Donald A. Wollheim’s story “Mimic” captures the unveiling of a hidden world with remarkably succinct storytelling. The premise is simple enough: insects have evolved to survive in the rainforest through camouflage. We see it in how butterflies mimic leaves and in how certain beetles imitate army ants. But what if insects evolved a way to mimic the ultimate army ant, human beings?
Wollheim tells his story using a bare number of elements. In the beginning, there’s a street man he remembers from childhood, a man in a black cloak who never talks to women and who remains very private, “a sight from some weird story out of the old lands” (280). He hammers metals sheets but remains a cypher.
The protagonist grows up and forgets him, taking a job at the entomology exhibit at a museum. As he learns the ways of science, a discipline still in its infancy, he learns all about how certain insects use camouflage to hide themselves–even one particular beetle that is marked to resemble “three ants walking single file” (281). The fact is that much is still unknown to science, and since there is an entire group of animals that mimic predators, what if human beings, the ultimate predator, also had mimics living alongside them?
Once this philosophical idea is expressed, the protagonist has a run-in with man in the black cloak. He hears a troubling sound in a room in the museum and bursts in to find the man dead. However, when he inspects his face and clothes, he is revealed to not be human:
What we thought was a coat was a huge black wing sheath, like a beetle has. He had a thorax like an insect, only the wing sheath covered it and you couldn’t notice it once he wore the cloak. The body bulged out below, tapering off into the two long, thin hind legs.
This man-beetle recalls Kafka’s cockroach, Gregor Samsa, and Wilbur Whateley, Lovecraft’s half-human creation of bundled-up inhuman organs and appendages. However, this beetle, unlike Kafka’s cockroach, has not transformed into a grotesque being from a human being: she’s a beetle through and through, who simply mimics human beings to survive long enough to lay her eggs. The beetle perishes in that room, after the natural end of her life cycle. When the protagonist unlocks the metal box that was also in the bare room, the beetle’s spawn swarm in the air, a reminder of all that which remains unknown to science.
The final sighting of this hidden world comes at the story’s end, when the narrator observes a chimney move and seemingly transform into a moth: “I saw it suddenly vibrate, oddly. And I saw its red brick surface seem to peel away, and the black pipe openings turn suddenly white” (283). The language used to describe this transformation calls to mind the poetics of metamorphosis in Ovid.
It’s this unpeeling that is so central to weird fiction: it reveals the surfaces of the world to be mere surfaces, with a writhing reality hidden underneath. The labels we use to categorize the world are only self-deception. The Other is hidden in plain view. I believe that this is one thing that weird fiction shares in common with surrealism: both reveal the falsity of the surfaces that define the reality to which we give our consent every day.
In all, “Mimic” manages to be both a powerful, visionary weird tale, while also being a focused science fictional extrapolation.
Next week I will be turning to another science fiction great, the legendary Ray Bradbury, in his story “The Crowd” (1943).
In “The Thousand Revolutions of Kronstadt,” Futurographer Anatoly Yuryevich Kolchunov steals aboard a battleship during a historical revolt led by the sailors of Kronstadt against the abuses of the Russian revolution. There, strapped into the Chronosthesic engine, he searches all possible futures for a destiny in which the revolution does not devour its children. Is there a future in which the sailors survive Petrograd’s brutal suppression of their revolt and live to save the revolution’s ideals? Or is there no escape? Pablo Valcárcel’s story explores these questions and more.
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.
MR: Personally, I find it fascinating that this story exposes a tension between doctrinaire Marxist teleology–the idea of the inevitable, global communist revolution–and a multiplicity of different futures. What gave you the idea to write about futurography in the context of the Russian Civil War? What attraction did this novum and this historical event have for you creatively?
PV: One of the most fascinating elements from Marxism, and specifically historical materialism, is that it aspires to follow a scientific approach to understand (and to some extent, predict) historical developments. In that sense, futurography (a scientific and predictive mapping of the future) and Marxism pair surprisingly well.
I feel that although there are many stories that explore alternate history and time travel in the context of the great conflicts of the twentieth century (Man in the High Castle comes to mind), there’s a missed opportunity when it comes to time travel from the Soviet perspective. Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of technological developments as politically agnostic, while in truth, they’re always coloured to some extent by society’s political views.
I also feel that the Soviet Revolution and the following Russian Civil War are one of the most fascinating periods of human history. It could be argued that never before, or ever since, has there been an attempt at reinventing society on such a massive scale. It is, despite the tragedy of its failures and shadows, in many ways the perfect setting to explore utopianism and societal transformation. One can’t help but wonder: What if they had actually gotten it right? How different could the twentieth century have been if post-revolutionary Russia had become the beacon of freedoms it aspired to be?
MR: The action of the story moves from Kronstadt, Russia to Barcelona, Spain. When the hero appears in Spain, where you live, the nation is in the thrall of the Spanish Civil War. Was there anything personal for you in setting part of this story in Spain during this time?
PV: As a Spaniard, the Spanish Civil War always ends up being a personal and weighty matter. Although, as far as I know, Barcelona isn’t really connected to my family history (perhaps that helped me to be able to keep some emotional distance from that element of the piece).
The main reason for me to choose Barcelona as a backdrop for one of the episodes in the story was that it was, at that time, a successful anarchist revolution. A revolution that ended up being violently suppressed by the Bolshevik Communist factions of the Spanish Republic (again, just like in Kronstadt). It is plausible that a survivor from the purges who followed the Kronstadt uprising could have ended up among kindred spirits in the Barcelona of 1937, only to suffer again the same fate.
