Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Impossibility and Inevitability of Escapism in Speculative Fiction

For decades, speculative fiction – which encompasses the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction (and their subsets) – has been subject to the dismissive presumption that it is somehow sub-literary and, therefore, not quite deserving of full scholarly attention or serious merit. Though rarely articulated in contemporary criticism, this supposition remains an insidious inference throughout the “elite” literary community. Consider: how many writers of speculative fiction have won a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize? How many works of adult speculative fiction have garnered a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize? It's not hyperbole to say that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror remain chained in the dungeon of the literary meritocracy. Speculative fiction is caught in what Marleen Barr, in her essay “Textism – An Emancipation Proclamation,” calls “a discriminatory evaluation system in which all literature relegated to a so-called subliterary genre, regardless of its individual merits, is automatically defined as inferior, separate, and unequal.” But why? Why is speculative fiction considered inferior or unequal?

The problem lies in perception. Since the 1920s and 1930s – an era of “pulp fiction” which saw speculative works largely relegated to the pages of sensationalist and, oftentimes, amateurish magazines – much sci-fi, fantasy, and horror has been regarded as escapism, with its primary function being to provide readers with release from the real, phenomenal world. Such escapism, some would contend, does not allow speculative fiction to tackle contemporary issues and to deal with prescient social, cultural, or political concerns – all of which “serious” literature is supposed to do. Rather, speculative fiction, due to its supposedly escapist nature, is often considered little more than an adolescent flight of fancy with no interest in exploring or resolving the problems of practical life. There is little argument against the idea that speculative fiction does tend to transport its readers to fictional, constructed realities separate from the contemporary world. However, this transportational tendency is inherent in every work of fiction, regardless of whether it is genred or non-genred. From Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Achebe's Things Fall Apart to Dick's A Scanner Darkly and Gaiman's American Gods, all fiction – to varying degrees – extricates its readers from certain aspects of contemporaneity and, therefore, allows for a level of escapism. More concisely stated, all fiction is ultimately escapist. The difference between speculative fiction and academically lauded literature, then, is only one of reading and interpretation. How one approaches works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror is the determining factor as to whether they are conceived of as pointless, immature tales or complex, intellectually stimulating texts. Therefore, escapism becomes simultaneously the core element of speculative fiction and an impossibility; dependent solely on the manner of reading, it can be, and is, either.

Fiction, by its very definition, is a construct of unreal events, unreal individuals, and unreal places. While these fictive elements can be realistic, and can even be based upon real people, places, and events, they can never be (nor have they ever been) phenomenologically real; if they were, the work of which they were a part would no longer be fiction – it would, instead, be a form of non-fiction. Therefore, any work of fiction must transport its reader to a world that, however similar to reality, is not reality. A disengagement from contemporary, phenomenal reality and all of its concomitant dilemmas and issues is necessary in order to enter and fully engage with a fictional text.

When a reader engages a work of literature, Dickens' Oliver Twist, for example, there is a clear divide between contemporary, phenomenal reality and textual reality. Oliver Twist takes place in 19th century London and follows the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of its eponymous central character through his childhood in orphanages and workhouses. Though it may seem obvious, contemporary literary critics do not live in the 19th century, nor do most (or, more likely, any) have a true conception of what it may have been like to live in a dank, pre-Victorian orphanage. Therefore, the world that Oliver Twist creates for its contemporary readership is an entirely separate sphere of existence; it is an imagined space largely dissimilar from the reader's “real world.” When a reader delves into the novel, he or she disengages with his or her contemporary reality and enters a construction of early 19th century England. Yes, this construction is based upon history. Yes, it is based upon real living and working conditions of that particular time. But it is, still, a different world than that of the contemporary reader. The reader is, essentially, escaping contemporary, phenomenal reality and entering the fictive universe of the text. Some issues within this fictive universe – child labor and class discrimination, for instance – are applicable to both spheres of reality, but the political, social, and cultural mores of the textual world (not to mention minutiae such as city layout, clothing styles, and colloquial language) are, nonetheless, quite different from those of the contemporary, phenomenal world of the reader.

