On Speculative Romance

The etymological root of the word romance is the Old French romanz, which referred mainly to the “vernacular language of France, as opposed to Latin” (OED). While this sense of the word later encompassed other “Romance” languages that derive from Latin, the contrast with Latin remains in the critical sense of the word “romantic” as a style of art or music opposed to “classical.” At some point, the word romance (or rather romanse) comes to mean story or a type of story. In their collection of Medieval Romances (1957), Roger and Laura Loomis tell us that the word roman “was applied indiscriminately to any long narrative in French verse,” but by the end of the Middle Ages it developed a narrower meaning: “a tale of Knightly prowess, usually set in remote times or places and involving elements of the fantastic or supernatural” (x).

John William Waterhouse: La Belle Dame Sans Merci – 1893

The origin of many of these stories from the oral tradition (told in the vernacular) and their less scrupulous content may also help explain the distinction between classical and romantic.

The more distilled sense of “love story,” which dominated twentieth-century pulp fiction and film, developed sometime in the seventeenth century, but of course it is already latent in the chivalric emphasis of medieval romance—one has only to think of Lancelot and Guinevere.

An acute fusion of these variant meanings for romance is found in the second generation British Romantic poet John Keats, who penned the following poem in 1819.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

–John Keats (manuscript version, 1819)

Keats balances sexual rapture and loss in an encounter with the  faery world, natural cycles of loss with intimations of supernatural predation. In this poem we hear medieval romance–a knight seduced by a faery–the macabre danger of the Gothic, and a second generation romantic poet pondering the failure of idealism and subjective desire.

Gothic romances flourish in the eighteenth century by simultaneously sustaining regressive flights into fantastic medieval ballads and insanely intense love stories. For example, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto gigantic helmets fall from the sky to wreak divine vengeance, while the passionate but forbidden love of Matilda and Theodore wreaks havoc.  Medieval revival fades to architecture and religion in Ann Radcliffe as the appearance of the supernatural is resolved into affect and trickery, and the love story emerges to structure narrative resolution. (Oddly, the love stories in Walpole and Matthew Lewis often end in substitution or doubling of the beloved, a sort of displacement that re-inscribes the dominance of the social world.)

While the supernatural dimension of medieval revival is accentuated in Matthew Lewis, it is displaced entirely by scientific hypothesis in Mary Shelley.Whereas in medieval and Gothic romance, the fantastic element is elaborated by way of supernatural incursion (or the appearance of such), the animation of Frankenstein’s daemon is predicated by scientific conjecture, albeit veiled and ambiguous.

By the time Jules Verne is being translated into English in the 1860’s, the term is Scientific Romance, and  Charles Howard Hinton and H. G. Wells thought of what they wrote as Scientific Romance. When Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories–at first this was often reprinting of nineteenth-century Scientific Romances by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells–the label was at first Scientifiction and later Science Fiction. As Science Fiction established itself in mass market paperbacks, the back spine was marked with the acronym SF. But as some writers resisted the narrow implications of Science Fiction, they identified SF with Speculative Fiction, a genre term also applied to Fantasy, a genre that also develops out of nineteenth-century medieval revival and that is increasingly confused with genre sf toward the late twentieth century.


© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Marsupial Pockets, Pachyderms, and Infinite Turtles: World Building in Fantasy

In Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein mock the deist clockmaker analogy—the universe is like a clock and thus there must be a clockmaker—by asking why the universe isn’t analogous to a kangaroo. Such an analogy, they suggest, would force interesting conclusions, namely, that the universe  “was born of another universe after that universe had sex with a third universe” (36). (While I know that Cathcart and Klein are laughing at the absurdity of their analogy, I kind of like the idea of a baby universe nestling in the pouch of its marsupial mother.) Fortunately for us, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld isn’t just analogous to a giant turtle; it’s actually carried on the back of one. And, in The Light Fantastic (1986), this world does seem to have sex and reproduce at a cosmic scale.

Come, and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe.

(John Milton, “L’Allegro”)

Discworld, of course,  rests on the back of four rather large elephants who in turn stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, a colossal—“ten  thousand miles long”—turtle that swims through space. One thing is for sure: Discworld brings the world-building aspect of fantasy into sharp relief.

The initial nod might seem to be toward ostensible medieval notions of a flat world, or European notions of Hindu creation myths involving elephants and turtles supporting the world.  Certainly, in the 1927 essay Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell ridicules what he characterizes as the “Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise.” Why not construct a fantasy world out of the cloth of the most antiquated and ridiculous caricatures of a world view?

It might have seemed easy to Russell, but it isn’t so easy in retrospect. What do we really know of elephants and turtles in Hindu cosmology? How do we know what is literal and what is symbolic? A modicum of humility is warranted when confronted with alternate cosmologies, whether Hindu or Ojibway creation myths.

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s tells us the following story:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Without leaving the crazy silliness of it all behind, we begin to find ourselves in heavy territory. The remarkable absurdity of this world-image jars certain philosophical conceits by invoking infinite regress and paradox. Donna Haraway deploys a variant of our Discworld image to characterize science:

As my colleagues put it, science is practice and culture (Pickering 1992) at every layer of the onion. There is no core, only layers. It is “elephants all the way down,” in my purloined origin story about science. “Elephants all the way down” is an aphorism from the Indian origin story that has the world supported on the back of a pachyderm, who is, in turn, supported on another elephant, and so on, ad infinitum. Everything is supported, but there is no transcendent foundation, only the infinite series of carrying all there is. (“Enlightenment@science_wars.com: A Personal Reflection on Love and War”  126)

The Light Fantastic begins with our heroes catapulted over the edge of the world into outer space in pursuit of the big questions: Where is A’Tuin going? And what is the Great A’Tuin’s sex? While the second question is never answered, the plot of the novel answers the first one.

The central crisis in this novel focuses on the appearance of a bright red star in the sky, the fear that A’Tuin is going to collide with this star, and various but mostly  inept attempts to prevent apocalypse. (Unlike the sun that rises and sets every day on the Disc, and which the wizards estimate to be about a mile across, this red star is very large, even bigger than A’Tuin.)

And as the star waxes, magic wanes: “Magic is weaker here, on the littoral of light.”  In the cities, where panic sets in and cults of the red star grow in size and power, wizards are killed or forced to flee.

Rincewind is a wizard who can’t cast spells because he once read the Octavo, a book with eight great spells, and one of the great spells in this book hid in his mind. In The Light Fantastic, the wizards want to read all eight spells to ward off the red star, but the spells don’t want to be read, so they try to prevent the wizards from finding Rincewind. Rincewind is accompanied by Twopenny, the world’s first tourist; his luggage, a trunk (or chest) made from the “timber of the sapient pear tree,” which follows Twopenny everywhere; Bethan, a chiropractic former Druidic candidate for human sacrifice; and the geriatric and toothless Cohen the barbarian.

There are a large number of similarities between Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic and other fantasy worlds.  For instance, Hayao Myazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城 or Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, from Ghibli Studios) strongly resembles the magical traveling shop in The Light Fantastic. Both Howl’s Castle and the magical traveling shop seem to mediate between worlds and places. Akin to the reworking of science fiction that occurs in Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s series and Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , Pratchet’s Discworld series is a comedic and satirical parody of fantasy that pokes fun at the clichés to create humour and subverts generic conventions to produce novel effects and insights that are picked up by later writers.

The looming red star anticipates George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings where a red comet hangs over the sky and is variously interpreted by different characters. Martin’s comet reverses the loss of magic in Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic: instead, the comet corresponds with the rise of Daenerys Targaryen and the return of the old powers to the continents of Westeros and Essos.

Akin to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series engages in serious world building. The similarity is evident in their preoccupation with mapping and history–their effort to provide a complete fantasy world. Similarly, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea offers tantalizing maps and an ontology: the linguistic being of Earthsea is the very basis of the fantastic.

Map of Earthsea

The waning of magic associated with the red star in The Light Fantastic is also reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, the third novel in the Earthsea Quartet published in 1972, and Gorō Miyazaki’s 2006 Studio Ghibli film Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記 Gedo Senki) which fuses The Farthest Shore with Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel Tehanu.

What is striking about these variant crises in Martin’s Westeros and Le Guin’s Earthsea is that they involve changing worldviews. In Westeros, it is mostly a matter of forgetting why people 8000 years ago would  go to the effort to build a wall that is 300 miles in length and more than 700 feet high on average. But it’s also a matter of the magic having gone out of the world, so the sensible world view is one that rejects such silly nonsense. But what if things change and the sensible worldview is wrong? What if a worldview produces blindness to a threatening reality? It is similar in Earthsea where magic is fading from the world, and wizards have been discredited. In both cases, the fantasy trope of magic represents an alternative to a failing worldview. In Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin’s critical feminist revision of patriarchal magic in Tehanu is enacted in tandem with the crisis in worldview. Indeed, the crisis is resolved by way of the awakening of Therru to her true being, by asserting the feminine. 

Magic has been a prominent figure of Enlightenment rationalist discourse for several centuries. It marks the antipode of reason. James Randi put it this way: “Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work.” (The Mask of Nostradamus 66) The problem with his statement isn’t what it says about magic.  Randi is emphasizing a dichotomy with science on one side and magic on the other, and this simplified way of organizing the world into either this or that immediately forgets a few things.  Science doesn’t always work. Science is often motivated; indeed when it becomes the lackey for big business or defence departments it can become downright myopic and dangerous.  Donna Haraway’s account of being assigned to teach an undergraduate biology course at the University of Hawaii is helpful here:

I was part of a team of young faculty, led by a senior teacher, who had designed a course to fill an undergraduate general education science requirement for hundreds of students each year. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, home of the Pacific Strategic Command that was so critical to the Vietnam War with its electronic battlefield and chemical herbicides, this University of Hawaii biology course aimed to persuade students that natural science alone, not politics or religion, offered hope for secular progress not infected by ideology. (126)

She goes on to observe that she couldn’t teach the course this way because she was “acutely aware of how intimately science, including biology, was woven into [the Vietnam War]—and into every aspect of our lives and beliefs” (127).

Perhaps most important—and what falls out of Randi’s dichotomy—is that there are so many things that “work,” but for which we don’t have a scientific understanding.

Randi is a great sceptic, but is he a good scientist? Certainly the tactics that he used against  the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in the late 1970’s have been criticized. The McDonnell Laboratory was set up to investigate paranormal phenomena. As Jim Schnabel shows, in “Puck in the Laboratory,” Randi had two conjurers present themselves to McDonnell Laboratory claiming they possessed “psychokinetic (PK) and extrasensory perception (ESP) abilities” (468).  The Laboratory was initially somewhat taken by the two conjurers, but eventually applied tighter controls, under which the PK and ESP effects couldn’t be replicated. Despite the fact that they discontinued their study of the pair in 1982, Randi held a news conference in 1983 in which he announced his hoax, apparently in an attempt to publicly humiliate the McDonnell Laboratory (470). As Schnabel observes, the “episode received wide media coverage, and when the McDonnell Laboratory’s funding expired in 1985, it was not renewed” (470).

My focus on Discworld is intended to highlight the fetish for world-building that is one of the striking features of so much fantasy. Beginning with medieval revival, which exploited the supposed irrational worldviews of the so-called Dark Ages  between the decline of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, fantasy plays a delicate game of inhabiting the familiar and rationalizing (or often just positing) the remarkable.

Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon offers a vivid case in point. The story carefully follows the traditional storylines established by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Tennyson, and others, but it diverges by shifting the point of view from which the story is told to that of Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay). Most of the geography of the world is familiar—post-Roman Britain. This is a world that is already fantastic—dragons, headless knights, Merlin—because it reiterates the conventions of medieval romance. But Bradley modifies the “already fantastic” by identifying it with the Celtic matriarchal Avalon, and especially the Lady of the Lake and her priestesses of the Goddess. The rest of the world—the new patriarchal and Christian world—falls out of the fantastic for the most part.

This precise revision of the fantastic in Bradley corresponds with the removal of Avalon from the world, just as the fairies, in the book,  were themselves displaced at an earlier time. The power of the Goddess isn’t questioned or problematized, which makes sense because Morgaine tells the story.

In some ways, the novel is akin to a protracted version of Borges’ “The Witness,” which marks the transition from a pagan to a Christian worldview.

In Bradley, magic is redeployed as a feminist trope: while we’re invited to suspend our disbelief and accept its literal power, it symbolizes the feminine and a worldview that is antithetical to patriarchy.

One the most compelling incidents in The Mists of Avalon occurs to Morgaine after she is pregnant with her half-brother Arthur’s son. Twice, Morgaine becomes lost on the isle of Avalon and finds herself in a fairy world.

Avalon and the “elf-mounds” that lie beside or behind it are adjacent or overlapping fantasy worlds.

“There are now two Britains, Igraine: their world under their One God and the Christ; and, beside it and behind it, the world where the Great Mother still rules, the world where the Old People have chosen to live and worship. This has happened before. There was the time when the fairy folk, the Shining Ones, withdrew from our world, going further and further into the mists…” (13).

The alternate ways of seeing the world are merely false or eradicated, but they remain latent in the geography, traps or havens for the unwary. Morgaine tells us that “only an occasional wanderer now can spend a night within the elf-mounds, and if he should do so, time drifts on without him, and he may come out after a single night and find that his kinfolk are all dead and that a dozen years have gone by” (13).

Morgaine’s own experience of the elf-mounds is one of the genuinely fantastic sequences in the novel:

To this very day I have never known how many nights and days I spent in the fairy country—even now my mind blurs when I try to reckon it up. Try as I may I can make it no fewer than five and no more than thirteen. Nor am I certain how much time passed in the world outside, nor in Avalon, while I was there, but because mankind keeps better records of time than the fairy folk, I know that some five years passed. (407)

Given Bradley’s descriptions of Avalon and the fairies, we might wonder if “world” is even the proper word. Perhaps enclave or pocket would make more sense. Are these fantasy pockets? Pockets within pockets. Tom Shippey might call them polders: adapted from the Dutch technique of reclaiming land from water, fantasy polders  are “demarcated by boundaries…from the surrounding world” (Encyclopedia of Fantasy qtd. In Shippey 166-7). In “Threshold, Polders, and Crosshatches in the Merlin Codex,” which elaborates a model of fantasy in terms of “boundary situations,” Shippey cites a range of related terms including thresholds, crosshatches (one of China Mieville’s favourite words), wainscots (Harry Potter), and portals (think Alice in Wonderland and Narnia).

We could explore each of these ideas at length, but the key to The Mists of Avalon  is that the pocket or enclave or receding but still occasionally accessible realm is a literal recollection of an older worldview. (I wonder if palimpsest might be the right word—thinking of H. D.’s Trilogy.) The new world that replaces it—the Celts replaced the faeries, the Romans replace the Celts—is a physical manifestation of a set of beliefs about the world. In this sense of worldview, the pockets or polders become “worlds”—and such worlds become inherently geopolitical.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Notes on the Irreparable

“They’d never be cured. […] They were in a new world. It was the world we live in.” (China Miéville, Embassytown 312)

In the most basic sense, the irreparable is impossible to rectify or repair. It isn’t “fixable.”  In law, the phrase “irreparable damage or injury” denotes a harm for which there is no compensation—no money or action will undo the harm. And yet, in The Coming Community (1993), Giorgio Agamben writes, “we can have hope only in what is without remedy” (my emphasis, 101).The Coming Community Cover

This is a thoroughly shocking statement—one that runs counter to many of the basic assumptions that have informed western thought since at least the Enlightenment.  It also intersects a range of important questions about speculative literature.

Agamben defines the irreparable as follows:

The Irreparable is that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being. States of things are irreparable, whatever they may be: sad or happy, atrocious or blessed. How you are, how the world is—this is the Irreparable.  (90)

This is to generalize the irreparable, to use damage or injury as an epitome to grasp things “just as they are” or things that just can’t be changed. My youngest son was born with Spina Bifida and is paraplegic. As a father, the words I learn to speak are “there is no cure.” How I see the world breaks repeatedly on his condition.  There is no cure for my life either. There is no remedy.

