Archive for fantasy

Some thoughts on magic in Peake’s Gormenghast

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 31 August 2013 by Ben

One of the questions that preoccupies criticism of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels is whether they are generic fantasy. Of course, they were written and published at a time when there was no such thing–or no such thing in the sense that we mean today. That they are often referred to as a trilogy–despite numerous facts that run contrary to such a designation–implies a desire on the part of critics, reviewers, and capitalists to recuperate Peake under a generic, and therefore valorzing heading that will thus allow for further commodification. “Like Tolkien? You’ll LOVE Titus Groan! Please ignore all of the ways in which it is different… mumble… mumble… look over there! Yoink!” [Steals money, runs away.]

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Stefan Ekman on polders

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 14 August 2013 by Ben

A polder is, simply put, a space in fantasy literature protected from the outside (think Lothlórien, for example).

Following from Clute, who writes, “Polders change only when they are being devoured from without”, Stefan Ekman argues (in Here Be Dragons):

In other words, for a polder, the internal and external realities are set up as opposing forces, and as long as the polder is successfully maintained, it does not change. The world outside does, however, and its change widens the temporal gap between the two realities. The polder becomes a maintained anachronism–that is, an anachronism opposed to the time of the surrounding world, actively if not consciously (because it begs the question: whose consciousness?). The external time is, and must be, the wrong time, since, in a polder, any time but its own is wrong. Hence a polder must not only be maintained but also defended from external influence. (100)

It is always interesting to me the way in which theoretical discussions of genre mirror debates about the legitimacy of generic fiction. For example, we might consider Literature a polder, artificially protected from the ravages of genre and history, frozen (as if by one of the three rings for eleven kings) in place and rendered incorruptible–except that Literature is presented as the world and generic fiction as something foreign to that world, which seems to me opposite how the polder tends to work (at least in Tolkien). This is the Generic at work.

Knowing in Middle-earth

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , on 26 July 2013 by Ben

In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury writes:

“By this point it should be clear that a theme is emerging from the analysis. If The Lord of the Rings stands at a tangent to the novel as a genre, it is not because of a general abstention from realism or archaism of style–neither of which can really be attributed to it–but because of a highly specific feature for which precedents are hardly to be found in the novel tradition: the complex, and to an extent, systemic, elaboration of an imaginary world” (25)

He goes on to say that even SF does not go so far in such world building, and I think that  it is likely true that no other fantasy goes this far either. However, it is precisely this point that is deceiving because we do noy, in fact, know everything about Middle-earth. If we do, we have to admit that there is actually very little to know, because we in fact know so little of, for example, the common people. If we do know everything, the world is not actually all that complex. If we don’t know everything, then we are deceived into believing we do. The issue here involves the idea that everything in Middle-earth can be known, is knowable, which is not even true of our own world (or planet, as it were, in Eugene Thacker’s terms).  What Middle-earth lacks is horror, the discovery of what should not be, what cannot be knowable according to prevailing ways of knowing.

Symmetry and meaning in Lord of the Rings

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic with tags , , , , , on 25 July 2013 by Ben

Tom Shippey’s overall argument (in JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century)  involves explaining the consistency in Tolkien, against charges by CN Manlove for example (in Modern Fantasy and elsewhere). Manlove argues that Tolkien’s conception of evil is inconsistent, that the Ring does not affect everyone equally nor does it do what it is supposed to do (destroy Frodo’s mind, for example). Shippey notes that Tolkien began Fellowship with little sense of the overall story and that, as a result (he discovers after studying drafts of the text in The History of Middle Earth), often in the first book certain things are less than they come to be. For example, he notes that the Black Riders are not nearly so frightening, and that they do not appear powerful as they move through the Shire. Manlove also notes this inconsistency. (I thought this was partially explained by the fact that Sauron had not yet refound much power and that the Riders therefore were lacking at this point; however, it is strange that they did not use a bit more force as capturing the ring would have solved the problem of a lack of power.) In any case, Shippey notes this inconsistency and, while not exactly excusing it, makes clear that it might be a result of the writing process Tolkien went through.

However, in the overall argument Shippey seems to do too much to make everything in LotR explained and explainable. Whereas Manlove goes too far demanding explanations he thinks are impossible to find, Shippey goes too far I think in finding them. This is not to say that either is wrong. Manlove is operating under assumptions of “literature”, namely the realist novel. Shippey is operating from a position of deep knowledge  (that Manlove would not have had access to in 1976, even if he would have wanted it, which is unclear): that knowledge provided him by the publication of the History of Middle Earth and seemingly having know Tolkien. Shippey also “benefits” from his training in philology, and therefore his attention to the languages of Middle Earth. In both cases, however, the question of explanation is problematic if we want the text to do something other than what literature does.

