“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.
“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:
“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:
“All fantastic genres make some use of fictive neology. Heroic fantasy invents words to evoke the archaic origins of its worlds. Phantasmagoric satire delights in wordplay that simultaneously masks and insinuates the objects of its derision. Gothic and supernatural tales invoke esoteric and folkloric terms to create the sense of a concealed or forgotten past. SF is distinct, in that its fictive neologies connote newness and innovation vis-à-vis the historical present of the reader’s culture. They are fictive signa novi, signs of the new.” – Istvan Csiscery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, p. 13)
I love words. I love common words, complicated words, obscure words, archaic words, and I especially love made-up words. As Dr. Csiscery-Ronay points out above, one of the foundations upon which all fantastic genres (and, in the book cited, SF in particular) are built is invented words in some form of fictive neology. In science fiction there is a lengthy (sometimes rich, sometimes irksome) history of neologisms, while in the fantasy genre there are plenty of invented words, some of which could be described as pseudowords, “a pronounceable word-like item (letter or sound sequence) that lacks semantic or pragmatic content (i.e., meaning).” Of course, there is overlap in these tendencies; plenty of SF stories have characters and places with strange names, and some fantasy work create neologistic vocabulary. Both utilize chimerical names and terms, and this is something that readers of the literature find pleasurable. But why?
On Monday the latest SF Signal Podcast went live, and I was on it. The topic: 2013 Hugo Ballot Suggestions. With January 31st the deadline for joining LoneStarCon to be eligible for submitting nominations, it seemed like a very good opportunity to participate in the conversation about them, especially since I was not going to be able to formally contribute to the process (due primarily to financial considerations). But I had read some great fiction in 2012 and wanted to give those stories a boost, so I volunteered to be on the podcast even though, as some of you know, my attitude towards awards is rather conflicted. Despite that, I wanted to put forth some suggestions for people to ponder.
Last week’s column was a discussion of the best books of the past two centuries, and it got me thinking about the usefulness of such lists. Since this is my last column for this year, I considered doing a “Best of 2012″ list, but it seems repetitive given the deluge of such lists that are already available (see Paul di Filippo for one great example). And while the lists from last week stimulated some discussion, I don’t think a list will serve for demonstrating what I gleaned from this year’s offerings. Instead, I would rather discuss what I learned this year and what pieces of writing affected me. I did something similar last year, but this time I want to talk more about not what I enjoyed but what had a discernable effect on my thinking, my writing, and the contours of my imagination. I was looking for something all year, and where my gaze lingered I found great writing and a lot to ponder.
“I am not with you when you read. The voice you hear is your own. I am giving you a frame: you are the one imbuing it with beauty.” – Robert Jackson Bennett
The votes are now in for Locus Magazine’s ambitious online poll asking for readers to rate the best fantastika of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some other folks have posted their lists and I thought I would post mine, and discuss why I made some of the choices on my list. As I started listing candidates I found myself thinking about what “the best” means to me and what works qualify. I re-read and compared stories to see if they were exemplars of the form. I pored through shelves of books to find more novelettes (which, as Ian Sales noted, is “an entirely arbitrary and useless category.”) and pit favorite stories against each other in my mind. But eventually I found myself wondering, with all of this reading and comparing, what “the best” was, and if that was what I was really trying to find.
A few weeks ago I attended Darkover Grand Council Meeting, a Science Fiction/Fantasy convention held in the Baltimore area. This was the con’s 35th year and it offered a bountiful variety of activities, from music to crafts to meditation sessions to a regency ball. Of course, the convention also had several tracks of programming that included many panel discussions on topics ranging from “Placing Your Story in the Here and Now” to “What Comes After Zombies.” I spent most of the weekend attending panels, and I was struck by how different they were from the panels at what I consider to be my home convention, Readercon. This led me to spend some of my time thinking about the nature and utility of convention panels for fantastic literature. As I listened, took notes, and let my mind drift amongst the ideas, good and bad, that the panels produced, I wondered what use the con panel has in our hyper-connected age, what a panel can offer an audience and what makes them fall short sometimes.
After talking so abstractly about criticism last week, I felt that delving into a book was necessary for this week’s column. My choice is Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace, a book about which I am sure I could pen a lengthy thesis. It is his most recent collection of stories and demonstrates his versatility as a writer, ranging from SF and heroic fantasy to unsettling surrealism and earthy realism. To show my bias from the start, I think it is one of the best short story collections of the year, even though a few of the stories fell flat for me. Ford applies his prodigious writing skills to the creation of stories whose fantastical elements seduce and disrupt the reader’s expectations. Ford can read like great American literature or SFnal pulp, but there are always shadows and depths that run through his tales, and they can be treacherous or enlightening as you fall into them.
Regardless of any genre affectations or fantastical content, life is inherently strange in Ford’s stories. One of Ford’s great strengths is that his writing slyly leads you to embrace what is happening, not by normalizing the strange and marvelous but by creating a tone that makes the fantastic inseparable from the seemingly innocuous writing. To be anchored to the illogic of the world presented, the reader must not merely see through a character’s eyes so much as coalesce how they experience and shape the story of the world being told. A sense of place is channeled through the characters’ actions and responses to be felt and assembled by the reader. This is not a unique method of creating a feeling of being elsewhere in a story, but Ford is particularly masterful at its execution.
“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.” – Joe Queenan
“[D]espite the striking parallelisms in the logic of their understanding, fiction cannot be strictly identified with metaphysically possible worlds.” – Thomas G. Pavel
I’ve been thinking more about the “exhaustion of SF” issue this week, and some of the conclusions that have emerged from that conversation. One of the aspects of it that still bugs me is the conservative overtone that seems to mark a desire to go back to a prior interpretation of the genre of SF, or at least to a framework for writing such stories. In a comment to my column Jonathan McCalmont clarified that what he was proposing was a return to the “garden of ideas.” I like this metaphor, but I am still leery of coupling it to the representation and application of more rigid genre ideas and tools to contemporary fantastic literature. I am always suspicious when someone promotes the idea that literature should stick more closely to possible worlds (see for example Margaret Atwood), because this denigrates, intentionally or not, the impossible in fiction, and we need to not just write about improbable or impossible things, we need to celebrate them and take them seriously.
“And so life started to become an adventure, in a way we had never known before.” – Gregor von Rezzori
I’m shifting gears this week to get a bit more traction on other stuff, and to take a break from heavy topics. I moved recently and I have been slowly unpacking my library and re-acquainting myself with some old favorites, not all of which are fantastika. Some of these books are surreal or fabulous, and demanded that they be written about. So, I want to discuss some books that aren’t “genre” in the strict sense of the term, but that are challenging novels which admirers of fantastika might find pleasure and reflection in reading. Some of them are openly fantastical, others subtly so, but what they each have is some resonance with the sensibilities that I find in the best fantastic fiction and in great literature generally. They are strange, perplexing, rhapsodic and open to possibilities; they are fables, carnivals, and enigmas that require you to imagine the world differently and see it through some very distinctive eyes.
“I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work. So in that sense if I would be a bit worried if everything was all right with SF. I don’t think it is – but then, I don’t think it ever has been. Rather than perceiving a particular crisis affecting SF now, I see the field as being in a constant state of stagnation and renewal, constantly exhausting itself, constantly hitting new seams.” – Alastair Reynolds
“The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.” – Paul Kincaid
I was all set to write more about possible worlds in light of clearly impossible ones (such as those of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wind Drinkard) and ones that play with the idea of possibility themselves (such as Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams), but the internet is afire with discussions about Paul Kincaid’s recent essay in the LA Times Review of Books on SF’s “exhaustion.” Having read his piece, an interview with him, and some of the responses, I wanted to examine the core of his argument, and that of Jonathan McCalmont, a responder who agreed with and expanded on Kincaid’s critique. Each characterizes “the genre” with broad insinuations about its ideals and characteristics, and agree that “the genre” is not living up to its potential. My question is: does this approach get to the problem they see, and if not, how does that change the nature of the problem?
“[A]ny existential statement – a statement, for example, beginning ‘Once upon a time there was…’ – always implies a world, because it implies a universal statement.” – Simon de Bourcier
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the Apex Publications blog on “other-worlding,” the process of creating a place and time different than the one we as the reader currently occupied. It was a very naive bit of writing (that disappeared with the blog), but that theme of understanding how writing creates a world, and how readers enter into it (or not), has been one that I keep coming back to as I try to understand how reading works, because every work of fiction posits a world that the reader comprehends through their interpretation of the clues the writer has encoded in the story. A world is constantly implied in all fictions, and the question is: what ideas and angles of inquiry can open them up to more understanding both in their construction and their effects?
“Critics seem to find it necessary, at least once in a career, to write a statement defending criticism per se.” – Joanna Russ.
“By its function, [criticism] seems to be condemned to dispersion, dependency and pure heteronomy. . . . It only exists in relation to something other than itself.”- Michel Foucault
I wanted to preface my column with these two quotations because they frame the topic that I want to discuss quite well and because they also draw on the two basic traditions I am going to intermingle here. In the past few weeks there has been copious debate about writing reviews, about voicing negative opinions on books, and about examining literature critically (or not). The concern that all of these commentaries relate to is that of the role and deployment of criticism, whether literary or social (but still related to literature).
Criticism in everyday discourse usually has negative connotations, and the dictionary definition of the word reflects this. In common usage criticism is about fault-finding, about a perceptive meanness used against someone else. When applied to a more specific object or discourse, criticism becomes a judgment, often a privileged one, redefined as “critique,” that emerges from someone’s vantage point as “critic.” Both of these notions relate to the root of the word “critic,” which is from the Greek word krinein “to separate, decide.” To engage in criticism, at its core, is to practice a process of analysis (separating a subject into constituent components to understand how they fit together) in order to render a decision about the workings of those components. That is an idealized definition of the term, but also a more essential basis for examining it.
Last week I ended my column by stating that “[w]e need to draw deeper not just from those other wells [of inspiration], but from [our] own, understand our own depths before we go diving into others.” This week I want to discuss that statement, pick it apart and try to articulate what it signifies to me. That statement is significant to me as writer and reader because it reflects the importance and promise of literature to me. And by “literature” here I mean the written work that has meaning for me and brings me joy and fodder for rumination. Much of that literature is fantastic in nature, and I want to reflect on what the explicitly fantastic has to offer us as literature, what good writers can do with it and what good readers can glean from it.
The problem is, this idea of drawing deeper is subjective; it depends on the individual writer (and reader!) for its infusion and decoding in a story. What does it mean to “draw deeper?” What qualifies as doing so? Personal investment? Fine detail? Mythic resonance? Beautiful writing? The answer is hard to pin down, but what I am driving at is a combination of care and insight. I use both terms as broadly as possible, but when I think of drawing deeper, I think of assiduousness and illumination. I think of attention to detail, but attention that is sensitive and deft; I want to feel what I am reading has empathy and veracity (as opposed to Truth, for example).
“I went to the river but the river was dry
I fell to my knees and I looked to the sky
I looked to the sky and the spring rain fell
I saw the water from a deeper well ” – Emmylou Harris, “Deeper Well“
I was all set to wrap up my discussion of monarchy in secondary-world fantasy (for now anyway), when I read a blog post by Jeff Vandermeer regarding assumptions the current publishing milieu puts on our imaginations. It’s a great post and I urge folks to read it, and chew on it for a bit. What I took away from it was that we need to kick the truckload of advice and self-interested shibboleths we get from all quarters to the curb and remember that we are writers and readers, not producers or consumers of widgets or data packets. Writing is not a product except in the eyes of those who cannot, to use Jeff’s phrase, “dream well.” Writing is a performance, a service, an art, an effort at communication and understanding. What is most troubling about this burgeoning ideology of the Brave New Publishing World is that it very often ignores or diminishes the writing as process and offering to the reader.
“The fundamental idea underlying kingship is the separation of one human being from others. Being set apart is the very crux of the institution. The ways in which this is achieved may appear ridiculous, and sometimes perversely deviant, because they depart so radically from convention. But this is the point: if kings could not be distinguished very easily from ordinary people, then how would we know that they were kings?”
- Declan Quigley, The Character of Kingship
“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be the blade that was broken, the crown-less again shall be king.”
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Last week I discussed the use of monarchies in fantasy fiction in rather broad terms. Looking from the author’s vantage point I considered how simplicity, drama, and domination were qualities of monarchism that could be usefully, sometimes powerfully, applied to an epic/heroic/high fantasy tale to provide a concentrated, basic structure for parts of the narrative. Monarchy can set a tone for the story, plant suggestions for story arcs and directions for the reader, and establish political and cultural parameters that have echoes of familiarity, if not stereotype, for the reader to follow. But the monarchies employed in many fantasy novels are cut from similar cloth, and the continued reproduction of them in the literature limits the potential of kingship as a trope or device and even inhibits the potential of secondary-world fantasy to develop new ideas and insights.
I am still chewing on the tasty gristle of last week’s Mind Meld on monarchism in fantasy fiction. I can’t get the subject out of my mind, to the point where I have started to assemble a bibliography for a longer analysis of monarchies in epic fantasy. I think that the respondents made some good points, but the post as a whole affirmed for me how tightly a certain idea of monarchy tends to throttle our fantasies. One aspect of the responses that confirmed this for me was the poverty of alternatives that people could recall from the literature, but another was the falling-back on certain ideas about the foundations of fantasy that indicated a very limited vision for writing and reading the fiction.
The interlocking elements of simplicity, drama, and domination seem to best characterize the basic use of monarchy in fantasy (mostly of the epic/heroic/high varieties), and while most of the respondents applied this directly to the use of monarchy, I think this more broadly reflective of much of the literature. It’s not just that monarchies are used because they contain these elements, it is that authors like to use these elements to structure and propel their stories. Monarchy as usually applied in these stories complements these qualities, and simultaneously appeals to many popular ideas of the romance and power of kingship. The invocation of fantasy as a genre based in fairy tales reflects this too, with discernible, often uncomplicated characters, melodramatic situations, and demarcated, rigidly hierarchized power relations.
“Not only does the imaginative consciousness allow us to transcend (depasser) the immediacy of the present instant in order to grasp a future that is at first indistinct, , , but it enables us to project our ‘fables’ in a direction that does not have to reckon with the ‘evident universe.’ It permits fiction, the game, a dream, more or less voluntary error, pure fascination. It lightens our existence by transporting us into the region of the phantasm.” – Vincent Crapanzano, Imaginary Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology, (p. 19)
I just returned from a great weekend of Readercon, where I was fortunate to lead a panel on “Anthropology for Writers.” We discussed the promise and pitfalls of cultural representation and produced a conversation that has stirred up some more issues in my head about the idea of worldbuilding and the places of culture in fantastic fiction (and I hope to put up a video of the panel over the coming weekend). The more I think about and discuss how culture is used and represented in fantastic fiction, the more I feel that we are missing opportunities to create more entertaining and insightful literature. I want to examine two issues in this week’s column: the link between culture and imagination, and how our ideas of what culture is often limit the fantasies we produce and read.
When I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses at the college level, I always began by informing the students of an important fact: that they were all already anthropologists. They were participant-observers learning about the cultural ideas and practices around them and constructing “culture” in their heads. They had done it since birth and would continue to do so until their brains ceased functioning. They learned about the world around them and were also taught ways to examine and reflect on culture, and used such tools every day. They were not using the theories and philosophies of scholarly anthropology, but they were using theories and had crafted or appropriated methods of their own for understanding the behavior and utterances of other humans.