The OF Blog: Grounding the Fantastic

Monday, June 02, 2008

Grounding the Fantastic

This is a natural outgrowth from my reactions to two recent books I've reviewed, Paul Kincaid's What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy. While I enjoyed each of them and came away from the readings believing that I had learned something, there were a few niggling points in each that bothered me. However, these points I felt needed to be addressed outside of the reviews rather than inside them, since they concern matters that neither author aimed to address.

Epistemological discussions of science fiction and fantasy that I have read online or in the few critical studies that I have encountered rarely ground the discussion in a historical context. Too often, claims that X belongs in SF and/or fantasy is based on superficial similarities between the "fuzzy sets" (to nick Mendlesohn's term for it in her book) of stories as diverse as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hal Duncan's The Book of All Hours duology. While examining key components such as narrative focus and elements of the "unreal" is important, too often claims that ancient or medieval works are "fantasy" or "SF" distort matters.

While each Text is going to be read anew by Readers who bring to the table their own analytical tool sets, I would argue that one must place the Story within its Zeitgeist before any such claims can be made. Easy, agreeable point, no? Not exactly.

Grounding the fantastic (or any story) in its own time is an arduous task fraught with all sorts of risks. Later in this short essay, I am going to note an otherwise excellent study that falls into the trap of interpreting events using a too-modern technique, but for now, I want to present the beginnings of a possible alternative for examining the evidence for SF urtexts. It is my belief that too often, critics fail to include material culture concerns into their interpretations of important literary developments. However, despite my background in cultural history, this is not meant to be a full scholarly article, but rather to simulate what a précis of such a hypothetical monograph would take. Hopefully, this will provoke questions and responses here and elsewhere and perhaps someone else who has more invested in this might explore matters further.

One important development in cultural historical study has been the rise of the microhistory. Instead following the old Rankeian model of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, microhistories don't aim to utilize overarching narratives to explore truth-claims about the past. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, whose seminal The Cheese and the Worms (1980, English translation) is credited with popularizing the microhistory approach, and Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983), focused on individuals, not "Great Man," but rather the common, rather insignificant working class men and women. In tales such as that of Menocchio the eccentric miller, much more is revealed about the attitudes and cosmological understandings of the "everyman" than were ever published in the dozens of scholarly tomes from the likes of Macaulay or Gibbon. Ginzburg and Davis's case studies (themselves adaptations of sociological and anthropological models that had developed from Émile Durkheim) probe deep into the heart of belief and how popular culture and its traditions (charivari, or "rough music," or the public nature of the wedding night defloration) have developed and altered over time. It becomes quite clear after reading these works that the mindset of late medieval/early modern popular culture (I dare not say "mass culture," since that is a 19th century phenomenon) is quite alien to ours. Purpose is a capital-letter belief, and the "fairy tales" of those times have a quite different intent and rationale than the sanitized ones we so callously presume they have as we dump these rather vicious, cynical tales onto our preschool set.

Robert Darnton's excellent The Great Cat Massacre... and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984) provides an invaluable resource for those who want to analyze the emergence of the fairy tale motif and the possible real-world applications of such tales during a time of actual feast or famine. Darnton in his first chapter, "Peasants Tell Tales," examines the mentalité, or group outlook to be imprecise, of 18th century French peasants who use images such as a fantastical feast or a fairy godmother as a sort of coping mechanism during a time in which the capriciousness of harvests or human wars could spell trouble at any moment. While these peasants undoubtedly saw these stories as being "unreal" on the surface, the core "truths" embedded in these tales spoke in coded form of their hopes, dreams, and desires. In a world of periodic death by starvation, a feast was truly a magical object worthy of hopes and dreams.

Darnton in the eponymous story focuses on the fun that a group of printer's apprentices have with capturing, torturing, and executing a number of cats whom the printer and his wife had treated better than the boys themselves. This account of their plotting and the mechanics behind the "trials" that the cats were put to before they were brained, flayed, or mutilated will shock many "modern" readers; the apprentices and their friends thought it was both just and hilarious. Darnton's account accentuates this division of Weltanschauungen of the 18th and late 20th (and now early 21st) centuries. So if in stories such as these, the storytellers and principal actors have such alien motivations, how can we ascribe our own value sets to these texts?