The stakes of the irreparable are difficult to articulate. Here, I recall Robin Blaser’s poem, “Even on Sunday”:

we can thereby return to ourselves a measure of freedom, and take form / the work of a lifetime—in this breaking of boundaries—


as Mayer says, a global disposition of thought toward annihilation, which thinks to admit only majorities in the future and is determined to equate minorities with ‘worthless life’     Worthless are the Jews, there the blacks [and aboriginals], somewhere else (and everywhere) the homosexuals, women of the type of Judith and Delilah, not least the intellectuals keen on individuation . .

‘They should all be gassed’: the expression has crept into everyday language Woman is not equal to man. Man is manly man, whatever is to be understood by that: the feminine man stands out from the race and thereby becomes worthless life. Shylock must be exterminated: the only final solutions are fire and gas….

As a society, sometimes, we begin to learn the irreparable. We begin to accept homosexuality. We begin to open our lifestyles and practices to those with special needs. We begin to think about mental illness instead of pushing it out of sight. Our most insistent ethical positions reject extreme remedies—the Shoah, eugenics, residential schools. These instances widen the epitome, force the irreparable into the open, as it were.

Agamben’s sense of the irreparable—things “as they are…without remedy”—offers a litmus test for speculative literature.

On the one hand, the irreparable serves as a check on the often rampant embrace of the ideal of progress that characterizes science fiction. It isn’t that progress is a problem per se. If we can cure polio, then maybe polio isn’t irreparable. But what is in need of remedy? This isn’t an idle question in an era when psychiatry seems to label ever more disorders and proffer pharmacological treatments; when plastic surgery becomes Reality TV; when in utero sex identification corresponds with gender preference; when disease is “cured” by genetic screening and avoidance; when genetic engineering becomes practice. Even more difficult is the tricky line between imagined remedy and our actual condition, or when we imagine reparation for the irreparable.

The sometimes extreme exuberance of science fiction can be seen in its early comic caricatures such as Buck Rogers or The Jetsons.  From Jules Verne to Peter Hamilton, there is a certain optimism about technology and the prospect of science to master the environment and transcend the human condition.

Optimism in nineteenth-century scientific romance corresponds to the institutionalization of science and its social mandate in that century (see Robert Mitchell’s article on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and the founding of the Royal Institution in London for an example).

Mid-twentieth century works by authors such as Robert Heinlein (see the collection of stories The Green Hills of Earth) often extend such optimism to near realistic depictions of technological triumph. From the Industrial Revolution to the Cold War, science fiction reflects the precipitous rate of change and more often articulates an ideology of possibility that corresponds with emerging global capitalism and rampant consumerism.

Toward the end of the twentieth-century, the vertigo of such imagination often flirts with religion as the genre increasingly promises soul-like technologies. Examples abound in Iain M. Banks where soul technologies allow the Chelgrian species to literally build a heaven in Look to Windward. In Richard Morgan’s Broken Angels or Peter Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the transcendence of the human Jake Sullybody seems almost complete (if the plots would settle down, that is).  More tempered and contextualized by a critique of progress, James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009) imagines the paraplegic Jake Sully becoming his avatar, a remedy that is perhaps quite subtle but nevertheless a remedy that epitomizes the progressive possibilities of genre sf. (I fully applaud the inclusion of a paraplegic protagonist. I’d also like to become an avatar, which is why Agamben’s placement of “hope” in the irreparable is so difficult to accept.)Jake Sully's Avatar

On the other hand, the irreparable also provides a way to understand how science fiction acts on collective delusions and directly critiques ideas of progress.

Of course, there is a long tradition of critique in science fiction, and dystopias weigh heavier than utopias. We tend to remember Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, while we neglect the extreme advancements of humanity in some of Olaf Stapleton’s utopian novels, such as Star Maker (1937). At the turn of the century, it was Futurama in the place of The Jetsons. (We can’t seem to get rid of The Jetsons, but still.)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein doesn’t celebrate progress; it questions it by interrogating the psychological and social perspectives of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine measures human society and homo sapiens using evolutionary time scales. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano (1952) articulates anxieties about machines making human labour irrelevant. In the novels of Phillip K. Dick, paranoia becomes the modus operandi.

On the whole, in general, we can consider the irreparable in science fiction in a way that almost makes common sense, whether we question its puppy-like exuberance for  flying cars and communicators (I mean cell phones) or find ourselves “breaking boundaries” and apprehending the irreparable or its hope.

For fantasy, the irreparable vexes the tension between escapism and disclosure (of the unconscious). It offers a counterpoint to the commonplace assessment that fantasy is about escapism.  Do we not think that fantasy is escapist at root? Even those who love fantasy and study it repeatedly inscribe the line beyond which the story becomes escapist. Before he recognized the possibility of “radical fantasy,” the Marxist critic Frederic Jameson argued, in “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre” (1975), that the genre of fantasy is “archaic nostalgia.” Afterward, in “Radical Fantasy” (2002),  he retained the line but offered some hope.  Recently George R. R. Martin observed that it’s hard to imagine Hobbits having sex, echoing one of Carl Freedman’s lines of discontent, in “A Note on Marxism and Fantasy” (2002), that Middle-earth is “a thin and impoverished world” lacking sexual desire, class conflict, religious or political belief, and psychological complexity, “which is to say Middle-earth leaves out most of what makes us real human beings living in a real historical society” (263). Ouch.

