“’Books are worthless,’ Abrenuncio said with good humor.” – from Of Love and Other Demons.
It is hard to resist the pull of hagiographic adulation when writing about an author such as Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, who died on 17 April. He was one of the most beloved literary figures of the 20th Century and his major novels quickly became classics. He was an avatar (if not progenitor) of “La Boom,” the explosion of Latin American literature onto the world stage in the 1960s. Quotable, avuncular, and enigmatic, García Márquez is a figure of great importance in world literature, the most lauded practitioner of “magical realism” in fiction. He is, in a way, a saint of letters.
Not long ago there was an acrimonious discussion online of what constituted “being a fan” of Science Fiction that focused in great measure on what one did or did not read. I started to write a response to that debate but after I read the first part of it I felt. . . sad. I was a bit angry at myself too, annoyed that I was writing some kind of defense for my taste in reading. So I put it aside and went back to reading stories from my staggering pile of books to-be-read. Part of the stack contained several works by the late SF writer Charles Sheffield, who primarily wrote a fusion of hard SF and space opera. He was going to be the focus of a Three Hoarsemen podcast (and you can hear the results of that here) so I dug in and read. While I was able to get through The Compleat McAndrew collection of short stories, I could not finish either The Mind Pool or Between the Strokes of Night. I kept putting them down and picking up other books to read (or even re-read), such as Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (discussed in the podcast), Nick Mamatas’ Love is the Law and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria. I found myself much more engaged by them, to the point where I realized that, in a way, I was no longer a “fan” of Science Fiction (or SFF), but a literary wanderer roaming widely to find new moments of fantasy to savor and ponder. But I wasn’t just looking for “fantasy” the genre, either as an inversion of SF or an encompassing category, but for writing that challenged the idea of what was real and how we make things real.
“The way things happen, not the great movements of time but the ordinary things that make us what we are, the savage accidents of our births, the simple lusts that because of whimsy or a challenge to one’s pride become transformed into complex tragedies of love, the heartless operations of change, the wild sweetness of other souls that intersect the orbits of our lives, travel along the same course for a while, then angle off into oblivion, leaving no formal shape for us to consider, no easily comprehensible pattern from which we may derive enlightenment…I often wonder why it is when stories are contrived from such materials as these, the storyteller is generally persuaded to perfume the raw stink of life, to replace bloody loss with talk of noble sacrifice, to reduce the grievous to the wistfully sad.” from “Barnacle Bill The Spacer,” by Lucius Shepard.
“[A]mbiguity is a feature of most of my work and I’m used to writing in that mode. As far as the reader’s interpretation goes, I wanted to keep them guessing for a while, but I think that by story’s end it’s pretty clear what’s going on.” – Lucius Shepard
I had a dream two nights after I found out that Lucius Shepard had died. In it I owned a huge, modern house with lots of windows and ramps and angles to the roof, surrounded by a perfectly mowed lawn. I sat in a barcalounger and drank fizzy drinks from wine glasses thin as straws and laughed at those passing by on the busy road nearby, desperately trying to get somewhere in their lives. I watched mummers covered in glitter dance on a wall screen and ignored the cries of those outside. Until I looked out the window and saw that they had all stopped their cars and were crowding on my lawn, erecting a great pavilion of leaves and burlap and scalps. They all shaved themselves and painted each other purple and then massed under the great tent they had built to berate me for trying to wall myself off from the world, until the noise shattered all the windows and the house collapsed around me. That was when I woke up.
“If there is one single message we should take from science fiction, it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.” – Damien Walter
One of the primary appeals of fantastika in all of its forms is the notion that it stretches our imagination, that it tests the boundaries of possibility and creates impossibilities that challenge and seduce us. We wonder at what science can do or ponder what darkness lies within us, conjure worlds and paradigms for living and thinking in different ways. Fantastika is about telling stories that are not limited, that reach beyond what might or can be. That idea of unbounded potential, expressed in fiction, draws many readers to the works of the field.
That idea arises frequently across the history of fantastika.