This escape into the underbelly of 19th century London is no different from entering into a textual world that is set in the distant future or in an blatantly alternate reality. A work of speculative fiction such as China Mieville's Perdido Street Station also creates a world separate and distinct from contemporary reality, albeit more blatantly. Perdido Street Station is, for example, set in a massive city called New Crobuzon – an entirely fantastical realm that is inhabited by races of humans, insectoids, bird-people, interdimensional spider demigods and sentient robots. In New Crobuzon it is also possible to utilize magic as well as Victorian industrial and scientific techniques. Obviously, this is a universe that includes few of the surface trappings of 21st century Earth. So, when a reader engages with the text, he or she is transported to a reality quite distinct and separate from his or her own. In this regard, Perdido Street Station, like much speculative fiction, is extremely escapist; it does, in fact, allow its reader to visit a place utterly foreign and outside the purview of contemporary life. A reader can simply wallow in the thrill of the fantastic and a sense of defamiliarization, if he or she chooses. At the same time, however, the text incorporates thoughtful commentary and critiques of contemporary issues such as drug abuse, racism, and censorship – all of which will be ignored by the reader who is concentrating solely on the elements of escapism. While these contemporary concerns may be significantly more metaphorized or more deeply embedded within a work of speculative fiction than within non-genre fiction, they are, in fact, still present.

There simply is no difference between the transportation of a reader to a far-flung fantasy land and the transportation of a reader to the dank workhouses and orphanages of 19th century England. Both Oliver Twist and Perdido Street Station grant their readers escape from the phenomenological world, as neither pre-Victorian England nor New Crobuzon are a contemporary reader's phenomenological reality; therefore, narratives set in these places can only be entered as fictive constructs. A reader can no more authentically experience 19th century London than New Crobuzon, a fact which leads to the conclusion that Dickensian London is, in actuality, as much a fantasy land as Mievillian New Crobuzon.

One could conceivably argue that the London of Oliver Twist did, however, exist at one time and can be recovered through historical, autobiographical, and other non-fictional texts while Perdido Street Station's New Crobuzon cannot. This is a loaded assumption. Simply because a reader is given more specific information and details of places, times, and events does not make them more phenomenologically real or rescue them from the purportedly evil clutches of escapism. If this were the case, then the world of Star Trek, with its ornate and embellished human and alien histories, meticulously crafted technical manuals for technologies that do not exist, and dictionaries for languages that are not spoken outside the Trek universe, would be more “real” than the bulk of human history. Pre-Victorian England remains, even with tomes of non-fiction declaring its once-existence and providing additional details to its being, a world that cannot be experienced or entered, except through fictional narrative. The pages of Oliver Twist are, therefore, a place of escape from reality and the novel could be, quite rightly, qualified as escapist. However, few literary scholars would admit – or perhaps even consider – as much. That speculative fiction can be read as escapist is a tired truth. It is now time to acknowledge the same possible escapism in non-genre fiction.

If both speculative fiction and mainstream fiction are, as sources of a constructed, non-phenomenological reality, open to escapist readings, then a hypocrisy begins to emerge. The bulk of literary critics and scholars shrug off speculative fiction as mere entertainment, as a group of texts that grant readers the opportunity to forget about pragmatic living and practical social, cultural, and political concerns. Yet, this is precisely how any work of fiction can be read. However, non-genre fiction is not subject to the same automatic dismissal that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror endure.

Non-genre fiction receives privileged treatment within the "elite" literary community; it is always read with an eye toward its potential merits and its value to current critical discourse. It could be read as escapist entertainment, but it rarely, if ever, actually is. When literary scholars approach a non-genre work of fiction, the escapist elements of the text are pushed aside and intellectual engagement is allowed to thrive. Literary critics do not, after all, assert that they read the works of Toni Morrison for their transportive abilities or entertainment value; they read Morrison due to the racial, gender, spiritual, and political issues her novels address. Regardless, either way of reading Morrison, and non-genre fiction as a whole, is entirely possible. Yet only one – the route of serious discursive inquiry and rigorous textual exploration – is routinely utilized. Despite the fact that it could be read as escapism, non-genre fiction is perpetually approached as “serious” literature and, therefore, can be read as such. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, is approached as escapist and, because it, too, can be read as escapism, it is shrugged off as entirely expected juvenile frivolity. The complexity and intellectual depth of speculative fiction goes unrecognized because many literary scholars simply do not read such texts properly – i.e., with openness toward potential literary worth. Rather than approaching speculative fiction with the intent to glean valuable insights into current issues or even the general human condition, a vast percentage of the literary elite take up a work of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror with the preconception that it will be simplistic entertainment. It fulfills these preconceptions due to the fact that it, like all other fiction, is, on its shallowest level, precisely that: a story, an series of imagined events intended, in its basest function, to evoke pleasure and interest – to entertain. So if, as a reader, one enters the text with the notion that it is just a rollicking adventure or a spine-chilling thriller, then those escapist characteristics will naturally dominate all other possible interpretive gleanings. But, as mentioned before, speculative fiction, in this regard, is no different than non-genre fiction; both, by virtue of being fiction, are able to be read – on the most surface level – as nothing more than transportive tales. However, this does not mean that speculative fiction or non-genre fiction is nothing more than escapism; significant elements of high literature do exist in both speculative fiction and non-genre fiction, although these elements may be in comparatively short supply.

