Tag Archives: fantasy

You Should Come With Me Now

M John Harrison, 2017, Comma Press

The first collection of Harrison’s short fiction since Things That Never Happen in the early noughties. I think it would make a very good introduction if you haven’t read him.

One way of looking at fantasy and sf is that they are about incursion. Something new, wonderful and frightening, enters the character’s world. Often it’s an obvious metaphor, especially in popular forms, for sex or the racial other, bureaucracies both private and public, but leave that aside for a moment and think about the seam between the fantastic and the real. Although even “seam” is too literal. I was fascinated, as a child, by the way in which you could distinguish the background painting from the animated figures in a cartoon, not just because the latter were moving, but because of their texture or grain. In the literature of the English-speaking world, we have strict border patrols between genres which do this and those which don’t, and even in those forms when the fantastic is permitted, there are a lot of conventions about how and in what way it manifests itself, about how the imaginary or the impossible is allowed to be imagined or narrated. It’s these, as much as the repetition of props and tropes, which can make genre fiction so dull even if you aren’t prejudiced against it.

One of the things I admire about Harrison is how he handles this disjunction, always with originality, with a kind of offhand deliberation that evades the usual rituals. Sometimes by making a liminal zone apparently explicit, like the first journey to the land of Autotelia, the focus of some of the longer stories in this collection: it’s literally referred to as “transition” by a guard announcing it on the train journey, but the standard lecture from either narrator or character, guided tours on the reader’s journey into strangeness, is absent. The verisimilitude of piled-up facts, internally consistent details and clever extrapolations is abandoned — it’s good to see that Harrison’s anger at worldbuilding is still burning bright, in the vignettes about the sordid and comical lives of the royal family of Elfland — what we get in exchange is something more valuable, in which the journey to an imaginary land takes on the unspoken and strange qualities of the boundaries (of work, home, between social roles) which we cross countless times every day.

Autotelia, like the city of Viriconium from earlier in Harrison’s career, is more convincing for being unexplained and multivalued. To me it echoes something of the relationship between England and continental Europe and between the developed world and its former colonies, while not being a literal metaphor for either of these. (For the fans: yes, there is a Viriconium story in the collection, and it’s a good one.)

There are a few novellas, many short stories and a number of even shorter pieces of fiction, which made their first appearances on Harrison’s blog. A bunch of terms occurred to me for these, the chummy old sf label “short-short”, “parable” or “epigram” or “microfiction”, but none of these seem suitable. Even the ones which at first glance are parodies of sf/f clichés, like the Elfland stories or “Earth Advengers”, have got something more disquieting and interesting happening if you pay attention.

The collection’s title is apt: not so much an invitation as a warning, with the implication that there’s no time to waste, and no promise of comfort. For a sample, here’s one of the stories in full: “The Crisis”

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Ursula K Le Guin

1929-2018

One of my resolutions this year was to be a bit more alive to coincidence, which is the only sort of magic I believe in. And then two of my favourite artists, Ursula Le Guin and Mark E Smith of The Fall, leave within a day of one another. (I imagine the universe saying, sardonically, “don’t say I never give you nothing.”)

There are more weird symmetries here. I discovered both Le Guin and the Fall when I was in high school but really went into overdrive about them when I was at uni. With both there was a long fallow period in my thirties when I turned away from them. And I’ve lately shared my love of them with two of my three kids, one per twin. I was going to put both in the one blog post, but this one got too big, so Mark E will have to wait.

After I gave my daughter the Earthsea quartet for a birthday a few years ago, she got me to admit that I had never read The Left Hand of Darkness, so I read it while she was studying it for the HSC last year, and one memory of 2017 which will stay with me is the regular idea-bouncing/ranting/fangirling sessions we had while I cooked dinner on Wednesday evenings.

I don’t mind that I came to Left Hand late. Calvino says that there are classics you should put aside so that you can read them for the first time as an adult, not that I did this deliberately, but there are lots of aspects of the novel which I would have taken for granted when I was younger. It’s justly famous for its interrogation of gender, but that aside, Gethen is one of the most detailed and convincing planets in science fiction, and the gender themes are only one aspect of its portrayal of a relatively advanced human civilisation on a planet locked in an ice age, where politics has taken different but still familiar directions than it has on Earth. The book is a subtle example of the sort of modernist collage which I think comes from John Dos Passos, of weaving in-universe documents into the text, not as obtrusively as John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar but just as effectively.