I’m also a huge fan of George Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia” and I’ve always wanted to write something set in the revolutions that took place in Aragon and Catalonia during that period.
MR: The Chronosthesic engine enables Anatoly to see the future, but he must do so by living through thousands of his potential deaths, which act as “cartographic milestones” for charting the future. Can you talk a little about what inspired you to create this unique constraint for time travel? Was death always a part of it? How did this influence your approach to writing the story?
PV: Time travel as a form of consciousness projection isn’t, of course, a new idea, but when combined with the constraints of one’s mortality, it created a unique playing field. Not only is there a widespread belief in the clarity of our final moments, but from a practical standpoint, there was some sense of trying to cartograph the rough shape of a moving space by analysing the endpoints of some of its key vectors.
Nevertheless, possibly another key element of subconscious inspiration were the lyrics of the German band Rome for their song “The Chronicles of Kronstadt.” Often, my short stories emerge from developing further the nebulous imagery that forms in my mind from particularly inspiring lyrics.
In terms of its influence when writing the story, it offered both unique advantages and challenges. Advantages because I could explore different ideas or scenarios of competing timelines simultaneously. Challenges as well, because it was hard to compress these fleeting vistas into short snippets of information that felt both comprehensible and emotionally meaningful at the same time. I think that in the end, I was lucky enough to find a formula that allowed me to achieve a bit of both and hint at an even larger scope with the poetic use of repetition.
MR: Towards the end of the story, Anatoly remarks that “life is no longer to be postponed; it now must be lived.” Notably, you’ve also written the story in present tense. What made you decide to write your story this way? More philosophically, was this decision connected to Anatoly’s realization that a hyperfocus on future promises can be detrimental to seizing the moment?
PV: Again, credit where credit is due: I think that the theme of the story and Anatoly’s epiphany came from one of my favourite passages in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
As for the point of view chosen for the story, the present tense offers an immediacy and urgency that fit very well with the revolutionary rhetoric that was part of the character’s narrative.
I think that the relationship between the point of view and Anatoly’s epiphany was something that emerged only after many rewrites, but as you said, it does provide a satisfying pairing between the ethics and aesthetics of the piece.
Joseph Halden explores the evil psyche of an evolutionary scientist in “G,” included in the speculative fiction anthology E is for Evil. The following interview was conducted over Google Docs.
Joseph Halden is a wizard in search of magic, an astronaut in need of space, and a hopeless enthusiast of frivolity. He’s shot things with giant lasers, worn an astronaut costume for over 100 days to try and get into space, and made his own soap. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, he writes science fiction and fantasy in the Canadian prairies. His story, “G,” is included in E is for Evil, the fifth volume in Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series.
In “G,” two scientists experiment with the accelerated evolution of a strain of krillids in a time conservatory, subjecting them to repeated irradiation in order to hasten their development. This naturally raises the question of whether scientists should play God by accelerating this process. Can inflicting harm on scientific subjects ever be justified? Why do human beings have such a cruel streak? Joseph Halden’s story explores these questions and more.
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.
MR: Each story in E is for Evil is titled after a different letter of the alphabet. How did you find working with Rhonda Parrish’s prompt? Did the story or the letter come first? What’s it been like to write for this series?
JH: I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating stories for Rhonda’s anthologies. The way it works is that she gives you a letter, as well as her overall vision for the anthology. Once I’m given a letter, I usually go through a list of all the interesting things I can think of tying the letter to that particular theme. Because of the way the anthologies are written, with their reveal of the word at the end of the story, I try to make the word I choose something unexpected.
There were obvious choices that came to mind at first, such as “G is for Ghoul” or “G is for Ghost,” but I wanted to shine a light into places that weren’t so clearly good or evil. I had the idea bubbling in my head about an evolution accelerator beforehand, and once I tied that notion into playing God and the potential for evil, everything fell into place.
I absolutely love working with Rhonda. She maintains a great balance of professionalism and fun, while adhering to her commitments and making her expectations really clear. It takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the whole process, and it’s really just refreshing to work with somebody you know you can rely on. It lets me focus on crafting the story rather than administrative aspects of the process.
MR: In your story, Professor Victoria Manassa is a scientist who feels betrayed by God for not being allowed into space. She channels her frustration by inflicting harm on the krillids, based on the belief it will make them hardy enough to survive in space themselves. While she is cruel, her motives make her deeds believable. As an author, what was it like trying to empathize with such a cruel person? Is she evil, as the title of the anthology suggests?
JH: One of my favourite shows is Breaking Bad. Something it made me think about was how a person can go from good to evil by making a series of choices and compromises that consistently move in one direction. I really liked this idea, and thought it was probably the most realistic way to depict evil, and kind of used it as a guide.
I also used “G” as an opportunity for some self-examination, because I created Victoria partly from my own desires to go into space and associated disappointments. That made it a lot easier to empathize with her ambitions and goals, but I diverged from her thoughts as far as how to respond constructively to these disappointments (as well as her distorted religious beliefs). It’s always interesting for me to try and come up with legitimate reasons why people might do terrible things. To me that is a recipe for situation that will leave the reader thinking long after a story’s done, which is the kind of story I most like to read.
