Friday 4 March 2016

Review: Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise of this book is that writers who are primarily known as "literary" write stories which are clearly in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Now, there are several different meanings of "literary," in my mind, and they're often confused. First of all, there's "literary-the-manner-of-execution". This includes deep, complex, evolving, memorable characters; a conscious or unconscious mastery of the tools and techniques of prose, able to produce subtle and powerful effects on the reader; apt, fresh, and beautiful imagery; and structures of progressive realization, by which I mean that one thing that's happening as the story unfolds is that the character and the reader both change their perspective. (Occasionally it's just the reader.) You'll find "literary" stories, by this definition, in every genre. These elements are what often make a book or story an enduring classic, whether its outward form is a "realist" depiction of ordinary life in the author's own place and time, a spy thriller, a Western, a romance, or a fantasy quest. The stories in this volume generally meet this definition, as one would hope given the number of awards the authors have won, and the fact that so many of them teach creative writing at universities. The prose is not just competent, but thoughtful, and (unlike many genre authors) when they use a vocabulary word, it not only means what they think it means, it is exactly the right word to choose.

Then there's "literary-the-bag-of-tricks," which inexperienced writers sometimes mistake for the first one. I include here things like writing in present tense; second person; or without quotation marks for dialog. These are all techniques that have a specific effect, when used consciously and skillfully (usually one of distancing, like any technique that draws attention to itself), but some writers just use them because they've seen them in literary stories and think that's part of how you write one. This error puts me in mind of those dreadful 1980s epic fantasies, which had to consist of three thick books in which an assorted group of companions wanders all over the map in order to defeat the Dark Lord - as if those incidentals were the essential elements of Tolkien. The stories in this volume occasionally pull out such tricks, not always, to my mind, with much justification, but usually they are using the prose in a way that clearly serves the story without being obtrusive.

Finally, there's "literary-the-genre". I know that "literary" and "genre" are often opposed, but there are all kinds of reasons that's inaccurate (this book right here sets out to demonstrate as much), and there is a set of what I can only call genre expectations that mark the so-called "literary" story just as clearly as different sets mark the romance or the Western. The element that is most obvious to me - and one of the prime reasons that I don't usually read "literary" - is that just as a classic romance is structured as "meet cute, obstacles to getting together, resolve obstacles, happy ending," a "literary" story of this type is structured by (often alienated) characters experiencing a decline through helplessness into hopelessness. If you're lucky, there's a poignant moment at the end in which it's implied that something might be saved from the wreckage.

One of the characteristics of most so-called "genre" stories is that they retain an earlier structure, the structure you'll find in most pre-20th-century classic literature: Protagonist wants something, faces fit opposition, keeps trying - in the process of which the world, or the protagonist, or both are changed - and finally triumphs through courage, perseverance and hard-won skill (or fails through a tragic flaw, less commonly). That's obviously not the only way to structure a successful story, though it's the most widely used, the easiest, and, I submit, the most satisfying to most readers. Whether this is because we have been trained to feel that stories should work this way, or whether it is meeting some deeper psychological or social need, I'm not about to discuss here; it would take too long, and besides, I don't know. The important thing for me, discussing this collection now, is that it's the story structure that I personally prefer, and that most of the stories here do not follow it. They follow the literary-genre structure of a helpless decline into hopelessness that I mentioned before.

This is different, by the way, from tragedy, where the protagonist struggles and is finally defeated as much by his or her tragic flaw as by the circumstances or antagonists. I suppose you could argue that many literary-genre main characters (they're not protagonists in the literal sense) have the tragic flaw that they're alienated and don't attempt to solve their problems, but that's rather a feeble tragic flaw, in my mind.

That isn't to say that these aren't wonderful, high-impact and masterfully-written stories. They are. I'm talking here about a matter of personal taste, but also, I would suggest, a failure of imagination, and a failure to examine the assumptions of a literary culture.

This pervasive structural pessimism is in contrast to the frequent optimism of genre fiction, and I have a theory as to why. Early science fiction, in particular, was often written by engineers, whose mode of thought is to identify and solve problems through intelligently applied effort. This gave SF a basically optimistic and progressive character at its heart, which, while often questioned since (particularly by the writers who tend to be thought of as more "literary" - Bradbury, Sheckley, Delaney, Wolfe), has never been completely lost. Even postapocalyptic and dystopian SF literature, which start from a pessimistic premise, often show the protagonists struggling against the situation. The literary versions (Kafka, Orwell, Huxley) end in failure for the protagonist, of course, but the more popular versions frequently show them succeeding to some degree.

Not only SF, but fantasy started out with a basic structural optimism: a belief in nobility of character, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and the possibility of personal transformation (classically, from farm boy to king). Today, we have a countermovement in the form of grimdark fantasy, in which the protagonists lack nobility of character, make poor and often selfish choices, and usually fail to transform or triumph. The prose it's written in, though, is often beautiful, vivid, and deeply felt.

Are those our choices, then? A beautifully written nihilism, or clunky, maladroit (perhaps naive) optimism about human potential and the possibility of change? I don't think so. I believe that it's possible in the 21st century - as it clearly was in the 19th - to write beautifully and movingly about protagonists who struggle nobly for the right and triumph through adversity - though our understanding of "the right" has hopefully evolved beyond the feudal/colonial status quo - and, in so doing, take the reader to new realizations about themselves, the world, and the human condition. I'd love to see the authors from this collection take on that project. There are authors who are doing it; Max Gladstone (at his best) and Ann Leckie spring immediately to mind, from the "genre" side. Elizabeth Bear, while a more obviously "genre" author than the other two, is writing genre so well that it's hard to argue against its literary status. The late Terry Pratchett was often, in his own words, "accused of literature," and his humane, hopeful satires certainly check all the boxes I've mentioned. There are plenty of others.

Please note, I'm not saying "don't ever write any story that shows the decline of a character through helplessness to hopelessness; that's wrong". It's one mode of writing. It's not one I like, but I acknowledge great work being done in that mode. All I'm saying is that perhaps it (like the protagonist-struggles-to-triumph story, yes) could do with being changed up from time to time, and that leaving it unquestioned and unexamined as if it was the inevitable structure for a literary story leaves literary fiction in a place where it isn't everything it could be (and isn't winning a wide audience, either, which I imagine at least some literary writers care about).

Returning to this specific collection, a couple more things to note. One is that I have a suspicion so strong as to amount to a certainty that the word "Negro" (always capitalised) has been substituted, in two of the stories, for a slightly different word that the author originally wrote, and which would be more authentic to the voice of those stories. The other is that the concern genre people sometimes express about "literary" writers attempting SFF - that they will, out of ignorance of the genre's history, come up with a story that was already a cliche in the 1950s - isn't borne out here. I have, I would say, a better than average knowledge of the SFF field, though obviously I haven't read every classic story, and all of these treatments, even of common and well-worn tropes, seemed fresh and original to me.

So, were there stories I particularly liked or disliked? There were. There were some that I was beginning to like, until they stopped abruptly; sometimes the stopping points felt like we'd reached the end of Chapter 1 (but there was no Chapter 2) - I'm thinking of "Monstro" by Junot Diaz here - but sometimes they were just sudden stops, as in "Conrad Loomis & the Clothes Ray" by Amiri Baraka. There were some I loved for the perfection of their voice, like "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" by Robert Olen Butler. It takes tremendous skill to do the voice of an uneducated, naive person who simultaneously has and lacks insight (that's why Huckleberry Finn is such a classic), and this story pulls it off brilliantly.

I thought the self-involved protagonist of "We Are the Olfanauts" by Deji Bruce Olukotun was excellently done. The slight hopefulness-amid-the-wreckage at the end of "LIMBs" by Julia Elliott was a fitting cap to a story that beautifully explored the regaining of a life's memories from dementia. "Lambing Season," by Molly Gloss, was a moving and unusual first-contact story. "Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated" by W.P. Kinsella takes first contact from the other side, and does it effectively, though I thought the voice of the narrator was a bit too fluent with what, to him, would have been an alien culture.

I recently watched several short videos on writing by George Saunders, so I was interested to read his story, "Escape from Spiderhead". Although the "hopeful" ending involved a particularly horrible suicide, and the milieu of the story was Kafkaesque, there was a great depth of humanity to the protagonist.

I was disappointed with "A Precursor of the Cinema," by Steven Millhauser, having read his story "The Barnum Museum" in The Secret History of Fantasy and been impressed by how he pulled off a pure "milieu" story with only one named character, who doesn't do anything, and no plot - and yet made it interesting. The story in this volume, by contrast, attempts to imitate a somewhat dull academic history, and succeeds all too well. The opening story, "Portal," by J. Robert Lennon, is a textbook example of what I complained about at length above: a story in which an encounter with the wonderful doesn't help, doesn't transform anyone's life, doesn't halt the decline through helplessness to hopelessness as a family falls apart in, frankly, stereotypical ways.

So, do I wish that the Usual Literary Structure wasn't so prevalent in this collection? Absolutely. Did I admire, and occasionally enjoy, the stories in any case? Yes.

I received a copy from NetGalley for review.

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