JFA29.3 (2018)

Introduction: Theorizing the Fantastic

Brian Attebery

Compared to its sister genre science fiction, fantasy is seriously under-theorized. Theory skeptics might rejoice: one result is that fantasy scholars don’t have a set of ponderous terms to compare with extrapolation, novum, and Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement. However, the application of these terms along with their theoretical underpinnings and implications has given science fiction academic respectability—and made it possible to find patterns and critique assumptions that are otherwise hidden from view. Coming to terms (pun acknowledged) with theory is easier if you think of theory not as the most abstruse and difficult of enterprises but as the most basic. Theory is what allows us to ask “why” and “how” of cultural hierarchies and social patterns that usually go unquestioned. Theory asks, “What is a story, anyway?” and “What is a character and how do the travails of fictional characters mean anything?”

The most sophisticated theories of fantasy tend to come from writers of fantasy. Although scholars like Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, and Eric Rabkin have done some very smart thinking about the fantastic—in these cases formulated along rather narrow lines and distinct from the English usage of fantasy—the foundational discussions of fantasy have come from George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. Le Guin, with additional insights from G. K. Chesterton, Jo Walton, Jane Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones, and many others.

Part of the reason for the relative scarcity of fantasy theory is that it is such a vast and varied field. Anything you might say about The Lord of the Rings is likely to be directly countered by statements based on, say, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books. And just try to describe Terry Pratchett’s satirical fantasies in terms that work for William Morris’s romances. It is no wonder most fantasy scholars stick to histories, source studies, and critical examinations of individual writers and texts—all, of course, well worth doing. Yet absence is also opportunity, and the most difficult task is often the one most worth tackling. I see openings for theorizing just about everything about fantasy, for supplementing the pioneering work of Rabkin, Gary K. Wolfe, Kathryn Hume, Colin Manlove, and others of my own greying generation. We need new theoretical approaches to postcolonial fantasy, to steampunk, to the affective categories of horror and wonder, to the way changing narrative platforms and modes alter fantasy, to the borderlines between fantasy and romance or metafiction or magical realism. Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy is a great start—but for too long stood alone as a serious attempt to anatomize the genre.

Some of this theoretical work is already going on, of course, and much of that enterprise has taken place in the pages of this journal and at its affiliated International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. I am pleased to note that several of the articles in this issue offer fresh theoretical perspectives on the fantastic. First up, science fiction scholar John Rieder looks at genre and culture in his article “Colonial Ignorance and World Construction: On Albert Wendt’s Black Rainbow and The Adventures of Vela.” One of the issues when dealing with texts like Wendt’s is that defining them as “science fiction” or “fantasy” or “myth” or “history” always involves imposing categories from outside to make them fit a capital-based “world literary system.” We do better to allow the texts to function within their own ecosystems of genres, beliefs, and practices—to approach that goal, Rieder brings Grace Dillon’s idea of “indigenous futurism” and Gerald Vizenor’s “survivance” to Wendt’s Oceanian worlds. When we do so, we not only read them with greater understanding but also allow them to interrogate our own world systems.

The next article, Matthew Oliver’s “The Riotous Conflagration of Beauteous Language”: Flowery Style, Defamiliarization, and Empathic Imagination in Epic Fantasy,” also looks at fantastic genres, but in this case the divisions that have arisen within the genre/marketing category of fantasy especially in North America. Focusing on the category of epic fantasy as exemplified in the work of Steven Erikson and Stephen R. Donaldson, Oliver uses stylistic analysis to get at some of the larger questions about audience and purpose. He looks at the linguistic exuberance that some criticize as needless ornament or just bad prose and sees instead an artistic choice and a vehicle for estrangement. Drawing on ideas from Julia Kristeva, Rosemary Jackson, and China Miéville, he enlists the notoriously anti-fantasy Darko Suvin to make his case for the cognitive value of such writing and of epic fantasy as a form.

