Sunday, 27 December 2009

Dave's Favourite SF, Part 4

Although I tend to think of myself as more of an SF fan, some of my favourite stories are better classed as fantasy. Before stepping out onto the wobbly pontoon of distinctions, let me venture the opinion that both SF and fantasy are mechanisms for bringing the miraculous and fantastic, for better or worse, into a tale, so that more possibilities of experience can be examined.

SF is usually set in the future, featuring some new technology that is important to the story. It is more or less believable in terms of what we imagine the future might be like, without invoking any extra laws to hold that reality together.
Fantasy can be set in any time, and no technical explanation is required for the weird and miraculous stuff that happens. The miraculousness comes from other dimensions with their own laws, usually some version of magic, which may be kept to rigorously, but do not need explaining.

For an unusual take on the genre of sword and sorcery, something I usually avoid like the Magus's curse, there is Tim Powers' tale of a grizzled mercenary and reincarnation of King Arthur fighting against the Saracen in the 16th century siege of Vienna, The Drawing Of The Dark. This book generates such an intense sense of place that when I first visited Vienna a couple of years after reading it, I looked for a basis for the pub that features extensively in the story – and found a 16th century candidate, embedded in a remaining section of 16th century city wall.

Akif Pirincci's feline whodunit, Felidae, is the story of a cat who sets out to investigate cat-murders in his neighbourhood, and via some carefully-researched material on cat behaviour (Pirincci has also written a book on cat habits) eventually succeeds in uncovering a horrifyingly brutal conspiracy. Echoes of the Holocaust mingle with very funny exchanges between the felines. The roughest street cats swear continually and refer to humans as 'tin-openers'. Highly recommended, even if you don't normally read animal fantasies.

Among the greatest ever writers of fantasy I would include Tom Robbins, particularly Jitterbug Perfume and Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, but I shall leave discussion of his work for a specific blog about the fictional representation of magic.

What I want to get onto now is the kind of fantasy that stretches genre boundaries; is it fantasy or is it magic realism? I've ignored that almost ludicrous distinction for a while and gradually I'll take it as an opportunity to excoriate literary prejudices

Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics is a mighty boundary-crossing work. Calvino tells stories of beings who've existed since the Big Bang, now finding themselves in mundane jobs, like an agent for a plastics firm in Pavia, with a blithe, straight-faced ease that takes its absurdities in hand and plunges you into the story. These superbeings are human, in the sense that they have the preoccupations of children and adults – play, sex and love, reputation, fear and shame. A sample:

"One night I was, as usual, observing the sky with my telescope. I noticed that a sign was hanging from a galaxy a hundred million light years away. On it was written: I SAW YOU. I made a quick calculation: the galaxy's light had taken a hundred million years to reach me, and since they saw up there what was taking place a hundred million years later, the moment when they had seen me must date back two hundred million years.

Even before I checked my diary to see what I had been doing that day, I was seized with a ghastly presentiment: exactly two hundred million years before, not a day more nor a day less, something had happened to me that I had always tried to hide."

This story develops into an almost Kafkaesque toying with the paranoid basis of religion – that there's someone out there watching you all the time.

'All At One Point' is an elegant and funny modern exposition of an ancient myth. The Goddess principle concealed in the material world, that is mourned and sought by everyone, she who the Gnostics called Sophia, Wisdom, who is responsible for the expansion of the universe from its original point, is here called Mrs Ph(i)nk0 (approximately), and is characterised as a woman whom everyone loves, who wants to make pasta for everyone, which is how the universe starts, to give her the resources to do so.

Blundering on into the realm of "magic realism", this is often a device to make a point. In Irving Welsh's powerful dark tale Filth, the policeman's sentient tapeworm is able to give the reader a unique perspective on a torn-up life.

More genre-busters appear in the works of Flann O'Brien / Brian Nolan / Miles naGopaleen. The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive involve mad scientists, time travel and policemen with magical powers, set against a comedic take on the repressive morality of Ireland in the 1950s. No doubt the doorkeepers of mainstream literature, wishing to have such a fine writer as O'Brien in the tent, would class these books as "magic realism", the critic's stamp of approval of anything weirder than ordinary realism.

Peering through this lens of critical approval, let's take a look at the excesses of the magic realist style. Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is, in my view, badly marred by trivial and obscure fantasy scenes. For example, on the first page Saladin Chamcha survives falling out of a plane, and later on a mass movement of Indian people walk under the sea towards the Arabic peninsula. All I can make of scenes like that is that the reader is supposed to fall down and worship the author for his sheer exuberant cleverness. To me, this is postmodern storytelling on the cheap, its pretentious chest-beating operating within the sanction of an academic PoMo establishment that has given up on awe, immersion, and indeed all the basics of good storytelling, hates entertainment and loves to strut its own obscurity along the lines of: "You don’t understand me therefore I’m deeper than you".

Some justify this arch, narcissistic cleverness as exuberant fabulism, saying it honours alternative views of reality than the consensus of atheist humanism, that Rushdie created a style that enables us to grasp the complexity of modern India. This sounds to me like a species of exoticism, not far removed from 19th century Orientalism, which at least managed to entertain (try Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo for a lurid, gorgeous video-nasty).

Having said that, it's about time I said what I like about Rushdie. I'm immensely glad he escaped the curse placed on him by the hate-filled old monsters of the Iranian clergy. I’d probably not have bothered with The Satanic Verses but for the fatwa.

Writers of this kind of PoMo fiction seem to be saying "Nothing is true, everything is relative, and I'm the one with the most stylish way of presenting my nihilism". It seems you're not supposed to immerse yourself in magical realism, but view it from some alienated, ironical PoMo position, whereas at least with fantasy the reader is being offered an experience of naïve immersion in a narrative, not a bloodless intellectual bit of one-upmanship.

Despite the distinguished roll-call of successful literary figures who've either written or been influenced by SF or fantasy, including a large minority of celebrated authors before the last 50 years, mainstream lit-crit often attacks SF, as if it has something to fear from it. (Maybe the exposure of the pathetically limited palette of a dodgy realism?)

This division may be a function of the cultural split that became noticed some time in the 20th century as scientific education began to be taken seriously, as the appearance of "two cultures", the gap between those educated in sciences and those in humanities subjects. On the humanities side, they come over as cooler, less nerdy than the science kids, largely because they don't have to work as hard on getting their qualifications.

So what are they moaning / worried about? That the superficiality of much humanities education doesn't fit people for living in this fast-changing civilization, and that those who cross over between the two cultures, like those who appreciate the best SF stories, are in fact better-fitted for life in this world than they are?

There follows a few examples of well-written stuff (from the SF side of the barricade) that shows how confused and prejudicial such judgments are.
Eric Brown's Kéthani is a novel built out of the stories of residents of a Yorkshire village as they begin to benefit from an alien immortalization technology. The examination of what makes people want to go on living, and how they recover from trauma is superb. This is just one example of writing which is surely as finely-crafted as most of what is admitted through the gates of mainstream lit.

A novel whose time has definitely come is Air by Geoff Ryman. This is a portrait of life in a peasant village in the Turkic Republics of Central Asia, just about the last place on earth to go online in a technological revolution. The new Air technology feeds the Internet directly into the brain. During the chaotic sequence where the new tech is being installed and routed in everyone, the protagonist finds herself holding in her arms her dying neighbour. The rest of her terrifying adventure at the hands of various vested interests is coloured by the fact she got possessed by the spirit of the dying old lady. Here we have a story that digs deep into human experience and gives a vivid glimpse of how the world is changing. It would be nice to see mainstream lit do that well.

No comments: