“This is one of the effects of reading weird fiction: it does not dictate your imaginative path, but impels you to make your own.” – from “The Weirdness Addendum.”
At year’s end I finished reading the massive anthology The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I’ve been digesting it ever since. It was a humongous capstone to an edifice of weird anthologies for the year that included their Odd? anthology and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities project. At the end of reading The Weird I found I needed a period of time to absorb what I had read, as I took a “devour the whole thing” approach to it. Now, with some time to reflect on it, I want to write about some thoughts and ideas that have resulted from that reading. Rather than write a standard review, which seems difficult to do, I want to reflect on. . . not what I have learned necessarily, but what that reading has done to stimulate my thinking and my imagination.
“Although literary texts may be special, the instruments of thought used to invent and interpret them are basic to everyday thought. Written works called narratives or stories may be shelved in a special section of the bookstore, but the mental instrument I call narrative or story is basic to human thinking.” – Mark Turner
I have been thinking a lot about last week’s column, because I feel I did half of the job the title promised the reader. I talked at length about the problem of reification and duality in how we think of the purpose of fiction, but I did not get into the “shading” very deeply. This week I want to talk more about that, partly responding to and building on comments from last week, and also bringing in some ideas I have been gleaning about the linkages between cognition and fiction, pleasure and imagination, and the struggle between understanding and perplexity. Perplexity is an element in reading apprehension that, I am beginning to think, gives works of fantastika a distinctive power by creating challenges for our cognition (some of which have gradually become less challenging) and effecting pleasure as we negotiate these challenges, even those that may be more prosaic than we would like to believe.
“Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.” – David Foster Wallace
“I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.” – David Foster Wallace
This week I am going to rove far afield from the meadows and wastelands of fantastika, just for a little while. I am going to conduct a border raid into the realm of Literature which, of course, fantastika is allied to but often kept separate from by boundary disputes and ideological conflicts.
“‘[T]he science fiction reading protocol’ should not be conceived outside of a recognition of the fundamental impurity of genre.” – Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard
Last week’s post on Protocols and The Spectacle of Reading Fantastika got a long response in the comments section from Jamie Todd Rubin (with some input from Paul Weimer as well). I had hoped to respond to them earlier this week but I have been fighting some mutant cold/flu chimera that waylaid me for several days. So, for this week’s column I want to use those comments as a springboard to elaborate and refine what I was driving at last week. While I agree with some of what Jamie is asserting, I am increasingly unconvinced that examining the reading of SF (and fantastika) gains much insight from the use of “protocols” and I feel more strongly that this idea leads us away from a fuller understanding of the reading imagination and what the apprehension of fantastika can tell us about it.
The idea that a writer encodes the text with signals — “like a semaphore system” as Jamie put it — is a sound place to begin. All writing attempts to stimulate recognition effects in the reader’s imagination, but the goals and success can vary widely. Good writing is evocative, either because it succeeds in its basic transfer of meaning (“I’ll be home in time for dinner”) and/or because it stimulates the reader’s imagination by creating fodder for the creation of additional meaning(s) through fantasization. Bad writing stimulates different effects in readers, generally ones unintended by the author. These are not hard-and-fast categories however; “bad writing” can generate pleasure and reflection, while “good writing” may seem overly elaborate or obtuse and they does not work for some readers. The subjective aspects of reading mean that no text appeals to everyone and that any individual discursive act can have a range of interpretations. Intentionality influences the engagement with and reception of the text in ways that both open up and limit the meanings we generate from a text as we read. The semaphore comparison works as an idea of how basic communication works, as each signal has a very specific meaning, but are other meanings communicated so rigorously and clearly?
“SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. ” – Jo Walton
I love reading. I love it as much as writing, and for me, the two activities are intimately intertwined. I cannot imagine reading without writing about it, and I am unable to think of writing without the effects of my reading upon it. The play between the two of them is essentially hermeneutic for me. Reading and writing are not just in dialectical relation, not just complementary, but symbiotic, constantly feeding off of each other, sharing strength, and sometimes getting in each other’s way. Both are crafts to me, and exist as inseparable siblings in my imagination and in my cognitive practice.
