Archive for Fantasy Literature

Fragment on M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 4 June 2018 by Ben

I love Viriconium so much, and alas I can’t say as much about it in Here at the end of all things as I would like. So here is a fragment from some older writing that was meant for HATEOAT but must fall to the cutting room floor. It’s not really complete, or even coherent without the apparatus I built to explain it, but I hate just putting it in the “misc” file and forgetting about it.

Viriconium, or amnesia of the soul

The novellas and stories which make up Viriconium were published between 1971 and 1985, and thus operate in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. Certain parts of the overall text, especially The Pastel City, suggest Harrison’s knowledge of Tolkien. Nonetheless, in terms of tone and narrative, the Viriconium and The Lord of the Rings remain antithetical to one another. Most significantly, whereas The Lord of the Rings, like much fantasy, narrates the avoidance (or attempted avoidance) of some end, Viriconium takes that end as a given and begins in its aftermath, some indeterminate time after the fall of the so-called “Afternoon Cultures” and the high technology thereof:

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of the Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.i

The Middle Period of the Earth” carries with it an echo of The Lord of the Rings, but in Viriconium “Middle” indicates the height from which the world has fallen rather than a mere transition away from fecundity and towards the end: the historical apotheosis of society, but importantly an apotheosis that was always unsustainable, one governed by an inevitable decay, and one antithetical to return.ii That is to say, this decay remains always irremediable. With no immortal elves to remember forever the events of the past with perfect clarity and guarantee their historicity, knowledge of the past mainly disappears. Even when the past reemerges, it remains unknowable, some shift in the world caused by the past itself giving rise to a failure of science, philosophy, literature, and all of the other means by which the human comes to understand itself by narrating the movement between no longer and not yet. Thus the desire to recover the past is, as one character puts it, foolish, drastic changes in the material conditions of the world wrought by history, a history only felt in its material effects and always incomprehensible in terms of its meaning, having made it so: “‘We should not strive too hard to imitate the Afternoon Cultures […] They killed this place with industry and left it for the big monitors. In part, if not in whole, they fell because they exhausted the land. We mine the metal they once used, for instance, because there is no ore left in the earth.’” He continues, “‘And in using it all up, they dictated that our achievements should be of a different quality to their—’”iii The survivors of whatever apocalypse did this to the world (or, if not apocalypse, the simple passage of time—the cause of this world’s aftermath remains unknown and unknowable). The current generation scavenges ruins for technology so “advanced” (despite its being historical) that it may as well be magic. As new problems arise, they can be dealt with on a local or immediate level at best. There are no more longterm solutions or trajectories any more than there is the possibility of going back to before it all happened. This is aftermath, when there remains nothing but problem.

The first of the novels and stories collected in Viriconium, The Pastel City, relates how a usurper to the throne of the realm, in the words of one of the realm’s defenders, “‘has woken something we cannot handle,’”iv something from the Afternoon Cultures that the Evening Cultures do not understand and cannot defeat, autonomous killing machines called the geteit chemosit: “All weapons are two-edged: it is the nature of weapons to be deadly to both user and victim—but these were the final weapon, the absolute product of a technology dedicated to exploitation of its environment and violent solution to political problems. They hate life. This is the way they were built.”v The quest to stop these automata and prevent the usurper from placing herself on the throne appears to be very similar to that of The Lord of the Rings and other such fantasies which task themselves with staving off the end of all things. However, the conflict with the geteit chemosit reveals an important difference between Viriconium and such fantasies, namely that in this world story is unknown and unknowable. The reasons, in fact the reason (in the sense of “rationale”), behind the quest are misunderstood. These automata are not evil in any way, as is the Ring finally and unequivocally, but technologies built in such a way that they might do one thing or another (the Ring only does one thing in the end, corrupt the world). Even if those in the present understand the two-edgedness of the geteit chemosit, they do not understand the nature of this two-edgedness, how it fits into story’s dictation of events. Later, we learn as much when one character reveals that they were not created to destroy, but rather to preserve, and that their present rampage arose because of a misunderstanding of their original function and the possibilities that original function might produce under new circumstances. Once this understanding is achieved, they are shut down. This solution, however, is the sort of solution that happens in aftermath: it produces nothing better, no new insight, no return (or even arrival).

This plotline negatively demonstrates the fundamental comprehensibility of the secondary world in much fantasy. However, of greater interest here is what comes of it. In the course of shutting down the geteit chemosit, one character resurrects individuals of the Afternoon Cultures, dubbed later “The Reborn Men.” As another character puts it, these individuals, for whom time will always be out of joint, present an even greater threat to the Evening Cultures than did the just defeated rampaging automata: “‘They are too beautiful […]; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire—instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium’s pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.’”vi This claim will turn out to be correct: there will be no new empire, but not for the reason stated. Return is impossible for the Evening Cultures; they exist after the end and cannot go back to before the ending. Nor, whatever claims to the contrary, can the Afternoon Cultures themselves return. Their historical existence concluded, their very being finds itself radically out of place after the end. Several of the Reborn Men feature in the sequel to The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, in which their states of mind slowly decay: “The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning for them: taunted by amnesia of the soul.”vii

iHarrison, Viriconium, 3.

iiNote that in The Lord of the Rings, Sarumon (as quoted by Gandalf), describes the forward movement of time in terms opposite those of Viriconium: “‘The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning” JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 339.

iiiHarrison, Viriconium, 42.

ivHarrison, Viriconium, 39.

vHarrison, 78.

viHarrison, 104.

viiHarrison, 113.

