“I was thinking about the Jurassic fairies in between reading Four Quartets, and I wondered if fairies are a sentient manifestation of the magical interconnectedness of the world. I remember once in Birmingham, when I was running away, I saw a fair standing on the corner of the street. It was raining, and the pavement was wet and shiny, and there he was, looking quite unconcerned. I went up to him, he saw me, nodded and vanished. I saw that just where he was there was some grass growing through a crack in the pavement.” (Among Others, p. 205).
“Harry gasped for breath. ‘But what is going on?’ ‘Magic,’ said Professor McGonagall. ‘That's just a word! Even after you tell me that, I can't make any new predictions! It’s exactly like saying “phlogiston” or “elan vital” or “emergence” or “complexity”!’ The black-robed witch laughed aloud. ‘But it is magic, Mr. Potter.’” (Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Loc. 567-70).
I. SECRET DIARY OF A DWTI MOR (AGED 15¾)
Narrators are often way prettier than they pretend. It’s a bit like the inverse of the MySpace Angle misleading profile pic. You meet them in the novel and they’re “homely” and “plain,” but when you meet them in the Hollywood adaptation – hello!
It’s easy to ridicule Hollywood Homely (for instance, in the make-over scene in Not Another Teen Movie). But actually, I think it’s something that the studios often get right, if only coincidentally. There really ought to be a discrepancy between the way an alienated loner is construed textually and cinematically. Because part of their alienation is distorted self-image. And if the movie adaptation is less entangled with the character’s consciousness than the novel is (though of course that’s not always the case), then the space between the novel and the movie can make a perfect display cabinet for that distortion.
But even among other alienated teenage narrators, Morwenna kinda sticks out. “They really can't wait to get rid of me,” she writes, “with my ugly Welsh accent and my limp and, worst of all, my inconvenient existence.” She is disabled, creeping along with a cane as thunderous classmates jog by hefting jolly hockeysticks. She is Welsh among the mostly English, relatively poor among the mostly rich, relatively common among the mostly posh. She is grieving among the mostly chipper. I could pick Morwenna the Teenage Witch from a line-up of Sabrinas. If I were a Mean Girl – or even just a Pliable, Community-Spirited Girl – I would bully her.
Morwenna writes elegantly, in that special style focused on simplicity, but whose simplicity is embroidered by the odd grace note which – as well as its individual felicity – reminds the reader that all that simplicity and spareness is deliberately chosen. She is witty too, but not in a showy way. It’s a pretty glum wit, mostly. Wit, maybe, which has arisen because the conditions are not quite right for wisdom to emerge.
She writes bewitchingly. Rather than turn, the pages sort of roll, like the endless hills beyond Hobbiton.
Just occasionally, you hear the voice that is speaking the voice in the diary. (The extradiegetic narration, maybe). That voice is witty too, but a little differently. Walton never goes so far as to poke fun at Morwenna’s aloofness, exactly. But she does lightly drape, from Morwenna’s loftiest musings, delicate pendants of dramatic irony. Wisdom with cracks in it can be just as comic as – yeah, you know. One tiny example. Morwenna, briefly back home in Wales, goes to a party, and remarks of its host:
“Leah must like Elvis Costello too, because she was playing some very loudly” (200).
Maybe Morwenna means to be arch here, but her assumption that Leah will just play the music she likes, not perhaps the music she’d like people at her party to think that she likes – or a deeper nesting, what she’d like them to think that she thinks that they think that she likes – is suggestive of a dangerous ingenuousness. A whole complex ballet of teenage customs and contestations is about to commence, and Morwenna is not exactly on her toes. In the midst of all this performance – all this uh “partifice” – Morwenna’s sensibleness and sincerity come across as stolid, sort of heartbreaking, and slightly scary. Suddenly I’m panicking that Morwenna’s about to get blown to bits, socially speaking.
Well, she does have an awkward run-in with a boy. He leaves her sad, confused and possibly somewhat opposed to the idea of sex. “The whole thing is sick, and I want nothing to do with it [...] this is completely beyond me” (202). But it probably could have been a lot worse.
Dwti is apparently a word in Wales for wee, BTW. The subtitle originally read, “secret diary of a dreamy Mor,” but she isn’t really very dreamy.
Morwenna, can’t you be a bit more jaded? A bit more compromised and compromising? I guess perhaps compromise gets easier when you've got a lot to lose.
II. SECRET GOODREADS OF A DWTI MOR (AGED 15¾)
What Morwenna does have to lose, she likes to lose in a book.
