“Introduction: The Fantastic Ridiculous”
One of the all-too-easy spells performed by Harry Potter and his pals consists of saying the word, “Riddikulus.” Aside from the odd fact that misspelling seems to make ordinary language magical, this spell indicates something important about the fantastic nature of ridicule. The usefulness of the spell is to combat boggarts, which in J. K. Rowling’s invented universe gain power by taking the form of whatever one fears the most. That has always been one of the functions of the non-magical version of “riddikulus”: to puncture pretense and avert intimidation. Ridicule can be a weapon against tyranny, useful when it shrinks bullies down to manageable size. Yet like most spells, it can be turned to evil purposes, when people in power use it to bully and abuse those deemed weaker. What is the counterspell in those cases? Rowling does not tell us.
For some readers, all forms of the fantastic are ridiculous, meaning strange, baffling, and useless. For others, the ridiculous is one of the strategies by which fantastic narratives unveil hidden patterns and meanings in the ordinary world. There are many such strategies, including literalized metaphor, science-fictional extrapolation, utopian speculation, and glimpses of the numinous—and any of these can be combined with the ridiculous to compound the effect. (I personally think more utopian novels could use a touch of silliness.) One version of the ridiculous is Bakhtin’s carnivalesque: the festival of the body and the bawdy that uncorks society’s repressions. Another is parody, which can take on a life beyond that of its ostensible target, as in Terry Pratchett’s endlessly inventive, self-reflexive fantasies of Discworld.
In recognition of all the links between the fantastic and the ridiculous, the theme of the Thirty-Second International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was the Fantastic Ridiculous. Well, actually, the conference organizers noticed that we had done the Sublime two years earlier, and it just seemed inevitable to complete the proverbial journey. Once it was decided to descend from the Sublime to, well, you know, the implications of the theme began to ramify. The fantastic ridiculous turns out to be variously comically buoyant, darkly ironic, a source of invention, a vehicle for protest, and an area ripe for theoretical exploration.
In this issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, we have a sampling of the offerings at the 2011 conference, along with a couple of related articles. The Guests of Honor at the conference were chosen for their ability not only to discuss varieties of the ridiculous but also to exploit them. Connie Willis, whose fiction can be variously alarming, heartbreaking, and hilarious—sometimes all three at once—gave an address on one of her favorite film genres, the screwball comedy. Willis’s own fiction often recreates the screwball comedy in science-fictional terms, as in her novels Bellwether (1996) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999). In her speech, she demonstrated the facility for entertaining crowds that has made her an in-demand host for ceremonies like the Nebula Awards; she also made a number of serious points about humor as a way of defusing anger and coping with stupidity, greed, and bigotry.
Writer Terry Bisson is known for fiction that draws the reader into strange and often hilarious situations without ever quite setting off cognitive alarms: somehow we find ourselves accepting that, as one of his best-known stories has it, “Bears Discover Fire” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 1990). Or we are persuaded to take an alien point of view from which it is obviously absurd to think of any intelligent race that “They’re Made out of Meat” (Omni, April 1991). Unfortunately, Bisson’s hilarious performance at the conference cannot be reproduced here, so I will merely point readers toward his work, including his most recent story collection TVA Baby (Oakland: PM Press, 2011).
Our Distinguished Scholar for 2011 was Andrea Hairston, Louise Wolff Kahn Professor of Theatre at Smith University and Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. In addition to her scholarly work in theatre and in science fiction, Hairston is author of a number of plays and two novels. At the conference, she brilliantly performed—rather than simply reading from—scenes from her latest novel Redwood and Wildfire, with musical accompaniment by Pan Morrigan. She also delivered the powerful address printed here, on race, tradition, colonialism, the movie District 9, satire, and, of course, the ridiculous.
The articles in this issue take up the theme in different ways. Michael P. Harrison looks at Spanish texts that interact with the comic book mythos of Batman and Robin. Batman—generally represented as devoid of humor himself—has often been the object of ridicule, in the form of abuse from carnivalesque villains like the Riddler and the Joker, in the derisive treatment by psychiatrist and conservative watchdog Fredric Wertham in his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, and in the campy and cartoonish TV series of the 1960s. Harrison shows how all of those forms of ridicule can be turned to strategies of resistance against gender roles and the systems that enforce them.
Marek Oziewicz takes up a different sort of oppression. His article looks at dwarfs (not to be confused with Tolkien’s dwarves) as symbols of resistance in late Soviet-era Poland. The underground movement Orange Alternative adapted the image of the dwarf as a way of bypassing censorship. When political grafitti was painted over by the authorities, resistors would paint a dwarf in the resulting white space. The erased message came through loud and clear, as it did in Juliusz Machulski’s 1988 film Kingsize, in which the ridiculous totalitarian dwarf kingdom of Drawerland serves as an allegorical representation of the Polish state.
Finally, we are pleased to print an interview with a writer who regularly attends the ICFA and who has joined the masthead of this periodical as a member of the editorial board. Peter Straub is best known for horror and dark fantasy, rather than humor, and yet in person and in print, he also shows a keen sense of comedy. Interviewed by John Tibbetts, Straub talks about his own work, his love for the many genres of the fantastic, and the need to pay close attention to the real world in order to transcend it. Once the inessentials have been cleared away by ridicule, we can once again take time to find music and mystery, as Straub does in his fiction.
“Connie Willis: An Introduction”
Gary K. Wolfe
“Dorothy Parker, Primeval, Little Nell, Robert Heinlein, Emma Thompson, Reports of My Death, Shakespeare, and Other Thoughts on Comedy”
“Andrea Hairston: An Introduction”
“Different and Equal Together: SF Satire in District 9”
“From Panel to Page: Queer Superhero Iconography in the Poetry of Álvaro Tato and the Narrative of Lluís Fernàndez”
Michael P. Harrison
“Dwarf Resistance in Communist Poland: Fantastic-Ridiculous Dwarf Aesthetic as Political Subversion in the Orange Alternative Movement and the Movie Kingsize”
“Pictures in the Fire: An Interview with Peter Straub”
John C. Tibbetts
Owen Davies’s The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts
Rev. by Sladja Blazan
Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint’s Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives
Rev. by Michele Braun
Carlos Abraham’s Borges y la ciencia ficción [Borges and Science Fiction] and Estudios sobre literatura fantástica [Studies on Fantastic Literature]
Rev. by Pablo Brescia
Mark Griep and Marjorie Mikasen’s ReAction!: Chemistry in the Movies
Rev. by Patrick R. Casey
Orrin W. Robinson’s Grimm Language: Grammar, Gender and Genuineness in the Fairy Tales
Rev. by Carmen Comeaux
Michael J. Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games
Rev. by Richard W. Forest
María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren’s Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture
Rev. by M. Carmen Gómez-Galisteo
Ruth Bienstock Anolik’s Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature
Rev. by Anya Heise-von der Lippe
Svante Lovén’s Also Make the Heavens: Virtual Realities in Science Fiction
Rev. by Tanner Jupin
Károly Pintér’s The Anatomy of Utopia: Narration, Estrangement and Ambiguity in More, Wells, Huxley and Clarke
Rev. by Paul Kincaid
Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento
Rev. by Rob Latham
Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon’s Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction
Rev. by Alexis Lothian
Matthew R. Bradley’s Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works
Rev. by Amy J. Ransom
Gwyneth Jones’s Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics
Rev. by Daryl Ritchot
Amy M. Clarke’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism
Rev. by Rebecca Testerman