Stefan Ekman takes up a different subgenre of fantasy: urban fantasy. Limiting his examples to fantastic versions of London, he acknowledges that “The very mention of London sets off the reader’s contribution to the details of the world, but the text’s descriptions are what shapes the reader’s impression of the setting, its atmosphere, its particular sense of ‘London-ness’.” In other words, he is looking at a test case for fantasy world-building, in which both author and reader contribute historical and geographical knowledge of an existing space to construct a world that does not and never has existed. Using Yi-Fu Tuan’s concepts of space and place, Ekman theorizes that the fantasy versions of London in Miéville, Kate Griffin, Neil Gaiman, and others select a narrow range of events from London’s history and sites from its sprawling geography to emphasize the London-ness that marks the city as more place than space.

Eva Oppermann, in “The Heterotopian Qualities of the Fantasy Worlds in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Books and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments,” combines ideas from Ekman, Mendlesohn, John Clute, and other fantasy scholars with Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopia. Oppermann uses Foucault’s idea of spaces that are “other” (or hetero-) by virtue of their being sacred or forbidden and also separated off from ordinary space by permeable boundaries. Both Rowling and Clare construct fictional universes in which a mundane reality is overlain and interpenetrated by a magical realm. Seeing these arrangements as heterotopian encourages us to look for the social functions of such divisions, especially the use of magical enclaves and polders to shelter groups who are threatened by larger society. Those who are different, those who are defined as deviant, find safety and community in expanded, heterotopian versions of reality. This function may help explain why fantasy has become such a dominant form in our time.

Finally, Hugh Crago looks at the functions of fiction itself, and especially fantastic fictions, in “‘With a tale he cometh to you’: A Phenomenological Journey to the Center of Story.” Crago’s model draws on narrative theory but combines it with the cognitive and neuroscientific analysis of culture offered by Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist relies on the left hemisphere/right hemisphere division of duties within the brain; though the importance of that division has been questioned by some brain scientists, the social and cultural patterns he identifies are significant and demonstrable. Crago takes those patterns a step further into the nature of story-invention and reception. In a wide-ranging survey that goes back to Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poesie and up through scientific romance and contemporary fantasy, Crago looks for the ways stories negotiate between the rational and the romancifying halves of the brain and the self. As he concludes, “The experience of story puts us in direct relationship with something purposeful yet mysterious, unpredictable yet patterned, new, yet old—a tiny encapsulation of mind within nature.”

Contents

Introduction: Theorizing the Fantastic
Brian Attebery

Colonial Ignorance and World Construction: On Albert Wendt’s Black Rainbow and The Adventures of Vela
John Rieder

“The Riotous Conflagration of Beauteous Language”: Flowery Style, Defamiliarization, and Empathic Imagination in Epic Fantasy
Matthew Oliver

London Urban Fantasy: Places in History
Stefan Ekman

The Heterotopian Qualities of the Fantasy Worlds in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Books and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments
Eva Oppermann

“With a tale he cometh to you”: A Phenomenological Journey to the Center of Story
Hugh Crago

Reviews

Kimberly J. Lau’s Erotic Infidelities: Love and Enchantment in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber
Rev. by Susan M. Bernardo

Lori M. Campbell’s A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy

AND

June Pulliam’s Monstrous Bodies: Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction
Rev. by Cait Coker

Christopher Vaccaro’s The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on Middle-earth Corporeality
Rev. by April Durham

Christopher A. Sims’s Tech Anxiety: Artificial Intelligence and Ontological Awakening in Four Science Fiction Novels
Rev. by Matthew Fesnak

Kathryn Allan’s Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure
Rev. by Laura R. Kremmel

Paul Meehan’s The Vampire in Science Fiction Film and Literature
Rev. by John W. Morehead

Jason V. Brock’s Disorders of Magnitude: A Survey of Dark Fantasy
Rev. by Sean Moreland

Robert C. Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre
Rev. by Thomas J. Morrissey

Cory Barker, Chris Ryan, and Myc Wiatrowski’s Mapping Smallville: Critical Essays on the Series
Rev. by Kathryn Polizzi

Robert F. Reid-Pharr’s Samuel R. Delany’s Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition
Rev. by Pedro Ponce

Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination
Rev. by EL Putnam

Donald Palumbo’s The Monomyth in American Science Fiction Films: 28 Visions of the Hero’s Journey
Rev. by Don Riggs

Neil Mitchell’s Carrie
Rev. by Hans Staats

Patrick McAleer and Michael A. Perry’s Stephen King’s Modern Macabre: Essays on the Later Works
Rev. by Justin Wigard