Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Seams

The Rhetorics of Fantasy

So I recently finished reading Farah Mendlesohn's THE RHETORICS OF FANTASY, (which I can't recommend highly enough,) and it got me thinking about the realms and seams of strange fiction -- the discrete or semi-discrete worldscapes of elsewhens working on different factualities and nomologies, and the way that boundaries between them are rendered as spatial or perceptual frontiers, seams in reality.

To put this in a rough context for anyone not up to speed on the whole "strange fiction" thing (and not wanting to trawl through the blog entries where the idea is set out): the way I see it, you've got this technique which involves utilising what I've taken to calling, for ease of reference, quirks. Quirks are units of strangeness. Technically speaking, I'd argue, quirks can be defined quite precisely, as transgressions of boundaries of possibility, contradictions of knowledge-sets -- contraventions of the facts of science and/or history and/or of the laws of nature. When encountered in a sentence in a story, a quirk causes a shift from a base-line suspension-of-disbelief to a sense of incredulity in direct conflict with that suspension-of-disbelief. The sentence jumps from a subjunctivity level of "could have happened" to a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" (c.f. Delany's "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words" essay). When you read about a dilating door, a Nazi US president or a crescent sun in a text, that's a quirk. None of these things "could have happened".

In the conventional view of sf/fantasy, a distinction is usually made between the two forms as fictions of the possible and the impossible respectively, but this is a distinction which glosses over the temporal (technological and historical) impossibilities of "novae" (Darko Suvin's term for the hypothetical novelties of sf) and "errata" (my own term for the counterfactual alterations of alt-history). Rather than admitting the impossibility of these quirks we tag on a caveat of contingency -- "could not have happened here-and-now" -- which is not afforded the nomological impossibilities of metaphysical... well, let's call them "chimerae".

This is what underlies the idea that sf is about the "possible", while fantasy is about the "impossible". That distinction has value on one level; it's not quite fair to say that temporal impossibilities are "just as" impossible as nomological impossibilities. But on another level it's deeply dodgy, I'd say, a bullshit self-delusion which carries a dubious agenda in its assertion of a more rational basis for sf. All too often it functions as a denial that this fiction is really dealing with the impossible at all. Bollocks, I say. The temporal impossibility is impossible, and it's exactly that impossibility that invests the novae and errata of sf and alt-history with their power. Deal with it, uber-rationalists. That sense-of-wonder you dig so much? That's the incredibility of the quirk.

More to the point, the technical distinction between levels of impossibility is simply not that relevant in terms of how these quirks function; temporal or metaphysical, what we're dealing with is the impossible; novum, erratum or chimera are just different flavours of quirk; and, functionally speaking, these different types of transgression play the same way in most readings. Faced with what "could not have happened" we apply the same "here-and-now" caveat (with chimerae just as much as with novae or errata), relocate the action to an imaginative elsewhen in which it could have happened if only this or that were different. The hypothetical novum (e.g. dilating door), counterfactual erratum (e.g. Nazi US President) or metaphysical chimera (e.g. crescent sun) may relocate us in different "directions" -- "forward", "sideways", or "up/down" -- but ultimately many strange fiction narratives have a tendency to mix-and-match different flavours of quirk so freely (often obscuring this by handwaving that presents chimerae such as FTL or ESP as novum) that the elsewhens are shifted in more than one dimension, so to speak. Any reference to an ancient alien race leaving inscrutable technology behind (a la Stargate) or to "a next stage in human evolution" is liable to be indication of a chimera disguised as a novum.

So that's the context of where I'm coming from -- a model of strange fiction defined by quirks, elsewhens as worldscapes generated from those quirks, conceptual relocations.

Given this model, it doesn't seem surprising to me that strange fiction can be typified by the politics of boundaries (and specifically, boundaries between here-and-now realms of the mundane and elsewhen realms of the strange), which, it seems to me, is part of what's going on in Farah's identification of four rhetorics of fantasy narrative: immersive; portal-quest; intrusion; liminal. Roughly speaking, one way to look at these is, I think, in terms of the relationship between a mundane "here-and-now" (which is to say a worldscape so minimally dislocated as to be indistinguishable from our world) and a distinctly strange (i.e. more radically dislocated) elsewhen. Which is to say, as often as not the conceptual dislocation is literalised, concretised in the notion of an actual alterior realm with a different nomology (different laws of nature) to those on which our world is run. And a big part of the rhetorical structure of the fantasy narrative is related to the nature of the seams between mundane and strange realms.