Indeed, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy writer Theodore Sturgeon once famously remarked that “90% of science fiction [is] trash,” but “the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” This could not be more true. Much speculative fiction will not stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and will, in fact, easily fall into the categories of pulp fiction, juvenalia, or tired pastiche. However, just as much non-genre fiction will suffer the same fate. So much of everything is disposable. And yet, the meritorious ten percent of non-genre fiction is what constitutes the bulk of “serious” literature, while the equally worthy ten percent of speculative fiction is largely perceived as a little more than a mildly interesting diversion.

The problem of escapism as a criticism of speculative fiction, then, lies solely in reception and methodology of interpretation. Unless literary scholars are prepared to initially approach all fiction as escapism, no written work must be regarded on its face as such. Every individual text must be approached as if it were worthy of in-depth critical study and, if it is not, only an unbiased reading, free from preconception based on genre prejudice, should determine that fact. Escapism – or lack thereof – should not be the quality that a reader automatically seeks to discern; rather, a reader should engage speculative fiction (and, in fact, all fiction) with an critical eye toward elucidating its merits, not dwelling upon its supposed faults.

Ultimately, the genred nature of a text is irrelevant; all that truly matters is the way in which it is read. Escapism is not a valid criticism of speculative fiction simply because escape is part of the very act of reading fiction. It is only because speculative fiction is perceived as a "lesser" literary genre, as a puerile divergence from reality, that it becomes so; if literary critics and scholars (the guiding “literati” of the world) gave speculative fiction the same attention and care that they lavish upon non-genre fiction, it would be quite apparent that "escape" into a fantastical fictional world is only the preoccupation of unfounded elitist preconceptions – a preoccupation which occludes valuable and often profound literary works from becoming part of the recognized body of complex, serious literature.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Year-End Best of Everything Ever Made in the Entire Multiverse

So... here we go, the first post on this blog. A beginning. A prologue. A brief exposition of the author's mysterious history. But also an ending, a summation, a signpost pointing to locales more vibrant than those the author inhabits. I've decided to open the blog with a year-end list of the best books I've read this past solar cycle and the best movies I've seen that might be labeled horror, SF, or fantasy (and keep in mind, not all of it was released in 2013 -- what I'm about to list is what I encountered for the first time in 2013; some of it was, indeed, released this past year, but some of it wasn't).

In explaining why I love what I loved from the past year, I hope this post will provide a little foregrounding about myself, my tastes, and my personality, thus marking it as a serviceable introduction to the blog. After all, what are any of us but collections of individually revered texts, endlessly merging and intertwining, recycling and recombining? By that same token, though, I want this post to direct attention to those specific texts that have become inscribed upon me in the last year. I want to offer up an esteemed pantheon of writers and directors to the gods of aesthetic glory so that they might live forever in the souls of new found readers, viewers, and listeners.

Without further ado, then, let's get to it.

My 2013 BOOKS FOR THE AGES (in no particular order):

Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth - Stephen Graham Jones:

Everyone knows SGJ is maniacally prolific. It's as though he writes a short story with every blink of his eye and births a novel every time he visits the bathroom. I honestly believe he's either in possession of time-travel technology or isn't a real person, but a writing collective. In any case, however he does it, SGJ constantly produces some of the most genre-bending, gleefully outrageous, disturbingly rendered, self-aware mayhem in the literary world. Zombie Sharks is that mayhem condensed into a series of deliciously horrific bites. Just when you think you're reading a bizarro or comedic piece (and a character uses kittens as meat grenades against zombie hordes, for instance), SGJ turns the narrative inside out and forces you to realize what underscores the absurdity -- a horrifying, twisted moral compass or a horrifying, twisted universe. Tremendously inventive and demented, SGJ can do it all.