For most people the distinction seems to be more rigid. Most of my students in writing classes could not understand why I made them read so much, and talk about their reading, and treat their writing as reading material rather than a ritual act for course completion. Many of the patrons of the bookstore I work at admire various sorts of literatures to read but see those works as distinctive products, and often see themselves as passive consumers, mere readers. I have always found this to ring untrue for me, because (a) reading is not a simple, passive activity, and (b) separating reading from writing seems artificial. I am not suggesting that everyone who reads should become a writer, but I do wonder, frequently, why we compartmentalize the two activities and then further rarefy them, mystifying one while treating the other as prosaic. Part of the distinction comes from the idea that one creates while the other absorbs, yet both rely on our imaginations, our aptitudes, and the ability to apply our knowledge and ingenuity to textual interactions. Both are creative processes, but how we use them to create and what they produce differs, and the seeming ease with which we read often overshadows its richness and the ways it contributes to our thinking, including that which we put into words for others to read.
“We do not have an ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.”
- Philip K. Dick,The Man in the High Castle
Last week I charged myself with a sizeable task: to discuss Lavie Tidhar’s Osama in dialogue with two significant SF novels of the 20th-century: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. I had also aspired to write about two recent short fictions as well, but after re-reading Dick and Russ I realized that I had more than enough to talk about. So this week I will sketch out some resonances that crossed my mind in the reading of these novels, and how this thinking has changed my perception of Tidhar’s novel. In the process of doing this I want to consider the novum they share and how these books simultaneously utilize and question it.
All three novels emerge from a common SF novum, that of the existence of alternate, parallel realities. Now, all fictions posit some sort of different world; every novel is on some level framing and positing its own actuality. Each work of fiction generates an understanding of the world and, in doing so, creates a subjective conception of “the real” from which its story proceeds, a context for the reader to identify. While all fictions create this effect, some do more than shift the world a touch in one fictive direction an imaginary town, an infallible detective, an improbably romance on the moors). Fantastic literature embraces and intensifies the break, sometimes by creating a completely distinct other-world, sometimes by hypothesizing a future arising from the combination of “our” present with some innovation or event. In the case of these three novels, a more complex middle ground is created, of other worlds that directly relate to ours in some way but that are not speculations of where we might go or discrete secondary worlds. These three novels explore parallels and alternatives to what we the readers understand as our shared history and reality.
“For the first time, the books struck him as strangely unreal. He thought of all the attacks described. If you added all the wounded and the dead, he thought, they still wouldn’t amount to how many people died in a single month in car accidents in just one city. It was a war about fear, he thought, not figures on the ground. It was a war of narrative, a story of a war, and it grew in the telling. For some reason he thought of a hill of beans, which was a strange thing to think about. Lives in a hill of beans. He laughed.” – Lavie Tidhar, Osama, p. 151
I usually avoid writing reviews in the column, at least in the strict sense of the term, but I have been wanting to write about Lavie Tidhar’s book Osama since it came out this past fall, and given my response to the novel, I think it’s worth discussing at length. There have already been a number of reviews (and a roundtable here at SF Signal), so what I would like to focus on are some of the themes and effects that I gleaned from the text. It is, for me, one of the best novels of 2011; as I put it last week, it is a “heady, disturbing example of what fantastika can be.” The mixture of terrors and anxieties, the growing sense of displacement contrasted with various textual elements, and in the end, the failure of mimesis to assuage the reader all contribute that feeling of heady disturbance and make the novel an affecting work of literature that is less about the figure of the title and what he directly represents than it does a larger point about how we relate to reality through stories.
My last column of 2011 was a summary of sorts, but as I begin the second year of writing “The Bellowing Ogre” I want to reflect a bit more on what I read and what I gleaned from my reading in 2011. I find that, especially in the blog-realms, we move from topic to topic and story to story so quickly that rarely does anything seem to settle in a way that encourages reflection. What you see in great profusion at the end of each year are lists: Top Ten Lists, “Best of” Lists, and other compendia of recommendations for reading. Some of these lists are interesting to read and ponder over, but as I read and write more, I find the idea of “Best” and “Top” lists to be less efficacious, except as conversation starters (although I have concocted a few such lists in the past, most recently in an SF Signal Mind Meld). Rather then pointing out some favorites of the past year, I would like to discuss some of the fiction that educated, invigorated, and enlightened me during the past year.
Reading for me in 2011 was an educational experience in many ways: I read more fiction last year than I had since my undergraduate years in the early 1990s. I read more authors that were new to me than I had since high school. I ranged more broadly across borders of genre and subject, but came back to a few sorts of stories towards the end of the year, mostly weird fiction. I tried to read fiction from many different sources and read a lot more short fiction both online and as e-publications. The significance of all this is that my level of exposure to different angles on genre, of voices and standpoints, and of types of narrative was more diverse than any previous year. 2011 was a great year to be a reader of fantastika as new venues proliferated and more stories, rigorous and playful, appeared in print and on the screen.
“The literatures of the fantastic are not metaphors. They are the tale itself.” – John Clute
When I started writing this column in January, I had no idea what it was going to be about. I wanted to write a weekly column to chew over issues of genre, reading protocols, and the literary field of production as I saw them. Now, almost a year later, I am still not sure what it’s all about, but I have learned a lot about commentary and criticism and the imagination and reading and reflection through the writing of it. As the year winds down and I prepare to take a few weeks off (less for the holidays than to work on other stuff and spend more extra time with the kidlet), I want to consider what I have learned from a year of writing about fantastic and weird literature and at the same time talk about some of the fiction that has helped shape my thinking.
So far this year I have read about 50 books, scores of articles, several dozen individual short stories, and a lot of blog posts. Most of that reading was for this column or for reviews and articles for publication, so this year was much more about reading for writing. That lensing was a significant shift for me; while I had often read as a writer (of fiction and as student), this year I read to think about reading and writing as a practice, as a social act, and as an imaginative exercise. Looking at my reading from this angle turned out to be very educational; instead of reading as an undifferentiated (yet very subjective) “writer” I was able to think about the processes and ideas that surround that position. This has gradually altered (mutated, perhaps) my ideas about genre, narrative, and the interplay between texts and their reception, and I think begun to enrich how I read and write.
“The problem is that this is a book that means well towards sci-fi; Atwood wants to take it seriously, and wants her readers to take it seriously, yet she can never quite conquer her own ambivalence towards the genre.” – Paul Kincaid
“It may be that like a lobster in a trap who cannot find the exit door, Atwood cannot work her way out of the perplex of ill-judged subjectivity in which she had trapped herself: perhaps because, as with any statement of belief as opposed to argument, her “definition” of SF is as unfalsifiable as any sermon.” – John Clute
“Margaret Atwood is bedeviled by genre — or possibly by others’ notions of genre.” – John Williford
When I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds several weeks ago, I was perhaps too kind to the work. At least, once I finished my review and started reading others, that was the impression that I obtained. While most reviews had something laudatory to say about the author and the book, there was an overt disappointment with both at the same time. Many reviewers, particularly those from the SF/Fantastika field, were unhappy with her explanation and explication of the difference between “science fiction” and “speculative fiction.” Even extremely positive reviews, such as Ryan Britt’s at Tor.com, admit that, while they found her ideas to be fruitful and informative, “[t]he conclusions another reader might draw from this engaging book may be different than the ones I outlined.” Atwood herself, as Britt also notes, wrote that it is “the reader, rather than the writer, who has the last word about any book” and that is evident in the response to this book, something that Atwood certainly knew would happen.
A re-reading of the first part of the book, where much of the discussion of SF and imagination takes place, inspires me to think that Atwood is not interested in current debates over the definition of genre or the contemporary constitution of the literary field. This book is not an apologia for her stance, nor is it some revelatory confessional about her secret history with SF. This is a book designed to show the reader what is going on in Atwood’s head and what effect her encounters with SF have had on her creative process and her own writing, and how these inform her critical position, which she admits in the book is not an academic one. This book is not designed to answer the Big Question of SF’s relationship to the human imagination, but serves rather as Atwood’s own very personal take on what she had learned about the human imagination from her experiences in reading and thinking with SF. This book is not a rapproachment or a deep analysis; it is a collection (of pieces written over a number of years) brought together to show readers where Atwood is coming from, and to demonstrate the human imagination’s workings through the writing and thinking of one author.