The Politics of the Rhetorics

The realm-seam relationship as I'm positing it is an abstraction of some of Clute's motifs from the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FANTASY, a paring away of some of the specificities and valuations. A realm may be as distinct and self-contained as a secondary world or as integrally bound to (or bound within) ours as an imagined lost land; hell, our reality may be considered a realm in its own right. A realm's boundaries may be maintained defensively from the inside (making it a polder) or from the outside (making it a prison) or they may simply be there. As seams they may be thick or thin -- borderlands of crosshatching or palimpsesting inhabitable in their own right or thresholds crossed with a step; they may be sealed tightly with crossings only possible through a portal or a rift, or they may be stitched loosely with crossings possible at any point along the long threshold.

So, in immersive fantasy, you have an elsewhen isolated utterly from the here-and-now, the action taking place entirely within that worldscape as a fully discrete realm. The seam around the realm is sealed shut. In portal-quest fantasy, you have a here-and-now and an elsewhen which have a point of contact or overlap; the seam is generally sealed tightly but there's at least one portal that allows the protagonist to set out from the former on a grand adventure through the latter. In intrusion fantasy, a similar point-of-contact or overlap allows an antagonist to cross over from the latter and cause trouble in the former; there's (usually) a subtle difference in the value attached to the seams between realms here, a sense that these should be tightly sealed but that some stitch has come loose, that the crossing is wrong, an act of invasion through what might be better described as a rift than as a portal. In liminal fantasy... well, liminal fantasy is where it gets interesting.

Reading Farah's taxonomy (which is far more subtle and flexible than this crude summary might suggest), I find myself wanting to overlay alternative terms on her model, rearticulate each in terms of key quirks, states and processes in an attempt to draw out the symmetries of politics that seems to be lurking in there. The characterisation of one form by its key quirk -- the portal -- makes me want to rearticulate the others in a similarly figurative manner. The characterisation of one form in terms of a key state -- liminality -- makes me want to rearticulate the others in a comparable lexis, in terms of states. And the fact that immersion and intrusion are processes makes me want to look at those other two forms in terms of process.

So let's give it a go.

Realm, Portal, Rift, Seam

It seems to me that this is all quite possible. In a figurative taxonomy, I reckon, these four rhetorics -- immersive, portal-quest, intrusion and liminal -- could be rearticulated in terms of four key quirks: realm; portal; rift; seam. And in terms of states/processes, Farah's rhetorics immediately bring to mind, for me, a set of relationships defined in terms of movement across boundaries (or lack of movement / lack of boundaries): isolation; excursion; incursion; infusion.

In the excursion (i.e. portal-quest) and incursion (i.e. intrusion) fantasies there's a symmetry that's fairly transparent. In one, the protagonist crosses the boundary (going out into a strange elsewhen) and this is a Good Thing; the portal is generally opened precisely to allow this passage; it may be an accident but if so it is a fortunate one, maybe even a fated one. In the other, the antagonist crosses the boundary (coming in from the strange elsewhen) and this is a Bad Thing; the rift may be opened deliberately to allow this passage, but a rift can be distinguished from a portal precisely by the sense of wrongness that attaches to it; if it is not an accident it is an act of malice. Where a portal is woven into the seam, so to speak, a rift is a tear in it. If a portal can be opened by accident and a rift by design then there's no hard-and-fast distinction between the two, of course, especially when a narrative might make it ambiguous as to whether the crossing was as much a Good Thing or a Bad Thing as it first appeared; so as much as anything I'm adopting the distinct names to reflect the politics attached to them; at a deeper level they're essentially equivalent, different flavours of the same type of quirk.

