The OF Blog: Hunting for post-modernist allusions in scifi and fantasy

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hunting for post-modernist allusions in scifi and fantasy

I have to say, this has been bugging me for quite some time. Probably a year and a half ago I was discussing some book review related issues on one of the Polish message boards and wrote that it must be a typically Polish thing to hunt for post-modernist games in fantastic fiction literature. By post-modernist games I mean not only the structure related experiments but mostly all the intertextual tricks so often used by post-modernist writers.

Since alles schon dagewesen it becomes pretty obvious that, whether they want it or not, writers often repeat what their predecessors had written, but there is a certain group that clearly loves dropping various hints and allusions to other works of art (be they literature, paintings or films). This has recently become a popular habit in Poland to use such cultural allusions. What probably started 20 years ago with the publishing debut of Andrzej Sapkowski, currently is a popular thing, obviously loved by authors and readers alike.

We, readers in Poland, are passionate about hunting for such allusions, probably because we believe that makes us 'smart' and 'educated'. While this thesis may be argued, I must say that ever since I started various online discussion, I may have never seen foreign (meaning everyone but Poles) readers discuss such things about popular Western writers. The only example that axtually comes to my mind is a series of posts called 'Climbing Olympos', written by Dan Simmons French translator, when he was working on French edition of 'Olympos', which can be found here, here, here and here

But coming back to that online discussion I had and the argument I raised, namely that Poles must be particularly good in discovering all those little allusions, be that due to their experience or simply cause they are simply better educated. My opponents argued that I cannot know that but in fact I've been visiting various online message board or reading some notable usenet groups for almost 10 years now and honestly can't say that I've seen such discussions led by Brits or Americans. I wouldn't like to sound pretentious or start a war - I'm just curious why it so and why don't you find it interesting to discuss and delve into the background of the same novels or stories we all love reading so much?


Lsrry said...

Gene Wolfe, Maciek, Gene Wolfe. There are people writing English Ph.D. Dissertations on the implications of his models, techniques, use of doubles/mirrors, etc. in The Book of the New Sun.

As for whether or not I prefer to engage in that sort of behavior, it depends. Most of the time, I just note what I catch when I read it at the time, but I spend much more time reflecting on how I reacted to the Text, rather than focusing overmuch on the Text itself.

Vanin said...

It's not about dissertation, it's about real and average reader discussing this.

So what if Wolfe drops hints every second page, if there is nobody to talk about it (not counting academics)?

Back at the time when I was still interested in Jordan's WoT (shame on me, I know), I tried encouraging poeple to write a wotmania WOT FAQ entry on various inspirations and it ended without any positive result. While this might have been a result of a relatively young age of WoT readers and a resulting lack of knowledge, for the past year I have been searching fairly popular boards for all sorts of discussions concerning literary allusions and the only things I remember seeing were simple mentions that, for instance Wolfe, clearly was inspired but that's all. People never discuss that in detail. Why??

Is it really just a Polish thing?

Lsrry said...

Yeah, Wolfe's fans aren't the "average" reader, that's for sure!

As for your closing question, I think culture/nationality might indeed have a bit to do with it. Americans in particular lately aren't that introspective about themselves or what they read, so there does seem to be that tendency to gloss over something and not delve deeper.

All I know is that I'll have to look into this more carefully - are there are a lot of postmodernist "clues" embedded in Sapkowski's work that I need to look for when I get The Last Wish later this summer (book seems to be delayed until June according to Gollancz's webpage)?

Vanin said...

Damn, blame my English or perhaps just not beeing precise, but it looks that you people think of various sorts of political allusions, whereas I only meant literary (mostly) references. For instance, in Simmons' s 'Olympos', Helen of Troy openly quoting Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' or some other, less obvious references, etc.

As for Sapkowski, who found many followers here in Poland, in particular among new writers, he definitely loves toying with what others wrote and it involves not only exact words or sentences but also complete scenes from other books or tales rewritten by him in his own, creative way. For obvious reasons, some will be understandable for Poles only, but I think many foreigners might spot those refering to classic literature or simply art known basically by everybody.

I think it makes us feel intelligent (in a way), when we find such references and can boast about it. I rarely see that on English-language boards, which is why I made a post about it.

Anonymous said...

There's mediocrity in every type of literature. People looking for high concept stuff, allusions, ideas or literary techniques are more open minded, I would assume. Understanding them is of course a matter of education and/or interest. So, while people who read the more sophisticated works can always turn to less intellectual books for a relaxing read, those readers who don't look for anything else but divergence simply stick with what they know.

In Germany there are fan circles discussing Jeff VanderMeer, China Miéville, Gene Wolfe and the likes. But the big sellers have different names.

Vanin said...

Frank, while I agree general plebs may be interested in superficial entertainment, I've met enough intelligent and educated people that I'm sure would be able to notice Heinlein refering to Marlowe's Faustus, but just don't talk about it.

I honestly can't understand why - is it because it is so obvious for them?

Or is it because contemporary writers, especially those concerned primarily with fantasy, concentrate on inventing their own, totally unique universes, hence losing a lot of possibilities to relate to our past?

One more thing that comes to my mind is the problem of writers' own education - might it be possible that all those writing classes concentrate too much on technical aspects of writing instead of simple cultural background?

Add to Technorati Favorites