“SF, along with fantasy more broadly, sets out to extrapolate imaginatively from the world.” – Adam Roberts
“”It is often asserted that ‘Fantasy,” a particular brand of fantastic fiction that became a publishing industry in the wake of the success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and ‘Science Fiction,’ brand of fantastic literature invented , or re-invented, in the USA in the technophile 1920a, have little in common. […] But one thing science fiction and fantasy certainly have in common is the imaginary world. . . .” Gwyneth Jones.
“Fictive neologies have a paradoxical function. They conjure up a sense of the inevitability of a new thing. . . . Yet fictive neology also displays that it is fiction. ” – Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
In the comments section for last week’s column Paul Weimer brought up an idea that has been rolling around in my head for awhile:
“I wonder, John, in the seemingly crapsack world of a present we seem to be falling into, if that inspiration is more easily found these days in fantasy than in science fiction, and that’s one reason why fantasy is currently ascendant over its sister genre. If the future looks bleak and smaller, than a truly and completely imaginary world allows for more stories that invoke in readers (and dare I say the writers) that effect you describe far more easily.”
Sue Lange noted that, generally speaking, the difference might be that “science is not as popular as spiritualism which fantasy invokes.” At first her observation seemed quite commonsensical, and it is an argument that has been made quite often before. “Hard SF,” for example, often has a specific learning curve and a significant focus on scientific ideas, and that may not be something that interests a wide range of readers. And yet, I think that is only the starting point for considering why “Fantasy” seems to be ascendant, and making this comparison leads to several questions. First, if people are avoiding science fiction because of science, what does this signify about the contrasting popularity of Fantasy? Do purer fantasies, fictions that are more metaphorical or phantasmagorical, create inspiration more readily? And how does this all relate to our “seemingly crapsack world” anyway? I can’t answer all these questions in a single column, but I want to point out a few more things about the idea of vivification, and about imagination and the work of fiction, that might begin to address them.
“We’re in a strange relationship with our fiction, you see. Sometimes we fear it’s taking us over. Sometimes we beg to be taken over by it . . . sometimes we want to see what’s inside it.” – Dr. Horne, from “Planet Fiction,” in Planetary: The Fourth Man.
“Vivification: the action or act of investing with an air of vitality or reality” – Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles
It initially seems odd to say that we have “a strange relationship with our fiction.” Thinking of a text as something that you have a relationship with may seem ludicrous at first, but what Warren Ellis (through Dr. Horne) implies is not just that we have a proximity of some sort to fiction, but that we experience a consociation with fiction. We bring ourselves “into or establish association, connection, or relation” with fiction. More than that, we often actualize a dynamic relationship with it, one with emotional and even (broadly) sensual aspects to it. Our relationship to fiction is strange because it is more like our relationships with people than almost any other object or concept we encounter, This kind of narrative creates not just discursive effects, but imaginative and emotional affects.
I think that, for a number of reasons, this dynamic is intensified in fantastika (in its widest definition). I am not sure that it is most intense(romance novels generate vast amounts of affect as well), but the relationship with fantastic fiction often propagates not just intensity but a multifarious sociality. Fantastika does not just give us stories to experience alone and together, stories to exchange and argue about and bond over, but creates a peculiar and often powerful relationship with specific fictions and with fiction in general. We create a dual vivification in this relationship; we “bring life to; animate, quicken” texts while these texts “enliven, brighten, sharpen” our imaginations. Of course, the texts do not do this “themselves;” in the process of making them live, we enliven ourselves through them.