The point is that the distinction between the two rhetorics as a whole reflects this political relationship written into the realms and seams of a narrative; to put it crudely, it's all about who gets to cross the seams between realms. There is a polder/prison relationship at play between the realms here, an ordained way of things in which the hero gets to cross the seam, while the monster does not, the portal exists to be crossed, while the rift exists to be closed. The relationships of realms and characters have been completely politicised, and in an often dubious way. The excursion fantasy has a certain colonialist/orientalist subtext to it; the strange is the exotic, the frontier, the wilderness waiting for the indomitable hero to come along and tame (bringing order to its natives in the process.) The incursion fantasy carries more than a hint of demonisation and abjection, of otherings and paranoid projection; the strange is the weird, the repressed whose return is a threat precisely because of the pathological nature of that repression.

(There are, of course, all sorts of possible permutations of this symmetry, inversions of the rhetorics that arise by flipping the exterior/interior relationships of realms, the vectors of protagonist and antagonist, the moral/political values attached to these, and so on.)

Where it gets interesting for me is that I see a similar symmetry between isolation and infusion fantasies. In one, the seams are sealed so tight that they are imperceptible; the realm is a closed system, without portals or rifts; it has no contact with any other realms; there is no crosshatching between alternative (i.e. temporal) elsewhens or palimpsesting of alterior (i.e. nomological) elsewhens; everything takes place within that realm. In the other, the seams are so loosely stitched that they become the very point of the narrative, usually when the protagonist realises their existence; the realm is so open to other realms, so crosshatched and palimpsested, that there is no need of portals or rifts; the overlap is so pervasive that the realm may only truly be understandable as a "patch" within a vast "quilting" of multiversal reality. The seams fragment the worldscape. It is riven by thresholds at every turn, permeated by borderlands throughout, a construct of patch-realms and seams thick enough to almost constitute realms in their own right.

Where excursion and incursion fantasies seem to have a pretty binary relationship coded into their black-and-white politics of polders and prisons, monomythic heroes and horrorific menaces, the isolation and infusion fantasies offer a different duality, situating themselves as end-points on a spectrum of granularity, a range of "fine" or "coarse" quiltings of realms and seams. At one end of the spectrum we have the coarsest possible granularity, the discrete monad of a totally self-contained realm, its seams sealed tight -- the "pure" form of an isolation fantasy. At the other end, perhaps, we have the finest possible granularity, the worldscape so finely stitched that the seams are indistinguishable from the realm itself; the "pure" form of the infusion fantasy might well be that liminal fantasy Farah focuses on, the fantasy which challenges the distinction between strange and mundane, interrogates the whole notion of the fantastic. Infusion and isolation are processes, however, that suggest degrees of segregation and admixture.

I'm not sure, I'd have to say, that other criteria attached to Farah's liminal fantasy don't render it distinct from even a "pure" variant of my "infusion fantasy", but this is largely what intrigues me. In describing the liminal fantasy, Farah tends to focus in, as I read it, on something akin to Clute's equipoise, Todorov's moment of hesitation, and on the more literary works which exploit such ambiguities -- to focus on the threshold of liminality that emerges where we're not sure if the quirk is really a quirk at all, so to speak. With what I'm labelling "infusion fantasy" I think we have a slightly looser model. Where Farah distinguishes her liminal fantasy from slipstream and interstitial, the latter two not considered truly fantasy at all, I'd suggest that all three forms could be plausibly viewed as variants of the infusion fantasy, along with magic realism.

The infusion fantasy rests in a mundane worldscape that is, to all intents and purposes, our reality, represented as sundered by seams, infused by the strange. Slipstream as originally defined by Sterling is more than just the interzone between sf and mainstream. Explicitly linked to postmodernism and its techniques, the "slipstream" posited by Sterling is an area of turbulence and disruption, and it is that aspect which, I think, points to how it figures into the picture here. If the strange intrudes into the mundane that intrusion is often taken for granted; it is just as likely that the mundane will intrude into the strange. What I think we have here, at the heart of slipstream, is a folding through of the strange and the mundane, a radical interpenetration (far more radical than that of intrusion fantasy), one that leads to the deep instability and uncertainty of an infused realm, offered as an estranged postmodern view of the world -- infusion as confusion.

This approach is at odds with the discourse of fantasy as a commercial genre largely defined by excursion and incursion forms. It is directly in conflict, in fact, with the requirement of consistency that attaches to the isolation form (the importance placed on the well-built worldscape and continuity by obsessive geeks). But I think it's a mistake to exclude this form of strange fiction as "not fantasy"; the whole concept of slipstream is, I suspect, born of a recognition that there's an underlying system of potential techniques, a system of modes or approaches recogniseable even where the particular mode adopted falls outside the conservative limitations of genre as negotiated between (unambitious) authorial intent and (undemanding) reader expectations. Slipstream is a recognition of the fantastic infusion that we spot in works published outside the fantastic genres.

Where interstitial fiction is not so nebulous as to be impossible to pin down, it might be similarly understood as that form of fantasy fiction which is not just cross-genre in a superficial trope-mixing sense but is more interested in the seams than the realms, liable to put so much attention into the crosshatching and palimpsesting of different genre approaches that again the result is a sense of infusion, a deconstruction of the integrity of worldscapes as aesthetically-coherent settings, a tendency towards collaged idioms and quiltings of story-forms. It is not surprising, I think, that this type of fiction seems to be partnered with slipstream in terms of the indie press anthologies and magazines where it's likely to be found and in terms of its outsider relationship with the mainstream of fantasy as a commercial genre.

Magic realism is a slightly thornier issue. Where the term is not simply a cipher for "literary fantasy with a concern for domestic realism" or "literary fantasy from Latin America", its definition is usually focused on the idea that the quirks represented are not actually fantastic at all. To read them as such is to apply an inappropriate Rationalist worldview that fails to recognise the culture they spring from. Rather they represent the reality of that culture, a reality in which such events may well be considered entirely possible. This is at the core of many arguments that to conflate magic realism and fantasy is a gross misreading, and it's one reason Farah gives for discussing this form within the chapter on immersive fantasy; we need to understand the realms of magic realism on their own terms, not colonise them with a Western Enlightenment worldview.

I like this harder-edged definition to magic realism (although I do think it raises certain questions as regards the rather liberal application of the term in general use). But ultimately I think it's more useful to situate magic realism in infusion fantasy than in isolation/immersive fantasy, because the distinction between mundane and strange remains even where the distinction of fantastic and realistic is a more complex matter. One way to look at it, I think, is to see the quirks of magic realism as what I'd call arcana rather than chimerae, nomological irregularities rather than impossibilities.

This is to say that the events are still understood as strange, as non-mundane, as quirks, but that the "could not have happened" subjunctivity level is transformed into a "could have happened" subjunctivity level by reading an apparently chimeric event as having worked by an underlying mechanism of magic that is accepted as an article of faith. The arcanum "could have happened", basically, if we believe in occult systems which transcend the laws of nature. We do not know how the arcanum works, but we don't need to. In fact, it's precisely because we do not know how it works that we do not rule out the possibility that it does in fact work, the possibility even that others might understand the workings we do not -- hence the term arcanum, with its associations of secret knowledge. The metaphysical causation (i.e. magic) these narratives embody is therefore seen as applicable in the real world. The worldscape posited by magic realism is our own reality viewed as a realm shot through with the seams which are necessary for the quirks to take place, a realm in which the mundane is naturally infused with the strange. This relationship of infusion could well be considered implicit in the pairing of the two words that define the form -- magic and realism.

Infusion Fantasy at the Movies

But infusion fantasy may be detectable even in far more conventional narratives which are clearly identifiable as within the fantasy genre, in a certain type of adventure-oriented Dark/Urban Fantasy, for example, where literary aspirations are really not the driving force. One perfect example is the movie HIGHLANDER, where the worldscape is our reality as a lattice of seams, a strange/mundane patchworld in which immortals live among us as liminal agencies, their battle to be The One taking place on the margins of our perception, in the back-alleys and car parks of New York (significantly interstitial spaces). Ignoring the sequel's retcon elsewhen, these Immortals are not from an outside territory; they are simply a quirk of this world, born into it of normal parents, emerging here and there throughout history and across the continents (significantly distributed in space and time, each having their own patch). That the fantastic status of these immortals is not in question means they're not quite liminal in the way that term is used in the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FANTASY; but I think it's apt in this context.

