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Roaming the Borderlands of Fantasy

Not long ago there was an acrimonious discussion online of what constituted “being a fan” of Science Fiction that focused in great measure on what one did or did not read. I started to write a response to that debate but after I read the first part of it I felt. . . sad. I was a bit angry at myself too, annoyed that I was writing some kind of defense for my taste in reading. So I put it aside and went back to reading stories from my staggering pile of books to-be-read. Part of the stack contained several works by the late SF writer Charles Sheffield, who primarily wrote a fusion of hard SF and space opera. He was going to be the focus of a Three Hoarsemen podcast (and you can hear the results of that here) so I dug in and read. While I was able to get through The Compleat McAndrew collection of short stories, I could not finish either The Mind Pool or Between the Strokes of Night. I kept putting them down and picking up other books to read (or even re-read), such as Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (discussed in the podcast), Nick Mamatas’ Love is the Law and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria. I found myself much more engaged by them, to the point where I realized that, in a way, I was no longer a “fan” of Science Fiction (or SFF), but a literary wanderer roaming widely to find new moments of fantasy to savor and ponder. But I wasn’t just looking for “fantasy” the genre, either as an inversion of SF or an encompassing category, but for writing that challenged the idea of what was real and how we make things real.

I love the etymology of the word fantasy, particularly its roots as a term meaning “to make visible.” The word has had a long journey from the Greek φαντασία (phantasia), “to bring to light.” Fantasy is not only the manifestation of an image or idea, but a practice of illumination. For a long time I thought of myself as a fan of SF, of fantastic literature, of fantastika, but now I think what I am really a fan of is illumination through fiction, is playing with reality. “Every work of fiction is unreal, yet it strives to present an interpretation of reality — whether precisely mimetic, wildly surreal, or something in-between — and readers must decide what to believe, what to dismiss, and how to reconcile what they discover in the text.” And I find myself looking for interpretations of reality that peel back the facade of the real or ignore it altogether.

This is why I was so taken with Love is the Law. Mamatas creates a brilliantly flawed reality through the eyes of his protagonist, Dawn Seliger. It’s a harsh book that immerses us in the mind of the main character. I would say that it is a flawed perspective, but all novels proceed from some sort of flawed perspective. Dawn’s is flawed in a particular way, not just because it is a first-person account but because the narrative is suffused with her personal philosophy’s contradictions and comforts. There are moments that feel like magic realism, others that feel emotionally deflective, and many that make the reading eye pause to decide if something is “true” or not. The novel’s structure and language demand that you pay close attention to its real mystery, which is how Dawn’s mind functions and how she parses reality. Is Dawn full of crap or she indeed magical? That is the wrong question, and it is not until you stop trying to answer that question and ask “Who is Dawn?” that you really start to get something powerful out of reading the book.

Mamatas’ novel is fantasy in the basic sense: the making visible of an idea of how reality works, and how one person tries to interpret it. It is also gritty, unforgiving, and strange. It left me with a lot of questions (which is why I quickly re-read it) and cast some light on my own ideas about how life works. It also made me question my idea of what constitutes “fantasy” as a category of fiction. Where should we locate a story that might be “fantasy” but that contains within its narrative structure a critique of magical thinking of all varieties? If the “magic” in a story turns out to be not “real” is it not a fantasy? Love is the Law continues to flummox me, which I continue to find compelling and enlightening.

For me, good fantasy novels are the ones that catch you off-guard and question your sedimented assumptions and ideas. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria fulfills these criteria categorically. It is also a first-person narrative (and bildungsroman) , but this story abounds with acts of conjuration. Magic is once again implied (and seems more likely in the secondary world context), but the sorcery that we find emerges from Samatar’s use of language. Not only do we have a world sketched out for us by the narrator, Jevick, we swim in the metaphors and sayings and ontologies of the conjured reality. The novel is sometimes daunting in its associations and vocabulary, but as I read I realized that this was one of its strengths because it demands to be believed, to feel so lived-in and dense and different that you want to understand it. Even as the central story resolves into a mappable progression the language dazzles and confounds the reader. The novel is much more firmly in the “fantasy” camp than Love is the Law, but its rich intensity is almost too much to bear as you nearly drown in the language only to find that, with some difficulty, you can breathe in this ocean of words. And those breaths are energizing and sobering as you take in the ideas of this other world and understand that, in some way, this is how we create every world.

Samatar’s book is a border-dweller too, as it eschews both easy answers and some (overused) elements of the fantasy genre to tell a young man’s story that in the end is a reflection of his own story of his world. Jevick is a more articulate and distanced narrator than Dawn, but the flaws in his viewpoint emerge just as obviously over the course of the novel. Both of these stories exemplify the way in which we are all unreliable narrators, all struggling to wrestle the world into a shape that we can comprehend and live with despite blind spots, misgivings, desires. This is an aspect of all satisfying fantasy; it becomes a potential mirror for us to gaze in and see how strange, crooked, and sometimes confabulated our own worldview is. Even as we are surprised and entertained and perplexed we see not just the storyworld made visible, but the contours of the world we see around us. And we see these contours best, I find, from the borderlands.

2 Comments on Roaming the Borderlands of Fantasy

  1. Hi John!

    Different spheres and slices of fantasy, for me, do different things. I am not a giant fan of urban fantasy (I read only a small amount)–my fantasy tends toward secondary world, S&S and the epic.

    Olandria is on my TBR. I’m curious how I will interact with it. Your reaction to it reminds me of how I interact with, say, K.J. Parker, who works in a very similar space to Somatar in many respects.

  2. I would love to see folks’ opinions on a question you posed:

    “If the “magic” in a story turns out to be not “real” is it not a fantasy?”

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