“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.
“Most terrible about the dead was the way in which they did not, could not, could never, could never even hope to change.” Joanna Russ, from “Poor Man, Beggar Man.”
“It’s no use reminding yourself daily that you are mortal: it will be brought home to you soon enough” – Albert Camus
I have a significant fear of dying. Not of death, mind you; at that point it’s all over and there is nothing left to feel (so I believe, anyway). No, what terrifies me, what suddenly sends a shudder and a moan through my body at unpredictable moments, is the thought of the moment of cessation, of that last instance of experiencing the world before experience ends. What makes it so affecting is its inevitability, its finality. It is the most real thing that happens to us, because it is the one thing that will happen to all us, that we all know awaits us.
“‘Are you my friend?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she said truthfully, ‘whether or not you’re a puppet.” – Berun and Churls, No Return, p. 259.
I’ve been reading a lot the past few months but not writing about it, so this week I thought that I would look at a book that is due more attention. There’s been a lot of discussion about negative reviews and author/reviewer interactions lately, and I thought the best way to respond to this was to actually talk about fantastic literature rather than the discourse around it.
“What makes SF compelling is not the ‘sense of wonder’ it can generate or its unmooring from reality, but that it creates a sort of lyrical transgression that can dissolve and redefine boundaries.”
Bear with me; I am going to meander a bit.
I am writing a chapter for Terra Ficta on displacement, transport, and escape in fantastika, and I am examining all the ways that readers and writers and observers (reviewers, critics, fans, etc.) of literature characterize the feeling of being removed from the world around them by a narrative. We humans seem to have a hunger for narrative, for ways to structure experience and action and the world. Sometimes we want narratives that reflect the world, as we or others understand it, and other times we want narratives that do not reflect “reality,” even if they comment on or question it. But what we also want is to be removed from the world, to be even momentarily taken somewhere else where our hopes and despairs can be released and exercised. As I write about this topic, I am looking at my own reading experience and finding out what feeds me in fantastic literature. One realization I have had is that what drew me specifically to science fiction as a teenager was the way in which it tried to blend aspects of reality with extrapolation and wonder and generate a feeling of (often ecstatic) release, which is often characterized as “sense of wonder.”
“One of the liberating effects of science fiction when I was a teenager was precisely its ability to tune me into all sorts of strange data and make me realize that I wasn’t as totally isolated in perceiving the world as being monstrous and crazy” ? William Gibson
This past week I have been reading a series of blog posts over at Bookworm Blues with the title “What Speculative Fiction has Taught Me.” As of the submission of this column three people have written posts in the series: the blog owner herself and guests Zachary Jernigan, Matt Gillard and Matthew Jenks. In each one the writer extols the virtues of Speculative Fiction and details the positive things the genre has bestowed upon them, ideas, wonders, and inspirations. I considered requesting a slot in the series myself, but as I thought about the subject I realized that my take was different, not just in content or experience but in the very framing of the statement. Speculative Fiction has not been a teacher so much as a field of provocative stories and imaginings that have both enlightened and scourged me. What I have gleaned is not just some sense of identity or shared pleasure or the highly-prized sense of wonder; I have been led astray by speculative fiction, castigated by it, had my heart broken by it, been disappointed and outraged by it. For all of the positivist and progressive characterizations of Speculative Fiction, I have found something more complicated, bothersome, and challenging in the works I have read and re-read in the genre.
“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life…” Viktor Shklovsky
“For the apparent realism, or representationality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us ‘images’ of the future-whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their ‘materialization’-but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization” – Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, p. 286.