As I progressed in writing the story, it was hard not to fall into the trap of making Victoria a caricature, a cartoon cut-out of a villain. I think the temptation to fall into that trap might have been an instinctive need to distance myself from a person capable of such cruelty. I didn’t want to think of such a person as a real human, and especially as someone I could relate to. However, that was ultimately what I was trying to get at: the potential for evil exists in everybody.
While this realization is uncomfortable, I had to sit with it as I wrote the story as much as I wanted readers to sit with it when they read it. Ultimately, there is a trajectory, where Victoria becomes what most people would agree upon as evil. My hope is that her starting motivations were human enough that it caused readers to reflect upon the ways their own distorted beliefs might lead them down dark roads.
MR: You and I both attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and one of the novellas we read for the workshop was the novelette “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin, about an owner of monstrous pets who abuses them and who gets abused by them in turn. I couldn’t help but read “G” as a gloss on “Sandkings,” since it explores similar themes of evolution and cruelty. Of course, your story goes in a different direction. Were you inspired by “Sandkings”? If so, how? What did you decide to do differently?
“Sandkings” was a definite inspiration for the story. The horror George R.R. Martin created and sustained by writing such a cruel and sadistic tyrant stuck with me long after I read the story. The whole setup was such a beautiful way to highlight and exaggerate the effects our decisions can have on the world. Usually, there are checks and balances, limits to how much cruelty a single person can exert. With the setup of “Sandkings,” however, a person’s true nature can come forth in a(n) (almost) limitless way. The consequences have to scale up to match the increasing horror of the main character’s actions and psyche, which allows for some really unique explorations of character and morality.
In “Sandkings,” the protagonist was pretty evil from the outset. I remember reading it and wanting him to suffer early into the story. The horror he receives is really well-earned, and it made it satisfying to sit through on a long, scary ride.
What I wanted to do differently, however, was to try and take somebody on the trajectory from relatable motivations all the way to monstrous extremes. I also wanted to have a general framework around the whole situation, even outside of the characters, that people might find excusable. I think examining those instances of evil is one of the most important things we can do is writers, to ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps as our characters.
To be honest I’m not sure if my ideas for the evolution accelerator came from “Sandkings” or not. I hope other people will think I did something new and interesting with the premise.
MR: As Manassa subjects the krillids to torture, they eventually develop sentience and an advanced civilization. It’s Darwinism in action. But could such advanced evolution be possible without cruelty? In your opinion, is compassion or cruelty the better educator?
JH: That’s a really tough question. I don’t know if I have a clear answer. I know people who have suffered great tragedies and ended up developing greater compassion, but I also know people who get ruined by acts of cruelty and almost never make their way out.
I think the research for parenting styles can give us an indication of the effects of compassion versus cruelty as a teacher. The parenting research shows that a mixture of compassion and accountability yields the most balanced adults. In our modern age, that would tend to lead toward higher survivability and therefore procreation.
I think there are two key points, though: (1) our modern times are arguably different than evolutionary history, and (2) the struggles are not faced alone. The latter point is the more important idea for me.
Studies show the parents of well-rounded children have firm rules and expectations, but are also responsive and understanding. So there’s no needless cruelty, but there’s not endless compassion, either. We’re still talking about parenting, though, which is a bit different from natural selection.
In evolutionary history, I suspect features that weren’t essential for survival were weeded out. So a harsher environment would lead to a wider variety of traits that would make a creature more capable of thriving on the grand stage of the universe. I don’t think, however, that such a long term benefit justifies the moral choice of inflicting such pain upon creatures. While it is good to be able to deal with life’s challenges, I don’t think we should choose to inflict them upon anyone. The research I mentioned above shows that there are other ways of instilling grit and life-skills in people than the crucible.
As to the other part of your question, no, I don’t think advanced evolution is capable without a reason for evolution to take place. I think anthropologists have theorized that complex social interactions led to the development of larger brains, and these complex social interactions were in turn a way for human tribes to be larger to pass down knowledge of survival more readily. Ultimately it all came down to adaptability, and I don’t think the heavy resources to develop such advanced brains would have been allocated without a really high need for them.
However, the label of cruelty gets a bit tricky. If someone believes there is a superior intelligence willingly inflicting this on everyone, then it is indeed cruelty. I choose to instead see it as random consequences of the structure of our universe rather than anything specifically chosen. Because seeing tragedy as a God’s choice to toughen us up is kind of a bleak outlook for me personally, and I’d like to believe that a benevolent creator could think of better ways to help us grow.
Are you an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer? If so, I have good news!
I am teaching a speculative fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Avenue, Montreal) called “Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing.”
You will read selections from speculative fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, and China Miéville, while working on your own short story to be workshopped in class.
The 12-week course begins January 7th. Register for the course through the Thomas More Institute website. Questions may be directed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been four months since I attended this year’s Congrès Boréal, so a write-up on the conference is probably overdue. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my impressions of my first foray into this predominantly French-language science fiction and fantasy convention.
Congrès Boréal is probably Québec’s main literary fantasy and science fiction convention. It was held in Montreal at the Masonic Temple on Sherbrooke Street last May. I attended to see some familiar faces–Jo Walton and Claude Lalumière were both participating in panels in the English stream–and to acquaint myself with the Francophone writers participating in the convention.
The first panel I attended was called “L’imaginaire a-t-il une langue? Différence culturelle dans l’imaginaire anglophone et francophone” (“Does the imagination have a language? Cultural differences in the anglophone and francophone imaginary.”) The panelists included Olivier Paquet, a science fiction writer from France, Patrick Senecal, a thriller/horror writer in the vein of Stephen King, and Marie Bilodeau, whose English novels have been translated into French.