At Fear's Altar - Richard Gavin:

I've read Gavin's other collections multiple times, but this was my first go-round with At Fear's Altar. I was not disappointed in anything other than my own inability to fit it into my reading pile sooner. In this collection, Richard Gavin does what Richard Gavin does -- that is, use his daemonic pen to open slits in our reality, slits from which pour great wonders as well as uncontrollable horrors. The guy just keeps getting better and better. His prose, when hitting its highest gears, reads like a more lucid, concise Lovecraft and his themes explore the outre realms of being and existence, religious experience, and individual identity which most people are afraid to acknowledge, let alone plumb. In that way, he's like a shadow philosopher or a displaced mystic from the middle ages. Cerebral, challenging, impeccably crafted horror here.

The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All - Laird Barron:

Everyone in the horror/weird fiction world knows who Laird Barron is and everyone has read him. So when he releases a new collection, of course everyone's going to sit up and watch. And here's the deal: Barron rarely disappoints. I adore Occultation and love The Imago Sequence and The Light is the Darkness. So, odds were, I was going to like A Beautiful Thing. Well, don't bet against the odds, because this is another fine addition to Barron's canon. While I do feel that this collection is a bit more uneven than his previous two, when Barron brings the goods practically no one in the field can match him for sheer leering, unsettling cosmic terror. Sometimes you taste flavors of Blackwood or Machen; sometimes you catch a whiff of Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard -- whatever the recipe for his writing, it's entirely Barron's own delectable melange. When critics and reviewers and fans call him an "emerging master," that's not hyperbole. He is.

Every House is Haunted - Ian Rogers:

This is the first book from Rogers that I've ever read, and I reveled in it. I've mentioned this collection on FB before, so let me reiterate what I said there: "A bunch of the stories in Every House is Haunted include a shadowy investigative organization mythos that I've never seen before. Those are, without a doubt, my favorites from the collection because they add even more menace to the weird and inexplicable events at the center of the tales. A hidden consortium or agency or bureaucracy heightens the stakes of the strange or supernatural plot; it implies that we're not just victims of big, bad, unknown forces in the universe but that we're caught in the middle of a conflict between those forces and some other equally unknown human device. Completely awesome." My point stands. In weird tales, we're so often immersed in reading or writing the big bad supernatural or cosmic entity that we forget humanity can construct just as much paranoia and Kafkaesque menace on its own side. Rogers doesn't let us forget that and we're better for it.

Nightingale Songs - Simon Strantzas:

I know... I'm way behind on this one, but at least I finally caught up. Strantzas is truly the heir to Robert Aickman. In what other speculative fiction writer's work do you find this same sense of purposeful ambiguity and irresolution? No one's. And Strantzas makes it work. In a lesser writer's hands, these stories would fall flat at the end, deflated by a lack of poignancy. But none of them do. In fact, they're strengthened by the rich ambiguity. Lovecraft's old adage about the oldest fear being the fear of the unknown is aptly deployed for Nightingale Songs (and all of Strantzas' other collections, too); that uncanny and bizarre incidents continue to mount throughout his stories without any clear explanation serves to make them more unsettling, more uncertain of the universe around us and the laws which supposedly govern it. Indeed, Strantzas is, I think, more a writer of terror than horror (which I believe is the higher aspiration). He doesn't scare you with beasties or blood, causing you to recoil in fear; rather, he scares you with the absolute unknown, causing you to fidget nervously in the dark, wondering just how much of this whole "reality" thing can be trusted.

North American Lake Monsters - Nathan Ballingrud:

Ballingrud is a new entry into my coterie of "must read" authors. His prose is concise, muscular, and direct, and his protagonists often reverberate with those same qualities. With grit and gusto, he writes about blue-collar men and women, trapped not only in their work, in their economic or social strata, but in the terror and uncertainty of existence. Desperation reaches out from these pages and wrings your throat. When I first read NALM, I thought "Wow... this is Steinbeck under the influence of Lovecraft," and I haven't wavered from that position. These stories are socially conscious, aware of the foibles of the human heart, and yet indebted to the tradition of cosmic otherness.

