Current Issue

JFA 31.1 (2020)

Introduction: Messages from an Alternate Reality

Brian Attebery

Because of publication time lag, this issue is coming to you from another reality, one in which people travel freely, mingle in crowds, and exchange handshakes and even hugs. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts did not happen in 2020 and will be virtual in 2021, but in 2019, we gathered in Orlando for the fortieth time. The Conference theme was prescient: Politics and Conflict. Or maybe it wasn’t so prescient: when has the world not been roiled up in conflicts and controversies? It is a mark of privilege to be able to ignore political machinations and acts of injustice, just as it is a privilege to be able to swoop around the world or to engage in the free exchange of ideas. Some privileges are worth holding onto, or fighting to regain, so long as the fight includes efforts to extend those privileges to all.

Hence the Conference theme. Our magnificent guests of honor, and the nearly 500 other attendees, were making an effort to examine our own protected spaces and seemingly innocent amusements. The Fantastic in the Arts, as we term our organizational remit, is an area of seeming inconsequence: things that aren’t true and thus apparently don’t matter. But leisure and amusement matter tremendously, and the guise of inconsequentiality is often  the best way to open up new possibilities for social order. Thomas More changed the world by writing about No Place, or Utopia. Stephen Greenblatt has demonstrated that the unreality of the Elizabethan stage is what allowed Marlowe and Shakespeare to explore ideas otherwise too perilous even to speak of. Amusements encode desires and channel identities, all of which becomes the invisible substrate of perception. They don’t so much tell us what to think, which can be resisted, as how to think, which is a more subtle form of coercion because we don’t think we are being coerced at all.

The best way I know to resist such restrictions on thought is to visit someone else’s worldview. Art offers alternatives to the tyranny of the ordinary. And fantastic art is especially good at startling us out of common sense and the illusion of consensus. Guest author G. Willow Wilson has used fantastic forms of storytelling to remind readers that we live in constructed worlds, and that not everybody constructs reality in the same ways. In her novels and comics, she transports us to worlds that might seem strange to Western audiences but that represent the everyday reality of many in the Muslim world, a reality that includes secret police, sacred obligations, computer hackers, and djinns. We include not only Wilson’s powerful Guest of Honor address—which interestingly explores the question of why only some identities and ideologies are considered political—but also an interview with Wilson conducted by comics scholar and Cairo native Noran Amin. Our thanks to Willow Wilson for her willingness to share ideas and experiences and congratulations to Noran, who recently completed her PhD at Idaho State University.

Mark Bould’s extensive scholarship has always acknowledged the political nature—and probed the assumptions—of literature and popular media. His work on science fiction, fantasy, and film has greatly enriched the critical conversation on all of those things, and not least because he continually reminds us that such entertainments have hidden costs, what he once, in an influential essay, called “The Dreadful Credibility of Absurd Things.” Bould employs Marxist theory in a way that reminds me of Philip Pullman’s image of a “subtle knife” so sharp it can cut openings between realities. In his Guest Scholar address, Bould slices through the veils of neoliberal thought to open up glimpses of utopian possibility. To replace horror stories about the zombies of capitalism and the spectre of communism, he invites us to seek out better stories of “a world beyond appropriation and possession.”

Sheetala Bhat was the 2019 winner of the David G. Hartwell Emerging Scholar Award, given for the best graduate student paper at the Conference. Her paper, now expanded, revised, and peer reviewed, explores several layers of history, fantasy, and politics involved in the 2018 production of a play by a Métis writer named Jani Lauzon. The play, in turn, concerns a 1918 opera based on the life of a Creek/Cherokee opera singer who performed under the name Princess Tsianina Redfeather. Bhat explores the way the element of the fantastic in the play, in Bhat’s words, “not only resists victimization and patronization of Indigenous artists but also becomes a locus of celebration of solidarity of Indigenous artists across nations, generations, time, and gender.” Both Lauzon and Redfeather, like G. Willow Wilson, are among those whose identities make the political nature of any artistic expression inescapable, unlike those who speak from positions of dominance and are thus read as unmarked by politics.

Our other two essays in this issue are good test cases for my proposition that the fantastic is always political and sometimes more powerfully so when it appears to be removed from worldly concerns. Eliza Dickinson Urban’s article “Reasonable Doubt: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story and the Limits of Skepticism” takes up a Victorian novel of the occult. Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story seems to be about individual choices regarding faith and reason. Those choices themselves, however, are framed within institutions of economics, education, gender, and entertainment (the mesmerist Margrave performs spiritualist manifestations on stage, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Professor Westervelt, from The Blithedale Romance). Each of those institutions involves the exercise of power, and each is subject to external forces. Furthermore, as Dickinson Urban points out, the claims about faith and spirit in the novel raise issues of power in that they involve the gaze and linguistic choice. I suggest reading Dickinson Urban’s article in conjunction with Wilson’s guest of honor speech: both invite us to question privileged perspectives of science and individual autonomy while also introducing potentially subversive alternative realities.