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On the history of fantasy scholarship

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 18 October 2016 by Ben

This is some writing I did for Here at the end of all things that will not make it into the final ms in this form. I have cannibalized quite a bit of it, but much of the overall point of this section was lost as I did so, especially the point about fantasy scholarship largely avoiding any attempt to historicize the genre. This point has become increasingly less necessary as I have developed my argument for the overall project. Nonetheless, I thought someone, somewhere, might find this lit review interesting or useful (or even wrong). There are no doubt some typos and other mistakes here, so I present it as is.

Framing the discussion

If, as I suggested in my introduction and will continue to make clear in below, fantasy suffers vis-à-vis science fiction as a genre incapable of doing what science fiction does, namely think through the problem of history and think through problems in an historical manner, some of the blame for this state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the scholars who have sought to identify what the genre is and describe what it does. Albeit without any ill intent, the critical reception of fantasy has generally not included strong arguments about the genre’s historical status since it (the critical reception) began in earnest in the 1970s. Numerous critics have rightly noted the historically recent invention of mimetic fiction and that fanciful treatments of reality had long been the norm prior to the rise of the novel, even if such treatments should not be taken as generic fantasy or even fantastika in a broader sense of the term. Likewise, and following from this acknowledgement, critics of the genre and related forms have noted that the distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is itself historically determined (arriving at something more similar to its present form than ever before in the late eighteenth century, at the moment when, as Clute suggests, the future becomes visible and therefore threatening). However, such acknowledgements made, the scholarship has tended to focus more on defining what fantasy is than investigating the specific conditions under which it emerged or the ways in which it reacts to those conditions.i In the last decades of the twentieth century, these debates mainly focused on four unevenly distributed topics: the literary history of fantasy, its antecedents in folklore, fairy tales, epics, the romance, the pastoral, etc.; the question of the impossible; the distinctions and relationships between fantasy and the fantastic; and the rhetorical strategies through which fantasy achieves its ends. In recounting this history, as well as its aftermath, I shall focus more on some of these topics than others in order to show how these early discussions set the terms of the debate, terms which not only influence my intervention here, but are themselves interesting from an historical perspective. Even where these terms do not prove to limit such debate absolutely, they nonetheless enjoin the later critic to address them. Such is even more pressing a concern for the critic of fantasy, an object that has yet to enjoy the wide and varied scholarly conversation that has been conducted around, for example, science fiction.

Although early studies of fantasy acknowledge the historicity of the genre (as well as the manner in which distinctions between realist/mimetic fiction and the fantastic generally are products of specific historical formations and conditions), these studies tended to focus more on drawing boundary lines between fantasy and its various others and with defining the positive features of the genre in terms of its formal and conventional properties. In short, these studies tended to be concerned with genre in a relatively ahistorical sense. For example, in his 1976 study The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, William Irwin notes, “Late in the nineteenth century various authors turned to writing fantasy,” perhaps because they felt confined by the limitations of the social realism that dominated the moment.ii This historicization remains incomplete, however, for the fact that, first, it does not account for the historical transformations of the late eighteenth century which provided the conditions for both social realism and for fantastika or, second, for the distinction between those fantasies which appeared prior to The Lord of the Rings and those which appear after. I argue that only the latter can be included in the genre properly understood (for reasons I shall elaborate in chapters two and three). In any case, Irwin’s goal is not to situate fantasy in its historical moment so much as to describe its formal features, and to do so with an eye towards differentiating between the fantastic (for Irwin something that appears at the level of content) and fantasy (which involves rhetorical devices specific to fantasy as a form). As such, he offers what has become a highly influential definition of the genre as that which “plays the game of the impossible.”iii He goes on to further claim that “a narrative is a fantasy if it presents the persuasive establishment and development of an impossibility, an arbitrary construct of the mind with all under the control of logic and rhetoric. This is the central formal requisite.”iv Irwin not only firmly establishes the concept of the impossible with regard to fantasy scholarship (which I shall further discuss in chapter XXX), but also makes clear in this claim that he is less concerned with the nature of the impossible than with the rhetorical devices which establish impossibility in the mind of the reader. Fantasy is a sort of sophistry insofar as it seeks to trick its readers into imagining impossible things for the sake of a game (however serious) than with the political implications of such thought. As such, history is largely irrelevant, as this game can be played at any time and in any place. That the game comes to be in a specific time and in specific places does not seem to be a concern. Not only would the notion of impossibility (and Irwin’s specific formulation of it) become important in subsequent years to critics of fantasy, but his focus on rhetoric has likewise been influential, as suggested by at the titles of at least three important books on the genre, Rosemary Jackson’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) (although each of these later works considers rhetorical form in more sophisticated, and even historico-political, ways).