I’ll question this claim at another time—it requires a detour into the work of Ien Ang and Janice Radway. For now, I’ll let it represent the escapist vector of fantasy; how fantasy obscures the irreparable by allowing us to become distracted. The reason Marxists hate this is obvious: it resembles the classic Marxist formulation of ideology as false consciousness.

So, how can we possible take fantasy seriously when it comes to the irreparable? Let’s start with explicit examples of traumatic injury. In The Fellowship of the Ring, on Amon Sûl  (also called Weathertop), the Witch-king of Angmar, one of five attacking Nazgûl, stabs Frodo with a Morgul blade. In Rivendell, Elrond tends to Frodo and prevents him from dying or perhaps, as Aragorn suspects, turning into a wraith, but the wound never fully heals. The recurring trauma of this wound is part of the reason for Frodo’s departure for Valinor after the War of the Ring. Obviously Frodo goes through a lot and the Morgul-blade scar is only one part of his inability to stay in the Shire and his need to leave Middle-earth, but it is emblematic of the irreparable harm he experiences. Frodo changes.

Less tangible, the trauma that inheres in the Stoor-Hobbit Sméagol in his metamorphosis intoGollum the creature we know as Gollum is a brutal instance of the irreparable. Peter Jackson’s rendering of Gollum helps explicate the problem of the irreparable, both the lack of a remedy and a type of hope that inheres therein. In one scene, Sméagol and Gollum engage in a classic split-personality argument that Sméagol seems to win: “Leave now and never come back!“ But, of course, Gollum comes back.

Early on, Gandalf and Frodo discuss Gollum in a manner that touches on some of what I`ve noted with regard to remedies and hope. Frodo wishes that Gollum had been killed, while Gandalf is more cautious.

‘But this is terrible!’ cried Frodo. ‘Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.`  (LOTR, Kindle ed. 72-3)

Gollum is not cured. In the end (and sorry for the spoiler), he destroys the ring because of the very corruption it has exerted on him. Here, somewhat oddly, we encounter an example of hope in the irreparable on a grand, world-changing narrative scale.

But we`re still on the far side of that line, in the escapist end of fantasy. Not unexpected, we find the irreparable as an explicit theme in what Jameson calls radical fantasy.

yagharek_by_moonwildflowerThe plot of China Miéville’sPerdido Street Station is driven by the plight of the Garuda (a type of bird man) Yagharek, whose first-hand story frames and interleaves the main narrative. Yag has had his wings cut off as punishment for his crime, and the novel`s protagonist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin goes to extraordinary lengths to allow him to fly again. You`d think that flying wouldn`t be so difficult in a fantasy world with a number of flying creatures (and  other stuff), especially when the candidate was a bird-man. You`d almost be wrong. It’s damn hard. But later, when Isaac has the technical means of flight worked out, he`s persuaded that he shouldn`t do it. It is no slight distinction. Eugenics is technically possible, but should we engage in it? In conclusion, Yag declines an offer that would allow him to fly. Instead he accepts the city of New Crobuzon as his “home” and himself as a “man” (623). It is this acceptance of the irreparable that I think of when Agamben speaks of hope.Perdido Street Station cover

At the far end of the spectrum from fantasy-as-escapism lies fantasy-as-unconscious-expression. Regardless of what we may think of Freud, his theory of the unconscious provided a way to take dreams seriously—to treat them as akin to stories about the psyche and its troubled negotiation of libidinal desires and social norms. His theory of the uncanny pushes this into waking and reading experience, where repressed contents such as “infantile complexes…are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (“The ‘Uncanny,’” Part 3).

One of the unsatisfactory aspects of Freud’s theory of the uncanny is that the fantastic is a type of hallucination or symptom of the unconscious that marks a deviation from the reality principle. In order to get beyond this sense of deviation—in order to appreciate the fundamental importance of the fantastic to whatever we take to be reality, we need to turn to Jacques Lacan.

In Lacan’s model of the psyche, we are separated from the Real when we enter into language, and this separation means that we are always in a condition of lack. In the most basic sense, fantasy compensates for lack by generating objects of desire that we think will fill our lack and reconnect us to the Real.

Lacan’s revision of Freud treats the unconscious as a language: “the unconscious is structured like a language” (“Seminar XX” 48). In his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” Lacan insists that “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (Ecrits 10).

The big Other designates radical alterity, an other-ness [that] cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law, and hence the big Other is inscribed in the order of the symbolic. Indeed, the big Other is the symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. The Other is thus both another subject, in his radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness, and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject. (Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis  133)

This modification of the unconscious dramatically resituates the nature of dreams.  Slavoj Žižek puts it this way:

for Lacan, the only point at which we approach [the] hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves ‘it was just a dream’, thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy-framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself. (The Sublime Object of Ideology 47)

So, it is in dreams that we apprehend how our fantasy structures our desire:

It is…fantasy itself which, so to speak, provides the co-ordinates of our desire–which constructs the frame enabling us to desire something. The usual definition of fantasy (‘an imagined scenario representing the realization of desire’) is therefore somewhat misleading, or at least ambiguous: in the fantasy-scene the desire is not fulfilled, ‘satisfied’, but constituted (given its objects, and so on)–through fantasy, we learn ‘how to desire’. (Žižek 118)

Elsewhere, Žižek describes these coordinates of desire as “the site of my truth” (How to Read Lacan 3). For Lacan, he tells us, the unconscious is “the site where a traumatic truth speaks out…an unbearable truth that I have to learn to live with” (3).