From somewhere (capitalism? Satan?) I got the notion that Among Others would be about a girl who reads science fiction. Fantasy and science fiction do predominate in Morwenna’s biblio-rapine, but actually, she reads ALL KINDS OF THINGS. She reads Plato and Noel Streatfeild and Franz Kafka and Dodie Smith and Jane Austen and Josephine Tey. She reads Charles Dickens, though she doesn’t really want to. She reads TS Eliot.
I think it’s important that Morwenna reads these other things. I’m not 100% sure why. Perhaps partly because it broadens the book’s address. Someone suggested to me that Among Others won the Hugo and the Nebula because it was about growing up reading fantasy and science fiction in the 1970s, and so the judges mistook it for a work of Universal Resonance. (Or I think what the person actually said was: the judges couldn’t know for certain that that wasn’t why they picked it). I hadn’t read it then, but now I think I disagree. Among Others is about growing up reading fantasy and science fiction in the 1970s, but it’s about a lot of other things too. For instance, it’s about walking with a cane:
“I found myself being helped down to the car. That sort of help is actually a hindrance. If you ever see someone with a walking stick, that stick, and their arm, are actually a leg. Grabbing it or lifting it, or doing anything unasked to the stick and the arm are much the same as if you grabbed a normal person's leg as they're walking. I wish more people understood this.” (224)
And anyway, everything has to be about something. I suppose if you were considering giving an award to a novel all about being sent away to a panel of judges, then you might have to worry.
That said, even if it’s one of the things broadening the book’s address, I don’t think presence of the Plato and the Streatfeild and so on ever mitigates the priority of science fiction and fantasy. In other words, I don’t think it’s a sop pitched towards a less niche readership. I think it’s more to do with how the priority of science fiction and fantasy is formulated in the first place.
Here’s a way to try to express that: perhaps reading a lot of F&SF can either be an essay in experience or an essay in innocence.
That is, reading a lot of F&SF can make you deeply familiar and comfortable with, and fond of, various imaginary things. (That’s the “experience” version).
And/or reading a lot of F&SF can make various real things, including you yourself, endlessly unfamiliar, through implied comparisons with imaginary things. (“Innocence”).
Morwenna’s eclectic-but-selective Goodreads shelves are symptomatic of reading of the “innocence” kind. If that's your kind of reading, it's unlikely that your sphere of literary interests will ever seem settled to an outsider. Even if you know exactly what you like, the books you like change you, and the new you may like something different. So there is a nexus of estrangement, eclecticism, and seething preferences and habits.
Both kinds of reading, by the way, can be fun.
So there’s that to think about.
III. SECRET GOODREADS OF A DWTI MOR (AGED 15¾) P.S.
Of course, you can cut that bun in many ways. Damien Walter, in a recent Guardian column about Adam Roberts, invokes a pretty similar distinction: “The worst thing that ever happened to science fiction was getting confused with genre fiction. If any kind of literature relies on the new and the innovative to excite the reader it is SF. Genre fiction recycles, repeats and repackages the same old ideas.”
We do however have to be careful about the relationship between (a) innocence and (b) the new and “the innovative.” It could be complicated. Especially if we’re trying to imagine that innocence isn’t necessarily just a privative, a negative, a lack of something. That’s science fiction Walter is talking about; what about fantasy? Very old things can be just as estranging as very new ones. Morwenna certainly chooses to read a lot of very old books.
Encounters of innocence and experience might also correlate roughly with Barthe's writerly and readerly texts respectively. And I like Tzvevan Todorov's definition of the fantastic (which he partitions from the marvellous and the uncanny), because it organises itself around hesitation, not estrangement.
"The fantastic requires the fulfilment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work – in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as 'poetic' interpretations" (The Fantastic, trans. Howard (1970/1973)).
Bossy. But hesitation may have an advantage over estrangement, in the way it suggests characters and readers who adjust their expectations as time goes by, and how familiar and the unfamiliar may be folded up, all marbled and labyrinthine, in a single text. And perhaps those hesitations map the angles at which the strange and the ordinary curl round and round each other.
Could Morwenna hesitate?
I don't know. Morwenna polishes off all these books with inexorable, almost slapsticky avidity. Even in her capacity as a precocious and estranged small girl, she is as much Homer Simpson as she is Lisa.
She reminds me of a bit in Steve Aylett’s Rebel at the End of Time. “A strange sound alerted them to the sight, far behind them, of Bishop Castle sucking the entire remaining fare from the table into a massively distended, fluming mouth” (Loc. 416-18).
IV. OTHER NOVELS THAT HAVE WON THE HUG-YOU-LA AND THE NOUGAT
There is a wonderful strange blob of ink in the margin on page 64. Does anyone else have that?
The fact that Among Others won the both awards did make me want to look up what other novels have. Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ringworld, The Gods Themselves, Rendezvous with Rama, The Dispossessed, The Forever War, Gateway, Dreamsnake, The Fountains of Paradise, Startide Rising, Neuromancer, Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Doomsday Book, Forever Peace, American Gods, Paladin of Souls, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, The Windup Girl, Blackout/All Clear.