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ICFA 36: Fantasy, theory, and arguing

Posted in Conferences, The Profession with tags , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

So, at ICFA this past weekend I ran afoul of the old saw about academic arguments being combative in inverse proportion to the size of their stakes. I mainly followed the Fantasy Literature stream of the conference, which meant I was in the same sessions with the same people for the duration. The Fantasy division, in my humble opinion, seems to suffer from an inferiority complex stemming from the lack of regard that fantasy, as an object of study, has within the academy generally and within the study of fantastika specifically, vis-a-vis science fiction. I won’t name names here, but here are some of my thoughts following the conference on fantasy scholarship and theory and whatever.

  1. Fantasy scholarship needs theory. Badly. I don’t mean criticism, of which there is plenty. Rather, I mean an engagement with a related but separate discourse. SF studies benefit greatly from engagements with Marx and media studies, for example. Fantasy scholarship tends to think about fantasy in terms of fantasy. Engagements with folklore studies, myth studies, and philology/linguistics exist, but not enough to force the field to progress as none of these engagements offer fantasy scholars tools to think about fantasy as a contemporary phenomena, in the context of late capitalism, the society of the spectacle, etc. Of course, sf and Marxism have a somewhat happy relationship as they “move in the same direction,” that is, they both think about questions of progress and history and tend to do so in similar manners (not always, I know). Fantasy does not enjoy such a relationship with any type of theory as theory itself tends towards the progressive and fantasy tends towards the conservative. But we’re smart and we can figure this out.
  2. I have thoughts on what type of theory fantasy might need, but more to the point here: whatever theory it chooses, it needs to use that theory to develop critical terms for the study of fantasy. We seem to be relying still on terms Tolkien gave us in the 1940s. John Clute has developed a complex and rich vocabulary for discussing fantasy, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, but no one really seems to take it too seriously, which is a shame. I don’t always think Clute is “right” and believe that his terms could be developed, but he is always provocative and provides a very useful place to start conversations about what fantasy is and can do (especially in relation to sf and horror).
  3. But “critical” I mean “not deriving simply from the poetics of fantasy.” It seems that the critics tend to use terms given us by writers. I want to have a productive dialogue with writers, but we can’t simply accept the distinction between primary/secondary worlds or the notion of “world-building” as it comes to us from the production side of the discussion. One audience member at one session mentioned the theological dimensions to these terms and that maybe we need to develop them (or, again, new ones), after which another audience member said that she forgot about the theology so therefore does not worry about it. The latter attitude is, to me, a problem. We can’t, of course, keep all ideas in our heads at the same time, but we can’t simply accept what is given to us because we have not bothered to think hard about it.
  4. I mentioned, at the conclusion of my talk, that fantasy tends to be conservative. At another panel, someone mentioned that I mentioned this (although I guess he could have been referring to someone else) in such a way that seemed to me to suggest that he thought I am wrong. Fair enough. I very well could be. However, I want to make clear that I don’t mean that fantasy writers are voting Republican or that Frodo wants to seal the borders of the Shire against illegal immigration from Bree (although he might). Rather, fantasy, as a genre, tends to seek the past, some form of restoration. It need not do this, but when it becomes progressive it works against a central tendency in the genre, the manner in which it has been stated (by Tolkien, by its medieval settings, by positing worlds in which all forms of progress-technological, political, social–have stopped at some point in the past). I think that fantasy’s conservatism is a sort of strength, not because I identify with it but because I don’t. Given that many notions of history, many modern philosophies, conceive of the world as progressing in some form or another and given that we can;t seem to  imagine a way out of history (and capitalism) by going forward, perhaps fantasy–the tendency of which runs counter to progress, again–offers at the very least a model of thought that would help disrupt historical/progressive thought.
  5. All of this said, and all of my arguments aside (some here, some at the conference), I have nothing but the highest respect for the people I met and listened to, even when I do not agree with them. In fact, I suspect I am in greater agreement with them than I think (some discussions in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning confirm as much). What is and was frustrating about the whole thing was my sense that we were speaking very different languages and that I was not able to make myself understood. I guess there is always next year.

Some more thoughts on other matters:

  • Apropos of nothing but the fact that I was at a conference: during the first paper of the first session I attend at every conference I have ever been to, I think: “This is a really weird thing we do as academics. Everyone is sitting silently, some with looks of boredom-if-not-pain on their faces, listening to someone read something they don’t really care about so that other people will do them a similar courtesy in a few hours or days.” I can only imagine an alien-anthropologist explaining this ritual to its peers.
  • I very much enjoyed my panel on “Mere Genre,” which featured Gerry Canavan and Lisa Swanstrom. Gerry and I are editing a special issue of Extrapolation on this theme and have already done an MLA panel on it. Given the quality of the papers I have heard so far, it promises to be awesome. At ICFA, Lisa talked about Sweet Valley High as a kind of horror text, in the context of an idealized capitalist society. It was brilliant and super interesting. Can’t wait for the essays to start rolling in shortly.

That’s it.