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What Fantastika Taught Me in 2011: A Sort-Of “Best” List

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.

For example, take Kit Reed’s collection What Wolves Know. When I reviewed it earlier this year I was encouraged to discover that Reed has a masterful ability to write brief, sharp tales that care nothing for distinguishing the level of mimetic or metaphoric mixture being employed to make the story resonant or affecting. The New York Times‘ Book Review has called Reed’s writing “pure dry ice,” but I found it to be more like well-forged and honed cold iron, dispelling of magical thinking and fairytale assumptions. I noted that “[w]hat Reed refuses to permit the reader is excessive displacement,” a quality that bothered me at first as I read the collection, but which I soon found to be both a clarifying and intensifying effect in the delivery of the prose. While some of the stories did not have easy resolutions, this is not because Reed’s writing is ambiguous or too unmoored from genre or literary expectations. It is an intentional tactic that asks the reader to ponder what they have just read and demands that the reader do more of their own thinking.

I learned a lot from Reed’s stories as reader, lover of fiction, and writer. I found myself more willing to engage challenging texts and to be prepared for, and more welcoming of, uneasy resolutions after reading What Wolves Know. I’ve thought more about what it is that I look for in fiction, and have had to consider how much my love of genre might obfuscate my reception of a story. Reed’s pithy straightforwardness gives you no measure of comfort in that regard, and the immediacy of the prose, a pace that is concise and sometimes feels relentless, and a witty, uncompromising examination of how we contribute to our illusions about the world with both fantasy and supposed pragmatism can, if you allow it, help you to see your own shortcomings in that regard. Reed’s stories show you how to get right to the point and shear away what doesn’t matter to get to the core of a conflict or issue. There is a gruff symmetry to some of the stories that are not about predestination so much as a lack of reflection, as if stories themselves are a double-edged sword for looking at life. This was for me one of the best single-author collections of 2011 because it showed me so much, and entertained me at the same time.

I was challenged by a number of other books in 2011. J. M. McDermott’s Dogsland books (the second is being released in February 2012) and Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams were each provocative reads. McDermott’s down-and-out fantasy world, impoverished and enervated as it is, is in some ways refreshing as it refuses to embrace either the conventions of high-fantasy or the oddly cordial counter-conventions of “gritty fantasy.” Sedia’s chimeric novel undermines expectations in a different way, eschewing both horror and angelic fantasias. I’ve written extensively about both already, but in terms of what I gained from reading them, I obtained an ever-deepening appreciation for reading outside of the genre mainstream. Reading books such as these and others like Nick Mamatas’ Sensation rewarded me by requiring me to look at genre elements as necessarily integrated into the story. A lot of genre fiction relies on convention or on knowing subversions of those conventions, and these books in particular examined other ways to use genre aspects and merged them with the author’s distinctive sensibilities. I need to think about this more but each of these books reinforced in me a growing understanding of the aritificiality of genre as assumption and as an overpowering layer of meaning in a story There is so much that can be done with genre than we see in many works of fantastika, and while I know this intellectually, I felt that these and some shorter fictions brought that idea home more forcefully and productively because of the variety of methods they employed to both integrate and reject genre tropes and considerations in their stories.

I mentioned several shorter works that I particularly enjoyed in 2011 in my Mind Meld response, and these standouts were not only great stories in my opinion, but contained lessons and revelations as well. M. David Blake’s “Absinthe Fish,” which was one of my favorite stories of the year, is one that I still puzzle over with delight. It has rococo swirls and dizzy moments of confluence that dare you to make sense of the story. Craig Gidney’s offering in Expanded Horizons, “Conjuring Shadows,” was beautiful and eye-opening. The shift in forms from poetry to reportage to fiction, the nesting of ideas and images that is created, are smoothly synergistic and wonderfully written, and while they make a point, it is one that you must uncover. For me, it delivered a challenge to think about the constraints we put on pleasure and the ways in which identity can be marked and embraced simultaneously. It is a story that compels meditation not just on the meaning of the story and the fantastical tale at its center, but on the way we look at art and sexuality and beauty and power, and the entanglements that can arise between them.