So there’s that to think about too.
V. THE HUG YOU, LA (DWITI MOR[T]), AND THE NOUGAT
I hope it is ink. Walton gently hints, BTW, that Morwenna’s first light touch may have wrung from Owen untimely seed. Having leapt up and yelled, “You slut!” Owen is to be seen “standing up with his hands clenched defensively in front of it, as if he thought I was about to grab for it” (201).
“There’s something I’m just not seeing about this even now” (202), Morwenna later mopes.
Or perhaps that’s not it. Perhaps Owen really is repulsed by a girl acting as his equal, mirroring his mild sexual confidence. Perhaps Owen doesn’t like girls.
Morwenna doesn’t even consider these possibilities though. It doesn't occur to her that Owen’s pose could be a stance of shame.
It’s a deft portrayal of how a relatively privileged person can attain his consolation at the cost of someone else losing hers, without anyone even getting any of the facts even remotely straight. Morwenna, can’t you be bit more capable of assuming your sub-antagonist has simply sex wet himself, and moving on?
VI. IMMERSION & STUFF
It also won the British Fantasy award, by the way.
I think Morwenna doesn’t just read in this second way though, for the innocence and the estrangement. I think she reads in both ways. She also reads for the repeating, the recycling, the repackaging. More specifically, she comfort reads. She reads to forget, to hide away, and to lose herself.
She describes it well somewhere. I can’t find the right page now. It’s something like, “pulling a book up over you.”
You know how sometimes a book can be so absorbing that you forget, till you come to the last page, that the pulverised remnants of your lost right arm are still trapped under a boulder in an isolated slot canyon in Blue John Canyon, and that for the last five days you have been deftly page-turning one-handedly like Hugh Grant in the rather miffingly gendered closing moments of Notting Hill?
Or at least, so absorbing that you forget that you are sitting on a sort of weird ledge in a car park wearing tiny khaki shorts in the middle of winter. All the abeyant iciness rushes through what’s left of your numb nerves. This was something which happened more often when you were a child, or a teenager, it seems. It was probably only the warm beading blood on your charmingly skinned child knees that kept your legs (as surgeons put it) viable.
But it still sort of happens. Getting lost like this in a book is arguably the most important theme in Among Others. What’s it all about? How does it happen? Should Among Others be added to the Erowid Experience Vaults under “F&SF” (see note 1)?
“The thing about Tolkien, about The Lord of the Rings, is that it’s perfect. It’s this whole world, this whole process of immersion, this journey. It’s not, I’m pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up” (103).
It’s easy to suppose that what makes a book immersive is mostly to do with the depth, completeness and well-joined-up-ness of its mise-en-scène. It has to feel concrete, right? Without seamless verisimilitude, a narrow fissure will slip across the centaur’s withers, through which you will glimpse the boulder, the car park, your contentedly pregnant Julia Roberts, or whatever.
Whereas if a full and intricately detailed world underlies the writing, you don’t need conflict or tension to pull you in. You can also read about down time, about the hobbits going hillwalking, and your mind is still surrounded by the world. That’s the big test. If you can move from one mood to another, from axe battles to chillaxment, without the world dispersing, then you must be immersed.
Your mind enters the world, not the other way round. Tolkien seems to think so: “That state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (“On Fairy-Stories”).
It’s easy to suppose that. And it may be true, I don’t know. But even if it is mostly true, I think mesmeric murmurs may also reach us through other channels, channels which actually circumvent whatever world the novel is portraying.
For instance. I am drawn a little deeper by every mention of snacks and hot drinks.
The words “honey bun” own an allure which is pretty context-transcendent for me. It has an aura, an association. It is a tiny, pleasant trigger. I’m pretty sure my immersion is partly a function of the sum total somatic salience of the novel’s words, considered as discrete items. To put it another way, it’s partly a function of the raw incidence of bodily bribes, whether or not they cohere into a concrete, seamless world. Or to simplify just a bit, it’s partly a function of how many buns there are in it. (There are quite a few cosy moments in Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema, BTW (see note 1) and there are quite a few snacks and hot drinks too).
It’s not just mouthwatering language which has this effect, obviously. It might be the words “warm and dry” near the word “rain.” But let’s keep focused on the mouthwatering stuff. Maybe just because I am actually hungry. I’m sure I heard that, assuming normal muscle mass and rate of caloric absorption/expenditure, the quantity of delicious buns, sandwiches, lemonade and raspberry pop eaten and drunk by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five/Four (remember, it is Timmy the dog who makes five), imply that events in the books take place at c.95% of light speed. General relativity may explain Blyton’s apparently timeless charm.
I’m wandering off the topic a bit. We’re talking about Walton’s deft use of this Bun Incidence Index thingy.
Are they deliberate, these buns? Yes and no. In one direction lies technocratic #amediting stuff like, “Throw in a sex scene or a battle to spice it up.”
And in the other lies the semiotic (see Julia Kristeva’s Desire in Language), and perhaps prosody as sedimented social experience (see Simon Jarvis’s “Prosody as Cognition”), implicated with libidinal economy, albeit with a fraught and mysterious relation to any individual subjectivity (see JH Prynne’s “Mental Ears and Poetic Work”) – those are patterns of linguistic affect that can be discovered hermeneutically, but always seem to elude strategic manipulation (see note 2). Basically, you can’t really control them.
And right here in the middle is the Bun Incidence Index, which you can't quite control. It has a technocratic feel, but don’t let that fool you too much. You can’t just screw in a lattice of cinnamon buns at paragraph corners for guaranteed immersion. “Have them have a piping hot cup of tea every third sentence, no matter what”? It won’t work. If nothing else, some readers might feel like they don’t really want more tea. As general rule, there’s no formula. There is no formula because the Bun Incidence Index interacts with everything else that happens when you read. It interacts in unknowably complex ways.
You can’t quite control it, you can't really use it, but you can play with it in an arduous, ends-directed way. With serendipity plus cunning, you can eventually nail that bun. Sometimes the bun is actually a pun (see the nail go down?), like Miss Carroll the librarian. She is angelic, a safe space, a carrel. (This changes a little bit when her first name, Alison, is around. Then she reminds you of Wonderland).
I think it is a technique – or a technical realm – I’d associate more with poetry than prose. But then Walton is a poet too.
And so is Morwenna. “[...] Miss Carroll came over with a pile of modern poetry books, which she said she thought I might like to look at. [...] It seems poetry has moved on since Chesterton” (appropriately, page 101).
VII. IMMERSION & STUFF P.S.
What’s been said of buns can be said, more-or-less, of books. I found Morwenna's voice to be pretty bewitching, and Among Others to be pretty immersive. That was useful, because when Morwenna talked about being lost in a book, you kind of knew what she meant.
But what if it works the other way round too? What if one of the ways Among Others becomes so absorbing is merely by so often alluding to the feeling of being lost in a book? A sort of Immersive Book Incidence Index?
Which would be roughly the opposite of the tweet I just read, from Rose Biggin to Chris Goode:
@rosebiggin @beescope you lost me at 'immersive' x
Here’s Chris Goode BTW, at least ten years earlier, being unnecessarily modest about the dogged fidelity of his poetry’s rapid cuts to the perceptual and cognitive narratives of the struggling “I”:
“The rapid cuts in much of the poetry are simply doggedly faithful to the perceptual and cognitive narratives of the struggling ‘I’ [...] On a train journey, in five seconds, I see a cow lying down in a field, I think about sex (not because of the cow but because I am a man and we apparently think about sex every few seconds), I see a billboard urging me to book a holiday. Given a couple minutes with each of these concepts I could arrive at some sort of satisfactory relation with each of them. But on the train, I am presented with a mutant, this on-rushing cow-cock-holiday, and compelled instantly to establish my relation with this grotesque [...]” (From Sam Ladkin and Chris Goode, “Some Correspondence,” Chicago Review).
There’s another reason I’m doubtful that immersiveness is all about a full and intricately detailed world underlying the writing. As if, you get the resolution high enough, you can just go and live there. Isn’t it more important to have a voice you want to listen to? So, depending what you’re like, mightn’t that be a voice that often speaks about – for want of a better phrase – the real world? A voice speaking about a world that often is cut and torn into scraps, or joined by badly-stitched seams? A world populated by incoming cow-cock-holidays?
So that’s something to think about as well.
VIII. YELLOWISH-BLUE & KARASSES & STUFF
I should like to send Jo Walton a bun. But it is not done to send buns to girls who are not in one’s house or form.
“I got a telling-off after lunch, and an Order Mark, my first. Apparently it’s not done to give buns to girls not in your house or form, unless they’re a relation. And Gill, while she is in my chemistry class, isn’t in my house or form, so I’m not supposed to be friendly with her, and my giving her a bun is considered deeply suspicious, and possibly lesbian.” (62)
I could try pretending we're related. (We’re aren’t related. Although if anyone feels like reading a lonely tale of a missing twin, and of uncanny feelings steadied between chosen enchantments and sheer coincidence, I can definitely recommend they pick one by an author whose name they share).
There are many buns in Among Others. Some of them circulate among the Arlinghurst pupils as officially-sanctioned social capital. Buns are complex tributes, a kind of currency in which hierarchies, allegiances and just general sui generis schoolgirl horridness all are mediated. They are also yummy.
The schoolgirl horridness and the yumminess are perhaps where buns differ from the books. The rest of the comparison holds up pretty well. There's the direct, world-circumventing salience I mentioned in the last section. A mention of a nice bun is quite likely to have a certain kind of entrancing pull, and so is a mention of a mesmerising book. More importantly, they both circulate in a kind of gift economy. “We started from the bottom. We had to make our own Goodreads in those days.” Loans or gifts of books assert identity, authority, solidarity, vulnerability, hierarchy, and complicated, unnameable things (see note 3). People are constantly giving Morwenna books, and it matters a lot which ones they give her. Gill gives her slightly the wrong books, for instance.
Some people, of course, probably do read books in the same way they eat buns. But I’ve suggested that Morwenna isn’t one of those people. She’s more of an existential reader. Her reading is a dialectic synthesis of estrangement and consolation, or of innocence and experience – in the simple sense that by, her alert and creative agency, she interleaves contradictory states along her life’s timeline. (Which is also way fun).
So perhaps that’s the deep difference between books and buns. Buns tend to be less dialectical. So there’s that to think about too. I know many will disagree with me.
VIII. BOOKS INSIDE BOOKS
Among Others is filled with the comfort of feeble winter sun. The bad stuff gets recorded in a rather general way. Morwenna doesn’t tell us who the worst bullies are, or what the worst things they do are. The bullies don’t have names and personalities. Or if Morwenna must be specific about something bad, she is often rather brisk and matter-of-fact about it. But when she records her consolations, the detail thickens. There are always buns, and there are always books. And you always might spot a fairy, who probably won't help you. But you'll feel better. You know dim-witted Deidre, Morwenna’s friend-by-default, far better than any of the mean girls.
Still, Walton is somehow very deftly conveying that atmosphere of pettiness and cruelty. My first LOL moment was when Morwenna beats Deidre at Scrabble by 600 points.
I wonder if (a little oddly) the density of allusion also helps to create this atmosphere. Just now I wondered if mentions of raptness help Among Others to hold you rapt, and holding you rapt helps to make mentions of raptness richly meaningful.
And perhaps there is a similar mechanism, which reminds you what it is like to be in presence of subtle cruelty, precisely by being subtly cruel. It’s not exactly that I felt inadequate or deficient, or alienated or left out, whenever I hadn’t read some book Morwenna was talking about. The nuance nudges up or down a notch, depending on which books you’ve read and which you haven’t, but nothing ever swims out of comprehensibility.
One moment did stand out, when Morwenna’s dad doesn’t get the joke, and neither did I. First:
“‘I’ll support you for as long as you want to be in full-time education,’ Daniel said, not having read Doorways in the Sand or The Number of the Beast.” (279)
“‘Oh, this is priceless, he said he’d support me until I finished in full time education. But he hasn’t read –’ Wim burst out laughing, just as Daniel came back, so we had to explain to him. Fortunately, he thought it was funny too.” (281)
*Me laughing along* What? What? Heheheh. What’s so funny, guys? (Here is the answer. “Fred receives a generous stipend from his cryogenically-frozen uncle as long as he is a full-time student and has not received an academic degree, which he has put off for thirteen years by changing majors repeatedly” (Wikipedia)).
A Brutishness Incidence Index? Perhaps the brute is you, the reader insensible to specific bit of cultural knowledge. No more Indices, swear. (Could just call it Number of Beasts).
The subtle cruelty is also a sort of kindness, of course, insofar as Walton steers clears of spoilers. For the most part. There may have been some minors. (Literally the only other book in the Where’s Wally? shoulder bag my friend Lila gave me was Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton, and Morwenna does talk about it (in its previous incarnation, Triton) rather a lot, so there were some hair-raising moments. I still haven’t read it though. I have found Wally though).
There are perhaps one or two treats for not knowing something. If you didn’t know what a “karrass” was, and resisted looking it up, you could just about pick it up from the context. Some sort of ingroup or tribe, right? Then when Morwenna defines it, late in the book, I think that would come across almost as a sweet little twist. (And I wish I hadn’t looked up the Virgil and the Le Guin epigraphs right away, because I think one of those is also translated later).
It sometimes feels odd that Morwenna will explain all about her childhood in the Valleys, or the timetable of Arlinghurst or whatever, but will talk about books as if you’ve already read them. Secret diaries are an odd form anyway. I’m quite interested in literature written for an audience of one, where that one is the author. But secret diaries are very seldom that, really. What are they then? Who are they for? It’s not clear, so what their audience should or shouldn’t know isn’t clear either.
In a way I’d have liked even more references to books. Or at least, Among Others made me imagine a book I’d like to read or write, where everything which is mentioned comes with a literary allusion.
You might expect that all those mentions of other books would keep jolting you out of Among Others by reminding you of everything else you could be reading. That wasn’t how I experienced it though.
It did make me think of Among Others as a kind of archaistic Menippean satire: something a bit like Cervantes' Don Quixote or Swift's Tale of a Tub in its willingness to assume and to fashion a shared literary culture.
IX. BOOKS INSIDE BOOKS II: SCIENCE FICTION INSIDE FANTASY
“I wonder if there will be fairies in space?” (110)
You might also expect the science fiction would interfere with the fantasy or vice-versa or both. “You show me a Scifi/Fantasy mixer, and I’ll show you a liberal arts major who wishes their degree was useful,” writes D. M. J. Aurini, in a blog post arguing (via some affectionate examinations of Star Wars and D&D) that the two should play separately. And he's not alone.
So do the two genres inevitably tear each other apart? I think fantasy elements can sometimes make the extrapolation and rationalisations characteristic of science fiction seem a waste of effort, like oversubtle wordplay on a dance-floor.
Or like this: “You . . . went to all that effort to make your space scooter’s exhaust mechanism plausible . . . and it’s Galadriel Lady of Lórien you’ve got gunning the engine?”
Science fiction's counterattack on fantasy is a bit subtler. Imagine you’re eating lunch, and someone knocks on your door and asks for a big cash injection to keep them out of trouble. Of course you agree, and you can’t help but feel really swag and angelic, helping them out like that. That's the fantasy bit out of the way. Then on the way out the door, they’re like, “Oh and can I have half that cucumber sandwich?” That's the science fiction. That cucumber sandwich. And it’s on the point of that small favour, not the much larger one you just agreed to, where you suddenly feel exploited, and perhaps made a fool of.
So maybe it’s that? “Geeze, author. I’ve let you have the immortal Galadriel, whose hair is held a marvel unmatched. And now you’re asking me to not look too closely at the acoustical energy specs of her space bike?”
Or a slight variation: just as you've show your generosity, they suddenly mention something you'll get in return. Maybe it's just a warm fuzzy feeling. But now they're treating this like a liberal contract, implying you're impartial equals who have self-interestedly entered into an arrangement of mutual benefit. You're like, “Geezo. By giving you this gift, I’ve already initiated archaic bonds of spiritual reciprocity, what Marcel Mauss called ‘total prestation.’” “Okay look Jo, dude, have your pound back. I shouldn’t really be eating Reese’s Pieces at this time of –” “It is too late for that, my friend. More than friend, I should say. Something much deeper. Much older. Purchase the Reese’s Pieces, and I shall await you on yonder bench to watch you eat them. You are mine, forever.”
I think the possibility for genre code antagonism is definitely there. How does it play out in Among Others?
Now, you could just say it has many different kinds of fantasy and science fiction elements in it, and call it recursive speculative fiction or metafiction or dialogic literature or postmodern fiction or whatever, and leave it at that. If you watch it like a hawk - a hawk watching a text - it certainly will promulgate the sneezing frisking lambkins of Verfremdungseffekt, wriggle with tenebrous fronds of Romantic irony, nimbly scramble the ROFLcopters of plurality right under the pestle of monosemy's pummelling, Moomin-esque nose.
And I'm pretty sure its fantasy and science fiction elements can all be resolved or reconciled in interesting ways at that level. But I think if we only do that, if we let these elements float around freely like that, we skip over the very special in which they happen to be assembled. How they happen to be assembled, that is, when you are immersed. When you've pulled Among Others over your head.
That set-up is as follows. Among Others is a work of fantasy. Inside it, there are works of fantasy and of science fiction. Taking those works of fantasy first – clearly, they are works of fantasy in reality as well as in the world of Among Others. But we have to assume that they are fantasy in a different way. Most of the time, we’re allowed to forget about this. The muted and evasive quality of magic in Among Others, its continuity with make-believe, allows us to forget it. But occasionally we’re reminded.
For instance. “There’s a thing in The Dark Is Rising, the Christmas one, which is definitely the best of them, where Will does magic in a church, and the vicar asks about the magic crosses and they say they’re before Christ, and he says, ‘But not before God.’ The magic is generally pretty well written but conventional, the battle of Dark and Light, and you learn it from grimoires and then you can fly and time travel and whatever you want. Nothing like magic really is, much less confusing. In children’s books with magic everything is always very black and white, though not of course in Tolkien. But ‘not before God’ made me think” (161).
And, about Middle Earth: “It’s not, I’m pretty sure, actually true, but that makes it more amazing, that someone could make it all up” (103). That’s quite a dislocating moment. You may think, “That’s slightly out-of-character whimsical for Morwenna, thinking The Lord of the Rings might actually be true. Even if she decides that it isn’t.” Then you remember that fairies are real. And the Lord of the Rings which Morwenna talks about, even though it seems absolutely familiar, is actually not the Lord of the Rings we know about. It’s a completely different book with the same title and all the same words. It’s completely different though, because it’s a book of which it’s not whimsical to think for a moment, “Is it true?” Even if you then decide that it isn’t.
It’s very strange. (As strange as if Borges could write a story called “Cervantes, Author of the Quixote”? As strange as if Tolkien, when talking about what sort of rhetorical capability would be necessary to immerse someone in a green-sunned world, would casually refer to that capability as an elvish craft, as if the elves are actually real and joining us in the thorny question of how to talk enchantingly about unreal things (which he does)?).
Anyway: the works of fantasy must be works of fantasy in some subtly different way. We're allowed to glimpse that difference, but these are risky moments. And perhaps the same is really true of the science fiction in Among Others. Perhaps not everything which is science fiction for Morwenna can be science fiction for Jo Walton, or vice-versa, or is so by some distinct mechanisms.
Perhaps. Though it is not clear. It's not clear how living in a world where there is magic would change your relationship with science fiction, would change the nature of science fiction.
Some will take that as further evidence of the mutually repulsive energies of fantasy and science fiction. I'm not totally sure. Isn't it also difficult to imagine how living in a world where there is, say, pervasive nanotech, and full brain emulation, would change your relationship with science fiction, would change the nature of science fiction? It is a tricky one, because any science fiction book might not be science fiction in a science fictional universe, right? The things in it we see as “science fictional” might be mundane things.
Isn't it much easier to extrapolate the effects of such technology on economic and social life, and on cultural life too, so long as it doesn't stray too close to the gap where science fiction should be? And isn't it maddening difficult by comparison, to extrapolate the effects of such technology on science fiction? What is Zaphod Beeblebrox’s science fiction? How is it different from ours? How is it different from Lazarus Long’s?
I'm not nearly well-read enough to know for sure. And I'd love to gather some counterexamples. But I suspect that – for such a supposedly reflexive, genre-savvy and self-referential genre, a genre that is perhaps even doomed by its decadent self-referentiality, effete, jaded, ginormous and autovorous, like Pizza the Hut locked in his spacecar – science fiction is actually pretty chary about representing any science fiction from any angle than our own (see note 4, the big long one).
It may all be to do with the way we develop beliefs about the minds of others - the whole theory theory / folk psychology debate, the whole question of what, when you put yourself in someone else's shoes, you have used for feet.
I have certainly had dreams fall apart when my dreaming self has been so imprudent to conjure up a particular kind of person, with a particular kind of implied capability. Perhaps to tell a certain kind of secret, or something like that. And I have asked them to demonstrate it, this capability, and they evade, and evade again, and brush over it, and I grow suspicious, because my demands have grown so ferocious it is not in their interest to keep from me this simple demonstration. And then I have to wake up. Because the person I demanded it of was an aspect of me, and I don’t have that capability anywhere in my mind. And this time round, my dreaming self was incapable of counterfeiting it.
Anyway. Imagination (that could be the right word) has this structure. At its circumference of its searchlight, it can always plant another lighthouse like itself. But it cannot reveal what that secondary sweep of light reveals, and it cannot plant a third lighthouse at just any point on that new circumference. And it is not comfortable with this.
X. MAGIC & EVASIVENESS & STUFF
“I don’t want to talk about her, I don’t want to tell him what she’s like. It’s hard to describe her anyway.” (220)
Why is the magic in Among Others is the way it is? One way of arriving at an answer is to look at what the novel is asking the magic to do. What do the premise, the narrative, the whole mood need from the magic?
One of the novel's trickiest requests, I think, is that it be allowed to produce a great abundance of those phenomena I was searching for, mostly fruitlessly, in the last section (and in note 4 below). It asks that it be allowed to represent fantasy and science fiction, seen from an angle which is only not quite our own. The novel wants to talk about such books as if they were there, as if their words were really read. It wants to concoct them as objects of the more-or-less realist aspect of the narrative. It wants them to be part of the world that it builds. It doesn't want every codex to burst like a discourse piñata and shower forth textuality and Romantic irony. An integral requirement is therefore that those works must be consistent with Morwenna's consciousness, a consciousness which knows magic to be real.
What kind of magic could allow this?
The answer, of course, is that the magic must be as unreal as possible.
I’d also heard Among Others was a “reverse Harry Potter tale,” which also doesn’t seem quite right. Harry isn’t a lonely and estranged Muggle at Hogwarts, is he? I haven’t read them yet.