Note that in HIGHLANDER Macleod's transition to liminality is made explicit in his exile from his clan. This is a casting out from his mundane realm in one respect -- a literal exile from the village -- but it leaves him still in the mundane realm in terms of actual geography. His relationship to it has changed utterly however; now that he's immortal he no longer quite belongs; his immortality is a tear in the fabric, a quirk that indicates a seam. He inhabits the wilderness now, the interstitial terrain between mundane settlements.

As often as not, in infuion fantasy, the threshold is not so much a borderlands/realm as a state entered into by the protagonist. It is a threshold of perception which they enter and in so doing find themselves engaging with the antagonist in that zone, the action taking place at times on this patch or that but as often as not in the seams themselves. So Mcleod's awakening to the truth of the liminal state that he inhabits is shown as an expansion of perception under the tutelage of Ramirez, a developing awareness of the "Quickening", a strange force infusing the world, this animistic life-force symbolised in the breath and heartbeat of a stag and in a bolt of lightning called down from the heavens. While not entirely dissimilar to some of the ideas of magical initiation we find in portal-quest / excursion fantasy, we're being asked to imagine our own realm as infused with this magical force, rather than a secondary world; and there is no discernable sense (as far as I can see) that this force is "thinning" (a core element of Clute's narrative grammar of fantasy), no sense that the magic is seeping out of the infused world. There is no poldered idyll to be saved or restored here.

If anything, there is a sense (albeit a vague one) that by tapping into the magic, drawing it out of the seams through the Quickening, the immortals concentrate it within themselves, that this "life-force" is partly transfered into their killer and partly released back into the world (as represented in the spectacular SFX light-shows) when one immortal is beheaded by another. Is it possible then to read the whole procedure of the "Gathering" (especially given the name) as one of "thickening", a coagulation of power as the numbers of the immortals are whittled down, the narrative on an inexorable vector towards the solid singularity of "the One"? Whether or not this is a valid reading (the amnesiac flailing attached to the thickening stage in Clute's narrative grammar of horror seems at odds with the "quickened" state of a liminal hero), it seems entirely appropriate that the end-state of this singularity is a sort of total infusion of consciousness and worldscape, the hero telepathically aware of what everyone in the world is thinking. And it seems strangely appropriate also that what goes with this transcendence is a balancing step towards humanity -- an ability to age and die but also an ability to have children. Where the politics does not set values on the seams, assign characters to one realm or another, refuse or require crossings and returns, the protagonist of the infusion fantasy may remain in a liminal state even if the transformative arc of the narrative entails a change in the precise nature of that state.

Note also that, form following content, the thematic liminality or interstitiality of the narrative action -- the idea that forces and agencies interact in seams of reality which we are oblivious of -- is reflected in the fragmented structure of interwoven flashbacks, which renders the whole movie a narrative of patches and seams. Rather than positing a duality of mundane native domain and strange outside territories (as we'd get in excursion/incursion fantasy), the movie offers us the familiar worldscape of the present-day in contrast with the strange worldscapes of the past, but with the two completely interpenetrating each other; more to the point, the purpose of this construction is not to establish boundaries between realms but to destroy those boundaries, to show us the consistencies that bind these dislocated corners of the fictive world. The very nature of the immortal is that they bind the elsewhen of the past to the here-and-now; their very life is a seam running through reality.

Infusion Fantasy on the TV

To take another example from the visual media, the TV series BUFFY may appear at first sight to be an incursion fantasy, with the heroine (a high-school cheerleader, an icon of the mundane) called into action to defend her mundane native domain from the alterities of vampires and demons (icons of the uncanny, creatures of the night and darkness, generally sourced to Hell or some other netherworld -- intruders from a strange elewhen, in other words). But Buffy is herself a quirk, a Slayer, a supernatural champion born to destroy these creatures, the series beginning with her awakening to this liminal nature through the instruction of a Watcher, an agent of a liminal organisation, what Clute calls a wainscot. And she must meet these beings on their patch, glean their agendas in the threshold zone of interaction, the night; she must become, in fact, a creature of the night herself, stalking the graveyards, her true nature hidden even from her own mother, known only by the Scooby Gang. Eventually we will learn that the first Slayer was created by binding a demon to a human host, that Buffy is, to all intents and purposes, the same as what she hunts.