Alice and the curtain

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Children of the Slime on Darwin’s Radio

“[W]e may simply be spaceships for bacteria” –Greg Bear, “A Short Biological Primer”

Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio (1999) exemplifies the capacity of hard sf to use rigorous gobbledygook to invite speculation Darwin's Radio Covertangential to the main narrative arc. In the fine tradition of Jules Verne’s Professor Pierre Aronnax, Bear’s pedestrian genius geneticist Kaye Lang, rogue archeologist Mitch Rafelson, and the proliferating, conference attending multitude of corporate and government scientists seem to locate us in the heart of current research. There is even a short biological primer and glossary at the end with terms like Lysogenic phage, HERV or human endogenous retrovirus, and Trisomy. As a reader, I pick and choose from this cornucopia of jargon, filtering out the heavier, headache-inducing stuff: “less than 80,000 nucleotides of single-stranded RNA…associated with an unidentified 12,000+ kilodalton protein complex Retrovirus imagein the host cell nucleus” (119). On the other hand, I can’t get enough of Lang’s work on phages, viruses that use bacteria as hosts, and horizontal gene transfer. For several decades, these ideas have disturbed the view of the world I inherited as a child, suggesting that fantastic range of ancient and invisible forces we sometimes associate with the supernatural—events and powers such as the plague of Justinian in the sixth century CE, which killed something like one in every four people, or mutualism, the reciprocal adaptation of species.

Not surprisingly, Bear deploys bacteria metaphorically to figure the novel’s central message of biological purposiveness. If Lang’s initial visit to the Republic of Georgia invokes current fears about superbugs and the failure of human science to constrain bacterial disease, the real problem in Georgia is a social response to the unknown, massacres betrayed by the discovery of mass graves. The real problem in the Unites States is a government predicated by reaction and a bureaucracy of dogmatic scientists who put profit and fear before truth.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story is the descent of the Unites States into pseudo-fascism driven by the complicit interests of biotech companies and  institutions of government security, especially the Centre for Disease Control.  Bear is fascinated by the positive roles played by bacteria: “Bacteria are extremely important and though some cause disease, many others are necessary to our existence. Some biologists believe that bacteria lie at the root of all life-forms, and that eukaryotic cells—our own cells, for example—derive from ancient colonies of bacteria” (528). I like this. It pushes the Darwinian insistence on origins into the biofilm cities we associate with rot and decay. It pushes the envelope of humility to say that we are children of the slime.

And yet, this emphasis on the sociality of bacteria and our mutual dependence is belied by the main narrative arc which ends up imagining an idealized post-human. This homo sapiens novum is familiar to the fantasies of baby Einstein popular in child rearing. (Albeit some of the “getting there,” such as the horrifyingly malformed miscarried fetuses and the Lone-Ranger facial masks, isn’t as familiar.) If only our child could be the beautiful post-human genius that heralds the new age. In the face of the world’s crises, its information density and multiple stressors, is it time for homo sapiens sapiens to “evolve”? To take that next step and become, well…better?  As you can tell, I find this fundamentally distasteful. As much as I appreciate little Stella whistling dual variations of a Mozart piano trio, I can’t help but think that Bear has missed something about reciprocal adaptation. Lang’s metaphor—Darwin’s radio—reverts to a centralized and hierarchical model of organization that forgets the lessons of mutualism and horizontal gene transfer. The gradual working out and randomness that allows reciprocal adaptation can’t be reconciled with a centralized gene computer or “wizard” (Lang’s word for it) that figures it all out for everyone.

Not to mention that such biological provocation—and this is rendered brilliantly by Bear—subverts itself from the outset.  What sort of “wizard” would produce such radical change that the society of organisms it is reprogramming resorts to massacres and mass abortion? It doesn’t seem like an effective selection strategy. At the very least, if I was the “wizard,” I’d let go a few more of those deadly retroviruses buried in the genome to clear the ground, as it were.

I’m interested in the “romantic” dimension of genre sf, and especially here in hard sf where we might think it wouldn’t be as important. I want to distinguish between two senses of romantic: on the one hand, the humanist, subjective apprehension and imagination of the world; on the other hand, the tendency to romanticize in the sense of idealizing or participating in dissociative fantasies that obscure material practices. The first type resists cynicism and abstraction–especially the propensity of abstraction to rationalize the status quo or injustices. In the late eighteenth century, romantic writers participated in abolition and rejected the economic imperatives of the slave trade. Blake critiqued abstractions when they became substitutions for reality, and one variation of the “fall” in his minor prophecies occurs when the character Urizen thinks that the mind can explain and control the whole body. Kaye Lang, in Darwin’s Radio, has a similar insight when she realizes that the separateness of mind is illusion, that she is her body.

On the one hand, Darwin’s Radio insists on the body as the site of knowledge and practice while moving from paranoia to acceptance. Weena and the Time Traveller (1960)This is one of those rare books in which a birth is the climax. It asserts the central role of women in evolution and knowledge making. And it invites genuine reflection and speculation about both our bodies and society. It is also a heavy romance, reminding us yet again of the literal love making that is so important to genre sf. Like the time traveller and Weena in H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel, this romance is central to the plot, and it marks the shift of knowledge from professional to personal.

