Size / / /
Cheek by Jowl cover

Imagination Space cover

There is no such thing as a perfect reader. Each of us will, can, only read partially. We invariably fix on certain aspects of a work, and miss others. That is why no two reviews ever say the same thing about a book (and remember, we read the reviews partially, also). More importantly, it is why we want to hear authors talk about their work. They will, we believe, give us a key to what we've missed; they will know their own books more thoroughly and therefore explain them more fully.

This is deceptive, an author is no better a reader of their own work than any of the rest of us, even as self-conscious an author as Ursula K. Le Guin or Gwyneth Jones, because no author can be totally conversant with the influences, notions and instincts that inform their fiction. Remember, a novel, even a relatively simple work aimed primarily at children, is a massive and complex edifice; and it is entire, it cannot be abbreviated, summarised or reduced without also reducing the totality of what it is saying. Throughout her collection of talks and essays, Ursula Le Guin is constantly shaking her head at people who ask what a particular book or story is about. What it is about is everything that is the story; if it could be reduced to a paragraph of meaning, a one-sentence moral, there would be no need for the story as such.

Le Guin clearly believes that fiction has a moral function—"Imagination is the instrument of ethics" (p. 7) she says at one point—but it is not a function that can be tidily summarised. A message cannot be abstracted from a story, the message is the story; and each of us who reads will find our own slightly different message in our engagement with the story (and may even find a different message in each re-reading of the story). This is not an easy point of view to get across to anyone who believes that a work of fiction can be reduced to one simple pronouncement, but it is particularly difficult when your subject is fiction for children. Here the belief in a moral message is stronger, and so the demand for an easy statement of that message is all the greater. Yet throughout this book, which consists largely of talks to or essays for organisations involved professionally in children's fiction, she patiently and calmly sticks to her guns. She avoids what are clearly numerous invitations to explain her own novels, but makes general points about children's fiction that insist, time and again, that any message carried within the story can only be absorbed by taking in the story as a whole.

She is particularly concerned to rescue fantasy from those who see it as escapist, simplistic, belittling—"There should be a word—maturismo, like machismo?—for the anxious savagery of the intellectual who thinks his adulthood has been impugned [by fantasy]" (p. 21). Fantasy is not an escape from or avoidance of the world. Rather, "[f]antasy is the native and natural form of children's story . . . because their imaginations are working full time to make sense out of reality, and imaginative story is the best tool for doing just that job" (p. 132). Perhaps it is not surprising that Gwyneth Jones is similarly dismissive of those who see fantasy as in any way a failure of engagement: writers who, she says, "regard mimesis as the true record" are out of touch, "I'm the one who's writing about the real world" (p 18). One can imagine the pair of them nodding their heads sagely in accord; it is not the only place that they are in agreement.

It is very tempting to join in the agreement, but, especially in Le Guin's book, there are odd ideas that give me pause. There seems to be a periodicity built into her notion of what makes fantasy: the idea that fantasy was the earliest form of story, and that all modern fantasy is the legacy of that original mythmaking. And with this there is a sense of fantasy as rural, which in our urbanised present is concerned to reconnect with the land. Where, she argues, realism turns inward to the human, the psychological, fantasy turns outward to the landscape and the animal. To an extent I can go along with this. When she argues, for instance, that "Hardy's Egdon Heath is in itself entirely realistic, but its centrality to The Return of the Native decentralises the human characters in a way quite similar to that of fantasy" (p. 39), I can accept this as quite a useful way of looking at what is happening in Hardy's novel. Where I have more difficulty is in accepting this as in any way defining or characteristic of fantasy. Not all fantasy decentralises the human; pornography, for example, foregrounds the physicality of being human, though it might be said to decentralise the psychological. And the animal, an essential part of Le Guin's perspective on fantasy which crops up time and again in these pieces, certainly emphasises the identification with the Other (which Le Guin regards as one of the key concerns of fantasy), but this centrality suggests a rather narrower view of fantasy than I am entirely comfortable with. As for the historical perspective, I suspect that all literature, including realism, is a direct descendant of pre-literary mythmaking, so that again I think the suggestion that fantasy has any sort of primacy requires more argument than it receives here.