Last year I also re-read the first four Earthsea books, and didn’t quite find myself as swept away as I was at thirteen or fourteen, but that’s to be expected, and I still love them. Far more imaginative than the average high fantasy setting, and they contain as rich a description of mortality as anything I’ve read in science fiction and fantasy. One of my abiding memories of my adolescent reading of the books is that they made me aware of death in a way which I hadn’t before, as something at once intimate and distant. Mortality is one of the weak spots of both sides of the conjoined genre of sf&f; science fiction, in particular, tends to see death as either a bug which can be hacked, or the occasion for some Picard platitudes about how it makes us truly human. There are elements of the latter in Le Guin but I think she goes beyond that into something visionary. The Dry Land is not exactly a place of consolation.

Another good thing about the Earthsea books which I missed as a kid is that each of them is a separate novel, with its own register and style. In most of the high fantasy I’ve read, each text is a section of one large book, which in recent times threatens to outrun the ability and lifespan of the author. Each of the Earthsea books shows us its world and characters from a perspective which is distinctive and appropriate to the nature of the story. This is most apparent in Tehanu, published twenty-odd years after the first three, and a breathtakingly good feminist interrogation of high fantasy in general, but it’s already evident in the first three books.

I haven’t read either The Dispossessed or The Lathe of Heaven since I was a student: I think I’ll make time for both soon. The latter is a bit underrated, I remember it as a witty and frightening satire of utopian thought, mingled effectively with a meditation on dreaming.

I look back over what I’ve written here and it feels like I’ve used chatter about technique to obscure how I felt when I found out that Le Guin had died. My kids are overseas, at the tail end of a month-long holiday with their mum and stepdad to celebrate the end of the HSC, and the thought of my daughter finding out that Le Guin had died when we were apart made me cry uncontrollably. I made a joke about this on Twitter and Facebook, but now that I’m trying to write about how it made me feel with a bit more honesty, I feel dried up. They’re coming home tomorrow, and I may be better able to express it after that. Or that this flat sadness, which I trust will also pass, is not something which I’m capable of expressing.

Look, there’s also this: ever since I learned that Joyce died in 1941 I’ve had a kind of obsession with people whose lives end in the middle of great events, it seems like a peculiarly touching aspect of how our lives work within history. The idea that Le Guin is unable to see how the current moment in the United States works out is one of the things that made me sob, but she was more far-sighted than that, and her works are one of the things that give me courage: that much which they may tear down can be rebuilt, that it took utopian dreams to build it in the first place.

Worldbuilding

My guests, at that time, were greatly interested in literature and displayed a marked predilection for works of fantasy, especially those composed in English during the twentieth century. I informed them that such works, although they had always had their defenders, were not held in high regard. It was difficult enough to make my meaning plain without insult, for the very things which captivated my guests – the maps, glossaries of invented languages and scripts, annals of kings and migrations of peoples that never were, or which were cobbled together from mythologies or revived notions of the historical past – were exactly those which seemed to the eyes of literary criticism to be trivial and childish. Once I had politely pointed out that Tolkien and his epigones, despite their popularity, were not ranked among the foremost writers, my guests (employing a grammatical mood of their language which I had always found somewhat slippery and which indicated, I think, in this case, that the question was in fact sincere in spite of its superficially seeming to be a mere act of politeness) asked for examples from the higher literary traditions of this period which would be would be more worthy of their study. I spoke of the revolution in acceptable subject matter and style which came with Modernism; of the importance of literature which allowed itself to slip the confines of suburban morality and deal with subjects hitherto barred by prudishness from serious writing. Without concealing my personal tastes, I suggested that the works of James Joyce epitomised this artistic revolution.

At our next conversation, my guests, who had absorbed the works in question with that speed and comprehensiveness which was one of the disquieting reminders that they were not, despite appearances, human, were full of enthusiasm for Joyce and particularly for Ulysses. (I did ask them, at a later date, for their opinion of Finnegans Wake, but confess that I could not grasp it, and was left with the same feeling as I have always had when an aficionado of cryptic crosswords attempts to induct me into their cult.) We talked of the stylistic brilliance and daring of the work, on the initimacy of characterisation made possible by the stream-of-consciousness technique, and of the relish which the author had for the least details of quotidian life. “And the world-building!” said one. “We now percieve that our admiration for Tolkien was ill-placed. How could one compare Minas Tirith with the marvellous city of Dublin, where the evidence of millennia is present at every turn? How delicately Joyce’s exposition hints at a whole world beyond its borders! We marvel at the subtlety and skill of his creation.”

Somewhat taken aback by what I took to be a display of naïveté, I objected that Joyce’s Dublin was no fictional creation: on the contrary, like Proust’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, or Flaubert’s Rouen, it was a transfiguration of the marvellous reality of an actual time and place into a great work of literature. I was rebuffed with what I understood to be one of my guests’ rare attempts at humour.

“Why, then, Joyce is no mere genius, but a thaumaturge of rare power, able to create real persons, a real city, an entire country with its painful and bitter history! These cities of which you speak, Paris, St Petersburg, Dublin: do you imagine that even the most obsessive novelist could represent but a shadow of their true immensity? For all that Bloom’s Dublin has an original in what your race are pleased to call ‘reality’, it is nothing more than a finely wrought tissue of words. But with such great artistry, it is understandable if you forget that even Joyce has given us only appearances.”

—from Hearn, The New Arcana Cœlestia: A Memoir of My Time with The Visitors

The Weirdness

Jeremy Bushnell

This is a really enjoyable combination of literary satire and supernatural fantasy in which an aspiring but more-or-less unpublished Brooklyn writer is offered a guaranteed best-seller, in exchange for certain services, by Lucifer himself: a Faustian beginning, but things get more twisted than this might suggest. The tone is light and enjoyable but doesn’t stint the darker aspects of the characters or story: in this it reminded me of Robert Sheckley’s blackly comic sf stories. Also, I want the cover design on a t-shirt:

The Weirdness

Among Others

Jo Walton

I have been terrible at keeping my promise to review books as I read them this year, and I have to catch up before I can’t do them justice: which Among Others really deserves. As someone who spent the 80s reading as much sf and fantasy as its heroine, I found myself wondering, but not caring very much, to what extent the references to Heinlein and Delany would go over a casual reader’s head. It’s as good a book about growing up nerdy as I’d expected, and the supernatural elements are very well done.

It was only when I’d finished that I realised that the author was the critic who had been writing such enjoyable appreciations of classic sf and fantasy on Tor Books’ website. The title of her anthology, What Makes This Book So Great, sums up an sort of enthusiasm which is very rarely publicly expressed, for whatever socio-cultural reasons, about non-genre fiction.

Materiality: Precious

The third issue of Materiality: PRECIOUS is available now from the Pinknantucket Press!

Along with many other good things, it includes my story “The Faithful Alchemist”, set in the fabled and impeccably pretentious city of Louchébem.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve added an index to those fragments of the Louchébem corpus which have already appeared in these pages.

The Silmarillion

J. R. R. Tolkien

It must be twenty years since I last read this — one of my daughters is in the throes of Tolkien adolescent nerddom, which means I have someone to share ridiculously dorky puns with*, and I read her copy down the coast when I’d run out of books. When I was in Oxford a few years ago I saw an exhibition of 14th century hand-lettered Italian books in the Bodleian library, and the origins of Tolkien’s own invented scripts were clearly visible in their elegant red and black uncials. Similarly, now that I know something of the ancient texts and languages which constituted Tolkien’s day job, The Silmarillion seems less weird than it did to my teenage self, and more an impressive exercise in pastiche. That isn’t intended as a criticism: my taste in fantasy inclines to works which read like texts from the worlds in which they are set, or scholarly redactions of old tales, as in James Branch Cabell’s mock-medieval romances or the classicism of Borges’ “The Immortals”.

George R. R. Martin doesn’t really attempt this – his writing is all incident and plot with a sprinkling of ye olde terminologie like synthetic bacon-bits. In my youth I was prone to diss Tolkien’s style, bit in The Lord of the Rings he shifts between different registers, from cosy to epic, with unusual skill.

*”Tickle-me Ulmo”. Sorry.