I begin this week with one simple quotation, taken spectacularly out of context, and a very complex one that hits the mark like grapeshot at point-blank range (and with about the same subtlety). I discovered the work of Viktor Shklovsky, one of the premiere Russian Formalist thinkers, only a couple of years ago, but his ideas have cracked open and lit up some corners of the literary experience for me in profound ways. What unites his quotation and the long one from Jameson is that they both deal with the practice of ostranenie, of alienation/defamiliarization/estrangement (depending on your translation and intentions). Estrangement, the effect generated by a literary narrative that creates conceptual distance from the literal and commonly-accepted and thus permits imaginative transport, is the device we use to turn everyday words and stories into art. Ostranenie is the term that Shklovsky (thought he) coined for this process. As he puts it:
“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” – Heinrich Heine, “Lutetia; or, Paris,” Augsberg Gazette, 1842
I have been back from Readercon now for several days, and ideas are still bouncing around in my head. I have a list of topics I want to discuss, all at once. But this week I want to trace a line of thought that popped up unexpectedly during a panel discussion that I was leading. The panel was on “Comforting Fiction: Faux Estrangement in Fantasy” and we were discussing the notion of estrangement versus recognition. John Clute asserted that the distinction is a false dichotomy, that there is no one or the other. My immediate response in my head was “Huh. Maybe this explains my love affair with apocalypticism.”
“He could not map the alterity he felt.” – China Miéville, Iron Council
“I don’t really think that ‘disbelief’ is an action, anyway. I don’t think it can be ‘suspended’. It suggests that we exist in a constant state of disbelief that we have to suspend in order to respond to fantasy. This is . . . odd.” – Harry Dewulf
By the time you read this I shall be at (or have been to) Readercon, where I am giving a talk on the problems inherent in the idea of “willing suspension of disbelief” and the ways that different disciplines (from neuroscience to literary criticism) address those problems. The term is used as a way to understand the experience of reading fiction, but in its common usage it misconstrues our relationship with fiction and how the act of reading works. What I hope to demonstrate in my presentation is that “willing suspension of disbelief” needs to be re-conceived (as a number of analysts and critics have already noted) into an idea that more fruitfully characterizes how we read fantastic literature. Given that I am finishing the presentation as I write this, I thought that I would share some of the ideas that I’ve been mulling over as I examine the concept.
“Utopia is that which is in contradiction with reality.” – Albert Camus
“There is no way I can avoid thinking about the kind of world I belong to. The abuse of utopias disfigures everything.” – Floriano Martins
(Note: this is an edited excerpt from a longer discussion of the book that I hope to publish later. I’ll be discussing this book at Readercon 24’s Recent Fiction Book Club panel; the schedule is up at my blog. Also, some SPOILERS ahead for the book)
There are many things that I love about reading a novel, and one of them is when my expectations are inverted, tossed about, and I gain not just a new perspective on the narrative, but on my own thoughts. Robert Jackson Bennett’s latest novel American Elsewhere does that, but does not accomplish a singular objective so much as give the reader’s imagination a rich, sometimes messy terrain to explore. It is an SF novel, a horror novel, a broadside against Great American Novels, and an exceptional reading experience that became, to me, a meditation on and satire of the notion of utopia.
I’ve been reading a lot about reading recently, and it struck me the other day that a lot of the scientific research on the topic (at least, what I have read so far) doesn’t care much about the format of what is being read. Most experiments focus on individual words or short-form prose and are interested in either tracking identification of symbols or uncovering a psychological effect (such as Maya Djikic’s recent experiment with fiction and ambiguity). When genre or form are evoked the major criterion seems to be whether the selection is fiction or non-fiction. It seems to me that such an approach misses something about the act of reading by not considering the effect of formatting and presentation of the words, of the spatial and physical setting of the words.
‘”Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their ‘women cattle and slaves’ is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.
As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make.” – Kameron Hurley
“But history should not be a straightjacket! ‘Historical accuracy’ should never be used as a cudgel to bash down ideas — to blithely declare something ‘unrealistic’ is insulting to the variety of the historical human experience.” – Django Wexler
I’ve been following a discussion for the past several days about women as warriors (and, more broadly, as active characters) in fantasy fiction. This discussion has a much longer history than that, but I think that Kameron Hurley’s essay, linked to above, re-energized the conversation and provided a lot for me to think about as a reader and fiction writer. I also read Django Wexler’s long post (also linked above) about the conditions that could or could not produce a class of female warriors. Taken together, they are a powerful argument for broadening the options for a level of agency of female characters in fantastic literature, particularly of the “fantasy” subset.
