Fiction, of course, means stuff that didn't happen.
Fantasy fiction, of course, means stuff that couldn't happen.
Again and again, though, we encounter stories and novels that knock the wind out of each of course and unsettle our assumptions. For instance, a story recently nominated for multiple awards, a story that has received extreme praise and also caused some discomfort: Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)," first published in the October/November 2006 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and available as a PDF here.
The story imagines Sith, the daughter of the infamous leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Pol Pot, as an extraordinarily rich teenager who refuses to think about her family's or her country's past until ghosts of some of the people killed by her father's regime haunt her, while at the same time she falls in love with a country boy who sells cell phones in Phnom Penh. The ghosts haunt Sith because all of their families and friends died, and having no one left to remember them, the ghosts want Sith to preserve their pictures (which pop out of her computer's printer) and names. By confronting the past, Sith gains a future for herself and her boyfriend, who seems ready to marry her, and the ghost of a saintly, martyred freedom-fighter calls on her cell phone to say he'll adopt her.
Again and again in the first few pages of the tale, we are reminded that none of it is true. It's a subject about which the narrator is, at least in the beginning, a bit of a nag. On the second page, we are told, "This is a completely untrue story about someone who must exist." (The must is a notable word there, implying either likelihood or need, or maybe both.) On the fourth page: "Please remember that every word of this story is a lie." On the eighth page: "Remember that this is an untrue story." There are fewer reminders as the story goes on—the characters themselves become more obsessed with truth and lies, with trust and belief, and the narrator sinks into the background of the tale being told.
Pol Pot did have a daughter, born, as she is in the story, in 1986, when her father was 60. According to biographer Philip Short, "Pol named her Sitha, after the heroine in the Khmer religious epic, the Reamker." Sitha does not seem to have ever lived in opulence, and a Frontline reporter described her in a picture at the time of her father's death in 1998 as "stringy-haired, shy and suffering from chronic malaria." Frontline found her studying English in 2002 with other Khmer Rouge children.
When "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" first appeared, reviewer Lois Tilton said, "Perhaps I am being too literal-minded, but I do have to wonder what the real Sitha would think of this tale, which makes such unauthorized use of her life in a story that is not true to it." Most of the other reviews of the story celebrated it for its emotional power, for its use of a setting that is not traditionally used by English-language fantasists, for its humanity. Recently, though, it has begun to be discussed again as part of various online Hugo Award evaluations, with some readers finding it extraordinarily beautiful and moving, and others being unsettled by the story's use of history and real people. Abigail Nussbaum described it as "a fairy tale in which a magical balm soothes Cambodia's aching soul."
When I first encountered "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)", I read a few pages and stopped. The idea of a story about Pol Pot written in what felt like the diction of a fairy tale was too much for me. Later, as readers began extolling the story's virtues, I tried again. I am used to having a different reaction to stories than other readers have, but I wasn't prepared for how deeply I would dislike Ryman's tale. My response was so strong, so visceral that I decided it was irrational, and until the recent discussions, I tried to forget the story's existence altogether.
I reread the story, and though my response was no longer as strong, I remain uncomfortable—not with how Ryman uses a real person so much as with the overall tone and, particularly, the sugary conclusion. Ryman has spent time in Cambodia and clearly cares very much for the country and its people, so I am certain his intentions were for the best, but I can't stop myself from reading the story as wishful thinking, which, though it may be comforting, is not the sort of thinking I want to do about the history and consequences of atrocities.
A few years ago, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote a thoughtful essay about history, fiction, and fantasy. Among other things, he said, "The question—or one question—seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?"
When I first read the essay, I had a knee-jerk answer to that question. I am averse to the idea of any sorts of limits for writers, particularly fiction writers. I'm one of those people who will immediately respond in the negative to any question that hints at limits of any sort. Ask me if writers have to use words, and I will immediately and vociferously say, "No!" without pause or thought.
But Kay isn't simply wondering about how and when real people and events are justifiable fodder for fiction. He uses his questions to think about the nature of fantasy fiction itself, and states that "By placing the story in a fantasy setting—even if it is clearly drawn from history—we are acknowledging that this educated guesswork, invention, fantasy underlies our treatments of the past and its peoples—and for me, that is an honest and a liberating thing for any writer to do."
It's true that a story which is clearly fantasy creates a more obvious distance between reality and the text than a deliberately mimetic narrative, and this distance can be a way writers try to make readers think carefully about both fiction and reality (similar in some ways to what Bertolt Brecht was aiming for with the verfremdungseffekt) —it's what fables have done for centuries, and Kay points as well to the popularity of science fiction for Soviet and Eastern Bloc writers facing censorship.
