The Bellowing Ogre Archives

The Hugo Award As Cultural Object


“[T]he Hugo Awards do not belong to only those who voted for them. If they want them to be awards for the genre(s), then they need to be open to criticism from those who do not, or will not, involve themselves in the process.” – Ian Sales

“No day is an appropriate day to try and cast tarnish on the shiny rocketship trophies.” – Kat Howard (via Strange Horizons)

I had hoped to come up with a more evocative title for this week’s column, but this one gets right to the point. In the comments for last week’s column a number of people pointed out that my discourse on the Hugos’ place within the fantastic literary field of production was incomplete. I had suspected this when I wrote it, and given the response to that column, I will try to expand on that piece this week and next week, and at least provisionally lay out more ideas in greater detail. This time around, I want to talk about the Awards themselves, as cultural objects with assorted relational values and as a focus for struggles of meaning (and thus of their value) within fantastika.

The Hugos are actually three sorts of cultural object: material item, symbolic cultural asset, and organizational product. The iconic chrome rocket trophy is presented to all winners, and generally only the base of the physical award changes from year to year, providing a sleek, polished link between the new awardee and the idealized lineage of SF that the Hugos stand for; it is a tangible object that confers the award’s values directly to the awardee and their work. As asset (and thus an object of contention with power and convertible value), the award has a number of meanings, which I will discuss presently. But that aspect is inseparable from the fact that the Hugos are also the enterprise of a peculiar organization and are produced by a different group of participants in the field each year; that is, the current Worldcon committee. The Hugos are overseen by the World Science Fiction Society, which “is really just a framework for the individual Worldcons — it has no officers and no permanent organization” except for two committees: the Mark Protection Committee and its Marketing Subcommittee.

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Ceremony and Fantastika: Watching The Hugo Awards


“The Hugo Award ceremony. . . expresses for (and to) fandom its self-image, the face by which the community would like to be known in the wider world outside the genre.” – Camille Bacon-Smith

“The custom of awarding prizes, medals, or trophies to artists — selecting outstanding individuals from various fields of cultural endeavor and presenting them with special tokens of esteem — is both an utterly familiar and unexceptional practice and a profoundly strange and alienating one.” - James F. English

For the first time ever, I watched the Hugo Awards this week, in their entirety (yes, including the long pre-ceremony slide show/concert). I have never attended a Worldcon and the biggest award ceremony I have been to is the Shirley Jackson Awards at Readercon. I find them hard to sit through as ceremonies but mesmerising as social endeavours. I am personally ambivalent about and anthropologically fascinated by awards ceremonies, and these feelings are even more pronounced regarding those focused on literature and the fantastic. The Hugo Awards, as “science fiction’s most prestigious award” in English, are particularly intriguing because of their visibility, manner of selection, and place in the culture and history of the field. They are a powerful device for generating symbolic capital and reproducing ideas and distinctions in the literary field of fantastika.

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A few months ago I wrote a blog entry for Apex Book Company that began with this sentence:

“I don’t know whether to admire Samuel Taylor Coleridge or curse him. I am conflicted, because Coleridge coined a phrase that, I am starting to think, has seriously held back our understanding of how we envision the fantastic specifically and fiction in general.”

Sadly, that column was lost when malware attacked the site’s server, but in that time my conflicting feelings have resolved, and I am more certain that the now ubiquitous phrase “suspension of disbelief” obfuscates our thinking about reading fantastic literature. Recently Charlie Jane Anders penned an entry for io9 entitled “Why We Love Suspending Our Disbelief.” While I agree with some of the points she makes, I find that using “suspension of disbelief” as the optic through which she discusses them diminishes our understanding of how we read in general and how we read fantastika in particular.

Fantastika (and often more specifically SF) occupies an overdetermined position in the utilization of the suspension of disbelief: many observers feel that SF requires a higher level of “suspension” to be fully appreciated. “Fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but sf requires a particular kind of suspension of disbelief, conceptually gerrymandered between rhetorics of realism and rhetorics of fantasy given ‘realistic’ appearance by appeals to science and technology,” claims Brooks Landon (oddly enough, in the midst of a discussion of “SF Tourism”). Anders echoes this assertion in her discussion: “One of the great pleasures of science fiction and fantasy is that they ask us to suspend our disbelief more than almost any other fictional genres.” The conceit is that the fantastic genres require far more skill and work to properly enjoy and understand.

But is “suspension of disbelief” actually how we engage a fiction, or any text for that matter? Do we draw our skepticism from its mental scabbard and hold it over the discourse like a Sword of Damocles, ready to strike at the first sign of contradiction or conundrum? Do we flip a switch in our heads that turns our disbelief on or off? The more that I consider how we approach a fantastic work, how texts contain and disseminate their meanings, and how we enliven and decipher texts, the less useful this idea seems. The “willing suspension of disbelief” neither represents the process of reading accurately, nor does it help us understand how we engage texts.

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“Look at this, Russ. A first edition Jack London. Tales of the Fish Patrol. Can you believe it?”

I was five years old, and had just gotten my first pair of spex, providing rudimentary access to what passed for the ubik back then. I wasn’t impressed.

“I can read that right now, Dad, if I wanted to.”

Dad looked crestfallen. “That digital text is just information, son. This is a book! And best of all, it’s mongo.”

I tried to look up mongo in the ubik, like I had been taught, but couldn’t find it in my dictionary. “What’s mongo, Dad?”

“A moment of grace. A small victory over entropy.”

“Huh?”

“It’s any treasure you reclaim from the edge of destruction, Russ. There’s no thrill like making a mongo strike.”

I looked at the book with new eyes. And that’s when I got hooked. From then on, mongo became my life.

- from “Wikiworld,” by Paul Di Filippo

One of the dullest exercises in writing about literature, or really any sort of discussion, is to try to codify the “state” of something, whether it be a genre, a literary practice or product (which loops back to genre), a “trend,” or any sort of discursive or symbolic thingamajig. I think we drive ourselves rather loopy in these efforts to frequently codify the “state” of a concept or field, as if we can solidify it into something unmoving, intact, and graspable. It can be a compelling exercise to tackle such a topic, but generally the result is partial, overly truncated, or engineered to ignore diversity. Of course, any endeavor to codify such things is contingent and subjective, but the notion of “state” in this sense comes from the idea of status, of discerning attributes and conditions of the standing of the subject(s) being discussed. It has a more formal ring to it, an air of higher purpose and discernment; “I will discuss the state of [insert subject here]” sounds more important and prestigious than “I would like to talk about [insert subject here] and some things I noticed about it.”

With that said, this week I want to discuss several short stories that exemplify a promising aspect of the current field of short fantastika. I’ve been reading scads of short stories over the past few weeks and realized that I infrequently review or discuss short fiction. This seems particularly foolish given that I write short fiction and am trying to get some of it published, and that short fiction, while like publishing in general in a state of transition, serves several functions in the literary field, particularly for fantastika. Each story is a text to discuss in its own right, but also indicative of something noteworthy in the larger field of short fiction that contains many pleasures but that still seems underappreciated.

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Genre is Always Problematic, Thankfully


“[T]he pressures of the market, the dynamics of prestige, and the construction of genealogies are intrinsic features of the web of resemblances that constitutes a genre. Genres are best understood by way of the practices that produce these resemblances and the motives that drive these practices. Pigeon-holing texts as members or non-members of this or that genre is intellectually frivolous, whatever consequences it might have in terms of market value or prestige. This is doubly true because, first, genre itself is an intertextual phenomenon formed out of resemblances or oppositions among texts, and second, no individual text is generically pure. Every text produces within itself a set of generic values in tension with and interacting upon one another” – John Reider

I was all set to discuss several short stories this week, but a cavalcade of suggestions rolled in for recent pieces to read, so I am going to read more, think more, and write about several of them next week. This week, I want to discuss genre in the context of its enduring, shifting excesses and flaws. Last week several folks on Twitter (myself, Paul Jessup, Ian Sales, and Aishwarya S.) had a discussion about the relevance of genre for selecting fiction and deciding on a given work’s connection to others. After a lot of back-and-forth, Paul, who is decidedly finished with genre, stated that “genre just leaves me going meh.” The discussion wound down after that (and I had withdrawn because I was heading to work and had trouble following along on my dumbphone), but a few days later, as I was doing a bit of reading for another article I am working on, I thought back to that discussion and wondered: what is it about genre that is, indeed, meh?