Sometimes, we try to do so, with some distortions occurring. Davis's account of Martin Guerre's disappearance and dramatic reappearance after an impostor had claimed his hearth and wife for 12 years in mid-16th century southwestern France reads quite well, but her interpretation of Martin's wife and her actions and possible complicity rang a bit hollow to other historians, who noted that Davis had to make her text do verbal contortions in able to make her interpretations fit with the historical evidence.

Despite these occasional missteps and the extremely difficult task of trying to interpret stories based on the known mindsets of the storytellers instead basing it upon modern understandings, I believe using the microhistory approach will yield a much more fruitful study of the origins of what we now call "fantasy" and "science fiction" than if the critic were to base his or her explorations solely upon the texts. While it is not a perfect system, trying to see things through "the locals' eyes" helps not just with understanding how this current genre system developed, but also why certain cultures resist others applying such labels to their story forms.

In my review of Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, I mentioned in passing how discussing William Faulkner and his impact on the Latin American "Boom Generation" could have strengthened her points regarding magic realism. What I did not say there was that for a great many magic realists, Gabriel García Márquez being most prominent, they do not see their works as being "fantasies" because the stories themselves are very "political" and depend heavily upon an understanding of Latin American political dynamics of the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. To call García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude strictly a "fantasy" when it riffs on the banana strike of 1928 and the resulting massacre of the workers (and the subsequent government coverup, in order to protect its relations with the US in general and the United Fruit Company specifically) could be viewed as being overly dismissive.

Yet the forms and ideas behind it represent for many others a truly remarkable, immersive fantasy. How does one form a composite analysis that takes such diametrical approaches into account? That is the million dollar question. I suspect the answer(s) lie within close questioning of the various world cultures and exploring how their value systems may or may not have had a role in their creation of "fantasy" and "science fiction" forms.


Farah said...


a couple of things: the first just that "fuzzy set" of fantasy is Attebery's idea, I just turned it into "sets".

Second: I utterly agree with you re the magic realists and I would have loved to spend more time with tthis topic. I only touch on it by discussing the declining civitas as a very deep structure.

There is no reason you should know this, but I'm trained in history. Every contextual criticism you make is spot on the mark, and I hope one day to write something along the lines you outline (I'm currently working on the historiography of sf). The three books you recommend are some of my favourites from my undergraduate degree.

Anonymous said...

That question on values is right on the point, Larry. Here in Brazil, we suffer from a very serial denial regarding our own culture regarding the creation of SF / Fantasy. The few well-known authors who succeeded in their attempts, like Jorge Amado, decided to play with the religious imaginarium, using orishas and their intervention in the quotidian life of people in Bahia, but never regarded these stories as more than a cultural/political stand on his part. (Amado hated SF; he thought it was a alienating literature)

Anonymous said...

As for the last two generations, they´ve been simply denying even this cultural manifestation. We always catered to French (in the 19th Century), and then to American (from 1950s on) tastes. So the new SF / Fantasy authors tend to write stories in other realms in realities, and almost never portraying Brazil. People here are just starting to change their minds because of Ian McDonald´s BRASYL - which is weird, but to be expected, alas.

Larry Nolen said...


I knew I had heard of it somewhere else before, but since I couldn't recall it, I'm glad to know now who did. And if you ever do get around to writing that planned book, I'll certainly want to read it, for obvious reasons. Glad to know that those three were some of your favorites, as those and Modris Eksteins' The Rites of Spring encouraged me to get my MA in History before I decided I'd rather teach secondary school. Don't regret it one bit, either way :D


I didn't directly address that point in my writing, but that has been something I've pondered on occasion about how non-European SF/F movements (as a marketing genre especially) develop vis-á-vis the Anglo-American sphere of influence. Amado, huh? Will have to look into him. And I guess you've read Cosmos Latinos? That was an interesting anthology. I might re-read it again sometime and review it at length (something I rarely do with anthologies, unfortunately).

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