It is significant that, at least in its F&SF incarnation, Ryman's story includes the word fantasy in parentheses in the title. It is significant that the narrator repeatedly reminds us of the story's artificiality. More subtly, passages such as the following seem to me full of meaning: "If movies were not nightmares about ghosts, then they tried to preserve the past. When, thought Sith, will they make a movie about Cambodia's future?" The outcome of the story suggests that ghosts do not need to be nightmares, and that honoring them can lead to the future Sith wants to see portrayed.
The reality is not like this. Hence, fiction. But to what end? And is it, as the title proclaims, a fantasy—something that could not happen under any circumstances we understand as possible?
Even if we know nothing of contemporary Cambodia, the story has reminded us that it is "completely untrue" and "a lie." The narrative tone even briefly indulges in self-satisfied, or perhaps patronizing, sarcasm ("Pol Pot was no doubt a dedicated communist who made no money from ruling Cambodia. Nevertheless, a hefty allowance arrived for Sith every month from an account in Switzerland"). It's impossible for a reader to equate the Cambodia of the story with the Cambodia of reality, and we are left to wonder about the differences between the real Cambodia and the fictional, and such wondering could lead to certain sorts of illumination, perhaps even of the kind Brecht dreamed. We wonder not just how the world of the story is different from the actual world, but how the pleasant reconciliation of the fantasy's conclusion might be achieved in our rough and ragged reality.
My ultimate dislike of the story, though, comes from feeling that we aren't given enough fodder for such a purpose, that we don't have enough material with which to analyze the characters, settings, or events.
Consider, for instance, the voices of the ghosts, who tell Sith of the evils that were perpetrated against them when they were alive. The presentation of horrible events in fiction as a way of creating immediate sympathy for characters is something I am strongly biased against as a reader, because unless we are coldhearted monsters we can't help but feel something. This is an excellent and noble attribute in life, an attribute that lets us care for and learn about each other, but it is less valuable in reading stories, because such feeling is shallow, fleeting, and too often leads us to ignore other elements of the text in favor of a pleasant, self-congratulatory feeling of pity. The ghost voices in Ryman's story are voices of unmitigated horror, but other elements of the text push us toward thinking about how and why the living people came to be who they are. We don't have the tools to analyze that, though, without analyzing the past that produced the ghosts. Ghosts are simply not enough.
When talking about morality in fiction, about the choices writers make and the ways they represent characters and events, perhaps we should not talk about "history" as one thing. Perhaps we should not talk about history at all, but rather about the techniques each writer employs, and the readings those techniques inspire. The traditions that a text seems to utilize—whether in homage or critique—can determine how readers approach and interpret the words on the page. Among other things, that the sentences of Ryman's story possessed, for me, the tone of a fairy tale affected how I made sense of the story from beginning to end, and contributed to my dislike of it, because it's not that I think writers should avoid using real people in fiction, but that I am put off by this particular material being squeezed into this particular structure. (Which could, perhaps, be part of Ryman's point, though it feels much too cynical for him—as if he were to say, "So you want a comforting fairy tale about people coming to terms with the horrors of the past? Fine, I'll give you one, and it'll be a doozy!")
Real people and events have been the stuff of fiction ever since it began, as has fantasy. Fiction in any form, whether prose or drama or poetry, is always to some extent about the question, "What if . . . ?" What if these people did these things? What if this place were like this? What if, instead of X, we had Y? What if . . . ? From the raw material of the real, storytellers shape imagined worlds. Fiction without reality would be nonsense to us, because we would have no reference with which to make any meaning of it.
History, as a narrative of reality, has an understandable fascination for storytellers of all sorts, whether those storytellers are Homer or Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Tolkien, Mary Renault or Geoff Ryman. History itself relies so deeply on perceptions and stories that it seems to me eminently valuable for us to read and write stories that speculate about those perceptions, stories that use the freedom of imagination to dig into history so that we may better reflect on it, stories that remind us how deceptive stories can be.
Writers are neither justified nor unjustified in using real people and real events. What we should question, instead, is how they use those people and events, and the effects—both aesthetic and moral—those uses have on us as readers. We need to look at what stories provoke us to think and feel, and then we can evaluate those thoughts and feelings. My discomfort with "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" is not a discomfort with history and reality in fiction. My discomfort results from a story that leaves me with feelings I consider unwarranted for the reality from which the fantasy was spawned. Lois Tilton was, indeed, too literal-minded in her assessment of the story, but only because it doesn't matter what the real Sitha would make of the story, but what the real readers do.