Monday, 30 June 2014
Review: The Secret History of Fantasy
The Secret History of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another anthology I picked up on the recommendation of Charlie Jane Anders.
Up to the Michael Swanwick story, I found all these stories at least vaguely familiar, which suggests I've read this collection before (at least that far). I may have stopped after the Swanwick because I disliked it. Although not every story in this volume was to my taste - something that's unlikely to happen unless I edit an anthology myself - there were still some fine ones.
The basic premise of the Secret History anthologies (there's also a science fiction one, [b:The Secret History of Science Fiction|6458631|The Secret History of Science Fiction|James Patrick Kelly|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1395145994s/6458631.jpg|6649005], which I haven't read) is that there's a type of writing that got missed or buried because other things were more popular, more commercial, or dodged the spec-fic labelling. Certainly that's the thrust of Peter S. Beagle's introduction, and the two other non-fiction pieces by Ursula K. Le Guin (herself one of SFF's strongest arguments for being counted as serious literature) and editor David G. Hartwell.
In the case of fantasy, this type of writing is somewhere between fairy tale and magical realism, or so the selections in this volume suggest. Mainstream commercial fantasy, despite its frequent derivation from Tolkien, lacks his deep background in traditional story, and often ends up with an explicable world that happens to have magic as part of the explanation. These stories don't. Things just happen that aren't explained. At the fairy-tale end of the spectrum, that's often the jumping-off point for the story, somebody having to deal with this unexplained magical thing. At the magical-realism end are at least a couple of stories that suggest that it makes very little difference, that people will just continue as they would have anyway, working around the magical thing as best they can.
Those are generalisations, and it's difficult to generalise about this collection without immediately thinking of exceptions. It's diverse and wide-ranging. Let's go piece by piece.
Peter S. Beagle's introduction talks about how works and writers that we now place in the "fantasy" ghetto used to just be literature, even up to the early 1960s, when his own books were seriously discussed in the New York Times. He blames commercial Tolkienesque fantasy, starting with Terry Brooks' Shannara, for a shift in perception that put fantasy in a category where it wasn't taken seriously from the late 1970s. It's a theme that Hartwell takes up and expands on in his later piece.
Maureen F. McHugh's story "Ancestor Money" depicts a woman in an afterlife which is similar to her earthly life in 1920s Kentucky, but less complicated. Her routine is disturbed when her granddaughter, for reasons which are never completely clear, makes an ancestor offering for her in Hong Kong. She has to travel to the Hong Kong afterlife to collect it. I'm not familiar with the details of the Chinese conception of the afterlife, so I'll assume that McHugh gets it right. For some reason, the Chinese afterlife is pretty much the way the Chinese think it is, but the afterlife for the main character, who's Baptist, is completely different from what she expects. The point of the story, if there is one, seems to be that nothing matters, which isn't a satisfactory ending to me.
"Scarecrow" by Gregory Maguire is set in his re-envisioned version of Oz (it may even be part of Wicked; I didn't read very far in that book because it was too dark and cynical for my taste, but this story isn't). It explores ideas of what we know and how we know it, how we make decisions, what is the good. The Scarecrow is, of course, the philosopher of Oz.
"Lady of the Skulls" by Patricia A. McKillip is the kind of beautifully-told, slightly disturbing tale I expect from that author. The question behind the story is "What is most valuable?"
T.C. Boyle's "We are Norsemen" didn't seem, to me, to have much point except to perpetuate stereotypes of Vikings (including horned helmets and senseless violence). I wasn't a fan.
Steven Millhauser's "The Barnum Museum" is a beautiful piece about the sense of wonder, itself at the heart of SFF. It has only one named character, and only briefly, but she, like everything else described in this piece, is there to evoke a place and a mood, not to participate in a story. It is possible to write an effective short fiction piece that isn't a story, though it's more difficult than most people who attempt it think, and this is a fine example of doing it well.
"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" by Stephen King is much more a story, though the narrator is not the protagonist (speaking of things that are difficult to pull off effectively). It reminded me of Nnedi Okorafor's "Kabu-Kabu", or, for that matter, of the hellrides in Roger Zelazny's Amber series in its conceit of a woman obsessed with shortcuts who finds one through... other places. It sits near the intersection of an old-style weird tale, urban fantasy and magical realism, and is beautifully told.
"Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson is a story I've seen in a couple of different collections. It's in the magical-realist camp by virtue of the fact that something odd happens (the title tells you what), and it's more or less incorporated into people's everyday lives without a great deal of surprise. Well written, but not a particularly strong plotline, in common with most other stories in this volume.
"Bones" by Francesca Lia Block is explicitly based on a fairytale (Bluebeard) but given a strong and clearly spelled-out twist. It isn't, to my mind, particularly fantastic; there's no counterfactual, it's only the reference to the fairy tale that gives it any claim to be in an anthology of fantasy, and its tone is more psychological horror.
"Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman is the usual Gaiman, which is to say beautifully written, something that nobody else could think of and yet which makes perfect sense, and disturbing in a way that, for some reason I don't fully understand, I don't mind. I usually dislike disturbing stories, but Gaiman tells his with such a depth of humanity (or something) that I'm usually glad I've read them even though they give me the grues. Here his chain of association seems to have started with Snow White and gone: "What other fantasy creature has very pale skin, black hair, and rises from a coffin?" It's an inversion of the well-known fairy story, in which the traditional antagonist becomes the protagonist and vice versa (as with Wicked and, in a different way, Maleficent).
