Every well-told tale casts a slight enchantment on its audience. How does an author beguile us to believe in a book that's clearly labelled "Fiction"?

That's just the start of their trickery. What on earth are they doing to our minds and hearts when we read Science Fiction or Fantasy: books about things obviously impossible, and hard even to imagine. What mad magic transports us to a world built on dreams, nonsense and lies?

This diary is about what happens when SF/Fantasy and Realism fall head over heels in love. They birth children bigger than either of them, with their heads in the clouds and both feet flat on solid ground.

SF/Fantasy, for Better and for Worse

You already know what SF and Fantasy are. I wrote a diary on Sunday about SF/Fantasy books that become Classic Literature - books like Frankenstein, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1984, Lord of the Rings, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. To clarify my own understanding of the terms, here's what I said there:

What makes a Good SF/Fantasy Book?

A sense of wonder. . . . a brave, enchanting vision of a world we've never seen. For me, the heart of the matter is strangeness and originality. I turn to SF/Fantasy for ideas, devices, creatures and worlds I would never have thought of on my own, or found in any other book. At the center is a radical vision of a world fundamentally unlike ours; on the surface are the trappings of science, aliens, weirdness and magic that allow us to see, to grasp, to live between the covers of all this otherness.

So there's the magic we're looking to make real. I've defined it rather broadly, and this "sense of wonder" is found in a lot of books that fall outside the traditional genres of SF and Fantasy. There's a larger grouping which spreads over all the genres where magic, strangeness and unusual shifts of reality hold sway. This meta-genre is known as Speculative Fiction:
an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.
SF, Fantasy and all Speculative Fiction sing their siren song to all who want to look beyond the tiresome mundane. These genres are all forms of escape, from the rules and routines of our everyday lives. There is a wild creative freedom in dropping the walls of habit, and peering at the great beyond - for speculative writers, and we who board their ships.

Adults are expected not to run wild, but to abide by the tame and reasonable standards of society. That siren song keens sweetest in the hearts of those who live at the edges of reasonable adulthood: wide-eyed teenagers, asocial nerds, grown-ups with childlike hearts. It seems to me we all get a bit that way, when we're lost in a book. Whatever the logic, SF and Fantasy are not seen as fully adult, as respectable literature. There are many fools serious readers who just don't open SF or Fantasy books. As pico explained in my SF/Fantasy diary:

Yet: there's still the old marketing fear that the science fiction label kills your chances of respectability.  Vonnegut refused to allow his books to be labeled as science fiction (seriously) and more recently, Margaret Atwood made the surprisingly ignorant statement that her sci fi works weren't "really" sci fi because they're about themes and stuff, as if "real" sci fi were written with no regard for content, allegory, or ideas.  So the old snobberies persist.
If you've read much Vonnegut or Atwood, this will surprise you. Yes, they're both very good, serious writers. They also have both written a lot of books that belong more to SF than any other genre. What particularly saddens me is, they are both generally very open-minded, progressive, forward-looking thinkers. They're two of the last people I'd expect to be stuffy about the labels on their work, or to fail to admit the obvious.

SF and Fantasy attract some of the freshest, most creative, and skilled authors alive. The greatest SF/Fantasy novels can go compete in all dimensions and any level of literary excellence there is. Yet, in the end, there is still a certain stigma attached to these "adolescent" genres, and a great SF or Fantasy novel has a snowball's chance in hell of winning a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize.


Realism ruled 19th Century Novels

You don't have to be an adolescent or an outsider to feel that Sense of Wonder. It lives in every human heart. Serious literary authors may not write SF/Fantasy, and they may not admit it when they do. But anyone with a brave and questing imagination will look for ways to weave some of that strange enchantment into their books.

This diary is a continuation of the one I wrote last Friday: Realistic Skin vs. Weirdness Within. I mostly covered Realism in novels, from the first one (Don Quixote, 1616), through the next three centuries.

Realism came into its own in the 1800s. Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, et al. (follow the link for more) took the loose fabulous constructions of the 1700s, planed their surfaces level, and tightened all their nuts and bolts. They brought a wide panoramic sweep and a gritty, precise detailing to the worlds they painted. Pushing every inch of fiction's envelope, they worked out a hundred stronger enchantments, until we saw their worlds in sharper hues and higher resolution than ever before - and we heard, and smelled and felt them too.

As the 20th Century dawned, this intricately drawn world was ready to lose its balance. I wrote last week:

The most ambitious authors at the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s looked so far and so minutely, outwards and inwards, that their worlds broke down into myriad dots of the subtlest hues, an impressionist portrait of a world too rich to fit into a photograph. These authors wove all the threads of the physical world, and portrayed our ever-changing stream of consciousness: Henry James, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
None of these authors was writing SF or Fantasy (well, Woolf wrote Orlando, and the others all have their weird glimmers). But they were all ambitious, questing authors, who were often looking for the limits of human experience and perception. Many mainstream writers in the 20th Century didn't have to go to other planets or worlds to find magic - they found it in everyday living. Ulysses exploded three people's lives into a grand mythical fantasy, without ever leaving Dublin or the hours of one day in June.

