Unneeded Fantasy

Abigail Nussbaum’s most recent review over at Strange Horizons asks an interesting question — why use fantasy to tell a story?  It’s a question I’ve been asking about several of the novels I’ve read lately.

Fairies have been enjoying a renaissance in my reading, if not in the genre as a whole.  I’ve read three novels in the last six months in which main characters turned out to be fairies living in this world, and in all three cases I was left asking ‘Why?’

Not that they were poorly written. In fact, two out of the three were very well written indeed — until the fantasy appeared.  I read the first two-thirds of each novel with growing appreciation.  How real the settings were, how realistic and in-depth the characters!  How well the authors drew me into experiences I am usually hard to draw into!  How varied were the characters with whom I found myself sympathizing!  ’This is really fine stuff,’ I said to myself — and then the fantasy hit, like a mound of mint frosting plopped onto a filet mignon.  One minute well-realized characters were exploring their inner lives, and the next they were battling dragons as they ran across a rainbow, their tragically killed loved ones were coming back to life, they were flying up into thunderstorms.  Why? For the love of God, WHY?

I wasn’t the only reader who didn’t like this combination of meat and icing.  Goodreads critics gave one of the novels quite a trouncing.  But what they objected to was not the icing but the meat.  ’We had to plow through all that characterization and story and mundane drama and soap opera, before we got to any of the good stuff!’ was the general plaint.

It’s funny, I can remember making the exact same kinds of complaints when I was young.  That was back when I believed that drama was just invented by writers, and that real people never did such senseless things as adultery or stalking.  I had a pretty impoverished view of humanity in my youth, and if I was going to read about unbelievable people doing improbable things I wanted talking dragons, at least.  Then I got bigger and went out in the real world, where I met people who actually engaged in the kind of stuff I had thought Shakespeare made up in his fevered imagination.  Nowadays, the mystery of why people do the real things they do intrigues me far more than how they’ll overcome that three-headed dog at the gates of hell.

As I looked back on the experience of reading these unsatisfying novels, I realized that nowadays a fantasy novel needs to un-suspend my disbelief.  I can enjoy something that’s fantasy all the way through, that lets me know that and prepares me to pick meaning out of a rather impressionistic portrayal of human beings and their problems.  But to start with tight, bright realism and then switch into the comparatively fuzzy world of fantasy is not, in my opinion, a good strategy.  If the issues your story deals with are non-fantasy issues, why bring the fantasy in at all?

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Dystopian visions — are you doing anything?

When I was young, there was a commercial my parents loved. It was for some allergy medicine or other, and it showed a bored little boy sitting on the porch steps. From inside the house came his mother’s voice: “Johnny, I hope you’re not doing anything!”

I’m thinking about this because I just read Rob Godman’s article in The Chronicle about dystopian literature. He attributes the current boom in it to ‘apocalyptic narcissism,’ which he defines as “the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.”

Well, I buy this explanation entirely when it’s applied to the political blogs I follow. Every single group is convinced that their issue is the one on which our civilization will founder. But in fiction? Not so much.

As an SF and fantasy fan, I’ve read lots of dystopian novels. More recently a friend spent a while writing one, and our critique group read it in several iterations. We quite liked it, but couldn’t figure out the plot arc or where it was going; the most lovingly detailed parts of it were how its protagonists survived in a city where all the other people were dead. It eventually transpired that this book in fact had no plot arc, something which didn’t interfere with our enjoyment of it in the least. The whole point of it was survival.

Likewise, when I read The Hunger Games what stuck with me was not the plot or the setting but the details of how the heroine gathered wild food and caught rabbits. Isn’t freedom to do that what she’s fighting for all along?

To me, a large section of US-written dystopia has always been a pretext for getting rid of civilization so the protagonists can be self-sufficient pioneers. No more forms to file, no more tickets or taxes to pay or bylaws to obey. No more rules against cutting down that tree or digging that hole. Better to scrounge through a desolate city full of corpses than be safe and fed in a gated community that has no use for your skills — a community, in fact, that doesn’t want you to use those skills.

So I find myself wondering whether the current boom in dystopias is not just frustration at a world in which more and more of us appear to be useless, our skills unwanted, our ambitions a nuisance. In dystopia, the unwanted can enjoy stories about a world remade in which all their abilities matter, exactly in the way I enjoyed Little House on the Prairie.