Dennis Wilson Wise’s study of magical weapons in fantasy seems even more removed from issues of real-world power, yet the demon swords of writers like Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock resonate as metaphoric signs of coercion and threat, and not only within the secondary worlds of their stories. What Wise terms EPVIDS—an acronym for Evil Possessed Vampire Demon Swords—derive from traditional oral narratives and their transcriptions into medieval romance and saga. In those source narratives, the politics of weapons is right there on the surface: these are stories of power rivalries and battles for territory, with the demonic weapon serving as a sort of wild card to destabilize systems and even the odds. As the same motifs recur in modern fantasy, the possessed sword becomes a vehicle for examining other sorts of power and corruption. Like Tolkien’s One Ring, they function not allegorically but in a looser, open-ended symbolic fashion: Tolkien never denied that his symbols had applicability to current events. EPVIDs embody the proverbial wisdom that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Though Moorcock hated Tolkien’s work and deliberately skewed his fantasy worlds toward amorality and chaos, his use of the haunted sword is as morally significant as Tolkien’s, and that morality is in both cases defined and constrained by political power. So the most escapist of fantasies offer no escape at all from the conditions of modernity, but they might offer strategies for self-reflection, cultural criticism, and resistance.

Articles

Introduction: Message from an Alternate Reality
Brian Attebery

G. Willow Wilson: An Introduction
David Higgins

Who Are You Calling Political? (Or, Which Labels Are Applied to Which Stories, and Why)
G. Willow Wilson

An Interview with G. Willow Wilson
Noran Amin

Mark Bould: An Introduction
Paweł Frelik

Our Frightful Hobgoblin, or, Notes Towards Full-on Fully Automated Luxury Green Diffabled Trans* Feminist Queer Interspecies Space Communism of Color
Mark Bould

Watching the (Re)calling of a Princess on Stage: On I Call myself Princess and Bearing Witness to Indigenous Histories through the Fantastic in Theatre
Sheetala Bhat

Reasonable Doubt: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story and the Limits of Skepticism
Eliza Dickinson Urban

A Brief History of EPVIDS: Subjectivity and Evil Possessed Vampire Demon Swords
Dennis Wilson Wise

Reviews

Douglas E. Cowan’s America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King
Rev. by James Arthur Anderson

Mabel Moraña’s El monstruo como máquina de guerra
Rev. by David Contreras

Kevin Reese’s Celestial Hellscapes: Cosmology as the Key to the Strugatskiis’ Science Fictions
Rev. by Rachel Cordasco

Jason Ray Carney’s Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H. P. Lovecraft
Rev. by Timothy H. Evans

Joseph Michael Sommers and Kyle Eveleth’s The Artistry of Neil Gaiman: Finding Light in the Shadows
Rev. by Anelise Farris

Emma Westwood’s The Fly
Rev. by Dominick Grace

Matthias Fuchs’s Phantasmal Spaces: Archetypical Venues in Computer Games
Rev. by Misha Grifka-Wander

Anindita Banerjee and Sonja Fritzsche’s Science Fiction: Circuits of the South and East
Rev. by James R. Krause and Scott Raines

Silvia G. Kurlat Ares’s La ilusión persistente: Diálogos entre la ciencia ficción y el campo cultural
Rev. by Kiersty Lemon-Rogers

Claudia Schwabe’s Craving Supernatural Creatures: German Fairy-tale Figures in American Pop Culture
Rev. by Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran

Michael E. Heyes’s Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques: Monstrosity and Religion in Europe and the United States
Rev. by John W. Morehead

Natacha Vas-Deyres, Patrick Bergeron, and Patrick Guay’s C’était demain: anticiper la science-fiction en France et au Québec (1880-1950) [It was tomorrow: Anticipating science fiction in France and Quebec (1880-1950)]
Rev. by Amy J. Ransom

Joseph Rex Young’s George R. R. Martin and the Fantasy Form
Rev. by Don Riggs

Paul V. Allen’s Eleanor Cameron: Dimensions of Amazement
Rev. by Jaclyn L. Sutherland

Amanda Firestone and Leisa A. Clark’s Harry Potter and Convergence Culture: Essays on Fandom and the Expanding Potterverse
Rev. by Megan Suttie

Bryan Turnock’s Studying Horror Cinema
Rev. by Kai-Uwe Werbeck

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces
Rev. by Rebecca Wynne-Walsh

Pasha M. Khan’s The Broken Spell: Indian Storytelling and the Romance Genre in Persian and Urdu
Rev. by Mariam Zia