The discussion was lively and interesting. While there is perhaps less difference between French and English science fiction and fantasy literature than might be assumed at first, the panelists did spot some general trends that mark some dramatic differences. For example, the panelists seemed to agree that sensuality, graphic violence, and unhappy endings are generally more acceptable to French-speaking audiences than to anglophone audiences. Perhaps this was result of old fashioned Anglo-Saxon puritanism, or the American love for Walt Disney-style happy endings. Either way, this traits seemed to me to mark the greatest difference.
Much Québécois horror is inspired from the European horror scene, which tends toward serial killer narratives more than, say, fantastic horror. However, as Paquet explained, pessimism is not the only story in France. The country that produced the scientific optimism associated with Jules Verne continues that tradition in its brand of science fiction that focuses more on sociological issues, as well as adventure.
One interesting idea that arose: language does not inherently carry the values of a society. Rather, culture does. The different traumas and schisms that define a society do have a much greater influence on national literature. For example, Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, remarked one of the panelists, is marked by the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. This echoes how French SF is marked by the policy of laïcité (state secularism), the origins of which go back to the French Revolution. There did seem to be truth to this observation, given how French-language SF is in a sense more “secular” in its embrace of violent and sexual themes that would religious people shiver. On the other hand, anglophone SF retains a more “puritanical” attitude in the literature it produces and censors, particularly in the United States.
This being said, certain attitudes to the French language itself do influence French SF. Patrick Senecal pointed out later in the discussion that French-language editors have a tendency to homogenize the different registers of the language, leading to less linguistic diversity. When editing dialogue, French publishers often edit out regional dialect in favour of “le Français internationale.” The result is a banal, grammatically correct French, where all characters sound the same. These editing decisions do not accommodate the regional French spoken in certain regions of Québec, for example, which leads to a more monovocal (as opposed to polyvocal) body of literature. This is not just unappealing; it’s unrealistic and unrepresentative of how French is actually spoken. As Senecal quipped, “Il n’y a personne qui parle comme Radio Canada!”
It was fascinating to learn a little bit more about the French-language SF scene here in Québec. As a McGill student and a West Islander, I guess I’m a quintessential Anglo. I don’t read much in French. But perhaps the reason, aside from the language barrier (I read slow in French), is because I’ve never really sought out French literature I enjoy.
Back in March, I picked up Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings in Emmanuelle Chastellière’s French translation, La Chute de La Maison aux Fleches D’Argent. I’m still working through it, but I’ve managed to banish the disagreeable, singsong voice that used to play in my head whenever I would read French books. This voice is a relic from my high school experience reading in French and I’ve finally managed to suppress it. This greater maturity has helped me enjoy reading in French. Though I still have ways to go, breaking my self-imposed taboo has been one mark of progress.
I purchased several issues of Brins d’Éterinté at the con, a Quebec SF magazine, as a promise to myself to read more and expand my vocabulary. One issue had published a translation of a Helen Marshall story, which I certainly appreciated as a fan of her work. French SF writers tend to read English SF a lot more than anglophone writers read French SF, but maybe I can buck that trend. I was pleasantly surprised that several attractive revues SF were represented at the con, such as Clair/Obscure, Étranges Lectures (from France), and Horizons Imaginaries, a CEGEP Marianopolis-based publication which won a prize at the con.
Perhaps working on my French can be my excuse to dig deeper in Quebec SF. In any case, the con was an eye-opening experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in attending. The next conference will be in Sherbrooke in 2019.
This past literary season, I attended several events, including the Blue Metropolis festival and Le Congrès Boreal. Posts on each event are forthcoming. Today’s post is about the panel discussion I attended at Blue Met entitled “The Children of Mary Shelley.”
Frankenstein, which celebrates its 200th publication anniversary this year, has often been called the first science fiction novel. While Frankenstein’s monster is a recognizable figure in pop culture, it has its origin in the nested epistolary narratives of Shelley’s Gothic bildungsroman. To what extent can today’s science fiction trace its roots back to Frankenstein, given the vital, diversified, and increasingly popular genre it is today?
The moderator, Su J. Sokol, asked the panelists what was so groundbreaking about Frankenstein when it first appeared in print in 1818. Was it the first SF novel?
Amal el-Mohtar, the first panelist, responded that it was certainly “a first,” even if not “the first” SF novel. She referenced Awaj bin Anfaq, North African alien contact story written in the thirteenth century, to suggest that science fiction has much earlier, non-Western origins. However, there is something to be gained, she said, in tracing SF’s origins back to Mary Shelley, since women authors tend to be underrepresented in SF, a genre often defined by how “STEM-y” it is.
Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun could qualify as science fiction avant la lettre, so I would concur with Amal: Frankenstein is by no means “the first” SF novel, even in the West. But it remains a politically meaningful gesture to trace the genre’s origin’s back to Mary Shelley.
Melissa Yuan-Innes, the second panelist, made the interesting point that Frankenstein is not terribly “STEM-y” when you look at it closely. Though there is some (pseudo)science in what Victor does to reanimate the dead, he is highly irresponsible ethically. Furthermore, he works in isolation, while scientists typically work in research teams, sharing the results of their knowledge. Perhaps it is this isolation that makes Victor’s experiments with reanimating the dead seem so wrong.
David Demchuk, the third panelist, dissented. He paraphrased Samuel “Chip” Delaney’s observation that Frankenstein isn’t really science fiction at all–it’s Gothic fiction. The book is less about hard scientific inquiry and more about an ethical question: “How do you imbue something with the spark of life, and if you do that, what is your responsibility?”
David also pointed out that Victor tends to look towards past knowledge, such as alchemy and the works of Paracelsus and Galen. However, science fiction is a genre that typically looks toward the future. Thus, Frankenstein exists simultaneously as a past-focused Gothic novel and future-oriented proto-science fiction novel; it stands at a crossroads between old and new ways of understanding nature.
Listening to the panelists, I remembered just how different the novel is from various Frankenstein films. Amal pointed out that the monster’s interiority is mediated through several levels of epistolary narration, which is usually lost on film. (As an aside, I remember that the Frankenstein episode on the 90s children’s TV show Wishbone showed the framing narrative, which takes place in the Arctic.)
The monster’s self-education is another feature of the novel that doesn’t get enough attention. In Shelley’s novel, the monster learns how to speak clearly and in an erudite fashion by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Though he may be ugly, he speaks like a rational soul. Melissa underlined this point, stating that the monster’s physical ugliness should not be taken to correspond with an ugly morality, just as Victor’s handsomeness does not mean he is a moral person.
What really interested me was when Amal pointed out that feminist scholars have interpreted the monster’s self-education as an analogy for the reality of women’s education at the time. Mary Shelley was self-taught and read novels on her own because women were denied the full education men received. Furthermore, at the time it was thought that women should be discouraged from reading, because reading novels “inflamed” women’s minds, much like reading Milton “inflames” the monster’s mind. But really, the reason the monster acts violently is because of educational neglect, suggesting how detrimental the neglect of women’s education can also be.
This argument appealed to me because I’d assumed most femininst interpretations of Frankenstein followed the idea that the monster’s story is an allegory of childbirth-gone-wrong. The monster’s education as an analogy for women’s education seems a more authentic analogy for women’s actual experiences, especially the experiences of a self-educated, literary woman like Mary Shelley.
All this goes to show that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not really a monster, but a creature who has suffered horrendous neglect. And it is Victor’s neglect of his creation that turns him into the true monster.
Overall, “The Children of Mary Shelley” was a highly productive and fascinating panel. Although the Blue Metropolis festival tends to focus more on literary fiction, I hope to attend more science fiction and fantasy-based panels at the festival in the future.
Sunday 2 August 2015 was the date of my long-awaited presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia. Although this post will not include a copy of my presentation–that will be for next week, when I will discuss the final day of lectures at MythCon 46–I do include a significant panel involving the inestimable Brian Attebery, one of the key scholars of fantasy literature, whose studies The Tradition of Fantasy in American Literature: From Irving to LeGuin and Strategies of Fantasy have been highly influential in the history of fantasy criticism. His most recent work is Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth.
First up was David Bratman’s presentation “How Do You Solve A Problem Like King Arthur?” in which he discussed the complexity and uncertainty in unearthing the historical Arthur. The real Arthur, if he ever existed, was a post-Roman warlord and not the highly romanticized Tennysonian richly-caparisoned lordly king of the popular imagination. Authors such as T.H. White have attempted to place Arthur accurately in the medieval past, while Jack Whyte situates Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, in the post-Roman era. Books such as The Discovery of King Arthur have attempted to unearth the historical Arthur once and for all, but inevitably we know too little to create any consistent narrative about the king.
For those who feel uninitiated to Arthurian legend, don’t feel too bad. There’s no standardized, linear plot of the entire Arthurian cycle that incorporates all the adventures and significant events that are attributed to Arthur and his knights; the Disneyfied versions most folk encounter are as complete as any other retelling. An anthology of Arthuriana I own, The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation by James J. Wilhelm, does its best to establish a canon of Arthurian texts that when read together give some kind of impression of the different stories associated with the famous king, from the originally oral tale of the Celts, Culwch and Owen to Malory’s Morte Darthur, one of the first printed texts in England.
Our Montreal-based Author Guest of Honour Jon Walton has a series of Arthurian novels. Other authors such as Kris Swank give Arthur an ethnic twist by bringing black characters into the cast. Tales from the point of view of the servants also abound including, in addition to Mark Williams’s Sleepless Knights, Squire’s Blood and Squire’s Honour by Peter Telep.
If so many different versions of Arthur exist, how did we get the colourful, valiant, shiny version of Arthur with which most people are familiar? The answer to this might lie in the colourful illustrations that accompanied the sanitized story of The Boy’s King Arthur, in which the scenes containing episodes of adultery have been cut out. The illustrator M.C. Wyatt was also a major contributor to our images of Arthur. Of course one might also add Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Looney Tunes, and Monty Python as other inevitable sources.
One last item to add to this list was Camelot 3000, a comic from a certain era that was not mine, but which was full of 80s camp. In this, the Knights of the Round Table are awoken from cryogenic chambers in the far future. Other Arthurian comics are cataloged on Camelot 4 Colors.
Following this, Daniel Gabelman presented one of the original classics of nineteenth-century fantasy that later inspired C.S. Lewis’s conversion and “baptised” his imagination, according to his memoir Surprised by Joy. The presentation was entitled “MacDonald’s Phantastes and The Last Chronicle of Sir Percival, or Phantastes: the Original MythCon?”
I am currently reading the Phantastes, called the first full-length prose novel of modern fantasy, and I’m recognizing a familiar Romantic fascination with sickly, snow-pale women who function as Muse to the hero. MacDonald himself was a highly religious man–this I don’t doubt from having glimpsed at a few of his sermons–but Phantastes reads more like a Romantic text than an explicitly Christian one. I have recognized a certain joy animate the hero, Anodos, as he enters Fairyland, which I can only imagine was the same joy of the imagination that C.S. Lewis felt deeply when he read Phantastes. Reading this novel as an allegory of Lewis’s conversion is an interesting way of reading it, but at any rate, not precisely the way Gabelman read it.
Phantastes was explicitly called a fairy tale for adults, representing a moment when fairy tales began to adopt more realistic techniques to attract an audience beyond the nursery. MacDonald includes heavily allusive epigraphs from works in English and in German throughout his novel, tying his thought to German Romanticism. Gabelman said Phantastes is very much about the reading experience, especially considering the number of times Anodos either hears a story or reads one, especially the embedded tale of Cosmos, a youth who acquires a cursed magic mirror. Being unfamiliar with the Phantastes at the time,I regrettably could not absorb the crux of Gabelman’s poststructural argument about textual play in MacDonald and Lewis, but I was left with a good impression of the overall presentation.
Alicia Fox-Lenz, a Mythgardian and graphic designer, presented a well-designed slide presentation of “The Union Between the Two Towers and the Twin Towers,” which was about the impact of 9/11 on the reception of LOTR. She referred to the relevance of Tolkien’s epic to issues regarding warfare in the generations that followed WWII. Like Modernists such as W.H. Auden, Tolkien’s literary career is overshadowed by an involvement in world wars. Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I is a Mythopoeic Press collection of essays that discuss the impact of the Great War on many different authors of modern fantasy. Rather than writing realistic narratives about the social reality of the post-war years, Tolkien became an “interwar hipster” by returning to the heroic ideal in a non-realist literary form.
Later generations interpreted LOTR as relevant to the trials facing their generation. So there were unauthorized paperback copies of LOTR available to the Vietnam generation, while the hippies of the Summer of Love adopted the slogan, “Frodo Lives!” Tolkien’s novels gained a subcultural following he certainly could never have foreseen.
Peter Jackson’s films reinvigorated interest in LOTR just around the time of the New York terrorist attacks. Like the Black Riders that infiltrate the peaceful Shire, Islamic fundamentalism entered the consciousness of a reeling and traumatized American public.
The result, Fox-Lenz argued brilliantly, is that online Amazon reviews of Tolkien’s trilogy before 9/11 stress a lofty, idealist view of the heroism of Tolkien’s characters, while the reviews after 9/11 use a more negatively connotative vocabulary, making more references to the battle between good and evil, moral absolutes, and biblical language. Reviewers became more obsessed, as a whole, with words such as ‘evil,’ and the name of Sauron was more frequently mentioned. One reviewer even stated that fighting a war for peace is a galvanizing theme in LOTR. Galvanizing for what, the invasion of a certain Middle-Eastern country? In short, these reviews echoed, more and more, the wartime rhetoric that led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Frodo was even treated as a zealot, a suicide bomber off the destroy Sauron. Tolkien surely rolled over in his grave, but this is exactly the sort of overblown, shocking statements one tends to find in comments sections on major websites these days. The Rohirrim in Jackson’s films also become seen as a parallel to Homeland Security. And then, of course, there are the cheap allegories in which Frodo is America, bin Laden Sauron, Sam Gamgee America’s allies (Canada, Britain, Australia, etc, all being somehow encapsulated by the loyal gardener), and Isildur is … you guessed it, also ‘merica–the earlier ‘merica under Bush Sr. I might add, from a different political standpoint, that Wormtongue and Theoden (before his conversion by Gandalf) would have made a lovely pair as Cheney and Bush respectively. But would this allegory make the Ring a WMD? Well, let’s try to keep in mind that using the enemy’s power to destroy evil was Boromir’s brilliant idea and it got him killed. Frodo was out to destroy the One Ring, to destroy Power—the Ring was a WMD that really did exist.
Leaving this bitter and controversial political world aside, it was then time for me to go to the next talk, which was about worldviews as such. Mary Kay Kare, Janice Bogstad, and Jo Walton made up the panel for “Fantasy and Worldview” with Brian Attebery as moderator. Attebery’s 1979 dissertation had been on American fantasy, responding to the post-W.R. Irwin academic climate. Irwin called fantasy the “game of the impossible,” but Attebery was convinced of the sterility of this description, that fantasy was not simply impossible. Fantasy represented instead a deeply meaningful worldview. Naturally, various cultures on planet earth share disparate worldviews that do not always align with Western, postmodern understandings of “reality.” Provided of course postmodernity has any sense of “reality” at all. To say fantasy is a literature of the impossible is to define it according to how the privileged class in power define “reality” and “possible.”
The panel discussed the notion of consensus reality–and its inevitable violation–as an important feature of fantasy literature, a way in which fantasy and not just science fiction can act as a ‘laboratory’ with which to try out new ideas. My own opinion about consensus reality is that it should always appear beneath scare quotes. I mean, reality never asked your opinion. Even if a cult believes with all their faith that if they jump out a window, they’ll be able to fly, they will wind up flat on the ground and sorely disappointed. And this isn’t just because physics cannot be violated, but because even social reality is exterior to the subject. I also believe that reality can never really be a consensus, because the very term implies the covering up of any negations or violations of that consensus. However, when writing a fantasy novel, the notion of reality being a consensus is a useful way of structuring characters’ reactions to the fantastic; whatever the norm of belief is in your novel–maybe dragons and magic already exist, maybe not–you need to establish that consensus up front, so your readers understand the novum of your subcreated world, that is, how the fictional universe differs from the reader’s own.
The panel raised some interesting points and referred to some interesting texts. For example, there is Grace Dylan’s Native American science fiction novels and other works of speculative fiction that come from other cultural frameworks than your typical white, Anglo-Saxon authors. “Tolkien’s Realist Magicism” is an essay by Jo Walton in which she describes how Tolkien treats magic realistically, challenging standard realism. Also, the issue of angel literature was raised: a belief in angels is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, making it one concrete example of a situation where one reader might read a such a narrative as ‘supernatural fiction’ while another reader, a believer, might read it is as realistic. Surely there are other people all around the globe who genuinely believe in phenomenon commonly called “fantastic,” such as the Maori of New Zealand some of whom profess belief in taniwha, a race of shapeshifting dragon.
Another interesting facet to this question is: what was considered fantasy in the Middle Ages? If heaven, hell, demons, monsters, witches, werewolves, angels, and miracles were all a part of the world back then, what would constitute imaginative literature? Petrus Nennius wrote a dream vision about a Democritan world where the afterlife was different from the Christian one–except for the dream frame around it, this might be declared a fantasy in the Inklings spirit!
Claude Levi-Strauss argued, and here once again I paraphrase one of the panelists, that human thought was never primitive–different societies just cut up the world differently. Myths are a way of defining phenomena in the world. I am reminded of Fredric Jameson’s allusion to the famous structural anthropologist when in The Political Unconscious, he describes Levi-Strauss’s observations of the facial tatoos of a certain tribe that serve to symbolically resolve the unease developing as their society becomes increasingly socially stratified. Jameson argues that narrative is one way we seek resolution to concrete historical contradictions–and fantasy is one significant way in which we attempt to create such resolutions.
One society that experiences a lot of social contradiction is a version of medieval England in which a hereditary monarchy presides over a socially-conscious anarcho-syndicalist peasantry, apparently led by one Leftist churl by the name of Dennis. What contradictions this society produces, however, lead not to tears but laughs. David Oberhelman discussed the Pythons’ masterpiece in his talk “‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place’: Myth, Politics, and Parody in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Holy Grail was a symbolic resolution to the concrete historical situation in which Britain found itself after the war, during the time of the Sex Pistols and pre-Thatcher discontent. Both Left and Right had discredited themselves. How could modern England reconcile itself to its conservative, monarchical past and present? Totally opposite political philosophies sparred and sparred in Parliament, till the Pythons just decided to poke fun at the whole situation with one of their funniest sketches. Not only is King Arthur treated as out of touch with socially mobilized peasant reality, but the Trotskyists are also mocked equally, as completely out of touch with reality.
Following this talk, I gave my presentation (news about that next week!) and afterwards, it was time for the banquet and Jo Walton’s Guest of Honour speech. In short she spoke about different writerly strategies of integrating the fantastic into a story. She advised the audience not to throw the fantastic at readers too fast, or they will be lost, but to introduce information about the world gradually. The readers and characters who are unfamiliar with the fantastic are like children constantly absorbing information, so it is usually a good idea to at least have one character who is unfamiliar with the world, so the readers can see through their eyes, while another character may be familiar with the fantastic, providing a model for the norm of your fantastic world. Walton provided an elegant rhetorical twist where the details of a fantastic autumn ceremony she kept alluding to in her speech as an example became gradually revealed to us, as she kept gradually giving us examples that eventually fleshed out the idea of a dragon fire-breathing ceremony. That was some meta-worldbuilding.
Stay tuned next week to hear the next installment of stimulating intellectual discussion!
Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.
Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elena Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, an excellent getaway driver and competitive love interest, and Cutter, a Jason Statham look-alike.
The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.
The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.
Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elena. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.
Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.
In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, take it, pal.
A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold–like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?
If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the reality of exploitation and thievery. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and zombie.
If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’
That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.
The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.
On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.
Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’sDeception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.
Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door.
The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.
Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.
The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.
In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors.
The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.
This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovic–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.
“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovic from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovic leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.
The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school education. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.
Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.
There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.
In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovics, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovic, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.
“Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. […] So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. You do not follow maps to buried treasure and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading. We cannot afford to take mythology at face value.”
These words were rather hypocritically spoken by none other than Harrison Ford, in his role as Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, to a classroom of eager archaeology students. The funny thing about this speech is that it accurately describes the real study of archaeology, which has nothing to do with chasing Nazi caravans through the desert or running away from massive, rolling boulders. Yet the Indiana Jones series pretends to be about archaeology and the discovery of the past.
The romanticized view of the archaeologist tends to reduce the real work associated with the profession–including excavation, survey, applying for funding, and all that library time–to what amounts to a treasure hunt. A certain set of clues leads Jones to a particular location, where the Grail or the Ark awaits discovery. Rather than reading soil samples, Jones reads his father’s diary and the inscription of a knight’s shield, which tells him exactly where he has to go.
What this does is speed things up to the pace suitable for an action movie. It also makes the plot more linear. It eliminates any scientific processes that would stretch out a long search for an ancient city over months and years. In short, it makes the archaeologist’s journey into a quest instead of a complicated search for evidence.
Archaeological quests imply something else than the analysis of dry data. Quests bring the archaeologist into the search for truth, and not just fact. The cities they discover become more than remains scattered in a certain area of land; their job ceases to be about conducting empirical analyses of whatever they might find. It becomes a journey towards a specific goal. In The Last Crusade, that goal is none other than the Grail, a modern-day medieval romance, heavy with incident.
The Indiana Jones movies belong to the genre of ‘archaeological adventure’ that finds precedents in literary works. Published in Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, an anthology that republished some long-unknown pieces of fiction, A. Merritt’s novella “The Moon Pool” involves a band of scientific adventurers who attempt to map the ruins of a fallen Pacific Islands civilization, only to be haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force that eliminates the members of the expedition one by one. Merritt wrote in the early part of the century. Several of his works were turned into films in the 1930s.
The editors, Hartwell and Cramer, confirm in their description of the novella that “this kind of pulp fantasy is the source of such contemporary off-shoots as the current  Indiana Jones movies” (540). The novella creates an “aggressive blend of what we now call science fiction with the fantasy, using scientists and professionals to heighten the contrast between the scientific present and the magical past, mysterious and wonderful and very dangerous” (540).
Although the Jones movies do not emphasize science so much, the ‘science versus magic’ dichotomy reflects the contrast between Jones’s rigorous attention to fact in the classroom and his experience of the healing power of the supernatural Grail at the end of the film. Jones’ inner journey is towards what his father, Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, calls “illumination.” A new faith that facts are not all what’s important.
Dr. Throckmartin, Merritt’s protagonist, encounters what appears to be the supernatural, but always finds a way to rationalize it, at least until the very end of the tale. The fantastic in Merrit is more dangerous here, however. Madness waits for Throckmartin if his rational faculties fail, if he lets himself be taken in by illusions.
A giant door opens to an inner temple–triggered only by the light of the moon. The natives claim that the ani, or spirit, opened it. But Throckmartin says, “The assertion of the natives that the ani had greatest power at this time might be a far-flung reflection of knowledge which had found ways to use forces contained in the moonlight, as we have found ways to utilize forces in the sun’s rays” (567). A mysterious sleep befalls the adventurers. But this might “have been some emanation from plants or gaseous emanations from the island itself” (567). The adventurers seek out scientific causes of the effects they must endure. They enact the kind of demystification of nature that Sir Francis Bacon outlines in his treatise on the Great Instauration: the depersonalizing of nature and the reduction of forces to matter that acts on other matter. Everything explained, no mysteries, and above all, nothing beyond or above natural causes.
“The Moon Pool” also illustrates certain themes of imperialism. Throckmartin’s request for white men to join his team rather than natives might appear racist to modern audiences; he justifies himself saying the white man is less superstitious. Scientific men who hold no irrational fears of haunted places make better workers. This dynamic of the archaeological adventure reflects the politics of imperialism, which accompanies enlightenment. The white man has science, while the natives are represented as ignorant animists who believe in spirits and carry prehistorical or medieval beliefs. Yet, the white man is at a certain disadvantage: he is ignorant of the dangerous secrets the island stores for him, while the natives are more familiar with these dangers–and are wise for avoiding them. The result is an encounter of the white man with the unknown supernatural other, a conflict that threatens to undermine the certainty of empirical discovery and rational explanation.
I would like to speculate that the imperialism of “The Moon Pool” is reflected to some extent in the Indiana Jones movies, in which a highly educated Western archaeologist–American no less– ‘discovers’ the secrets of the East, while the East remains incapable of discovering its own treasures. To an extent, I find this dynamic replicated in certain of Lord Dunsany’s Orientalist fantasies in The Book of Wonder, in which the object of wonder is usually a valuable gem or other glistening item that becomes a target for thieves. When Jones steals the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one asks if he has the right to steal what the natives clearly worship and value. It seems like an act of American imperialism in the name of increasing the collections of Western museums.
Returning to the dialectical tension between science and magic in “The Moon Pool,” it is interesting to note how this dynamic strongly reflects one definition of fantasy that Brian Attebery provides in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” He suggests that fantasy might simply be the “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10). An older world (historical materialists would say, an earlier mode of production) meets the empirical, ‘rational,’ and capitalist present. The result is a conflict between the epistemologies and beliefs of ancient and modern societies, whose systems are thrown into conflicting simultaneity. The archaeologist does not unearth the past as a past, but encounters it in the present, where it can affect and change him.
The powers of the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant may not be explained away by Doctor Jones. But the continuity between the movies and this novella by Merritt is there, suggesting that there does exist an archaeological fiction genre, little named or acknowledged, that possesses a certain set of rules that distinguishes it from fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction. The tension between conflicting epistemologies in this genre could make it a fascinating object to excavate and survey more deeply, as a way of discovering how they encode ideas about enlightenment and imperialism.
In the twenty-first century, there is one return to archaeological fiction that explores the dynamics of science and magic in popular culture: the Uncharted video game series. With its placing of importance on old diaries and maps, rather than on archaeological excavation, and given its obvious debt to the Jones movies, I would like to discuss aspects of this series next week. Also, I will speculate about how Edgar Allan Poe may have influenced this genre since its inception, in one of his short stories, “The Gold-Bug.”
Continued next week.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.
Hartwell, David and Kathryn Cramer. “The Moon Pool.” Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.