Such quibbles aside, however, she writes clearly and in the main persuasively about the importance of fantasy. There is no complex or academic language here, but the arguments are often subtle and insightful. For example, the longest piece here, "Cheek By Jowl," is a fascinating examination of the role played by animals in fantasy for children which takes us from those novels which give us the life story of an animal in more or less realist terms, to those in which animals behave much like humans, on again to those in which animals interact with humans, and finally to those in which animals are used to satirise the human. There are good and bad examples of all, but the essay allows sideswipes at writers such as Brian Jacques and, particularly, Richard Adams, for the way they ignore true animal behaviour for political ends. In the passage on Adams, which could well stand to be expanded into an essay in its own right, he comes across as espousing near-fascist views. Politics is never far below the surface in any of these pieces, and especially feminism, which is virtually the air that she breathes.

If anything, feminism is even more central to Gwyneth Jones's essays, if only because she challenges and questions her own feminism more actively than Le Guin does. This gives the talks and essays in Imagination/Space a more personal feel. For instance, while Le Guin keeps her own work out of most of her essays, Jones includes long passages from her own novels even in essays that are not ostensibly about them. In Cheek by Jowl we come away with the notion that, in some subtle way that may not be entirely clear even to the author, the Earthsea books helped to chart Le Guin's own intellectual voyage through feminism; in Imagination/Space we are directly confronted with the fact that every one of Jones's novels was a stage in her own often brutal struggle with her feminist beliefs. (But remember, authors are partial readers; this is not necessarily how the books are, only how they may be read.)

The personal approach means that, far more than in Le Guin's book, when Jones discusses another author or someone else's work, it feels to be tangentially about her own fiction. The same novels crop up again and again throughout this volume—The Female Man by Joanna Russ, Neuromancer by William Gibson, A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski—so that they become less like science fiction novels to be discussed and more like milestones in the intellectual and literary development of Gwyneth Jones. That said, however, she is an often superb critic; her reading of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ is one of the best and most convincing I have encountered, without once reverting to the standard critical approach to that most difficult of authors: discussing her anger rather than her work. Although in another review, of the French critical work, Ca Se Lit Comme Un Roman Policier by Paul Bleton, she seems rather too readily to accept his central argument about "the reading of genre fiction as essentially serial fiction" (p. 21), a view of genre that would appear to have merits but that needs to be challenged far more radically than she does here.

If the development of her feminism underpins everything else in this collection, the other basic theme is the importance of understanding science, particularly biology, which she approaches with something of the fervour of a convert. But even this brings us back inevitably to feminism, as we see in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural," in many ways the best essay here, which recounts the writing of her novel Life, but places it firmly in the context of masculine domination of scientific development. A couple of other essays here tell pretty much the same story (her first horrified encounter with The Female Man by Joanna Russ is related at least three times in the book), but the overall affect of this is powerful and clarifies Jones's particular and personal take on feminism, which in turn helps to point out certain key aspects of her work. (Though again, this is not the whole story, we are none of us perfect readers.)

Along the way we get reviews, introductions, guest of honour talks and, as is the way with essay collections these days, blog posts. We learn about her political activism (notably on the Amnesty International UK Women's Action Committee), her growing interest in science, her delight in the work of writers like Sheri Tepper and Kathleen Ann Goonan, and always about her books. The Aleutian Trilogy, for example, is presented as being almost exclusively about gender relationships, though I tend to think that a post-colonial reading is at least as valid an approach to the books. And most of this is fascinating, though there are perhaps a few too many book lists or slightly rambling blog posts. But what is most interesting about both these books is the centrality of fantasy and science fiction, not just in their careers but in their political (primarily feminist) consciousness. Or, at least, that is one partial reading of the books.

Paul Kincaid is the coeditor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, and the author of the Hugo-nominated collection of reviews and essays, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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