You don't need a spaceship or a magic wand to find another level of experience. If your hero travels to another country, or falls utterly in love, or just gets stupidly drunk, you can find a whole other country of perception there. Freud and Jung opened all these inner doors, and authors flocked beyond the stream of consciousness, seeking fresh rivers and lakes. Joyce decided Ulysses was too run of the mill for him, and constructed an empire of sleeping truth, out of pieces of words from dozens of languages and books. Faulkner wrote the first quarter of The Sound and The Fury from the viewpoint of an idiot. In recent decades authors have tried narrating from every mental state there is, and have indeed uncovered fresh countries of perception down those avenues. Our heroes have looked out through Gary Gilmore's eyes, and taken every drug under the sun, and some that never were. You don't need to read SF or Fantasy for strangeness, when all  of this happens in mainstream fiction.


Fantasy and Realism, Falling Head over Heels

When authors experiment, and invent new techniques, their successes spread from genre to genre. Every stream of consciousness, and each new angle to observe the outer world, gradually becomes a part of the toolkit of Fiction, as a whole. The three most omnivorous means of expression are the English Language, the Novel, and Rock Music.

One of the most pervasive ways that actual Fantasy has been smuggled into mainstream novels, for half a century now, is in the form of Magical Realism. It came into its own in Latin America. Borges found elements of it, and Pedro Paramo was a long step in the same direction. But it really grew wings and learned to fly with One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Fantasy has traditionally been interested in the fireworks: how do you take magic and make a breathtaking spectacle out of it, how do you give your readers the maximum wow. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez discovered the unexpected power of going in the opposite direction:


I had an idea of what I always wanted to do, but there was something missing and I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day.


How did she express the “fantastic” so naturally?


What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories, and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

That is how Fantasy and Realism finally married their fortunes together. In the hands of a great storyteller, this subtle charm penetrates our mind far more deeply than the fireworks we found in melodramatic teenage fantasies.

Magical Realism is almost implicit in the advances Modernism had made decades before. Latin America is most famous for it, but authors around the world were working on similar techniques. It was an enchantment that the world, and readers, were hungry and ready for. So we find it in Russia, The Master and Margarita; Germany, The Tin Drum; India, Midnight's Children; Japan, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; and the USA, The Witches of Eastwick.

It goes much further than books we consider Magical Realism, though. In many modern novels, which deal very much with our own mundane world, we find little spells cast with the same brick-faced enchantments. They find a graceful balance between our childlike sense of wonder and our adult interest in the Realist details of the scene.

I think of Michael Crichton as a writer of popular thrillers. When you consider the subjects he writes about, you see that he's really an SF author, who wraps his fabulous tales in the same dungarees of Realism that García Márquez wears so well. Not exactly the same fabric, as they write in very different styles. García Márquez is aiming for a literary approach, while Crichton is more journalistic and, as his career develops, more like a screenplay.

Crichton was also looking for a formula to make incredible tales convincing, and made a breakthrough discovery just like García Márquez's. Here he is, describing his own brick-faced epiphany:


When Michael wrote The Andromeda Strain he assumed he had to fill out the characters of all those scientists and make them real people, as in a conventional novel. But that wasn’t where his interest lay, and so he had only done it at the surface level. Somehow it occurred to me that instead of trying to flesh the characters out further and make the novel more conventional, we ought to strip that stuff out completely and make it a documentary, only a fictional one.


What Bob actually said to me was that he thought the manuscript should be factually persuasive, like a New Yorker piece. I thought that was a very interesting idea, but I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t take his suggestion literally, because in those days the signature of New Yorker writers like Lillian Ross was that they were using fictional storytelling techniques in their nonfiction, and my problem was that I had to get away from fictional techniques. Finally, I began to think about what I would do if the story were real. Suppose this had actually happened and I were a reporter, what would my book look like? There was a book on my shelf at the time by Walter Sullivan called We Are Not Alone. I started thumbing through it, noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.

As soon as I began to do that, it became clear to me that the author of a nonfiction account would not have the access to the characters’ innermost thoughts in the way that you assume for fiction. So I began to take all that stuff out and make the book colder and more impersonal—but I didn’t do it completely. Bob read it and said, Look, this book can either go this way or that way, and you’ll have to decide what you want to do. Ultimately he thought I should just take all the novelistic passages out. He thought the characters shouldn’t have any relationships with each other, and that all the dialogue should advance the plot.

What fascinates me here is that, working in very different styles, García Márquez and Crichton discovered the same way of marrying incredible fables to a detailed Realism, where the conviction and precision of their gritty worlds allow us readers to swallow the impossible.

In each case, this Magic Made Real also gave birth to the writer's mature style. García Márquez became the avatar of Latin Magical Realism, and Crichton one of the best-selling authors of all time, with a brick-faced cinematic approach that influenced hundreds of aspiring novelists and screenwriters.

On the one hand, Fantasy and Science Fiction still aren't winning Nobels and Pulitzers. On the other hand, they are reaching out, and leaving their tentacle-prints all across mainstream fiction.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 06:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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