This week saw the publication in the U.S. of a massive (Amazon shipping weight for the hardcover: 3.1 pounds!) new anthology of fantastic literature: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Initially published in the U.K. by Corvus last fall, this book contains 110 stories of fabulous, bizarre, sometimes esoteric weirdness. I read the whole thing at the end of last year, and it has produced a lot of fodder for contemplation. I found it difficult to write a brief, crisp review of it (although a review is in progress), but what really made this book significant to me is that I have been able to turn the stories over and over in my mind and find insights into reading, writing, story, genre, and some tenebrous insights into how I look at life and reality. Even better, some of the stories require you to struggle, to navigate your way through discomfort and perplexity, to really experience their value. I’ve written about it several times, and it has inspired a chapter in the book I’m currently working on. What’s great about The Weird is that you can find all kinds of odd, perplexing, sometimes horrible things in it, and once you take them in they start to worm themselves into your thoughts and ideas.
Well, they do for me at least.
And this is what I want to discuss in this blog post: the idea not just of weird fiction, but of how genre expectations — as reading frameworks — condition our engagement with fantastic literature. We all have our preferred categorizations for the stories we read: some people like SF, others speculative fiction or fantastic fiction. Some readers want to organize stories more precisely, right down to very specific sub-genres like paranormal romance or steampunk. Some people like micro-designations, while others like a big playing field. Myself, I was a rabid, obsessive parser of subgenres as a younger reader, but I found after some years that I was reading the same sort of stuff constantly, and I was getting, well, bored. I came to realize that my problem was with how I looked at genre, how I used genre and how my expectations and assumptions influenced my reading of a story. I have evolved into a big-tent sort of reader of fantastic fiction, to the point where I prefer to use the term fantastika, precisely because it opens doors into stories rather than closing them. It also incites discussions about genre and how we look at the stories we enjoy reading, and I like that. Continue reading
Some ideas have great power, and in fantastic literature, one of the mightiest of these is the idea of The Hero. The Hero is a very particular sort of creature: it (quite often “he”) is the protagonist of many stories and serves as paragon, savior, and metaphoric proponent/enactor of ideology. The Hero reflects aspirations and serves as inspiration both in the story and to the reader. This can be a useful, evocative device to employ in a story. The problem is, some of The Hero’s admirers use this device to constrain the idea of fantasy and limit the boundaries of imagination that writers and readers use in their engagement with fantasy literature.
Author Michael J. Sullivan discussed “Fantasy as Fantasy” on his blog recently, and after reading his opinion, I wanted to respond not as a proponent of “the other side” that he establishes, but as a critical reader of fantastika. I was perturbed not by his defense of The Hero, but by his assumption that his position encompassed all of “fantasy” and that fantasy should ideally be Just One Thing. This idea extended not only to the literary genre, but to the very notion of what “fantasy” means. I think that there is far more potential in both of these ideas when we open them up rather than try to set limits upon them.
“It is one’s own daydreams that provide the mythopoeic power” – Joanna Russ
Last week I was fortunate to be part of an SF Signal panel that answered the question: “What was the last genre book that blew your mind?” There were a variety of titles chosen, and most of the discussion focused on telling other panelists and the listener what made each book “mind-blowing.” The books included Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, Paul Jessup’s Open Your Eyes, and Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, each of which is a very different book from the others. As we discussed these books, I began to wonder how these books achieved this heightened status, and from there I began to contemplate the question: how does a work of literature “blow our mind?”
The concept that something can be “mind-blowing” is a recent one. The term became popular in the 1960s first to describe the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. As it proliferated in usage its application expanded, and eventually included anything that was startling or intensely affecting. It is now found in a variety of contexts, and has been used in fantastika in book titles, in discussions about the literature, and sometimes in relation to works that might not seem to fit the term. It is a term that relates to a type of encounter, but that is often subjective and used to communicate an intense personal experience to others in a way that sets them into a similar relationship to the source or effect that is “mind-blowing.”