For, it seems, that Manlove is content to exclude Tolkien from literature (and indeed most if not all fantasy, even if some, such as Peake, is better than others–he says Tolkien is the worst in Modern Fantasy). And, it seems, Shippey desires to place Tolkien in an expanded field of literature, one not guarded by critics such as Manlove, but one dedicated to the complexity of the individual work and the voice of public opinion. But, again, to do more the work of fantasy cannot rest on the commonplace, cannot be for or against literature, but must be other than it, must refute the Generic not directly, as in historical conflict, but by existing either beyond its horizon or by escaping (forever escaping, never escaped) over that horizon even as the world turns and meridians pass under our feet and thereby we include ever more within the known.

Attebery on Tolkien, or Lord of the Rings as the returning king

Posted in The Generic with tags , , , , , , , on 28 June 2013 by Ben

Brian Attebery, in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, writes: “J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, compared to others, is an achievement of such magnitude and assurance that it seems to reshape all definitions of fantasy to fit itself. Indeed, no important work of fantasy written After [sic] Tolkien is free of his influence, and many are merely halting imitations of his style and substance.” Later, in a chapter entitled “After Tolkien,” Attebery continues this line of thought, stating how the publication of LotR

changed the position of fantasy in this country. Even before it became a bestseller and the object of a cult, Tolkien’s story was noted by critics sympathetic to the genre as the workd they had been waiting for, the first extensive exploration of the possibilities of modern fantasy. It seemed on the one hand to sum up the whole Western tradition of the marvelous, with its echoes of Homer, Dantae, and Wagner and its outright borrowings from the Kalevala, the Scandinavian Eddas, Beowulf, the Mabinogion, George MacDonald, and William Morris. On the other hand, the trilogy was an integrated story with a perception and a point of view that many readers found appropriate to the contemporary world: that is, it was not only a culminating work but also a seminal one, a challenge to the reader to go out and create something equally grand and equally magical.

Attebury writes here without irony and without any apparent thought with regard to the way that the reception of Tolkien in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) mirrors the very conventions of the quest fantasy that Lord of the Rings more established singlehandedly. That is,insanely enough, the reception of LotR, as a sort of prophecied chosen one, fits with the quest narrative that it establishes: the “return” of the king who promises a new reign of justice and peace (but who cannot, perhaps given the merely generic nature of what follows [looking at you Terry Brooks], of course, live forever and sets the stage for the disappointment that is his offspring). I don’t mean to fault Attebery here, as he is working on a much different issue than what I am thinking about. I just find it interesting.

My Eaton/SFRA 2013 Paper: Media Theory and Genre

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 April 2013 by Ben

Here is my paper for the 2013 Eaton/SFRA conference, as part of the panel on “Mediation and Transmedia” with Scott Selisker (“Transmedia Automatism: Cinematic Motion in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl“) and Veronica Hollinger (“The Dis/enchantments of the Mediated Real”).

Media Theory and Genre

This paper is sort of chasing a certain claim, a double inversion of Arthur C. Clarke, although I cannot address it in any depth here: “Any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

So, this boringly-titled talk opens a discussion of genre as media and genre’s relation to other media. By “genre,” I mean at the start something fairly non-controversial, I hope: a set of texts, however blurry the boundaries around that set, the conventions of which take on meaning within the set and without historicity. By “media,” I follow McLuhan who more or less understands a medium as a thing, in the broadest possible sense. At times the term “technics,” which here is closely aligned with media but takes on Stiegler’s definition as “organized inorganic matter,” will supplement or replace “media.”

There are a number of strands of thought here that I hope to weave together. First, I am interested in theorizing fantasy as a genre, especially in relation with science fiction and horror, although the latter will not be present here. I am not interested in defining fantasy with regard to dragons or magic or elves and, likewise I am not interested in SF insofar as it involves technology or aliens, nor horror insofar as it involves vampires or transformation. We all “know” fantasy, SF, and horror when we see them, even if we continue to argue about many specific cases and definitive boundaries. Rather than ask “what is fantasy?” I wish to ask “what does, or perhaps better can, it do?” I shall draw shortly on a talk China Mieville gave in 2009 to help articulate this theorization.

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Fall 13 Course: Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 March 2013 by Ben

This description for this class is nearly identical (with some minor edits) to the description for my spring 2012 class on fantasy. However, that course was called “Fantasy after Tolkien” and this one is “Fantasy beyond Tolkien.” The last one did focus a good deal on reconceptualizations of the genre, but also dealt with generic fantasy. Thus it dealt with the “after” in the double sense of “appearing later” and “following from.” This class more or less exclusively deals with fantasy literature that departs from Tolkien in significant ways, whether its Peake’s world largely (entirely?) un-influenced by Tolkien, Le Guin’s non-epic, Delaney’s deconstruction, or Mieville’s explicit critique of the Tolkien-esque quest. M. John Harrison too.