Two points: 1) hiding that nature is not too difficult; it is established early on that most humans either fail to percieve even the most horrific outbreak of the strange or or able to rewrite it in their memories as some mundane catastrophe -- i.e. that one has to be liminal to glean the liminal; 2) her liminality is eventually passed on to all potential Slayers, the specialness/strangeness distributed across the world (as immortality in HIGHLANDER is distributed at the beginning of the movie, and as the hero's consciousness is at the end), hundreds of otherwise mundane teenage girls infused with her power.

This liminality is developed throughout this series. The Scooby Gang is largely constructed from liminal beings or from characters who become so: Willow, Buffy's best friend, is gradually queered not just in terms of her sexuality but in terms of her witchcraft (and her morality in one season (as appallingly as this is done)); Dawn's created humanity renders her both real and unreal, strange (a mystical key) and mundane (a teenage girl); Oz is a werewolf, about as liminal a trope as you can get, caught in the moral ambiguity of being both nice guy and murderous beast; Anya is a vengeance demon become mortal, her whole pseudo-life constructed (like Dawn's) on her first appearance in the series; the implanting of the control chip in Spike's brain begins the process by which he'll gradually turn from villainous monster to rogue (the key character type of infusion fantasy perhaps, in their moral positioning between good and evil).

Only Xander, as far as I can see, remains grounded in the mundane, but even his narrative arc offers up an intriguing imagery of suspension between states. In the early seasons he's caught between Buffy and Willow romantically. As time goes on his status is arguably portrayed as even more liminal because he is the only non-empowered member of the Scooby Gang, doesn't feel he quite belongs amongst the slayers and witches and vampires and ex-demons -- but of course can't go back to the mundane ignorance of the seams that permeate the world. One might even see the loss of his eye in the final season as a symbol of that threshold transition, the sacrifice of an eye representing not a loss of perception but a gaining of perception. The gouged-out eye is an eye sent to the "other side"; it is a removal of an obstacle to a deeper "second sight"; it is a partial exchange of visions, the sacrifice made by Odin in order to gain a state of wisdom-as-perception, a halfway step (but only halfway) towards the archetype of the blind seer.

Similar liminalities proliferate in ANGEL (or across BUFFY and ANGEL). Angel's possession of a soul renders him an outcast from both day-world and night-world, and there's always the possibility of his reversion to Angelus -- made actuality a couple of times across the two series. Also between the two series, we have Faith, another slayer, occilating between good and bad. We have another Watcher, Wesley, who has his own descent into moral dubiety. Gunn's introduction as a self-made vampire-hunter, as a human with no special powers who has entered the ongoing battle in the back-street seams of the night, extends the motif established in Xander. Lorne's night-club is a neutral territory, a seam, where good demons and bad demons mingle in an uneasy truce. More and more, the implicitly Christian moral dualism of vampires as "demons" from "Hell" is stripped away, the notion of Satanic diabolism replaced with a sort of neo-pagan bestiary of gods and monsters who might individually inhabit any point on a spectrum between ethical and unethical. Humans are capable of being just as monstrous, maybe more so, in their greed for power, as demonstrated in the character of Lyndsey (who, at various points, hovers on the verge of conversion to the side of good).

The moral ambiguity of the infusion fantasy is one of its most marked features; this is a form of fantasy in which our world and the "Other" are inextricable, the boundary between them smashed as a political statement, a rejection of the abjection implicit in intrusion fantasy, a rejection of the idea that the strange is invasive, essentially Evil. Consistent with Angel's "soul" and Spike's "empathy chip" being at the root of their capacity for redemption, when the character of Fred becomes the demon Illyria, the precise nature of her wrongness is identified not as a nebulous and intrinsic (and pointless) malevolence, but as the entirely natural lack of empathy a predator has for its prey. If Nature is red in tooth and claw, then so too is "Supernature". Wheedon ultimately makes this position explicit in the episode where Angel demands to see "the management" of Wolfram & Hart, the demonic law firm, and is taken down in an elevator only to find that the Hell he expected to see is, in fact, the street-level of our day-to-day world. Angel's gleaning leads him ultimately to the recognition that in the infused world strangeness and disruption are not at all connected with each other, wired together by the politics of incursion fantasy.

Infusion Fantasy in Literature

We can, I think, expect to see a tendency, in this type of narrative, for the tension of perspectives to resolve, for the liminality to collapse into duality. The adventure story form is such that heroes and villains will emerge as factions pitted against each other, vying for control over strange and mundane terrains. Add to this the tendency to concretise the abstract threshold zone from a state of perception into a sort of realm in its own right -- like the Twilight/Gloom (a naming so blatant in its symbolism it barely needs comment) in Lukyanenko's NIGHT WATCH (whose protagonists and antagonists are significantly referred to as the Others) -- and what you may well end up with is something basically understandable in terms of the excursion fantasy (i.e. parseable in terms of Farah's portal-quest rhetoric). But I think there's a potential here for something that retains enough ambiguity to constitute a distinctive form in its own right, something that's not quite the liminal fantasy Farah describes but maybe a more general form within which that liminal fantasy could be understood as a particular type.

I'd have to freely admit my own bias here. For anyone who's read VELLUM and INK, it's probably obvious that I'd situate them in the mode of infusion fantasy. (I like Farah's reading of VELLUM in the chapter on "The Irregulars" as a portal-quest where the reader is the one on the excursion rather than the protagonist, but ultimately I look at that framing structure as something of a feint, an architecture set up largely to be deconstructed.) And with my interests lying in the direction of fucked-up narratives, stories told in the seams of realms defined more by crosshatching and palimpsesting than anything else, I'm clearly going to look at that as a form in its own right. Riffing off Farah's taxonomy of rhetorics fairly freely, I've not thought about this at any great depth, to be honest, not in terms of literary examples. So where Farah draws intriguing correspondences between those rhetorics and writing styles that attach to them -- in terms of PoV, heightened affect, travelogue-style descriptions and character reveries -- I don't have any detailed thoughts about this potential "infusion fantasy" in that respect. I wonder if structural fragmentation might be one characteristic feature, but that could just be my Modernist sympathies showing through.

I do think there's food for thought though. The notion of it as a form that encompasses some of the more awkward modes of strange fiction -- liminal, slipstream, interstitial, magic realism -- but one which isn't privileged by definition as an essentially high-brow literary form... that idea is appealing to me. I'd be curious to know what others think, if the characterisation strikes a chord with them, if obvious literary examples spring to mind.

Anyway, enough rambling for now.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating - I loved your recasting of Farah's four definitions in terms of quirks and boundaries. For me all this touches on one of the key problems of writing the fantastic; how do you negotiate the relationship between the reader's experience of the real, and the novel unreal you're introducing them to? How do you make it emotionally / intellectually parsable, engaging and relevant to their daily lived experience? (which by definition never can encompass dragons or similar) - the boundary definitions a great help in beginning to understand the rules of legibility in each case I think. And more in a bit, non-web stuff calls! (as the web has opened up, has it moved across the scale from being an isolation to an infusion fantasy? Is there a scale of accessibility here, running isolation, excursion, incursion, infusion? Does that imply a process of getting to know the fantastic, and letting it infect and interpenetrate your life? When for example The LOTR was first released, was it an isolation fantasy, which has now - as it's penetrated culture on so many levels - and is no longer just a book, but films, MMORPG, cosplay inspiration, RPGs, generalised set of cultural signifiers, etc, functioning as a real infusion fantasy for us all to engage with?)