Last week I wrote about the idea of the ineffable and how it relates to fantastic stories. This week I want to attempt to demonstrate what I meant by looking at some stories and trying to tease out their metaphorization of the ineffable and the effects of its presence and/or absence. At the end of my last column I concluded:
“Determining the relationship of a story to reality tells a tale in itself; deciding on the most fitting spatial metaphor to “bound” a text inserts it into a narrative. We understand fiction through other fictions; we use prior experience, assumptions, preconceptions, and our skills as readers and cultural creatures to make sense of texts, and we do that by not just engaging the selves and structures we uncover in the text, but by creating another story in our own minds. In order to do that we must somehow incorporate what does not make sense, either by dismissal, reinterpretation, or by acknowledging that the ineffable is a presence that cannot be encompassed and that alters our reception of the text. Metaphors of obscurity, mystery, and the indecipherable facilitate this, intensify the experience, and sometimes derail the process of understanding, but their presence is necessary or neither the fiction upon the page or the one in the reader’s mind will cohere.”
We often think of “coherence” rather narrowly, in structural or progressive terms. Weird and fantastic stories often require more than such a strict following; coherence comes from readers filling in gaps, setting aside judgments, and inserting other stories and their own conceptions and desires into their interpretation of the text. That brings a significant level of subjectivity into play, which I think is precisely why some people love weird and fantastic fiction so much, why challenging and difficult fiction has such appeal for some readers. I hope that this little critical/exegetic exercise will demonstrate one person’s perspective on that appeal.
“I once wrote an essay titled ‘In the Night, In the Dark: A Note on the Appreciation of Weird Fiction.’ Toward the end of this piece, I asserted: ‘By definition the weird story is based on an enigma that can never be dispelled….’ Semantics aside, the important thing to me in a so-called weird tale is an impenetrable mystery that generates the actions and manifestations in a narrative.” – Thomas Ligotti
“[T]he image of a literary work as a piece of disputed territory over which two or more parties have battled . . . has seemed particularly valid. But even this metaphor suppresses reference to the changing, growing, living quality of such works.” – Michael Hanne
Readers employ many different terminologies to delineate and make sense of texts, from genre writ large (prose varietals, poetry, etc.) to fine distinctions of structure and meaning. Some readers prefer basic categories while others find more enjoyment in complex and detailed descriptions, depending on their intentions and agenda for reading. There are two sorts of distinction that are usually made immediately: real versus unreal, and what “boundaries” the given text lies within, borders upon, and/or crosses. Employing these distinctions make it, on the surface, easy to portray a text in a codified way, to quickly communicate to someone else the essential qualities of a book: its relationship to the real and its location in the conceptual terrain of narratives. Genre-mapping, both in terms of marketing categories and tropic indicators, defines form and content quickly and efficiently, if often incompletely.
I hear this in the bookstore frequently: when not asking for a specific title, a patron will ask for a book based on one of these two characteristics. “Where is your literature/non-fiction/poetry?” “Do you have a science fiction section?” “Are romances in their own area?” When looking for a specific book, patrons assume its location in the store based on these two notions. For example, Charlaine Harris’ books are looked for in SF, Horror, Romance, Mystery, Literature and, more recently, in Media (Television). Some patrons are actually surprised to find them in Horror. When I ask why, the consensus is that they are not “about” horror. They are about relationships, about suspense, about “real stuff” as one patron told me last week.
Last week I discussed what I thought was a keen idea worth exploring: the notion, taken from Alan Palmer’s book Fictional Minds, that “[r]eaders create a continuing consciousness out of scattered references to a particular character and read this consciousness as an ‘embedded narrative’ within the whole narrative of the novel.” I found a useful contrast between the protagonists of two recent novels and discussed in broad terms the sense of self that emerged from each narrative and speculated about the implications for fantastic literature. In the comments, my friend and colleague Felix Giron brought up an issue that I had not considered in the piece. As she stated in her comment:
“What I am reminded of is, however, that this sense of self is still powerfully influenced by ideas of autonomy and, in many ways, self-sufficiency. This seems to synergize with the ideological concept of the individual and the social and literary context first connected to that idea. Thus the increasingly autonomous and distinct “individual” has a close relationship to “the novel” (whatever that is) and the narratives associated with it. My question is whether the connection you’ve made here between fantastika and the idea of the self is more open than that between the novel and the individual.”
This point, and the question connected to it, crack open the idea of what the sense of self is and its link to the sort of narrative that we call a novel. The more I think about this, the more I wonder about what fantastika has to offer in terms of creating distinctive, insightful, and compelling modes of selfhood within fiction. In general, fictional narratives work to create the boundaries of identity and the parameters of selves that undergird them. A novel is a narrative that is not just fictional, but a particular type of fiction. The form has a range of styles and possibilities linked to the general idea of “a novel” and to the specific productions of it, and what novels produce more than anything else are selves that the reader can relate to and dialogue with. Like ethnographies, novels “enact the process of fictional self-fashioning, in relative systems of culture and language.” What, then, is the link between a sense of emergent self and consciousness in that form, and what distinctive effects can fantastika employ to enrich or complicate both the link and the form?
We’ve been at the point for some time now where broad generalizations about elements of fantastic fiction are not merely problematic (which has been the case for most of fantastika’s, and literature’s, history), but may limit our understanding of the diversity and adaptability contained in not just the allied genres but within the literary field of production itself. Emerging patterns, shifts in technique and assumptions, and the chaotic foment of creativity often get overlooked or normalized when a general statement is made about “the field” or “the literature” when asserted as dictum rather than hypothesis. As architectural sketches they can be useful as we probe the structure and relations and effects created within and by the literature and its producers and audiences. The trick is to not fully build them in our minds, to not construct edifices of thought that end up blocking our view and walling us off from what is happening around us.
This assertion is a prelude to this week’s discussion because in this column I want to very briefly compose a few of those sketches, keeping in mind both their tentativeness and the fact that they refer to something that is often considered solid or whole but that is in fact fragmented, relational, and in-progress: the sense of self. Criticism and discussion of literature often focuses on either technical or historical facets of a given work; what I want to do in this column is talk about reception and how a particular aspect of a work’s message seems to function. I want to consider the idea that in many works a sense of self is projected via one or more characters that we the readers pick up on and reconstruct, using our knowledge and imagination to not just follow the plot, absorb description, and make connections to create narrative progress, but that we also create in our minds an idea of personality or self that maintains our attention in a long story and providing a consciousness for the reader to interact with throughout the text.
This week’s title feels like a quotation whose source I cannot recall; I found no such string of words put together like this through Google. But it isn’t an original notion, although perhaps the phrase in parentheses is a new spin on it. I don’t think that it’s terribly profound, but I think it needs to be recalled and considered frequently, especially as we are increasingly inundated with stories in this Radiant Age of ebooks and instant communication and self-publishing and gate-storming and digital opportunism. In fact, we seem to often talk more about the form of books, less about the artistry or the qualities of the fiction, and commerce threatens, as it has many times before, to overwhelm the stories themselves, which may be part of the point of such framings. One of the things we lose in such a discussion is a focus not just on the quality of stories, but their effects.
I’ve been reading Eric Basso’s Decompositions: Essays on Art and LIterature at bedtime. I encourage this as a way to experience Basso’s criticism because what you read seeps into your dreams. This is a collection of pieces that describe and decompose a range of artists and their works, and what Basso turns over as he digs in, what teeming strangeness he reveals, burrows back into the reader’s mind and mulches the imagination. What Basso discovers in each of these artists, from Kafka to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (and also some visual artists), is that contained within their work is a need to not just represent or structure or comment on the world, but to find a new way to make sense of it. I think this is something that every piece of fiction, from the crassest pulp to the most impenetrable literary tangle, does in some measure; it may be subdued, or hard to discern, or it may scream in your face, but fiction writing is powered by a need of both the writer’s and the reader’s to articulate, interpret, and figure out a bit of life.
“Fancied associations should not be taken as exclusive and final meanings.” – Frederick Clarke Prescott
“This continuing presence of the weird in literature shows the popular demand for it and must have some basis in human psychosis. The night side of the soul attracts us all. The spirit feeds on mystery. It lives not by fact alone but by the unknowable. . . .” – Dorothy Scarborough
I know, people (especially in the community of fantastika) assert this often, but this is not some invocation of geek pride or display of dorkish bravado. I am weird. What I mean by this is that I feel that I identify with some of the essential characteristics of this word’s meanings; that the notion effects my thoughts and choices; and that the word is significant enough that I feel affective resonance for what it describes and when it emerges from my reading and thinking. It is not a matter of behavior, nor is it a self-indictment of my social skills; although I am certainly shy and sometimes awkward with others, I don’t think of that as “weird.” Some people are not adept at social interaction and everyone has a distinctive personality that may complicate their interactions with others. That is a fact of life, and that in itself is not “weird.” There is much more to what is weird than that casual, diluted usage of the term.
“Weird” is one of my favorite words, an innovation on a much older group of terms. It goes back to Germanic and Saxon words that meant “to become” or just “fate.” But this seems limiting because we think of fate as less of a becoming than an inevitable status. Both “weird” and “fate” have roots in the pronouncements of gods; the Norns were referred to with variations of this word, such as the werde sisters (and in fact Urðr is the personification of both words, her name based on the Norse cognate of wyrd). While certainly synonymous with “doom” and prophecy, the word is not about inevitability, but about supernatural, inexplicable motion, energies and patterns beyond what we can see. It comes into our language’s predecessors via weorþan: turning, winding, spinning. The foundation of “weird” is of something beyond our control coming to pass, something that can affect our future and that we can attempt to dialogue with, but that has its own logic and process.
“Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.” – Terry Pratchett
“In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense — to regain the knowledge — that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.
The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s probably obvious that I am a great admirer of Ursula K. Le Guin; I quote her frequently and often cite her works as touchstones or as worthy companions when discussing other works and writers. I discovered her quite early in my literary life and I think she was the first author who profoundly shook me up. I put two of her books on my list of 10 suggestions for the recent NPR poll on SF & Fantasy and think she’s a grand choice for a Nobel Prize (even if I don’t much like the Prize itself). She has been a massive influence on my approach to writing and my critical perspective on literature.
But I only know her through the words she has written and that I have absorbed. I have created an Ursula K. Le Guin in my mind. To me she is a Mobile of the first order and a wizard of great efficacy and wisdom. Even when I disagree with her (which happens more as I grow older and sit with her words, and read others’ responses to them [such as Samuel R. Delany’s critique in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw]) she is that durable personage of sagacity and profound wit. I have created an Ursula K. Le Guin in my mind that is sometimes hard to resist, especially when she writes something that, while deeply affecting to me, is also a bit of rubbish.
“The first dynamic of change has been noticed frequently; that there is a decreasing resemblance between the world we inhabit today and the future worlds advocated, with some consistency of voice and vision, in the American sf of the previous half-century. […] [T]he old sf story, as it struggled to prevail through the last decades of the century, did remain easy to recognize. It was a First World vision, a set of stories about the future written by inhabitants of, the industrialized Western world, which dominated the twentieth century; simplistically, it was a set of stories about the American Dream.” – John Clute
“Any prediction about what is in fact to come, when cast as fiction, runs the risk not just of being wrong but of being not about the future at all.” – John Crowley
I was happily selected to participate in this week’s SF Signal podcast with Paul Weimer, Jamie Todd Rubin, and Jeff Patterson, where the topic was “visions of the future” in SF. We discussed the futures we liked and disliked, what was effective (or not) in some of these visions, and talked a bit about how the future is conceptualized in SF. What struck me after the conversation was that I felt a struggle between literal acceptance of these futures and a metadiscursive reflection upon them, from a number of angles. By the end of the podcast, we were debating, essentially, what we were looking for not just in the future in front of us, but in the futures of SF.
This distinction is noteworthy because it signals a shift both within the literary field of production and the wider cultural milieu of the contemporary moment. Although, the idea of a “contemporary moment” itself is, I think, breaking down, as changes seem to come so swiftly and newness becomes more than fetish or fashion; it becomes routine. The use of “newness” is intentional because we are not just talking about innovation, about Moore’s Law or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, about advancement per se, but specifically about newness, about the infusion of a certain temporality to things, “of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.” The future is a different place than it was less than a generation ago because contemporaneity is different, and our experience of now, our narration of the different emplacements of time, our notion of the dynamism of the moment we occupy, are all not just different, but in flux, in question, and saturated by countless elements that signal to us that we are already “living in the future.”