“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.”
The words gets an enormous amount of usage; one can easily find tens of millions of hits on Google. It is applied in so many contexts, in fact, that it seems to have a multitude of uses. In fantastic literature, something that is “mindblowing” is a special sort of text; it has not just surprised us, it has managed to stimulate us into being pleased and disturbed simultaneously. “Mind-blowing” is emotional, felt sharply, and is exciting but in some degree unnerving or excessive. The term is used with a combination of hyperbole and appreciation, and it is often not easy for a reader to explain the quality’s eruption in a particular text to others.
When I talked about my candidate for the podcast topic, I found that a quick summary of the plot and theme was impoverished; I could not relate quickly what made my choice so mind-blowing. When I switched to a more literary analysis, I realized that it would take too long to demonstrate my meaning. It wasn’t until I tried to use more allusion and direct example that I felt I was getting my point across; people asked about the opening scene, where a woman is impregnated by a supernova, for example. I found this to be true in varying amounts with the other descriptions as well; it wasn’t until the speaker revealed the effects of the book on their mind and feelings, pinpointed specific moments or aspects that shook their preconceptions, that you could begin to sense what made their offering so powerful to them.
And this is the great complication with the idea of a mind-blowing work; the reaction is often a tangled one that lies in the interface between the reader and text, within the reader’s imagination stimulated and playing off of the creativity of the text’s composition. We try to refer back to feelings we had at the moment of reading, in the accumulation of reactions and struggles with preconceptions and revelations, and in the final cognitive condensation of our experience in absorbing the words and their associations, mingled with our own imagination and knowledge. It can sometimes be easy to call something “mind-blowing” but the works that really do fit that designation can be the ones we have the most trouble elucidating. I believe this is because the work’s effects are not just intense or distinctive, but that they have a profound effect on your imagination’s, subverting, overloading, perhaps even broadening them.
The definition of “psychedelic” seems as applicable as “overwhelming” when describing a mind-blowing piece of literature that really fits the bill. A mind-blowing book is not just good, it is inordinately effective, superceding the meaning of the words and bypassing our usual tastes and assumptions by delivering an unexpected, powerful message to the reader. This message lingers in our minds, and we can access the sensation again and again, engage the combination of pleasure, bewilderment, and even transcendence that was discovered in the text. It doesn’t just remain in your memory, it infiltrates your mind, changes the way you might normally look at a story, perhaps makes you look at the world or your own ideas differently.
When you experience this with a work of fiction, it becomes a psychedelic experience; the reader obtains a sensation from the text that is shocking, uplifting, perception-altering. The words are active, not just thrilling or edifying but able to change the way we normally view and interpret words. We cannot speak of it as just an organized collection of symbols, as merely a tale well-told. We have to attempt to convince others of the geniune nature of what touched and shook us about the work. We have to impart the awareness that it generated in our internal vision, the gratification of a new discovery that persists and lodges in our thoughts. We have to share the delight and dislocation, the feeling of transport into an intimate relationship with the text, the gift of something unanticipated that enlivens our imagination.
When we cultivate that, and try to pass it on to others, we don’t duplicate the experience, for them but rather invite others, dare them perhaps, to see literature, the world, and possibly even themselves in a different way.
I hope this will make sense ; my english is really poor.
I see “mind-blowing” as a combination of intellectual opening and emotional shaking. That’s why it’s a very personal experience – and probably more frequent in young people which have more to discover and less rigidity.
For one thing it’s not fantastika it’s Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF). Secondly mindblowing in this usage means Sense of Wonder which has a long history of discussion in SFF. Someone is trying to reinvent the wheel.
Bob- Don’t be a dick. If He meant “Sense of Wonder” he would have said it. If he meant “SFF” he would’ve said that. Now go and be a good tea party member and protest a birth certificate or something.
@Paul Jessup I think the Emperor’s New Clothes applies here.
Hélène: your English is great! And I think that you’re right; when something is explicitly mind-blowing it affects you in several different ways simultaneously, and is often very personal. What’s fun is trying to communicate that and share the experience, and see what other people find to be mind-blowing.
Bob: The unexamined life is not worth living. Part of the fun is talking about how we construct our understanding of it. And I’m not sure how a story about political arrogance and the illusion of status relates to my post. Unless you’re calling me one of the weavers, in which case I accept your generous characterization.
I found two of these three at my local library and have put them on hold. Thanks for telling us about them.
[…] John Ginsberg-Stevens on “Mind-blowing” Genre Fiction […]
@John Stevens No problem with examining life. Let me be blunt: are you ashamed of “Science Fiction/Fantasy” and attempting an upgrade with your usage of fantastika. If I go to a bookstore and ask the bookseller for fantasy, they’ll take me to a certain area. If I ask them for fantastika….I purchased my Blood and Honey and my Quantum Thief in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore. My Open Your Eyes from a giveaway online after being notified by one of the science fiction/fantasy blogs I subscribe to.
Are you familiar with the discussion of “Sense of Wonder” in Science Fiction? I felt it when the lights went on in Rendezvous with Rama or Gandalf the White was revealed in Lord of the Rings (not the movie) or Paul Atreides first climbed up a sandworm in Dune. Yes, those were mind blowing, so do you mean something more than Sense of Wonder in your usage of mind blowing.
@John Stevens – Recent SFF with Sense of Wonder, Rachel Swirsky”s, ‘‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window’’.
Wow Bob, way to be a troll.
Jessup, stop being such a prick. I’m trying to learn what Paul Stevens means by fantastika, it’s not marketing or is it. Is it similar to the way people use cyberpunk or speculative fiction as a category. Is he appropriating Clute’s usage. Is he trying to legitimize SFF, bring it out of the ghetto he perceives it to be in. Does SFF have a history, is it being ignored here?
Jessup what I’m trying to figure out or at least firm up in my head is the idea of Sense of Wonder. If a text doesn’t have a Sense of Wonder is it good SFF, (I include Horror here as well). Is it similar to that Sense of Relief I get from certain thrillers, when the good guys win and all is safe for again?
Not being a prick, but you first post was very argumentative. The language you used seemed to provoke, rather than participate. Now you’re turning the comments into something that has nothing to do with the original post (not really). He explains his use of Fantastika elsewhere.
[…] “On ‘Mind-Blowing’ Fiction:” A guest post at Aidan Moher’s A Dribble of Ink, this was a lot of fun to write, and […]
[…] John Ginsberg-Stevens on “Mind-blowing” Genre Fiction […]