There’s a big difference, though. Little House led into The Foxfire Books, Euell Gibbons, gardening, sewing, knitting, building, making. What do dystopian visions of outlasting one’s culture lead to? Can anything be done with them except more dreaming? But then, this may be the point – to sell more books. To keep the unwanted hordes staring at their Kindle screens, rather than getting up and making nuisances of themselves.

So go ahead, download that next end-of-the-world novel. It could be worse. You could be doing something.

Update: Jennifer Silva’s article on working-class students captures exactly what I’m trying to say!

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Corrected knitting chart 5

The summer knit-along folks pointed out a problem with my chart.  Great catch!  Here’s the corrected version:

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Cat’s Evening Song

Oh, oh, if you don’t let me out I will die.
Oh, oh, if you don’t let me out I will die.
I will moan, I will cry, I will sob, I will sigh,
I will fall down and perish and you will know why,
And it’s Oh, oh, if you don’t let me out
I will scream and I’ll shout
And I’ll snarl and I’ll pout
And go racing about like a mannerless lout,
If you don’t let me out I will die die die DIE!

Oh, oh, if you don’t let me in I will scream
Oh, oh, if you don’t let me in I will scream
I’ll invade every dream,
Stick my claws through the screen
Tell the neighbors such cruelty’s never been seen
And it’s Oh, oh, if you don’t let me in
I’ll start over agin
And I’m going to win
For to mistreat a princess like me’s such a sin
If you don’t let me in I will scream scream scream SCREAM!

Oh, oh, if you don’t let me out I will die.
Oh, oh, if you don’t let me out I will die…

repeat ad infinitum, or until locked on the front porch.

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A New Favorite — A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

a stranger in olondria cover

I was already looking forward to this book before it was published. Sofia was one of the first people to review my first book, when I met her I really enjoyed our conversation, and I always learn something interesting from her blog posts and short pieces. But I’ll admit, I was not expecting the kind of enchantment Olondria delivered. When you read a novel written by a PhD candidate in a field outside your own, you expect to flounder a bit! In fact, you expect to be a stranger in an indifferent and perhaps hostile land.

But this is a book full of not only travel but the love of travel, the adventure of travel, the wonder and beauty of it.  Its hero is primed to appreciate Olondria, not to worry about his own ability to negotiate it.  A month after reading the book, that’s what remains most vividly in my memory; an outward-facing hero, confronting a new world with curiosity, appreciation, and respect.

And what a world!  The world-building in this book absolutely amazed me.  From word structure to families, regions, religions and rituals, this book’s world-building has a depth and solidity that surpasses anything I’ve read.

Near the end of the book, Sofia describes the experience of nearing the end of a book that you wish would go on forever.  Every phrase felt as if she was reading my mind.  I wanted it to go on forever!  But I guess I will just have to read it again, and wait for her next one.  Write fast, Sofia!

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How not to court donors

I give to a charity, so today I was called by a pollster who appeared to have been commissioned by them. The best I could figure from the multitude of questions he asked me was that the organization is having an internal debate about whether to remain a charity or become a social advocacy organization, and wanted to find out whether they would lose donors. So they had this pollster read a whole bunch of statements about their activities, and I was supposed to rank them by their appeal.

“X organization is able to motivate governments to work to eliminate poverty,” he read.

“Really? They can do that?”

“That’s not what they want to know. They want to know how that statement would make you feel about giving to them.”

“Is that if I thought it was true?”

“Let’s assume that, yes.”

These sort of questions are hard to answer. I ended up giving almost all the statements a 5 out of 10, because I didn’t know if they were either true or possible. And after trying to rate this amalgam of truth and fantasy, I realized I don’t know enough about the organization to be donating to it anymore.

Sometimes the best strategy is just to leave well enough alone.

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I’m back – with more knitting charts.

For those of you doing the lace knitting project, you must be more than caught up by now! It’s been almost three weeks – so I’ll post the next 3 charts.  Sorry for the delay. I was out having fun and writing.

summer sampler shawl knitalong chart 6

summer sampler shawl knitalong chart 7

summer sampler shawl knitalong chart 8

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More knitting — chart 5

No sooner did I get chart 3-4 up than one of my knitting group told me it was really short! Maybe this will make people feel better.

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Lace! Knitting! Summer break! Chart 3-4

These are little motifs so I put both in one chart.

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Lace! Knitting! Summer break! Chart 2

This is the part that looks like Xmas trees.

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