“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.
Humans are animals that are so imaginative and social that we create relationships with not just other animals and inanimate objects, but with things that do not exist, things that we have never directly encountered, and things that cannot be. Words on a page can make us chuckle, sob, grumble, and wail; they can incite passion, anger, and fear. We all know this, know that as we read these are just symbols on a surface. But when they are shaped into the form of fiction we create something more with them; we manufacture a relationship, a “carrying back” of something from the words (to dig into the Latin root of the word) that simultaneously keeps us connected to the text, or at least our apprehension and recollection of it.
Fantastika’s vivifications start out like those of most fictions, that tacking between the mimetic and the suppositious to produce a correspondence with and to the world. That conjuration of a “world within words,” to borrow from James Phelan, shifts farther over into the realm of artifice, loosing the moorings from what we consider real We depart the world immediately around us, the world as we know it, and through the text we imagine another one. As I wrote not too long ago, “[r]eading is a comparative task, of the written world to the world we conjure in our imagination.” There’s that word conjuration again, with its implication of magic, of purposeful nascency, of desire and synthesis, of artifice and apparition, the making of something not previously there, an illusion with expressive, sometimes powerful effects. Reading fiction is an act of conjuration, of asking the words before us to become genuine in our minds, of taking the linguistic architecture and producing a simulation of vitality from it.
The more improbable this is, the more intensely we must imagine, the more creatively we must invoke, the more audaciously we must believe the lie. All fiction is a lie at the start, and what makes it true is what we can produce from it. This occurred to me while reading J. M. McDermott‘s forthcoming book When We Were Executioners, with its fantastical secondary-world that is made alive by the finely-grained details and the palpably convincing characters. It is, on one level, a simple world, of kings and criminals, of sadness and malice. The worldbuilding is neither complex nor epic, and it is certainly not a place to which one might wish to escape. But the world comes viscerally alive in the reading, and its bleakness and desperation are strongly mirrored in the shabby edges and sticky innards of the world’s workings. Despite the darkness and desperation that suffuse the novel, it comes alive because what enters the reader’s mind are not baroque details of social structure or the coolness of a complex magic system, but people trying to survive, to do their duty, in the hustle and muck of everyday life.
Thinking back to the first quotation, this novel makes us afraid that we will be ensnared by it even as we want to understand this place and the people in it. And here is where the strangeness starts to arise: that thought that there is a “place” and “people.” This conceit undergirds all fiction, but in this fantasy we must not only agree that there is a place, we must conjure it not from direct memory or from seeing that one city on a TV show, but by accepting the artifice of its existence and establishing it in our mind’s eye. We have to make more effort to make it real, draw from and loan to it more life. We have to in some way work against what we know; as Eric Rabkin put it “[t]he fantastic does more than extend experience; the fantastic contradicts perspective.” We shift from the normal and the mundane and the average into a different frame of perception, even as we are grounded in the grit and weight of the particulars of day-to-day living in this fantastical setting. The depth and prevalence of its darkness perversely draw you deeper into the story. We grind up against a world unlike the one we are used to that nonetheless contains many of the things that resonate as “life” to us.
This is one process of fictive vivification. Another was brought home to me today (Tuesday, 22 November) by the announcement of the death of Anne McCaffrey. I read McCaffrey’s writing in high school and for a few years after, greatly taken with her Pern novels and her short fiction. I especially loved The White Dragon, which I read three times in a week (blowing a physics exam in the process) during my junior year of high school, and which I returned to more often than even The Lord of the Rings for some time. The story was perfect for me; a boy and his companion, both misunderstood, become the true heroes of their world, overcoming everyone’s misconceptions about them, and about any surprises being left in the world. They are not just heroes but catalysts which spark changes in how people in the novel see their lives and history, and prove that exceptions to the rules often power new ways of living.
This world is far different than McDermott’s; it is fanciful, heroic, and anchored in different simplicities. It lovingly delivers plenty of images to conjure: of adventure, romance, fulfillment, and wonder. McCaffrey had a gift for making the reader care; you wanted to enter that world and fly with a dragon into the sky and burn Thread and glide between. Elementary concepts, strongly-drawn characters without much complexity, and carefully reworked tropes of both SF and fantasy were fused into a remarkably coherent story. Or, at least, a story which could be rendered quickly coherent in the reader’s mind. Here was life that was not recognizable but that a reader could crave and consume and fill in with their own desires. Here was Calvino’s “detachment, a levitation, the acceptance of a different logic based on objects and connections other than those of everyday life. . . .” Here was transport to elsewhere, to an essentialized realm of emotions and aspirations. This vivification was an enlivening of the imagination simultaneously let loose and kept close by vivid images and nigh-archetypal stories and characters.
I longed to be Jaxom; I even wrote a short story for my creative writing class with a character named “Ja’on” whose “thunderbird” helped him save their warrior academy and elevated him to the rank of “Prime Hero,” changing him in the eyes of his fellow students. The story of Jaxom became a vivification of another kind, the creation of a life that I thought quite impossible at the time, but that I needed to imagine. It did nothing for my real life; it didn’t even get a good grade because the teacher found it “implausible.” But it created an abode of displacement from the world around me that I could not seem to control or influence, and I felt good for writing it.
I went back to The White Dragon again and again for inspiration, to try to recapture that feeling that there was a way I could be capable of dealing with life, that I could move through the world by spending some time in another. The goal was not escape, but solace, and reading fantastika through high school gave me that, whether it was McCaffrey or Heinlein or Delany or Le Guin. There were so many other ways to live, so many other possibilities, so much more richness to life than what I had experienced to that point. McCaffrey gave that to me then, and others give that to me now. That strange relationship gave me not just pleasure, but comfort, discernment, and hope for a future after the one I was slogging through then. What is strange, in the end, is what that relationship can give us.