Immobility - Brian Evenson:

I never know what to think of Evenson. Is he a mainstream literary author, the kind of guy who publishes in places like Granta and Ploughshares and The Atlantic? Or is he a weird fiction writer, the type who delivers stories about cabals of amputees and phenomenologically interstitial windows? The answer, I think, is yes to both. Evenson is a Pushcart Prize kind of writer who journeys into the weird, the gothic, and even SF in order to utilize their unique tropes. Immobility is one of those latter jaunts. It's post-apocalyptic SF over which hangs a gray haze of ambiguity, a disjointed quality which is quite appropriate for a narrative in which the hero is a psychologically fragmented paraplegic. I don't want to give away too much of this novel, so I'll just say that Evenson's primary concerns within it are the nature of religion and other cultural power structures (something he tends to explore in other works, too). Immobility a bleak tale and, by its close, you might wonder if the world would be a better place if we were all just mindless drones.

"Final Exam" - Megan Arkenberg:

 I know, I know. It's a short story, not a book. But this story has stuck with me as much as any full book since I first read it early this year (in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year Vol. 5). First off, it plays with form (the entire story is a multiple choice and short answer test), which I adore. Second, it provides no easy answers (pun intended) to its kinda, sorta, maybe apocalyptic narrative. Third, at its center lies not just horror but a deep well of emotion and a surprisingly astute examination of romantic relationships. Very interesting story. I hope Ms. Arkenberg continues to write.

My 2013 MOVIES FOR THE AGES (in no particular order):

The World's End:

As I become hoary and gray (well... as I speed closer to hoary and gray), I find it more and more difficult to make new friends and to maintain relationships with my old friends. I see a certain nostalgia in the "good old days" of late high school and college, in hanging out and having few responsibilities that actually meant anything. I understand the romance of youthful hedonism, of fucking up yourself and your life in service of adventure and experience and pleasure. And I've certainly experienced the automation of adulthood and the slow withering of expectations and hopes that is too often coterminous with aging. All of which is why I loved this movie. It deals with those weighty issues with panache and levity, tying them into extraterrestrial robot invasion -- the perfect metaphor for alienation from one's peers, one's history, and one's former, youthful self.

Escape from Tomorrow:

It was a pretty ballsy move to film a movie in Disney World without Disney's permission. For that alone, you have to give this movie some credit. But then what it does with that backdrop is insane -- and I mean insane in all the best of ways. The narrative framework sets you up to think this is going to be a film about mid-life crises and the search for youthful exuberance... and it is. But it's also a horror movie about a strange cat virus, a SF movie about the  Baudrillardian properties of identity in a mass mediated world, and a haunting vision of marriage and parental responsibility. And it's all wrapped up in imagery that would feel at home in a David Lynch film. At times it's a little sloppy, yeah. At times it wanders a bit. But this movie is probably the strangest piece of art or entertainment I've engaged with all year.


A psychotic orca, deranged through torturous living conditions. An evil, monolithic corporate entity that victimizes human and beast alike. An implicit condemnation of our near-religious culture of spectatorship and capitalistic subjugation of the natural world. An ambiguous conclusion in which nothing is resolved, the dead are still quite dead, the monster is still loose, and the forces that created it remain active and in power. Documentary? Yes. Horror movie? You bet.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

I just lost my underground credibility, didn't I? Well, so be it. These are fine movies and the novels are pretty decent, too. Sure, there are flaws in both, but for a YA series to feature a relatively interesting dystopian world and a fully fleshed, badass heroine is a miracle. Plus, I think there's more going on here than most people realize. The series isn't so much about the evils of government or the tyranny of the wealthy few, but the nature of power, in general -- the ways in which it corrupts with a subtle blade and the ways in which it can be concentrated and held (namely, in the HG world, through aesthetic manipulation).

V/H/S 2:

I like the first one better. That being said, this is still a decent compilation of found-footage shorts all mashed up into one film. Like its predecessor, it shows that there's still life left in that format and, if done well, it can still be a quite effective tool for horror. This was worth my time for Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven" segment, alone (in which evil cults, mass suicide, and dimensional doorways feature heavily).
This is the End

It's ridiculous. It's apocalyptic. It's self-referential and self-aware. And it includes a cameo from the Backstreet Boys apropos of nothing. What's not to like?