On the other hand, it also participates in romanticized notions of evolution and perfection. Rather than following the curve of Lang’s insight into the presence and function of retroviruses in the human genome and keeping the children in the slime, as it were, Bear flirts with intelligent design and allows a wizard into the genome.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Critical Inversions: Rationality and the Reenchantment of the World

“An inversion is produced”  (de Certeau, 1984,  179)

My use of the word “inversions” derives from the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, whose 1998 science fiction novel Inversions followed what was ostensibly the last in his “Culture” series, Excession (1996). (I’ll discuss later Culture novels another time.)

Excession bends the conceptual limits of genre sf by deploying the literary topoi of sublimity in a literal and scientific manner. Excession coverBanks’ use of the verb “to sublime” denotes a voluntary civilization-based choice by so called “elder” species to—simply put—up and vanish. The problem posed by sublimity is that those elder civilizations that do sublime don’t seem to pay attention to what continues to happen in the galaxy under their superlative lintels: for instance, they don’t interfere with apparent evil, such as genocide, and they don’t bother to communicate anything of their state post-sublimation (82). Banks’ emphatic reiteration of the problem of sublimity makes it an insistent preoccupation of the novel, marking the antithetical limit and other of the quasi-utopic “Culture,” which is the epitome of  secular and scientific progressive rationalism. The fact that sublimed species don’t even bother to communicate their discoveries from the great beyond is an anathema to the Culture’s insistent progressive science.

If the sublime marks the antithetical limit of progress represented by the Culture, the excession proper of the title marks the limit of science itself.  In the Culture series, Banks  reinvents space opera by pushing the plausibility of science fiction to its hyperbolic but sincere limits on pretty well every possible scientific front. The Culture builds orbitals, habitats on a planetary scale. Its plate class General Service Vehicles (GSV) are the size of small moons, housing millions of people, and moving between the stars through hyperspace at speeds approximating 100 000 times light. Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, in ships, drones, suits, and even weapons, and the Minds of the ships are certainly godlike in scope. And the list of excesses runs on: the Culture represents almost total scientific and technical mastery.  Against this backdrop, the Excession intrudes exhibiting technology “outside all known parameters and precedents” (114) alongside impossible data, namely the ember of a trillion-year old star (65), literally marking an intrusion from another universe.

If the sublime and the Excession intimate the  limits of a scientific worldview, the novel’s extension of the Culture’s technological capacity achieves a sort of apotheosis of science in its realization of almost total control over the body. The extreme modification and control over the body is a staple of the Culture series: one merely focuses on one’s internal body image to set changes in motion, whether these be body-mass in relation to gravity or one’s sex. Alteration of face or any body part is routine. In Excession, one character has grown wings, while another alters her face to resemble another person.  Neural laces afford telepathic communication, not to mention assisted intelligence. Average lifespans routinely exceed four centuries. The key development in the novel involves what is called a mind-state abstract, a sort of record or print of a psyche that allows a person to be reconstituted virtually, say for the purpose of communicating with someone far away, or to be reborn, as in the case of accidental death.  Banks engages in a pervasive examination of mind-state abstracts that blurs the line between machine and human, self and other, and soul and simulacra.  For example, Genar-Hofoen’s uncle Tishlin’s mind-state abstract is used to create a holographic version of him that has a conversation with the nephew (61-73). Later Tishlin ponders the morality of disposing of mind-state abstracts and notes that he refused to have his reincorporated afterwards: “What if it had changed a lot while it was away?” (234). Genar-Hofoen is sent to “steal the soul of a dead woman” (54), meaning that her mind-state abstract has been stored long after her death and the destruction of her body. Yet another character is reborn into a new body (with the same genetic properties) after his violent death. The spiritual implications emerge most forcefully when the sentient module Scopell-Afranqui contemplates death before committing suicide: “There was a certain continued existence, of course. He had faith in that; the assurances of the priests that his soul was recorded in a great book, somewhere, capable of resurrection” (298). In the climactic scene of the novel, characters faced with imminent death are offered the opportunity to have their mind-state abstracts broadcast and their bodies reconstituted elsewhere so they can continue the conversation. By exploiting the conceptual limits of science and technology underlying the radically progressive galactic culture of the series, Banks plausibly erases dichotomies between natural and supernatural, science and magic. In a literal sense, he reinvents the soul and imagines a scientifically viable immortality. Upon reaching a certain old-age, many people choose to be stored and revived at a later point. Many choose to be revived when and if the Culture ever chooses to sublime.

Before turning to Inversions proper, I want to note that the tendency seen in Excession is one that occurs in a number of works of genre Veve of Papa Legbafiction between the 1980’s and the early 21st century. In general, I characterize this tendency as a genre inversion in which science fiction and fantasy reinvent themselves by reconstituting basic genre premises and effects. An early glimpse of this inversion can be seen in William Gibson’s flirtation with voodoo spirits in the matrix in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  A couple years after Inversions, China Mieville’s brilliant production of artifical intelligence based on steam technology in Perdido Street Station (2000) signals the reinvention of fantasy as a genre. And there is a pervasive tendency in genre sf, seen in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus (2001) and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002) and Broken Angels (2003).