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“‘When I wrote the book there was a background of events in literary criticism in general, tending to reject the idea that criticism had to be thematic and revolve around analysis of the plots, and characters. By the late 60s and early 70s there was a whole trend in criticism that was moving towards treating the texts themselves as language. JHJ was really my attempt to discuss SF texts as language, and bring SF criticism up to date. I probably should have made that really clear at the time, but I wanted to appear much more fresh and innovative than I really was.’ (laughter)” – Samuel R. Delany

“The door deliquesced.

Cool against my thigh, chest, and face, mist from the sill-trough blew back as I lifted my foot over the — “Hey, don’t step in that!” I pushed up at Rat’s shoulder –

His big foot came down with the heel a centimeter beyond the trough rim. he staggered around to face me, not looking surprised.

“You’re supposed to step over. You yell at little kids for getting their feet wet in the door trough.” I laughed. “Look…” as I stepped over.

The blue liquid, behind us now, began to foam; the foam rose, climbing at the jambs faster than in the middle; and darkening, and shutting out light as the door’s semicrystals effloresced.”

- Samuel R. Delany, from Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand

I discovered The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction in 2009 at Readercon. While I had long admired (no, adored, felt dizzily annihilated by, was dazzled and delighted and upset and puzzled and overthrown and reinvigorated by) Samuel R. Delany’s fiction (since reading Nova in 1981), I had never read any of his non-fiction. I had only the year before returned to the world of fantastika after a long exile in unrelated academia, and was hungry not just for stories, but for ways to look at the literary field after a dozen years away from it. Strolling through the Dealer’s Room I came to the Wesleyan University Press table, and was startled to find Mr. Delany sitting there, with a few copies of his just re-issued book at his elbow.

I am terribly shy in person, so it took a great effort to approach him, but he was affable and signed a copy of the book for me (I later brought my old copy of Nova, the 1975 Bantam reissue, which I had kept since high school, for him to sign). I made off with my purchase hoping to read some of it immediately, but was, as usual, seduced by the allure of readings and panels and kaffeeklatsches that put all thoughts of reading, paradoxically, out of my head. When I finally did read it that fall, it was a revelation, and a wistful engagement, of ideas about how SF on the page works as we read it, and how our very notions of reading affect our reception of the words. Two years later, sitting at this year’s Readercon panel about the book, I felt, in a rather artificially narrativized way I suppose, that I had come to a new phase of a journey with Delany’s work, and this book in particular.

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[The Bellowing Ogre] Uncertainty, Principal


“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.

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“So it goes indeed. Fact is, Genre is a dirty and disreputable part of town but it’s that way for a reason, and at the end of the day, the librarian kinda likes it. This is a place where freaks and weirdos feel at home. The bars here are more fun. The rent is cheap. And Mass Market Square is infinitely more dynamic, exciting, and relevant than the uptown galleries full of middle-class bores clinking champagne glasses and droning on about how jejune the latest wunderkind is really, darling, just so trite, really, overhyped. There’s a trade-off between the social stigma and squalid trappings of the Genre ghetto and the freedom that it gives to work outside the tight-ass strictures of ‘proper literature’ which generally also means the tight-ass strictures of contemporary realism.

Besides, a change is in the air.” - Hal Duncan

“SF is dying; but then SF has always been dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution” – Roger Luckhurst

It may seem strange at first to talk about “The Death of Science Fiction” as something dynamic, rather than just a change in state, but despite its sometimes exasperating format and pre-determined outcome (since SF never actually “dies”) the fact that this idea is given life so often makes it necessary to consider the source of its vitality. My proposal, at least for now, is that the fables of this death and their effects on the readers and writers who narrate, read, and respond to them are attempts to grasp, codify, and represent the mythogenic rejuvenation of SF. These narrative episodes are part of SF’s mythology, reiterating and reestablishing aspects of it, seeking to understand SF’s storied, contested, confabulated history and the genre’s frequent renewal by its practitioners and readers. SF is based less on clear lines of relation to the past than other genres, is much more mutable and predatory, and relies on the redevelopment and proliferation of mythical ties and sources in the past and linkages laterally to contemporary genres and trends to maintain both its longevity and its freshness.

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“Doomsayers continued to predict the imminent demise of science fiction throughout 1997, some of them even seeming to look forward to it with gloomy, headshaking, I-told-you-so-but-you-wouldn’t-listen-to-me relish; but . . .it seems to me that the actual numbers and the actual real-world situation do not justify these sorts of gloomy predications. To modify the words of Mark Twain, the Death of Science Fiction has been greatly exaggerated.” - Gardner Dozois

“This uncomfortable impure origin does nothing. however, to calm the anxieties for legitimation, nor can it, since the demands for legitimacy appeal to an external authority. The fantasy of non-origin persists, and it meets its complement in the future with the fantasy of non-being. Explicit proposals, even demands, for the death of science fiction, from within science fiction, are commonplace.This is the ecstatic process of transubstantiation back into the mainstream . . . .” – Roger Luckhurst

“SF isn’t dying, it hasn’t been ill, and frequent terminal diagnoses often see the undertaker clutching a handful of nails and a hammer and scratching his head over an empty coffin. However, discussions about this demise have been resurrecting themselves in only slightly altered form since I first read ‘about’ SF rather than SF itself. I’m betting there was some plonker declaring the death of SF the moment Sputnik beeped or just after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. Really, the whole pointless staggering debate needs a nice fat stake driven through its heart. ” – Neal Asher

“The Death of Science Fiction” has been with us for a long time. It is a perennial topic, nigh unto a trope at this point. Writers from Kristine Kathryn Rusch to John C. Wright have discussed it. Richard Lupoff bemoaned it in the early 1980s and early last year Sarah A. Hoyt observed that it was more of a killing than just SF expiring. Mark Charan Newton just weeks before that defended this idea at length, arguing further that the specific genre was dying, while other sorts of fantastika were doing better.

There are many more, but what is fascinating about this idea is not just how many people discuss it or how often the topic seems to arise, but that it has at this point a quality of mythogenic rejuvenation that draws some to it while mightily irritating others. While some users of the term (like Newton) genuinely see the end of Science Fiction, many others, and many who respond to the idea, either feel that the idea is incorrect or that it is a call to action, myself included at one point. I’ve written about this previously elsewhere; but as I examine the pervasiveness of this idea, the combination of anxiety and passionate engagement that it seems to produce, and the constant return to it as a fabled touchstone, I am curious to figure out the notion’s power and why it seems to be – rhetorically, symbolically, socially – so necessary for the resurrection of this foreseen death that never actually occurs.

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“Science fiction at its best should be crazy and dangerous, not sane and safe. Overly polished, stingy, lifeless stories are the bane of the genre.” – Paul Di Filippo

“The immersion you have in a dream can be like the immersion you have in a film or book. The imagined world rolls on, and you roll with it, taking for granted the twists and turns and impossible demands made of you. This is a peculiar thing.” – Tom Stafford

“While we read a novel, we are insane–bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices… Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

One of the conundrums that preoccupies my mind far too much flourishes in the fecund interpretive ground that lies between what writers and readers do when they perform their particular construction of texts. While writers compose texts, they do so in an extended process not just of composition, but also of reading, re-reading, and shaping the text to communicate particular meanings, whether of exacting specificity or vast interpretability or something in-between, with some conception of a reader in mind. Readers come to a text with assorted expectations and preconceptions (often of the writer, not just the book) and through their reading construct their own interpretation of the author’s representations. The conundrum that worries at my thoughts is: if both reader and writer bring the text into being, can we ever really know whose understanding of and influence on the text’s meanings and messages more profoundly shapes its reception?

This is, I admit, a rather daft thing to fret about, partly because there likely isn’t a definitive answer to the perplexing question. But when I was offered the chance to review a few of the essays from the e-book publisher 40k Books, I quickly noticed several titles in their catalog that promised to address that thorny, perhaps unanswerable, question. I chose one that focused on a writer discussing his craft, and another that examined the idea of story from the perspective of a reader. The two of them proved to be stimulating, if uneven, excursions into my little obsession.

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(Note: due to an avalanche of technical problems, I was not able to write the column I had intended for this week. Next week I will be reviewing some essays from 40k Books and talking about how writers and readers approach the story in fiction)

“Wondering’s healthy. Broadens the mind. Opens you up to all sorts of stray thoughts and possibilities.” – Charles de Lint

“If the unusual character of the stimulus extends so far as to present to the perceiving mind in no uncertain degree the conception of improbability (such as a story of a trip to the moon and back; or the story of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) the very improbability will tend to abbreviate or even, in some cases, entirely abrogate a state of curiosity in favor of one of wonder, providing always that the improbability is not so great as to instantly destroy all possibility of belief. The improbably is sometimes ridiculous; sometimes it is wonderful. Within the bounds of belief the very sense of the improbability clouds the effort of curiosity to find a sufficient explanation, and gives in advance a sense of the abortiveness in which the effort must end. Such a state is distinctly favorable to wonder. Most important, however, is this fact: that where the stimulus is the improbable, it is found, by the very nature of the case, and at least nine times out of ten, in the form of a story — not in the form of immediate first-hand experience. In this fact alone lies a justification of the critical study of wonder in literature.” - Benjamin Putnam Kurtz

I love this quotation from Kurtz, which is why I transcribed it in its entirety. I first encountered it in college while writing a paper on Irish drama. I was picking apart George Fitzmaurice’s The Magic Glasses, which I found to be delightfully fantastical but still bothersome with its excessive melodrama and broadly-drawn characters. It was bothersome to me that the play had a number of very obvious faults, yet there were moments when I felt a bit of awe, a taste of the strange allure of Jaymony’s artifact. I labored to understand my response to the play’s situation, a combination of marvelling and horror. I worked as an assistant in the library’s reference area so in my free time between patrons I looked around for ways to think about the tension between those two feelings, and at some point came upon Kurtz’s book.

It led me to the beginning of an answer, but more importantly got me thinking about the idea of wonder itself. I never had the time to explore the idea in more depth, and then years passed and I, in some rash, foolish ways, walked away from wonder. When I returned to the social and literary realms of fantastika I began to, well, wonder about wonder again (and I wonder how many emotions and thought-processes we can apply to understand themselves!), how essential it is to deeply interacting with fantastic literature, to writing it, reading it, talking about it, feeling the words and ideas and conjured people and worlds circulating through your mind. What immediately comes to mind is the Spindizzy from James Blish’s Cities in Flight, of some device, some translator and converter of energy that could move huge, almost imponderable things better than little, prosaic details. And yet, what I envision is one that goes widdershins, one that does not make great things fly, but anchors them in our thoughts and dreams, pulls them towards us and allows us to dwell in them rather than merely watching them fly off, unreachable amongst the stars. Wonder changes the gravity of the imagination and pulls the improbable and impossible and miraculous and marvellous inside us.

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“The distinction [...] between literary and genre fiction, though cherished by many critics and teachers, was never very useful and is by now worse than useless. The opposition — genre rushing hell-for-leather and plot bound to resolution, literature meandering sweetly like a brainless tot in a folktale forest — is absurd.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores inherent conflicts of the human condition through stellar writing. Pacing, plot, and commercial appeal are secondary to the development of story through first-class prose.” – from Agentquery.com

“The stereotype is the word repeated without any magic, any enthusiasm, as though it were natural, as though by some miracle this recurring word were adequate on each occasion for different reasons, as though to imitate could no longer be sensed as an imitation: an unconstrained word that claims consistency and is unaware of its own insistence.” – Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

I’m really tired of literary fiction. No, not some of the works themselves, those great books given a lame label to somehow appropriate vestiges of their qualities and impart them onto a range of other works. There are plenty of books burdened with that designation that I love, and it is not the fault of the texts that they have been so unfairly labeled. I’m really tired of the idea of literary fiction, of the pretentious and patronizing aspects of it. It’s exhausting to try to have a conversation about “literary fiction” because for most purposes the term is, as Hal Duncan sagaciously pointed out, “on a literal level, almost a tautology– as redundant as if we were to say ‘textual texts.’” He then goes on, with great insight and depth, to take the idea apart and demonstrate how certain points of divergence from putative norms in reading protocols result in a politics of exclusion for works labeled as “genre,” a monstrously ludicrous (not in a good way) idea given that just about all works of literature fall into a genre at some level.

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“[E]veryday life would be unrecognizable if we excised imaginative activities.” – Shaun Nichols

“The imagination is a form of love: playful, generous, and transformative.” – Jeff VanderMeer

When I first started reading fantastika, I was drawn to a number of elements of the genre. My mentor in the literature liked to give me books that were hard to read, that were experimental, that dealt with complex issues, that were calculated to blow my mind. At first, I found this irksome, but as I read more of the books he gave me I felt that, unlike my high school studies, these books were teaching me about life and the world. I discovered ideas that had never occurred to me, read about places that never existed, and learned about the capacity of the imagination to exceed the moment and reframe your mind. That difficult beginning (after a diet of Burroughs, Kenneth Robeson, and, oh right, Poe) stimulated my imagination, gave me a desire to feed it so that it could show me the world in new ways.

Fantastika has been called “the literature of imagination,” but does not own that title. That term and its inverse, imaginative literature, have been used for a long time to talk more extensively about fiction, poetry, and drama as opposed to factual sorts of writing, although writers of fantastika have also deployed this term. It’s a bit of a muddle, really, as many want to claim use of the term and apply it to their artistic productions. The very idea of the imagination when discussing literature is powerful and prosaic, an elevation of something that we all do every day into a profound, near-magical process.

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“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Paul Muad’Dib, Dune

“Death and disaster; nightmares and phobias; new killing technologies; treacherous bodies – a seemingly endless range of terrifying trials and tribulations seemed to face people in the twentieth-century. Worse- there were times when all of history seemed to be reciting a tragic script,devoid of answers or ‘sense.’ On these occasions people’s terror was so overwhelming that their most fundamental identities were in danger of being engulfed. It took some time to notice the astounding creativity with which these men, women, and children made sense of their predicament and remade their world in the wake of the crippling energy of fear. Looking at our society’s fears, in both their past and present manifestations, enables us to meditate on the future. It is a future of our choosing” - Joanna Bourke

This column’s going to be weird, so bear with me…

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Storytelling is clearly an extremely important function of societies, but it’s nonetheless unproven that to be human is to be a storytelling being. Even if it is the case that human beings are completely intrinsically storytelling animals, it doesn’t follow that that’s something to celebrate, any more than we should celebrate the fact that human beings are defecating animals.” – China Miéville

“The term “speculative fiction”, like most genre names, does not have a clear-cut or universally agreed-upon definition.” – from The Handmaid’s Tale Study Guide

“When you’ve come across a story or movie or game that both is and isn’t science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror, then you’ve discovered speculative fiction” – N.E. Lilly

I have been reading about and pondering the idea of “story” this past week, and as Paul Jessup has pointed out, there has been a conversation of sorts going on about it across the Internet. A lot of this conversation is taking place within the fantastic field of literary production, between writers and readers, bloggers and twitterers, all asserting their notions of what makes a good “story” within the realm of, well, pick your designation. My term of choice is fantastika, which is problematic in some respects, but within the broader realm of fantastic literatures, there is, as there almost always is, debate and critique about just what the heck we’re writing about, and how we choose to write it.

As I absorbed all of these ideas, a strange thought struck me, and in this column I want to examine it more closely and see if it has any merit. As I read about technique and context and craft and protocols (digging into my collection of criticism as well), I thought to myself “Isn’t the disjuncture here that all stories are in a sense speculative fiction?” I was not specifically reading much about the notion of speculative fiction, but as that idea presented itself, I saw a supposition forming that seemed useful to engage and take apart. My contention, for the purposes of this column, is this thought: “all stories are speculative fiction, and what speculative fiction invokes is a quality of the idea of story.” This covers both what that means for the idea of speculative fiction, and for the idea of story itself.

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The Ecstasy and Wonder of Fantastika: An Euphoric Meditation


“With all sincere respect to Jameson, Suvin, and Friedman, I don’t think ‘cognitive estrangement’ is the differentia specifica of SF. SF and fantasy are inheritors of visionary literature, and science fiction is simply one fuzzy set of that modern pulp wing of visionary literature which describes its vision through a sometimes spurious, sometimes accurate vocabulary of scientific rationality. But SF is about that kind of ecstatic vision.” - China Miéville

“From wonder into wonder existence opens.” – Lao Tzu

Right now, my heart is pounding as I write these words. I’ve spent the better part of the day writing and thinking about literature, when I haven’t been playing with my daughter. But none of that relates directly to the racing blood, to the tingling I feel as I take my initial notes and start the process of writing this piece. What has me so worked up is the thought of what I am doing here, discussing fantastika. And that excitement comes not just from the texts I have read and recall, but from some of the very things that sometimes frustrate us about genre and the social aspects of the literary field of production.

We often engage in very esoteric or prosaic conversations about “the genre” or specific genres/authors/trends/books, and I have cited (and written) some of those in the past. But what we often sideline or even delegitimize is something that Miéville refers to in the quotation above: that SF (and in allied ways fantastika more broadly) is the – sometimes radical, sometimes formulaic, sometimes intellectual, sometimes pulpy, and often a bit of each – communication of an ecstatic vision. It is a vision specifically invoked to create a sense of wonder, but that is only part of what it does. It also inspires an ecstatic response, whether of intellectual stimulation, disturbance of the imagination, or an unrealistic spectacle of images and ideas. That response arises not just from the text itself, but from our associations of its ideas and symbols to cultural assumptions and knowledge.

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“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” – Joanna Russ

“Russ’ ideas are radical. They’re scary in a genre that has the potential to be the most revolutionary of all but usually opts for the safety of the mainstream.” – Sue Lange

Joanna Russ died this past week. It made me quite sad to hear of it, because she was one of the first serious authors of fantastika that I read in high school, where I was fortunate to attend a sort of fantastic literature boot camp under the glower of my American History teacher Mr. Cahoon. He gave me a copy of The Female Man early on, and it profoundly affected my ideas about power, identity, and the edifying capacity of literature. Combined with a pile of other important books, such as On Wings of Song, Dhalgren and Nova, The Word for World of Forest, The Steel Crocodile, Friends Come in Boxes, Spacetime Donuts, and others, it pulled me to fantastika as both a world of words to love and a cultural perspective to explore.

I came back to her work again and again (mostly her criticism) until the early ’90s, when I attempted to abandon both fandom and literature for the halls of academia. Her criticism always shook me up with its combination of anger, uncompromising focus, and the recondite enlightenment that it inculcated in my mind. Russ’ perception was fiercely concentrated on the flaws she found in a literature that she found valuable, flaws that mirrored widely-reproduced perceptions about women and agency and the potential for literature to enquire about social issues. She was a critic in both the best and the toughest senses of the word, and her fiction was an extension of her concerns about the shaping and reinforcing (or questioning) of ideas through the written word. Her remorseless creativity served to illuminate the problems that she saw as inhibiting the potential of SF to achieve a greater understanding and analysis of the human condition, and in fact of the ways we construct that notion. As Farah Mendolsohn put it in her introduction to a volume on Russ’ work, “the refusal to go along with the storying of the world” was the backbone of her writing.

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“Realistic fiction leaves out too much.” – Gene Wolfe

“Reality is a crutch for those who can’t handle fantasy” – Old con button motto

Last week I discussed a few episodes of “fantasy” being denigrated or snubbed by the “mainstream”. A few days after that I had a long discussion with Paul Jessup and Nnedi Okorafor on Twitter about fantasy and realism. It was a very good, tough discussion, and it made me think more critically about the divide between realism and fantasy that has often been fomented in the wider literary field. Of course, this is not just a divide between realism and the fantastic; it is also about “literature” versus “fiction,” and other labelled dualities.

Rather than natter on about the labels, I would like to discuss how that one particular distinction, “realistic” versus “fantastic,” is a structuring principle of how literature is perceived and consumed. And, let it be known now, I am pretty solidly in fantasy’s corner in this debate, for reasons that will be clearer in this column.

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“You scream too loud. You know it.” – M. Senechal


“An important aspect of the modern search for identity has been the mapping to the limits and structures of human consciousness and experience by the humanities and the sciences. This exploration employs a modernist metaphysics, which posits a fundamental duality of the real and the fantastic. According to this metaphysics, to identify an entity as fantastic – a character in a fictional story, a monster in a nightmare – is to give it a special relationship to reality. For modernism, the fantastic belongs to the realm of the non-real, to which non-belief is the appropriate response. This exclusion of the fantastic (the dream, the fiction, the lie) from reality makes modernist truth possible. This metaphysics establishes an authority in terms of which proper critical discourse can occur.” – George Aichele, Jr.

This past week was a pretty distressing one for the realms of the fantastic, as it sustained multiple indignities from mainstream media and responded sometimes too harshly to the assaults. The first was a (mostly implicit) judgment rendered against fantastic literature by two BBC World Book Night shows. The more surprising ambushes came from writers at the New York Times and Slate; both critics launched scathing critiques of “fantasy” and those who love it under the guise of reviewing the new HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. In all of these cases the target was less a specific text or production than it was assumptions about the genre and its adherents; in each instance “mainstream” observers derided or disdained “fantasy” in some manner under the pretext of some other task (showcasing books people “really” read or reviewing a television show).

So much digital ink has been spilled responding to these attacks and omissions that there is little that I can add to the specific counters to the critics’ judgments. What I find more compelling to examine is the fact that a caricature of “fantasy” was subjected to this treatment, and that there was such a mighty response in each case (particularly from female fans to the NYT review). In each instance, there was an explicit and/or implicit slight, but all of them were made from a standpoint of privilege supported by an idea of the metaphysical assumption that Dr. Aichele discusses above. The BBC shows and the two TV critics were firmly lodged on the illusory solid ground of the mainstream; all use as their foundation a notion that “fantasy” is aberrant and has no genuine place in the wider media discourse.

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“I think the real strength of the genre [SF] has always been that there are all these hugely different things out there and yet they are in dialogue with each other. Because that’s the other meaning of a genre, genre as writers group, where the works are sparking off each other. Science fiction really is a genre in that sense.” – Jo Walton


“For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas — NOTHING EVER CHANGES!

Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change.” – David Brin


“Epic fantasy, with few exceptions, is about war. And the best epic fantasy offers more than escapism, more than comfort food. The best is consoling.” – Daniel Abraham

There has been a lot of discussion this past week about genre. OK, that’s nothing new, but this week, there has been an edge to the tonality of the discussions. In the past several days authors such as Daniel Abraham and David Brin (quoted above) have set out to not just discuss fantastic genres, but to make specific statements about a particular genre in ways that elevate their literary subject from the wider realm of fantastic literature. Abraham’s post set off some productive discussions by others (including Paul Jessup) but Brin’s statement was met with either vigorous agreement or exasperated eye-rolling. I think, however, that they are both trying to do the same thing: parochially demarcate a specific genre-territory and give it an exaggerated value and status.

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