Monday, May 9, 2011

When Fantasy Fails—The Secondary World Hypothesis


Science fiction and fantasy writers have a unique obligation to say something nobody else could ever say.  This seems obvious, but bears repeating, because so much genre fiction goes through the motions.  Alternate reality fiction may bear hallmarks of familiarity, but if readers feel we’ve seen all this before, we tend to feel robbed.

On the one hand, parts of Val Gunn’s In the Shadow of Swords seem familiar, with its Arabic-based culture and power politics, but not so familiar that we feel we’ve been here before.  Gunn presents a world of secrets and invites us to join him in discovering them.  He gives us an opportunity to explore, like a kid in a toy store, hoping to find something profound and dazzling around the next corner.

On the other hand, Peter Orullian wastes our time with abject silliness like The Unremembered.  Running nearly 700 pages, experienced fantasy readers will never feel they’ve encountered anything new.  Orullian’s world is laid out perfectly beforehand, and you can accurately predict each new development well in advance.  Val Gunn leads us on a journey to a mythic otherworld; Orullian gives us a guided tour of Disneyland’s Fantasy Village.

What makes Gunn more effective than Orullian?  Gunn creates what Tolkein called a secondary world: one separate from our “primary world” yet subject to standards equally consistent.  It’s like visiting a distant land: we go so we can get lost in winding streets, meet interesting people, and order coffee in a strange language.  If English-speaking  tour guides show us vistas pre-screened and guaranteed safe, what do we gain?

Gunn tells us of Ciris Sarn, an amoral assassin djinn-bound to a Sultan who has fallen under his deputies’ sway.  When one such deputy orders him to make a kill he doesn’t want, he has no choice but to obey.  But the victim’s widow seeks vengeance, while Sarn wants only his freedom.  As two steely adversaries play out their dance, grim conspiracies threaten to destroy generations of stability in the desert kingdom of Qatana.

By contrast, Orullian tells us of Tahn Junell, starry-eyed youth who gets hit with cold reality when ancient monsters banished to a distant realm suddenly show up in his village.  A mysterious wizard, a Sheason, informs Tahn that he and his friends are the fulfillment of ancient prophecy and must now fight to save all reality.  If this sounds familiar, it is: this entire book nakedly plagiarizes Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

The Unremembered comes from a major label publisher, and has one of the biggest promotional budgets accorded to a debut author in years.  In the Shadow of Swords was published by an indie house, has a shoestring budget, and is unlikely to see the sales it deserves.  Which tells us everything we need to know about publishing in our time.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief exemplifies what I like in secondary worlds.  Sure, it’s science fiction rather than fantasy, but remember what Clarke said about sufficiently advanced technology.  The science is purely rococo; Rajaniemi creates a shifting dreamscape blending Hebrew myth, French and Russian literature, technological paranoia, and online RPGs into a stew that we don’t so much comprehend as osmose.

Jean le Flambeur, the solar system’s most ostentatious larcener, gets sprung from prison by posthuman acolyte Mieli, who now keeps him on a short leash and needs him to do a job.  But Jean has his own goals, which include recovering memories of his enigmatic past.  When Jean’s name falls into detective Isidore Beautrelet’s hands, the two find themselves on a converging path toward secrets neither realize they’ve been keeping.

But the story almost takes second place to the structure.  And I don’t just mean the story structure: the caper takes place in the Oubliette, a walking Martian city that rearranges its own street layout at seemingly random intervals.  That symbolizes the whole book, as alliances, identities, and history rearrange themselves constantly.  We’re constantly disoriented, caught on the back foot, just like getting lost in the distant land I mentioned earlier.

This constant shift makes the book resistant to summary, much less analysis.  But it means we never have an opportunity to get bored.  Sure, Rajaniemi appropriates classic literature and myth to tell his story, but it never feels familiar.  Every page, every scene creates something new.  And because of that, this book seizes your imagination long after you close the cover on the last page.

I believe that is the true difference between triumphant and exhausted genre fiction.

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