“It is unfortunate to me that we have to classify reading fiction as anything other than what it is. Why must it be escaping “from” something? If it has to be escapism, aren’t we escaping “to” something? Does the distinction matter? I’m not sure.” Carl V. Anderson
“Escapism is a social practice and a cultural stereotype, not an inherent characteristic of the fantastic. It is an exaggeration of the word escape itself, which does not mean ‘to lose oneself in another world,’ but to elude something that constrains you.” from “The Inevitable Reduction of the Imagination and its Opportunities: A Brief Exploration“
The last time I wrote about escapism I was trying to get a better handle on the term and its implications. As a response to that column, Carl V. Anderson asked a very pertinent question about the literary idea of escape: what are we escaping to? I’ve thought about this on and off but it wasn’t until I read Foz Meadows’ article at A Dribble of Ink last week that something clicked in my thinking about this idea. Or, more to the point, altered my perspective on the dynamic aspect of this idea. Meadows’ piece starts slowly but builds to a very incisive conclusion:
“By ‘exhaustion’ I don’t mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral, or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities–by no means necessarily a cause for despair.”
“And as in the original John Barth essay, exhaustion is not meant as a term of despair, but as a call for people (and that means all of us, writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers, gatekeepers, whatever) to think a little more seriously about what we want science fiction to be. ”
Exhaustion has been on my mind a lot lately. It has been present personally as I try to improve my health, work, and just live my life. I have felt a little exhausted in terms of writing, somewhat paradoxically as I have a queue of reviews and stories and chapters to write. And I have been thinking a lot about literary exhaustion, particularly the problems of SF as “exhausted” that Paul Kincaid recently put forth and “fantasy” as often conservative (and thus limited and unlikely to innovate), which I think falls under the rubric of “exhausted.” Both of these ideas posit a profound dysfunction within each genre rooted in the “used-upness” of conventions and their potential to relate something fresh to the reader. This week I want to consider the idea of exhaustion as a way to think more usefully and critically about these problems, which I believe are actually inevitable opportunities for writers and readers to invigorate the stories they create and engage.
“[R]eading is as much a strategic enterprise as the work itself. To read, then, is to engage in one set of strategies in order to decipher another set.” – Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 185.
“Imagination and reality can be in cahoots, not at daggers drawn.” – ibid, p. 127.
I’ve been ill for the past several weeks and not writing very much, but I have been doing some reading, and I just finished Terry Eagleton’s new book The Event of Literature. It is a sometimes snarky, often erudite discussion of what literature is and is not, and a wide-ranging discussion of ways to conceive of literature and the significance of doing so. As I read I couldn’t help but think not just of the idea of literature writ large, but of the subset of fantastic literature. Reading the book (which I recommend to anyone who wants to think more about the meaning of literature, the self, and the life of the mind) stimulated my thinking on the nature of fantastic literature, and what I want to do this week is to present some of those thoughts and consider how they might relate to the reading of fantastika.
I enjoy following debates both large and small about the vitality or exhaustion of genre fiction; they can tell you a lot about how literature is received and related to by readers. Muses know I love a good debate about the death of SF or the power of fantastic literature, but this week I want to engage with stories rather than polemical positions. I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction collections in the fantastic vein recently and what I’ve found in them is a vitality and pushing of boundaries that is, for me, what makes fantastic fiction exciting and intriguing. What these collections demonstrate is that that fantastika, in the broadest sense, is still fertile ground for wonderful, challenging stories.
“Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.” – N. K. Jemisin
“[I]t is a quintessential if not defining characteristic of epic to refer back to and revise what went before. . . .” – Catherine Bates, The Cambridge Companion to the Epic
I’ve been following the discussion that arose at the end of last week when someone at Gollancz tweeted a serious, if somewhat loaded, question:
A lengthy debate spread across the Vales of Tweet with many responses, including my own: