“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.
Novels written under the influence or inspiration of fantastika range widely hunting for their sustenance, sometimes unearthing tropes and tracking ideas in the strangest, most archaic places. They confabulate lineages and connections, they provoke comparisons in the reader’s mind, and they destabilize our cultural imagination by positing worlds that do not exist, such as Miéville’s unsettling Beszel/Ul Qoma of The City and The City. Rather than settling into common-sense certitudes, works of fantastika do not just speculate or fabricate new worlds, they wed those imaginings to themes and plots that provoke an emotional response fused to an ecstatic vision. This is often done by embedding or insinuating connections to literatures of the past and of the moment, not just building on genre conventions or invoking specific reading competencies, but couching the communication in terms and frames that stimulate a rapturous engagement.
To accomplish this, works of fantastika are not just forward-looking or side-winding stories, they are also backward-feeding. They plumb myth and folklore, scientific knowledge, esoteric conceptions of how the world works, and the depths of the psyche as our societies have conceived of it. They do this not just through the reproduction of symbols or the employment of referents, but by revising this knowledge and taking them in different conceptual directions. In acts of narrative alchemy they take these elements and mingle them, sometimes in counter-intuitive ways, to try to create new alloys, create elixirs of inner life.
For example, my reading lately has been rather idiosyncratic, ranging from Kage Baker’s outwardly unassuming The Bird of the River to Paul Jessup’s dizzying Open Your Eyes (both of which I reviewed here), from Jo Walton’s introspective Among Others to Ekaterina Sedia’s mesmerizing, carnivalesque House of Discarded Dreams. Each is a fine example of fantastika, but not just because they are good novels that have been assigned genre labels. In each work we are given a vision of the world that is unlike what we know, and that is then amplified by the fusion of the imaginative elements with a form of ecstasy-inspiring perspective on those elements.
Baker’s novel is the story of a young women forced to grow up quickly in a world that has little use for her. This world is a fantasy realm with little obvious magic and a lot of grit. The vision is more one of displacement to an unfamiliar setting, and it’s understated. What matters is the maturation of a young woman in unusual circumstances and the ecstasy it creates in the reader, like the novel, is not some flashy hullabaloo but a growing sense of satisfaction that even in trying, confusing circumstances our heroine learns to thrive.
In contrast, Jessup’s novel is a flight of fancy on a scale both grand and intimate, set in a surreal space opera where a supernova can impregnate a woman and starships have their own agendas. Everything is overstated in this story, and the combination of the grotesque and the sublime create a vision of the future that refutes scientific authenticity and hyperaccentuates the perils of the future into a world that is hard to recognize but that is emotionally accessible and startling. The ecstasy here is scattershot, bursting in your mind as metaphors and insinuations click, as horror mixes with sorrow as the characters reveal themselves to be too human for the outrageous universe they live in.
Among Others is both more cerebral and more experientially anchored to the reader than Baker’s book, and less surreal and bizarre than Jessup’s novel. Here again we have a heroine coming of age, but her world is split, more familiar to us in some ways, stranger in others. And yet, it creates a vision of the world with swelling moments of remembrance that create an ecstasy of double recognition, of moments in the protagonist’s life and the in world of books she draws strength from in a crazy world. It is this and other bifurcations that create the imaginative space to empathize, recall, and nostalgically project back to adolescence. It is not the fantasy elements that inspire awe, but the familiarities of feeling. Vision means less the creation of something different than it does a lens for looking into ourselves.
This kind of lensing is taken to the extreme edge of dreams and myths in Sedia’s work. Here is yet another coming-of-age tale, but this young woman creates a literal ecstatic vision and must resolve the course of her life and her conception of it before that vision overwhelms and possibly destroys her. This is true visionary literature, looking deep into the self and mining the rich veins of memory and history within our personalities. Vimbai must not just act, she must conceive of her world differently and understand how much of it is a reflection of her own standpoint and choices. The ecstasy here jolts the reader on two levels: in the stream of hallucinations and dreams we are confronted with throughout the novel, and on a psychological level as the novel works on our own psyches to dig up treasures and skeletons (something I discuss in one of my Blog Carnival entries for Sedia’s book).
While each of these books can touch the reader, what comes across more strongly are the attempts to stimulate emotions and tie them to imagery both specific and paradigmatic. Certainly many genres seek to generate an ecstatic reaction from readers (what is a romance novel ideally if not a story of ecstatic connection, not of vision but of body and specific emotions that often tie us to one another deeply?),but fantastika ends up following Lao Tzu’s adage, of building up wonder and excitement and apprehension and surprise to open us to life. The “sense of wonder” is not a reaction to being amazed; it is an enthusiastic bonding with the text, a permission to be taken elsewhere and be shown life possibilities and shortcomings in a different notion of the world. The best fantastika reveals existence to us, presents other ways to examine it, and pushes us to understand our own positionality and presumptions by euphorically engaging these uncommon visions and letting them change us.