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Fantasy How It Works coverCharles Vess’s stunning cover will be one thing that draws readers into Brian Attebery’s examination of fantasy; another, of course, will be the author’s reputation as a critic and editor, particularly as editor of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. The nine chapters collected here (a tenth summarises the conclusions he has earlier come to, drawing threads together and organising them free from the close reading and quotations) are based, he says, on public talks out of which emerged two lines of enquiry: “how fantasy means and what it does” (p. 5). This is a book about the inner workings of fantasy, although Attebery largely avoids a taxonomical approach. It’s a very different book from Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008)—not in the index—although it can usefully be read in conjunction with it. Attebery begins, instead, with “Fantasy is the lie that speaks truth” (p. 9), an echo of Ursula K. Le Guin’s argument in “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons” (1974), from which he later quotes: “fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it’s true” (p. 24). The first two chapters of this book are, in this sense, the key, although the others proceed to explore further aspects of fantasy storytelling, almost to the point of becoming a moral justification of the form. The whole is a readable but rigorous confrontation with what the Fantastic means today.

The first chapter is entitled “How Fantasy Means”—significantly not what fantasy means (which Attebery goes on to argue is continually multifarious), but how we can pull threads and levels of meaning from a “fantasy” text. Fantasy can be “mythically” true—true to the narratives and beliefs with which we understand the world. It can be “metaphorically” true—although metaphors, we are warned, are open-ended and may, unlike allegory, support more than one reading. The “strangeness” of fantasy is perhaps approached by the riddle which, especially in folklore, offers unexpected metaphoric linkages: an egg is a box with a golden secret inside, silence is the thing that can be broken just by saying its name and, as any folk-singer is well aware, a fiddle and a bow may not have anything to do with musical instruments. Actual riddles and riddle-structures are common in fantasy—from the contest between Bilbo and Gollum to the use of riddling ballads in Ellen Kushner and Diana Wynne Jones—but these are examples of what Attebery calls the “playful ambiguity” of “saying and not saying at the same time” (p. 11). To the best of my knowledge, William Empson does not engage, in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, with the literature of the fantastic as a mode of this kind of ambiguity: it might have been interesting if he had.

Attebery, however, moves swiftly to a further argument: that fantasy is “structurally true,” by which he means that it represents “the shape of the world, and especially the shape of change” (p. 12). From titles—often representing beginnings or endings—to portals or other evocations of space and time, to the way setting and character—as in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), The Lord of the Rings (1954), or Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods series (2001-2016)—represent complex, fractured, or dislocated selves, fantasy reveals more fundamental patterns and offers scope for multiple readings and more creative metaphors. The “fantastification” (not Attebery’s word: my own ugly attempt to nail an interesting process) of some of the story-worlds of realistic fiction—Faulkner’s South, Regency England, the London of Sherlock Holmes—enables their use as “estranging” locations.

Chapter Two, “Realism and the Structures of Fantasy,” explores this process at greater length by thinking about what some defenders of fantasy tend to misread as a defence of the mode—that it is not, structurally, realist. Kathryn Hume’s Fantasy and Mimesis (1984), which Attebery goes on to cite, is a detailed analysis of how in fact “fantasy” and “realism” are areas of a spectrum, complementing and contrasting with each other rather than acting as polar opposites. To extend a brief aside Attebery makes on page 24, the “realism” of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) begins with as much a “lie” as George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858)—there is no such town as Middlemarch, no such people as Dorothea Brooke, Edward Casaubon, or Will Ladislaw. The works of Eliot and MacDonald each “start out with an ‘if’ that marks them out as fictions” (p. 25). If this sounds reductive and obvious, Attebery illustrates his point by one of the great strengths of this book, his wide reading and combination of the obvious texts that we (as good and committed fantasy readers) will all know—and the sideways shuffle into stories and genres that we are not necessarily signed up to. So, for much of this chapter, realism is explored in the context of children’s literature, which is a world in which the contradiction of “realism” (that we are only ever seeing an edited “trompe l’oeil” version of reality) is more easily understood. The protected space of children’s “family stories,” where so much of family life is actually excluded, is itself a fantasy, even though its mode is realistic. Attebery examines the works of Elizabeth Enright, author of four books about the Melendy family, but also, intriguingly, two short fantasy novels which seem to pick up from episodes in her “realist” Melendy stories; and Edward Eager, who acknowledged the model of E. Nesbit’s “Bastable” stories. The structural comparisons of Enright’s The Saturdays (1941) and Eager’s Half Magic (1954) show stories where “something extraordinary emerges from a determinedly ordinary setting” (p. 39). In one, the agent is the children’s decision to pool their allowances and use the money to allow one child, each week, to go to a cultural event of their choice; in the other, a more “generic” magic coin grants wishes. In both, the lives of the children are transformed by worlds of adventure and heightened experiences. (Attebery quotes from an episode in The Saturdays where Rush walks home from the opera, imagining in the movement of the snow-removal equipment he passes dragons like Fafnir from the Siegfried legend.) In both novels, the “improbably delightful” is selected, with fantasy emerging to overlay the mundanity of the Melendys’s lives or intrude into the here-and-now of Eager or Nesbit’s children rather than become the “never-was” of Tolkien imitations.

The “garment” offered by both structures “is the same enchanted cloak” (p. 43). Attebery’s subsequent chapters go on to examine the different weaves of this cloak’s fabric, and it’s here that the book becomes interesting in the light of the various debates that have arisen about the fantasy readership’s Eurocentric core and bias. Chapter Three, “Neighbours, Myths and Fantasy,” begins with the understanding that fantasy, particularly mythopoeic fantasy, depends upon a particular notion of community: can we agree on what is “fantastic” or “realistic”? Given that individuals even within particular cultural groups might disagree about the literal existence of angels or jinn, the answer is probably “no”; but the point is that different models of understanding the world are increasingly brushing against fantasy literature with interesting results. Different worldviews create different genre boundaries and different ways of reading.

A touchstone text here, for Attebery, is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni (2013), written by a “suburban, picket-fence” American of Jewish heritage whose husband is of Arab background. Golems and jinn (English “genies”) culturally, mythically, and folklorically “inhabit entirely separate universes” (p. 47). Reductively, The Golem and the Jinni, set in an 1899 New York inhabited by many belief-groups—plus some of the beings believed in—is a kind of metaphorical autobiography, but Attebery notes that the Golem Chava—who is, unlike golems in legend, created as female—could, given the context in which she exists, be a metaphor for the contemporary “New Woman.” But it is the beings’ interaction with and reaction to the humans that surround them that suggests that we are reading a commentary upon different human understandings of knowledge of the world. Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen trilogy (2015-19) brings fallen angels, dragons, and humans from many different cultural groups into her alternative Paris, eschewing, or at least interrogating, binary clashes by establishing a capacity for change. The novels Attebery uses here are open to readings in which diverse groups become “neighbours” and need to recognise that their own knowledge is “situated” within a particular history or culture, and that the narratives of others have their own validity. This, of course, is easy enough in a mosaic of interacting “neighbours,” but more difficult when there is a hegemony that imposes its own system.  Transforming, in Attebery’s words, armed camps into neighbourhoods is, perhaps, our modern version of Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe,” the sudden turn towards wonder and harmony, the resolution of the fairytale.

This is less common than it might appear, and is not the same thing as a “happy ending.” In fact, we might best see it as an aspiration. And this leads into the search, in the next chapter, for metaphors replacing those of conflict, which we are constantly told is at the heart of all stories. Attebery searches for alternatives for what Le Guin calls “the gladiatorial view of fiction” (p. 65). He finds one in Lewis Carroll’s chess-game in Through the Looking-Glass (1872)—symbolic combat, but a scenario which, in its use of comic cross-purposes and transformations, undermines the “war” between chess-pieces. They are also in Eager’s Half Magic—in which the artifact granting exactly half of what each wishes for leads to self-discovery for each sibling—and Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week (1982)—in which conflict is overshadowed by the necessity for connection. Importantly, the location of G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen (2012)—a Middle Eastern Emirate—is a blindingly obvious setting for various kinds of conflict, some of which certainly appear in the novel. But conflicts or wars are, in terms of how stories work, metaphors. So, can we imagine metaphors in which no-one “wins” or “loses”? Here, Attebery examines several ways in which we may choose to re-read “conflict” in novels: as a dance, in which the participants move towards a “balanced and aesthetically pleasing” conclusion, or music, where dissonance can be resolved or become the basis of a new musical progression. Attebery (himself a musician) finds this a fruitful metaphor for the way characters such as Alif himself or the American woman known only as “the convert” initially overlook or are unable to see what they don’t already believe in (such as the community of women who sustain Alif, or the genuine magic confronted by the “convert”), but move past these denials.

Another metaphor is friction, which can be adjusted (though never “defeated”) by lubrication or smoothing. Again in Alif, there are many sources of friction: unreciprocated desires, misinterpretations, the way language shifts and meanings multiply. These examples are all helpful in focusing on Attebery’s central question: how does fantasy work/mean? Constructing his own metaphor, he returns to a basic characteristic of many great fantasy novels—that the reader has to work out what is going on. While this is, since the popularisation of the term “cognitive estrangement,” something that all readers of SF and fantasy have to engage with as part of the fields’ attractions and difficulties, there is often a mysterious “something else” behind the plot. Attebery’s close reading of Patricia McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain (2010) teases out dissonance and friction in the way her indirection and switches challenge the reader. He comes up with occultation to describe the way the truth of what is going on is hidden—often in plain sight, as in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1844)—by what we expect to see as, for example, the relationship between Phelan’s father and a set of monoliths by the river is both given and withheld by McKillip’s description.