"Fruit and Words" by Aimee Bender is definitely on the magical-realist side, with the roadside stall selling both fruit and also words made out of what they represent. It's a playing with an idea more than it is a story.
Jeffrey Ford's "The Empire of Ice Cream" is more storylike, though still magical-realist. A musician with synesthesia discovers he can see a girl, an artist, when he eats coffee-flavoured ice cream, which as a child he's forbidden to do for health-related reasons. When he grows up and drinks coffee for the first time, they're able to interact. Not only is the premise inexplicable, the ending is, too, but that's part of the brilliance. It doesn't have to make logical sense; that's why it's in this book.
As I mentioned, Michael Swanwick's "The Edge of the World" didn't appeal to me. A vast abyss exists in an unnamed Middle Eastern emirate, currently the site of a US military base, but in the past held by Napoleon, the Russians and others. The alienated, bored children of military personnel go to see it, and despite the fact that this is a genuine site of wonder and magic, with a history including real dragons and demons, this makes no positive difference to their dreary lives. The emirate's decaying factories dump chemical waste over the Edge. This is the kind of pessimistic, world-weary fiction that I particularly dislike. I haven't read any other Swanwick since reading The Iron Dragon's Daughter many years ago, and this story reminds me why.
Jonathan Lethem's "Super Goat Man" is similarly, if less persistently, dreary and pointless. In a world with superheroes, human stupidity and pettiness go along pretty much as usual.
I read "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" as part of Susanna Clark's collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it on a reread. It has a lot of the flavour of a traditional British folktale, but with more humour. And what story isn't improved by a pig?
Octavia E. Butler's "The Book of Martha" is, I suppose, a kind of puzzle story. The puzzle is this: if God came to you and gave you the power to make one change to improve the lot of humanity, what would you choose? It made me think of the conclusion to Sherry Tepper's Gibbons Decline and Fall, except that here the protagonist makes the choice before the end of the story. We don't get to see the results, only to see speculation about what they might be. It's a long time since I read Octavia Butler, and this story reminds me why she's so highly regarded.
"The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company" by Yann Martel is, underneath the spec-fic element of a mirror-making machine that runs partly on words, a meditation on how we don't value old people's stories. It's beautifully done.
"Sleight of Hand" by Peter S. Beagle is another "what if you could" story, in this case, "what if you could go back and change one event in the past?" It involves a magician, is more storylike than most of these pieces, and, of course, given that it's by Beagle, it's beautifully written and moving.
"Mythago Wood" by Robert Holdstock is another piece that reminds me of the old-style weird tales, particularly because of its setting in an ancestral house near an ancient woodland. It reminds us that the legends of our most ancient ancestors are not kindly ones.
"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson is in the inexplicable-thing-in-the-otherwise-normal-world group. In this case, it's a troupe of monkeys which are part of an act, and which vanish from a bathtub as the climax of that act. I much prefer the way Kij Johnson plays it to the way that, say, Michael Swanwick plays it: that an encounter with the inexplicable improves our lives, that that may even be what it's there for. The piece has a gentle, lovely humour and is a great choice to close the collection.
But wait! There are two appendices.
"The Critics, the Monsters and the Fantasists" by Ursula Le Guin plays, in its title, with the title of Tolkien's essay "The Monsters and the Critics". Like Tolkien, she takes literary critics to task for not understanding the roots of what they're writing about. She points out at the beginning that when Harry Potter emerged into public consciousness there was a lot of noise about how unprecedented and original it was, which simply wasn't true (she herself had written a magical school in the 1960s, and there wasn't much else unprecedented about it either). Rather, the critics had been ignoring fantasy so assiduously that they had managed to become completely ignorant of it.
She makes some wonderful points about the limitations of literary fiction (which takes it as read that "the proper study of mankind is man" and anthropocentrically excludes the Other), and how nobody will ever understand fantasy by attempting to treat it in the same way as lit fic, or as allegory, or as politics, or as symbolism. It's about opening up the imagination, in her view.
A kind of closing down of imagination is part of the theme of the other essay, David G. Hartwell's "The Making of the American Fantasy Genre". Hartwell, an experienced editor, traces the 19th-century banishment of the fantastic to children's literature, the early-20th-century yoking to science fiction, the mid-century magazines - mostly running what we now think of as "urban fantasy" rather than secondary-world fantasy, and mostly for a male audience - the breakout publication of The Lord of the Rings (and T.H. White's Once and Future King, originally released as general fiction since there wasn't a fantasy book category) in the 1950s, and the "genrefication" of fantasy in the 1970s. His argument is that for fantasy to become successful on a large scale it had to become a predictable, reproducible commodity; to sell what had long been children's literature or short-form fiction to adults as novels, you had to have a formula. He suggests that it was, essentially, a revival of the utopian Plantation Novel of the old South, "nostalgic, conservative, pastoral, and optimistic... life is rich and good, the lower classes are happy in their place and sing a lot, and evil resides in the technological North". While the literary novel was plunging inwards, into the inner lives of characters who, outwardly, do almost nothing, the fantasy novel externalised and concretised struggle in stories that were all about character action in a morally unambiguous universe.
That certainly doesn't describe the stories in this volume, hence the "secret history" label. I agree that it would be a great loss if genre fantasy was the whole of the literature of the fantastic. I don't think it's necessary for fantasy to take on the alienation and cynicism, and the lack of plot, of literary fiction, though. Somewhere, there's a balance where beautifully written, moving stories have a beginning, middle and end and where the fantastic transforms the ordinary. Some of these stories hit that balance point, and some don't.
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