Inversions coverIn Inversions, Banks draws on genre innovations found in steam punk (e.g., Gibson and Sterlings’ Difference Engine) and techno-slip fiction, which involves discordant or anachronistic technologies that occur simultaneously. In this novel, Banks appears to drop the Culture series and take up a post-medieval world, albeit the two stars and three moons subtly signal a world other than Earth. The novel consists of two interleaved stories about  a kingdom and a protectorate. The key characters in each story are foreigners: a woman doctor who practices unorthodox but remarkably effective medicine attends to the king in a society in which only males are doctors; and an obsessive bodyguard to a Protector, who dawdles over the Protector’s only son. The stories occur within the bounds of a nascent renaissance society: torture is still employed to force confessions, but crude firearms are changing rules of warfare, especially when calvary is involved, and so on. The key to the novel is the point-of-view of the narrators, who are both indigenous to the adopted societies of the foreign doctor and the bodyguard. As a result of the narration, inexplicable events and curious details remain unexplained, relying on a reader familiar with Banks’ Culture series to infer the identity and roles of the doctor and bodyguard.

The arranger of Inversions’  two stories (also as the narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue) is a more mature Oelph, the spy who tells the story of the Doctor. This is a time when belief in the old gods has given way to a more unifying understanding of Providence, which the younger Oelph tells the doctor is “the rule of laws” (126). The older arranger Oelph, speculating on “progress,” puts it somewhat differently: “Providence is the name of the mystical, divinely inhuman Court before which we wish our actions to be judged, and which we hope will agree with us in our estimation both of our own worth and the culpability or otherwise of our behaviour” (2). Oelph, appealing to the reader of  his “chronicle,” acknowledges that “the Reader” is “a sort of partial providence” (3). And as the second narrator emphasizes, such “partial providence” includes the granting or withholding of belief from the story: her motive, she tells us, is “to present the reader with a chance to choose whether  to believe or to disbelieve what I have to say about the events of that time” (22).

Oelph’s emphasis on judgement is juxtaposed by attention to belief by the narrator of the second story, “The Bodyguard.” This narrator, we find out much later, is Perrund, one of the Protector’s concubines, who eventually murders the Protector and tries to kill his son because the Protector raped and slaughtered her family when she was young.

What to believe eventually becomes a matter of genre as readerly belief is played against appearances constrained by limited narration. That is, it is by way of genre conventions developed through the Culture series that a reader invests the details of these stories with alternate accounts that are impossible from the cultural reference of the story tellers.

Readers of the Culture series identify the good doctor and the devoted bodyguard as sorts of alien Cultural (big C) anthropologists visiting this proto-renaissance world from the transgalactic Culture, and so read certain inexplicable events as underwritten by a superlative science and technology. In this way the novel inverts conventional representations of magic and miracles. But Banks goes beyond these showy demonstrations to touch on narrative and philosophy. The bodyguard tries his hand at telling what amount to fairly poor children’s stories about Lavishia, a country in the “land of make-believe” (107), a land where there are “wizards” and “enchanted swords,” where “everybody is able to fly” (145-147). We might ask whether a wizard is an appropriate name for a Culture Mind, but we probably would be forced to admit  that a knife missile, a sort of sentient nuclear capable short sword featured in The State of the Art, falls aptly into that fantasy category of enchanted swords. As to everybody flying, well, we know that is only possible in the quasi-socialist delusions of Banks’ utopian science fiction. The re-enchantment of the world comes by way of science and technology, or almost, but not quite, because re-enchantment or dis-enchantment occurs by perspective and investment of belief (or the lack thereof).

“The investment of belief passes from one myth to another, from one ideology to another, or from one statement to another. Thus belief withdraws from a myth and leaves it almost intact, but without any role, transformed into a document.”  (de Certeau, 1984,  181)

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Dream of Waking

Albion awakes

Plate 8 of William Blake’s America: A Prophecy

“Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll’d
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc…”

–William Blake, America: A Prophecy

My epigram from William Blake gets at my purpose here. This, of course, is the passage that Roy Batty misquotes in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (Hampton Fancher and David Peoples wrote the screenplay), the 1982 film based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Batty says, “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.” The reversal of rising to falling is everywhere in Blake (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter) and is already happening again. It performs a change in perception rooted in the critical apprehension of world view. In America, the thirteen angels governing the American colonies recognize their moral hypocrisy and “rend” the symbols of their office, rejecting oppression and empire. The fall of John Milton’s angels into the fires of hell is appropriated by Blake to symbolize the angels embrace of their own desire and autonomy.

Plate 5 of Blake’s America

Batty’s quotation begins to get at the arc I’ll trace here: romanticism to science fiction. More generally, I want to ponder  historical genres and modes that break with realism, but my focus is on the revival of medieval romance in the guises of the Gothic, scientific romance and science fiction (genre sf), and fantasy. Speculative Romance, as a term, tries to capture the odd tensions I encounter as I shuttle back and forth between romantic writing at the end of the eighteenth and through the nineteenth century and how this leads to the emergence of the modern genres and modes of science fiction and fantasy. Part of these tensions involve the blurring of genres–perhaps the commonalities between them–especially the re-convergence of sf and fantasy in the past few decades, the apparent shift in sf from science fiction to speculative fiction, and an emerging insistence (already witnessed in the post-colonial imperatives of Magical Realism) on the importance of fantasy.

Roy Batty

Roy Batty in the rain