Hmm, moving on from the brackets. Are these definitions also a useful tool to understand how we engage with the fantasy that is fiction in general, and a shorthand for a historic process whereby fiction was once discrete and tucked away, accessible only through a very small number of media, but is now an omnipresent transmedia phenomenom? Hmm. Fiction itself after all IS a fantasy, a pretence of a world, so any taxonomy of fantasy can also be read as a taxonomy of our engagement with different kinds of fiction in general.

10:33 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oh, man! Nice questions, Al. No time to respond in depth, but to throw some ideas into the mix:

How do you make [the fantastic] emotionally / intellectually parsable, engaging and relevant to their daily lived experience?

Hmm, this isn't quite relevant to the context of the question, but at the moment I'm working on an idea of relevance in fantasy as a product of the figurative function of narrative in general and of metaphor & metonym specifically. The idea would be that quirks could be interpreted as concrete metaphors (or maybe pataphors, or maybe they're distinct enough in mechanism that they're a distinct type of figuration in their own right; I'm still thinking about this.) To that extent, they always have the same degree of relevance that any figurative articulation has.

Is there a scale of accessibility here, running isolation, excursion, incursion, infusion?

Or, if excursion and incursion are inside-out versions of each other: isolation, [excursion | incursion], infusion? Right now I sort of visualise it as a Cartesian co-ordinate system of two orthogonal axes: isolation-infusion and excursion-incursion. But that's just a vague notion at the moment; I haven't yet decided how I think the two dualities relate to each other. One thing that occurs to me is, if you see excursion-incursion as an axis of interpenetration, you might take infusion as the mid-point there, visualise the product as a tee rather than a cross, with infusion-isolation as the up-down stroke and excursion-incursion as the cross-stroke.

Does that imply a process of getting to know the fantastic, and letting it infect and interpenetrate your life?

Ooh, there's a lot of scope in that idea, I think. It occurs to me now that the boundary between the self and the outside world is important in infusion fantasy -- the Force, the Quickening, as figurations of "letting the fantastic in". The demonic in BUFFY and ANGEL (or in Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED?), the vampiric in Anne Rice, hell, even the gravings in VELLUM & INK -- maybe there's incursion fantasy going on there at a different scale -- at a boundary between self and world. I think it's still worthwhile viewing the infusion fantasy separately though, right enough, in terms of the relationship between here-and-nows and elsewhens; but I think there's a lot to be said here.

When for example The LOTR was first released, was it an isolation fantasy, which has now - as it's penetrated culture on so many levels - and is no longer just a book, but films, MMORPG, cosplay inspiration, RPGs, generalised set of cultural signifiers, etc, functioning as a real infusion fantasy for us all to engage with? [snip] As the web has opened up, has it moved across the scale from being an isolation to an infusion fantasy?

Now, that's a BIG question. I see exactly what you mean, and it fits really well with some of my own vaguer concerns with the belief in arcanum that marks out magic realism. Factor in that X-Files, Da Vinci Code conspiracy theory and it looks more and more like we're living in an era of infusion fantasy as a worldview. As for the web -- is that why posthumanity is the big trope now rather than cyberspace? Because we no longer see the web as a distinct realm; instead it's this pervasive integration of humanity and IT? (Which brings us back to the metamorphic imagery associated with dark/urban fantasy, the boundary between self and world, right?)

Damn it, there's too much to think about here.

Are these definitions also a useful tool to understand how we engage with the fantasy that is fiction in general, and a shorthand for a historic process whereby fiction was once discrete and tucked away, accessible only through a very small number of media, but is now an omnipresent transmedia phenomenom?

I certainly think you could look at the history of fiction in terms of those sort of changing relationships between fiction and reality. On a short time-scale of written/printed Western "literature", from the Renaissance on, and understanding the boundaries implicit in the discourse of "literature" it might well make sense to see a progression here, from isolation to infusion. I suspect, however, that opening up that discourse to factor in fiction in its oral form, widening our scope historically and geographically, might lead us to see infusion as a base state. I wonder if that sort of culture where myth and legend are all-pervasive isn't a base state we're shifting back towards.

Anyway, yeah, too many ideas and not enough time to get into them at any great depth. Damn it, though; good questions, man.

3:30 pm  

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