“Introduction: Not-Mundane Not-Science-Fiction”
At the 2008 meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in Lawrence, Kansas, guest writer Karen Joy Fowler commented that even though most of her work is not sf, she seems to write a sort of non-sf that is most fully appreciated by readers of the genre. This is, she pointed out, probably not a good marketing strategy.
Though Fowler was commenting on her own work, I think she might have identified a real and important category of contemporary literature. Her description fits her novels such as The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) and Wit’s End (2008), and stories such as “What I Didn’t See” (2003) and “Always” (2007). Those two stories won Nebula Awards even though neither has obvious sf content (leading to controversy over both awards). The description also applies, more or less, to books such as Geoff Ryman’s 253 (1998) and The King’s Last Song (2006); Molly Gloss’s Wild Life (2000); Ursula Le Guin’s Searoad (1991) and Lavinia (2008); and John Crowley’s The Translator (2002) and Four Freedoms (2009)—in other words, to some of the best fiction of the past couple of decades. But what does it mean to say that readers of one form are the best appreciators of a story apparently written in some entirely other form?
These writers have all written unapologetic works of sf. Perhaps what Fowler is saying is that readers of, say, Sarah Canary (1991) are willing to follow its author into new realms, mundane or otherwise, while readers of realistic fiction are unlikely to venture out of their own comfort zones. That is probably true, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. There is some other factor at work: some reason that a reader like me would unhesitatingly buy the newest book (in hardcover!) of any of these writers. I know that I will be caught up in the story, delighted by the discoveries, engaged by ideas in a way that I am not in most contemporary realistic fiction.
The answer seems to be that when these writers treat everyday reality, the ordinary begins to feel somehow contingent. The minutiae of daily life are there, closely observed, in their fiction, but the quotidian concerns that dominate most realistic stories are put into new perspectives. Read one of these writers, and you find yourself viewing jobs and social interactions and finances as part of a new pattern, juxtaposed with things that hardly seem to register on many writers: dreams, the forces of history, wilderness, the material basis of human consciousness, the improbability of modern culture, the sacred. Within these new patterns, meanings shift and values are reversed. What seemed important becomes trivial; minor details become portents.
The effect reminds me of the experience of Nathaniel Chanticleer, hero of Hope Mirrlees’s 1926 fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist. As a young man, Nathaniel accidently strikes a note on an ancient lute, and his world is subtly transformed:
It was as if the note were a living substance, and subject to the laws of chemical changes—that is to say, as that law works in dreams. For instance, he might dream that his old nurse was baking an apple on the fire in her own cosy room, and as he watched it simmer and sizzle she would look at him with a strange smile, a smile such as he had never seen on her face in his waking hours, and say, “But, of course, you know it isn’t really the apple, It’s the Note” (5–6).
I think it is the Note that I, and other readers of fantasy and sf, hear in the stories of Fowler and Crowley and Le Guin even when those writers write about nothing more exotic than a conversation in a pub or a walk on the beach. Some of us long for the Note and seek it out; others are deaf to its resonances or know it and, like Nathaniel at the beginning of his story, fear and avoid it.
In some of these works, the Note is barely audible: the horns of Elfland faintly blowing, as Tennyson says. (The Elfland horn section obviously contains no trombones.) In others, the Note is strong and plangent; the realistic content no more than a thin membrane barely concealing the forms of monsters and marvels. Whatever the proportion of strangeness to familiarity, the resulting mix is, to me, both more fun and more truthful than the literature of everyday. Geoff Ryman and others have proposed a branch of fiction they call “mundane science fiction,” which foregoes many of the tricks of the trade—aliens, faster-than-light travel, alternate worlds—in order to investigate the real impact of scientific ideas and technologies on ourselves and our future. This is a worthy if somewhat Puritanical goal (reminiscent of the filmmakers of the Dogme 95 group, who renounce technological illusion and attention-getting action), but it is not what I am talking about here. These stories are not sf, but they aren’t mundane either—quite the opposite. They are extraordinary, in all senses: they surround the ordinary with something else. They might not be sf or fantasy, but they deserve to be placed in the larger category that John Clute has begun to call Fantastika, a word he intends to serve as “a single term to represent the literatures of the fantastic as a kind of archipelago of modes” (xi). One of those modes is the decidedly non-mundane not-quite-fantastic literature that is worth seeking out under any term, in any section of the bookstore. If enough of us do so, Fowler’s poor marketing strategy will begin to make economic as well as artistic sense.
The essays in this issue generally confront texts in which the Note of the fantastic is more clearly audible. In the first two articles, women stand for the Outsider who expresses the inexpressible and thereby reminds us that the reality of realistic literature is at least partly an ideological construct. Veronica Schanoes (whose story “Rats” appears in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008), writes about the mirrors of recent fiction as fantastic repositories of women’s creativity and desire—things that are denied or suppressed in the external world. Suparno Banerjee discusses another text in which women’s perceptions—in this case, women’s rationality—function as a counter-reality. In Rimi B. Chatterjee’s Signal Red, a female social scientist voices opposition to a takeover of the scientific establishment by Hindu fundamentalism, setting off a dystopian chain of events and challenging an ideology that would yoke past oppression with new technology.
The next two articles both let monsters speak for the forces of resistance to hegemonic thinking. June Pulliam’s article explores the emerging zombie society of George Romero’s Land of the Dead: Romero’s zombies turn out to be at least potentially more egalitarian than the surviving human in his postapocalyptic world. Brent Stypczynski looks at Remus Lupin, the werewolf professor in J. K. Rowling’s wizard world. Professor Lupin’s charge is teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, but Stypczynski argues that Lupin is himself an object lesson in countering the Dark Arts of bigotry and intolerance.
Timothy Fox’s essay on Gerald Vizenor’s novel Griever looks at another figure of resistance to conformity and oppression. The title character of Vizenor’s novel combines features of Native American tricksters such as Naanabozho and the Chinese Monkey King; the novel heralds the liberatory impulse while expressing doubts about their ultimate effectiveness against a powerful system of social control.
The final essay goes back to one of the foundational works of modern fantasy, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and explores the origins of its vision in the Kalevala. Matthew Bardowell explores the relationship between Tolkien’s “creative ethic” and the Finnish epic’s depiction of magical and poetic artistry. The values Tolkien finds in his source—harmony, antiquity, and remembrance—might seem retrograde, but in the context of the modern world, they can be as oppositional as a Trickster’s audacity, a werewolf’s hybridity, a zombie’s shambling egalitarianism, a woman scientist’s clear vision, or a magic mirror’s truth-telling. All these versions of the Note invite us to reexamine our assumptions and see the world afresh, as all forms of Fantastika have always done.
Clute, John. Canary Fever: Reviews. Harold Wood, Essex: Beccon, 2009.
Datlow, Ellen, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant, eds. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008: 21st Annual Collection. New York: St. Martin’s, 2008.
Mirrlees, Hope. Lud-in-the-Mist. New York: Ballantine, 1970.
“Book as Mirror, Mirror as Book: the Significance of the Looking-glass in Contemporary Revisions of Fairy Tales”
“Alternative Dystopia: Science, Power, and Fundamentalism in Rimi Chatterjee’s Signal Red”
“Our Zombies, Ourselves: Exiting the Foucauldian Universe in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead”
“Wolf in Professor’s Clothing: J. K. Rowling’s Werewolf as Educator”
“Realizing Fantastic Trickster Liberations in Gerald Vizenor’s Griever: An American Monkey King in China”
Timothy R. Fox
“J. R. R. Tolkien’s Creative Ethic and Its Finnish Analogues”
Matthew R. Bardowell
“The Science of Horror, The Horror of Science”
D. Harlan Wilson
John M. Hill’s The Narrative Pulse of Beowulf: Arrivals and Departures
Rev. by Frances Auld
Walter Rankin’s Grimm Pictures: Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films
Rev. by Gail de Vos
Lucas H. Harriman’s Lilith in a New Light: Essays on the George MacDonald Fantasy Novel
Rev. by Jodi Gallagher
Graeme Harper and Rob Stone’s The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film
Rev. by Stefan Hall
Frenchy Lunning’s Mechademia 2: Networks of Desire
Rev. by Stefan Hall
Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century
Rev. by Sanna Lehtonen
J. P. Telotte’s The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology
Rev. by Moira O’Keeffe
Caroline Joan (Kay) Picart and Cecil Greek’s Monsters In and Among Us: Toward a Gothic Criminology
Rev. by Roger C. Schlobin
Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays
Rev. by Alicia Verlager
Lee Easton and Randy Schroeder’s The Influence of Imagination: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy as Agents of Social Change
Rev. by Jason P. Vest