More difficult to unravel is River Willow Fagan’s “Some Notes on the Eisenberg Estate which, like Gidney’s story, shifts forms to create its effects. Unlike “Conjuring Shadows,” however, Fagan’s focus is harder to discern. It seemed to me to be a dream-like mirror that elicits reflection on the reader’s own family history as this story-within-not-story spools out before us, seemingly like the spider’s web invoked at the end, taut, alluring, and burdened by the weight of its prey, providing no protection from the harsh environment around it. It entraps even as it illuminates. The placement of words and types of writing are precise, yet ominous. What I learned from Fagan’s story was that we have not exhausted the possibilities of how to write down words, that the petty and the profound can be recombined in fascinating ways. What a story means as it creates a world for the reader to engage can be not just multifarious, but a swirl of hermeneutic strangeness that is part Rorshach pattern and part subterfuge.

2011 was a year of diving into the weird and the orphic for me. The work I read helped me shake off conventions and habits and gave me opportunities to not only diversify but deepen my imagination. Many of the works I read also gave me some personal insight. One example of this is Jo Walton’s Among Others. For some readers it was sentimental, but for me it was a book about the potential of books to give us sustenance and armor against the world, something that I identify very strongly with. But I did not feel that the book was all comfort and no struggle; what it did was focus on the power that a young mind (that all minds, if they would open to it) can garner from stories, not as escapes so much as charms and foci for contemplation and practice. A great contrast to that book is Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, a book that has gotten some strong reviews (and which I myself need to finish a review for) but seems underappreciated. Part of that may be its subject matter (a world where Osama bin Laden is a pulp action character), but part of that may also be that it is a book designed to discomfort the reader, to. . . not deceive the reader, but unnerve and puzzle them. And yet, the prose, which is descriptive, seemingly concrete in its mimetic associations (for awhile), and sometimes a little pulpish in its execution, is a slowly growing/unraveling illusion, almost a reproach at times, a game at some points, an unsettled narrative territory at others. It is surreal, ambivalent, and enigmatic, and yet I felt that Tidhar captured some aspects of the experience of coming into “The Age of Terror” and its combination of shocks and fabrications.

The combination of noir, SF, and a dash of “The Weird” in the service of provoking and interrogating the reader make it a textual journey that is hard to finish, that challenges in ways unlike many of those that I have already discussed. Its subject is dead serious, its protagonist a cypher, and its setting uncertain and even difficult to grasp from the perspective of 2011. But this intentional, even principled strangeness, mingled with cultural references and a variety of genre tropes (and not all them literary) showed me another heady, disturbing example of what fantastika can be. I say heady because, despite the feelings of befuddlement and sometimes irritation Osama was an intoxicating read, like an experimental drug that forces you to travel through a dream that is not your own. This is the feeling of weirdness that I picked up, and as I moved on to other reading I found that feeling arise again and again from a number of different stories, from Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Two Worlds and In Between collection to the Vandermeers’ Odd? and The Weird. It’s the feeling that your mind is being tested, pushed, and defied by the stories you’re reading. It is an unmooring of certitude that makes you think hard about what your believe in, what the world is all about, how we use, abuse, reformulate, and invigorate the stories we read and the stories we tell ourselves and others to get through each human day. This lesson, that there is so much more to life than we can grasp, that we are both small and mighty in the world, was a lesson that I rediscovered dozens of times, and that I was thrilled to struggle with and explore through the literature of the fantastic. That, to me, is what fantastika is all about.

2 Comments on What Fantastika Taught Me in 2011: A Sort-Of “Best” List

  1. Its my own weakness, but McDermott’s the Last Dragon really didn’t work for me. I understand he has a new novel out, but I really don’t have a desire to revisit his work anytime soon.

    What Fantastika taught me in 2011 was that I could and should read more “released in the year” fiction, and first novels at that. In years past, I always seemed to be years behind publication. This year, at least half of my reading was from year of publication. It helped me to get a sense of where the field was at the moment I was reading it.

    • I don’t think it’s a question of weakness. We have our preferences for what works and what doesn’t. I feel the same about Charles Yu’s HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE; it really didn’t work for me.

      Reading more new stuff is a Good Thing. I agree that more people should pick up first novels. But it’s hard because of the volume of work appearing to really keep up. And there are older books worth reading. Again, I think it is a question of individual balance of priorities and proclivities.

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