Changing the metaphor by which we approach stories offers new ways of reading. By understanding writing in relationship to other writings—intertextuality or the “Mitochondrial Theory of Literature”—we see fantasy, in Chapter Five as “a social gathering of like-minded texts” (p. 82) in conversation with each other, enabled by networks of readers or, as Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) reminds us, hindered by conventions excluding their circulation. There’s yet another metaphor here, changing “intertextuality” or “metafictional” to “mitochondrial,” drawing upon the biology of the mitochondrial structures within our cells—descendants of bacteria which entered our own cells and remained in symbiotic relationship, absorbing and providing energy to the host cell and in return shielded by it. Texts such as the Aeneid or Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973) act as “mitochondria” within Le Guin’s Lavinia (2008) or Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See” (2002). The story of Snow White (itself a complex meta-narrative from folk-tale to cinematic and literary revisionings) is “a cellular dynamo” within Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) that energises the novel. Attebery suggests a complex, two-way relationship between the texts—presumably suggesting how the novel’s “intertextuality” might suggest new ways of understanding the folk-tale. Other elements of the metaphor are the way in which mitochondrial DNA is passed through the female line, coming to the foetus from the egg rather than the sperm (richly relevant with reference to Attebery’s earlier citation of Russ’s work on women’s writing), and the pun on “cell.” As new books are recruited into the conversation, they become part of the “collective DNA” and tools for resistance. This sets the scene for the next three chapters, dealing with more overtly political aspects of fantasy.

Chapter Six begins by discussing utopia—the wish to be different and better—and dystopia, specifically the young-adult dystopian fiction, popular (perhaps) because, in Mike Levy’s words, “young adult readers ... live in dystopia” (p. 97). Adolescence is a time when we realise that the world will change and we are going to change with it, and we anticipate those changes with profound anxiety. Even utopias, where famously we’re conducted around the new society and lectured about how wonderful it is, are fundamentally coercive. Wondering how young adults could be persuaded to read utopian perspectives in their fiction, Attebery first draws attention to Tom Moylan’s identification of the “critical” utopia in which authors like Russ, Piercy, and Le Guin more clearly articulate the dynamics of social change between utopian world and “real” world, and in which utopia itself is redefined as a goal or process. He ends by suggesting that even dystopias can be read for their utopian potential, citing Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince (2013), which “has all the earmarks of a dystopia” (p. 110) but which offers seeds of hope. According to an essay by Nisi Shawl, it is still “more racially inclusive than any existing society” and “a site of hope and frustration, joy and tumult and striving and change” (p. 111); a novel, in other words, that, in a phrase Attebery uses about fantasy several times, is “good to think with.”

In the seventh chapter, “Gender and Fantasy,” Attebery turns to fairy tales, a form revisited and rewritten by feminist writers such as Angela Carter, and asks what fairy tales may offer for the consideration of the construction of masculinity. This may be the most interesting chapter for non-academic readers of this book, because here Attebery allows insight into his thought-processes and working habits, showing how, as a student with an interest in folklore, he became fascinated by the subversive takes on familiar tales offered by authors such as Robin McKinley and Tanith Lee—and how later, when he taught a course touching on fantasy and fairy tales, one of his students decided to investigate therapeutic uses of fairy tales and found a sizeable literature concerning girls and women … and virtually nothing about boys and men. Were there factors that had been missed? (Attebery’s often amusing description of his own literary “detective work,” resulting in a conference paper and an expansion of that paper into an article, shows the sometimes frustrating but often necessary hoops—such as laboriously wide reading and peer-reviewing—scholarship imposes.) Out of all this arose identifiable challenges to hegemonic masculinity in fairy-tale characters and structures. They include the “Little Man” from “The Brave Little Tailor,” the “Monster Bridegroom” (that refusal to become the brutish “male master,” which we perhaps see in “Beauty and the Beast”), and what Attebery calls the “Erotic Swan”, after the homoeroticism in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans”. His final suggestion that Asian, African, and Native American folktales codify gender in different ways is a coda that implies further research must be done.

Chapter Eight, “The Politics of Fantasy,” extensively rewrites an earlier address to comprehensively face the titular issue: fantasy is political, but how (and, perhaps, why) is it political? Perhaps inevitably, several pages are taken up with the issue of Tolkien’s adoption by some elements of the far right (a shock to the young Attebery, to whom reading Tolkien was “a rite of passage into a state of utopian hopefulness and ecological awareness” [p. 132]), and the counter-response that characterises Tolkien’s “tradition” as a white-privileged “Oxford School” of fantasy. Attebery moves on from this to note how fantasy draws upon racial Othering found in medieval texts, and how other pasts have been opened by writers who have never been to Oxford. Writers adding new voices to the fantasy conversation include Kai Ashante Wilson, Nalo Hopkinson, and Zen Cho. The fantasy of such writers counters the imagined past of the “Oxford School” from which certain groups are excluded and allows these voices to be heard. My possibly pedantic quibble here is that while Attebery seems to be trying hard not to allow Tolkien to be a simple touchstone for all that is nostalgic and exclusive about fantasy, the perceived centrality of his name to twentieth-century fantasy creates an argument which does precisely that. It would have been interesting to have had an expansion of the paragraph in which it is noted precisely that Tolkien (whose work is in part a revaluation of voices omitted by the “Oxford School” of his time) is simply a local variation on the imagined past conceived in different (though similarly exclusive) ways by Arthurian romances, William Morris, and other exponents of fantasy. Perhaps, though, that would have been too much of a digression.

Is it fear of the unknown which is at the heart of the cosy interpretations of fantasy; a retreat into the fog of nostalgia?

The book’s final essay investigates how fantasy may deal creatively with fear—of the unknown, of the outsider, and of death. Its title, “Timor mortis conturbat me”, is taken from the fifteenth-century poem by William Dunbar used at an early stage of E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922). The words are a refrain ending each verse, a memento mori that chills and deranges and appals (Attebery draws our attention to the complex meaning of the verb “conturbat”, which means much more than “confound” or “disturb”). The context of the scene—early on in a novel in which the battle between Demons and Witches, played out in front of the eyes of the observer Lessingham—is drawn to a conclusion in which, after one side is defeated, the other is granted the wish that gives meaning to their lives: that the losing side be resurrected and the conflict begin again. Eddison, Attebery says, offers two responses to the fear of death in the Demons and Witches: one, “to hold on to continuing existence, as it were, for dear life” (p. 155); the other, to embrace peril and the possibility of death as the things that give meaning to life. While very different from Eddison’s work, the title and theme of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010) seems, Attebery says, to convey a similar message. The greatness of Eddison’s novel is the way it, more than any other twentieth-century English-language fantasy, incorporates and sums up its European sources, from Classical Greece lyrics to Icelandic sagas and Renaissance poetry. Okorafor, and other writers cited throughout this book, in turn add a wealth of traditions and beliefs from a wide variety of cultures. As so often in the book, in this contrast we see the range of “fantasy” opened up before our eyes.

Attebery ends by saying that the fear of death and the Other will continue to “conturb” us until we learn to recognise that death is part of life and the Other only dangerous when we deny that it is also us—both lessons which are learned in Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore (1972). His final paragraphs seem to argue strongly for the value of fantasy stories in teaching us this moral lesson: “Timor mortis [which by now is the fear which makes us vote for tyrants, demonise outsiders, and stockpile weapons] will not conturb us if we can learn to use it” (p. 163)—and learn to transform dread into compassion. The final chapter of notes or summaries is actually more nuanced than this rather cosy suggestion that we can cure our ills and those of society by reading fantasy, or at least the best sort of fantasy: “That work will never be complete, and fear will never go away completely” (p. 175).

We need fantasy. We will probably always need it. A future where we do not need to dream, or distance our anxieties to that we can explore them, would indeed be a dystopian one. In showing us how fantasy works so that we can understand how and why we read it, Attebery is producing a helpful book: readable and authoritative, rich in example without losing us in abstract theory. In showing us how fantasy allows readers to confront and rethink the world in which they live, the book is also offering us new ways of experiencing fantasy. For many—academics and general readers alike—the value of this volume will be in the way it places the fantasy we have grown up with in the context of a range of other voices.

Andy Sawyer is a retired librarian, researcher, critic, and reviewer of SF. From 1993-2018 he was librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, where he also taught courses on SF, and was reviews editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. He was guest curator of the British Library Exhibition “Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It” (May 20–Sep 25 2011), and an advisor to the “Into the Unknown” exhibition at the Barbican Centre London (June3 –Sept 1 2017). He was the 2008 recipient of the Science Fiction Research Association’s Clareson Award for services to science fiction. He is currently researching science fiction of the 1950s, the life and work of Jane Webb Loudon, and how to play “Science Fiction–Double Feature” on the ukulele.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
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By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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