I would have loved to include any number of other texts here, including a Terry Pratchett novel, Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Howard’s Conan stories, more Moorcock, some Fritz Leiber, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Gaiman’s Sandman. The problem with fantasy literature, especially Clarke here: so fucking long. Which novel of a trilogy to teach? Can you teach just part of a novel? Given that much of this reading is easy (with the very notable exception of Peake, and Delaney, and maybe Harrison), can I ask students to read more on a per class basis?

I guess we will see.

ENGL 3060-012 & -016: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Fantasy literature offers something of a contradiction. On one hand, it is a thoroughly contemporary genre. Yes, the fantastic has a longer history than that provided by the twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century that gave the world fantastic as fantasy, magic that no one believed in, monsters that only existed in the imagination. On the other hand, fantasy implicitly and explicitly continues to allude to moments in the past when our understandings of the world were not quite set by science and rationality. The conflict endemic to a great deal of fantasy literature is that of modernity: the passing away of the supernatural and its replacement by the mundane. Think of Tolkein’s elves leaving Middle Earth or Lewis’ children who grow up and can no longer find Narnia.

Considered in this context, fantasy literature offers up a number of avenues of investigation. What happens to the fantastic in the face of the rational? Why is the fantastic so often portrayed according to the tropes of realism? How do various representations of the fantastic allow us to rethink the history of modernity in the United States and the West? This class will read fantasy literature produced in the wake of and against Tolkien as an evolving set of genre conventions and as a literature committed to experimental considerations of nature and history.

 

Reading List

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Samuel R. Delaney: Neveryona

M. John Harrison: Viriconium

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea

China Miéville: The Scar

Michael Moorcock: “The Dreaming City”

Mervyn Peake: Gormanghast

JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (excerpts); The Silmarillion (excerpts)

some thoughts on sf, horror, fantasy, genre, technology, magic, and other made up stuff

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 9 January 2013 by Ben

No time to write today as I have been prepping for the coming term, taking notes on The Natural and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Thinking about the latter in the context of my class on the Nigh Fantastic brought me back to some thoughts I have had on the connections amongst the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror. I had been discussing these connections with a colleague last year and wrote up the following explanation. I don’t pretend that these are perfect definitions–all definitions of genre are fraught with inconsistencies. They are just speculations, useful for my current project on genre, media, and history in which I am thinking about the ways that these three genres allow us to imagine the future. Specifically, I am thinking about Stiegler’s notions of disbelief and discredit and how sf creates each and how fantasy might, if read according to terms other than those that derive from sf, foster belief rather than merely suspending its opposite. In any case, in lieu of actual writing for the day, here are some thoughts. I was specifically addressing my colleague’s concerns about the unreality of magic and therefore the problematic and unuseful nature of fantasy.

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Bataille cites Breton (this is in The Accursed Share vol 2) on the need of some men to create an authentic humanity that overcomes the inauthentic humanity that precedes it. keep this in mind.

so, my thinking on these three genres (which i won’t claim to be perfect, nor is it total given how slippery genre is) goes like this:

  • sf is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world but plausibly could (with the recognition that this plausibility derives from a certain episteme, probably related to a Hegelian notion of progress).
  • fantasy is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and doesn’t. that is, the reader *knows* it cannot happen (again, where this knowledge is conditioned by an epistemological ground).
  • horror is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and shouldn’t. i think for this reason we see more slasher/torture porn now than Lovecraft-style horror. the latter does not frighten us because we have no strong understanding of knowledge and it’s practices, thus we cannot be frightened by the revelation that we know nothing (which is the primary horror of At the Mountains of Madness). thus what “should not* happen in the reader’s world is reduced to the gruesome, rather than the existential. this may be why Prometheus fails–too much of the former with little of the latter. the existential fear is what is great about the first and even the second Alien film.

the three are thus connected by this “cannot happen” and disconnected by way of our understanding of possibility. further, we can also consider the genres with regard to the attitudes of characters in the narratives. in sf, characters tend to accept the existence of whatever technology (which we accept with them as possible, if not actual). in fantasy, characters tend to accept the reality of magic (although often this acceptance is not primary; in many fantasy texts, magic has only reappeared for the main characters, who then struggle with this reappearance). in horror, characters do not accept what happens in much the manner that we do not accept it as possible in our world, for the simple fact that it *should not* be possible. i can’t push much harder here without these neat distinctions falling apart, but i will mention a couple of things.

