduct of life itself, the apprehension of reality and the living of it, what the nature of history and the potential paths from the present to the future were.
As I articulated what the novel meant to me, I realized that it was part of a transitional moment in my life, when I abandoned a defensive, passive position for a more active one. Up until the time my family was ejected from the Christian fundamentalist church we had served, I had adapted to the world around me, one that, without going into details, was not a pleasant one. I bent with changes, shielded myself, and reduced all possibilities to either doing what I was told or retreating. The one place where this was not true was in my reading, which was a significant factor in my becoming the most stereotypical of bookworms. I retreated into books, and they told me of lives and situations so unlike mine that I could forget (but definitely not escape) the life that I was mired in. Perhaps it was inevitable that, as I needed to fall back farther and farther from the world, I started looking for new places to go, for elsewheres more unlike what the larger world offered.
Children rarely have much control in their lives, but I can safely say that I had no control growing up, until as a teenager I finally found the ability to take it. But I did not find it in school, or in the church, or even in the transitory friendships that I occasionally cobbled together. (I went to thirteen different schools in three states and two countries before high school.) I found it in the potential to think outside of common ideas of the real. I found it, gradually and increasingly, by reading weird literature.
What drew me to SF and then to fantastika was possibility, the idea that fate is not fated, but that is emerged from an unfolding present that can be shifted into unexpected directions. Except for a brief flirtation with space opera and some heavy thinking about physics and the nature of reality (such as Rudy Rucker’s writing), I didn’t really care about the science in SF. I was not interested in that variety of speculation. SF was in some ways a bridge to stranger things. When I initially moved into reading SF, I did through books that tried to get the science right, but I realized after a few dozen books that what I wanted was not a lesson in future technology, but challenges to the direction of the present. That was what I needed as a teenager, and what I keep coming back for in fantastic/weird literature.
I didn’t need heroes or Chosen Ones, because I was neither. I gravitated towards antiheroes, towards doomed souls and fallible protagonists, because I needed to know that those people has some chance, no matter how small, to make a new way forward in their lives and in the story of the world. I needed to be told that it might be possible for the future to be something you could touch, maybe shape, at least resist to some degree. I also needed to know that, sometimes, you don’t win, sometimes you are crushed or manipulated by the people and forces around you, but that you can still struggle, try to keep some sliver of hope or dignity, even if it is snuffed out. Those lessons combined with other factors — staying in the same high school for four years, making lasting friends, being encouraged and mentored by a few of my teachers — to make me realize that the way I had been forced to live as a child was not the only way to survive, and was certainly no way to thrive and build a better life.
This is why fantastic literature means so much to me, why I invest it with so much potential meaning and intensely feel its effects. I would never say that it “saved” me, because (a) that’s an inadequate way to see it, and (b) that doesn’t cover what I get out of reading and writing and thinking about it. But it has inspired — and disappointed — me in ways that keep reminding me life is not set, that our stories of reality aren’t all true, and that the world around us is something that we shape and resist and reproduce. This is also why I seek out books that are challenging, uncomfortable, and sometimes not very good: the search for something different, weird, surprising, unnerving gives me the fuel that keeps me going. The best weird literature savages the familiar, the rote and the average. And when it doesn’t, I often learn something too, that the struggle to make one’s life better, to try to make other people’s lives better, is eternally ongoing. As I noted in another essay on weirdness:
“[W]ithout our expectations being undermined we never think differently, adjust our standpoint, or discover inspiration. Some weird ideas may repulse you, some may fail to impress you, and others may be incomprehensible, but those are the risks and pitfalls of the weird, both in reading it and in doing your thinking through the notion that reality is not just open to question but that it is a temporary, contingent answer that we reify or re-evaluate frequently. The weird’s uncanniness, its marvelousness and confrontation with the imputed inevitable is an invitation to revisit our answers and periodically see them from another vantage point, through a new lens, in a different spectrum of colors.”
Fantastika, especially the weird stuff, has given me, and continues to give me, that vantage point, which I fiercely hope I will never yield.