  • first, fantasy and sf have a connection insofar as characters accept as real what is for us impossible, although there are differences in how long this acceptance takes.
  • horror and fantasy connect insofar as they both deal with things that cannot happen for us. the difference between them seems to be in the way they deal with the past. whereas fantasy has the wizard, who may be a crank but tends to be respected, horror has the gypsy or similar character, who is not so much a crank as shunned altogether. both characters warn the present about the supernatural (Gandalf warns Middle Earth about Sauron, the gypsy about the werewolf or whatever). more on this in a second.
  • horror and sf connect in that they both posit a rational world to begin with. sf deals with an extrapolation of the rational into a superrational, whereas horror deals with the revelation that the rational was only ever a mask for something else. the stripping away of the rational is horror.

so this all leads to a few more points that might begin to address concerns about magic, in the context of the Breton above. all three genres, it seems to me, deal in some way with questions of knowledge, history, and humanity–which are terms that are, in some sense, closely connected with one another. so try on this alternative explanation of what the three genres do:

  • sf deals with the forward movement of history and the possibility of an authentic humanity in the future. the path to this humanity is knowledge. of course, much sf finds that knowledge is problematic and that too much an lead to decadence or destruction or something equally bad.
  • in fantasy, the authentic humanity is in the past. much fantasy takes as its starting point a present that can no longer accomplish the great works of the past (Gondor cannot do magic to counter Sauron, whereas 3000 years earlier the Last Alliance of Men and Elves could defeat him in open battle; Aragorn is the descendant of Men, but is perhaps the last of them; etc.). the past is a time when magic was understood, when it was useful and could do things. in the present, magic, if there is magic, is poorly understood, or understood only by anomalous mystics who seem to be utterly ahistorical. thus magic becomes magic through decadence. in this way, fantasy can be understood as the *future* of science fiction, a time in the future after the decadence that sf posits as the outcome of rationality in which technology is no longer understood and therefore becomes magic.
  • horror, finally, is about the present. authentic humanity has been achieved and the rational world rules all. however, that authenticity is then challenged by a discovery (as in At the Mountains of Madness or, for that matter, Prometheus) that reveals rationality for a facade. whereas sf would deal with the same sort of thing as the outcome of a rational project (even if that project leads towards irrationality at some point), horror posits something completely unexpected, to the point of being impossible. that discovery is not subject to falsifiability, is not a failed experiment so much as something that happens outside of the context of failure/success (a binary of science, both terms of which are equally scientific and rational).

so, sf is about the future becoming a kind of past–insofar as knowledge can lead to decadence. fantasy is about the past becoming a sort of future–in which rationality is lost due to exactly that sort of decadence. horror is about the present opening onto both a past (the return of the repressed, what rationality had to always ignore and obfuscate) and a future (in which what might be repressed is humanity itself). it seems then, to me, that magic and technology are not so far away from one another. in sf tech might become magic; in fantasy, tech *has* become magic (and note here that for Mieville tech and magic are very close to one another insofar as he situates them both within political economy, rather than positing magic as a force that is always outside and forever unexplained). horror might not deal with this binary at all, but rather might be about a challenge to knowledge in any form. for a world more comfortable with sf, horror is the disruption of rational knowledge, the introduction of that which cannot be known into knowledge. for a magical world, horror is less this epistemological problem than an ontological one. the character in fantasy knows that what we would call the supernatural exists, but that knowledge is hardly comforting as all it provides is the knowledge of what might happen to that character (she could lose her soul, be enslaved, etc.). these sorts of horror do bleed over (fear of the bomb in sf; coming to know of a darker magic heretofore unknown in fantasy).

so, in short, magic is the past and future of technology and thus fantasy is the past and future of sf. horror is the generic element necessary to introduce this pastness or futurity.

to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Spring 2013 Course: The Nigh Fantastic

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , on 7 January 2013 by Ben

Here are the materials for my Spring 2013 course on “The Nigh Fantastic.” This course is part of CU English’s Modern and Contemporary Literature for Non-majors offerings.

I had wanted to teach Cloud Atlas and The City and the City for a while and finally found a way to do so. The premise here is that none of these texts are straight SF or fantasy works (with the possible exception of Oryx and Crake). Rather, all of them make use of SF and fantasy conventions in the service of something else. The City and the City is a work of detective fiction, but the impossibility of the two cities in question and certain technologies present within them push towards fantasy and SF respectively without turning the novel into a full blown generic text. I haven not really thought deeply about the connections among these texts, so I will be interested to see what comes of this class.

The reading list, if you don’t want to click through: Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle; Butler’s The Parable of the Talents; Whitehead’s The Intuitionist; Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; Miéville’s The City and the City; Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. I also considered House of Leaves; The Road; among others that I am now forgetting.

Here are the materials:

ENGL 3660-006 & -009: The Nigh Fantastic Syllabus

ENGL 3660-006 & -009: The Nigh Fantastic Daily Schedule

ENGL 3660-006 & -009: The Nigh Fantastic Text List