I’m not sure which one to start with, to be honest. I like the look of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. (The URL is HPMOR. Could’ve been Harry Potter and the . . . and Mor). Because in those days we had to make not only our own Goodreads, but also our own Amazon (though maybe not their own tax havens), something which crops up once or twice in Among Others is getting a book out of sequence. As a kid I really loved books out of sequence. I think I still do. I realised that Among Others is exactly like the middle part of a trilogy. It’s all about tying up loose ends and dealing with fallout, and setting the scene for more climactic battles to come. Not that I think there literally should be a prequel or a sequel. In that respect it’s perfect the way it is. Explicitly sequenced books seem to dominate F&SF today. It’s nice to get a sense, in Among Others, of sequences which are a matter of readerly interpretation and recommendation. You should read this. But you should read this first.
Anyway. the Potter films definitely include a techno-managerial attitude towards magic, revealed in the way Harry and Ron jab their smart-twigs and bark their voice-activated charms in that tone of mildly harried, deeply entitled bourgeois expertise. Being a wizard is a bit like being a top barrister or a celebrity sports personality.
Emma Watson plays Hermione a little differently, I think. There’s a bit more provisional reverence in her incantations, a kind of negative capability. As William Adams puts it, “An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature, before there can be any thing extraordinary. A river must flow, before its stream can be interrupted” (An Essay in answer to Mr. Hume’s Essay on Miracles, 1754). Hermione, unlike the little boy wizards, doesn’t class magic with “ordinary regular course of nature.”
Does Morwenna? Yes and no. Hers is a very subtle and fine-drawn magic. It is magic ever on the brink of mundane explanations. “You can never be sure where you are with magic. And you can never be sure if you’ve really done something or you’re just playing” (43). The lines are always unclear between actual magic, the quasi-magic of placebo, persuasion, suggestion and salience, and sheer coincidence. That's what I mean by magic as unreal as possible.
“Everything that deceives may be said to enchant,” says the thoroughly enchanted Glaucon in Plato’s The Republic (Book III, Jowett’s translation).
In fact wait, maybe that's what it is. Hermione doesn't go around doing all minimalist pig Latin mansplainabracadabras all the time.
Anyway. Morwenna could be someone who performs superstitious rituals, and pretends to see fairies, because that’s makes life bearable. She could be clutching onto childish things as her own strange, brittle and intensely singular way of mourning her twin sister. This quasi-magic would still be far from impotent, but it would operate only via the heart. It could dull pain, or it could create hope, or poise, or expectation. That's not stuff to be sniffed at.
And Among Others is just about compatible with that interpretation, but Walton carefully arranges things so that such a reading lies against its grain. If Morwenna wrote in her last diary entry, “I’ve been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and persecutory and grandiose delusive disorder, organised around a belief in magic,” we wouldn’t think, “That’s a sad twist, but at least now she gets the treatment she needs.” We’d think, “I wonder if it’s her mother who enchanted her?”
This sweet mysterious way magic works in Among Others makes me think it’s a candidate for a find-replace. I’d like to read Among Others again with a different word in place of “magic,” just to see what it would say. “Fate” or “luck” might slot in quite smoothly, but not be all that interesting. “Class” or “sex” would be an awkward fit, but maybe more interesting. Maybe “power” would be somewhere in the middle:
“Magic isn’t inherently evil. But it does seem to be terribly bad for people” (184).
“Morally, magic is just indefensible” (142).
Compare Clarke’s Third Law – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”! It’s been remixed before, e.g. by Michael Shermer: “Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” We could think about adding another remix: “Any sufficiently sophisticated magic is indistinguishable from power.”
“Free will” would be another interesting one. Or, obviously, “money.” Mor Magic, Mor Problems.
Here’s one bit that wouldn’t work very well for “class”:
“You know, class is like magic. There’s nothing there you can point to, it evaporates if you try to analyse it, but it’s real and it affects how people behave and makes things happen” (64).
What are you talking about Find-Replace Morwenna, class is like class, STFU.
Okay, here’s another sort of find-replace. Magic is arguably the most important theme in Among Others. What’s it all about? How does it work? Should Among Others appear in the Through The Eyes of Madness TV Tropes trope? How unreliable a narrator can you be, BTW? Is Ishmael actually the very unreliable narrator of Pride & Prejudice? Puts in lots of whales and ships and things, there aren’t any?
XI. MAGIC & EVASIVENESS & GANDALF & WEATHERWAX AND STUFF
The magic must comply with a second somewhat odd requirement. Morwenna has to suffer. So her magic can't be too useful to her. It can't protect her suffering, or zotz the sources of her suffering.
Together these two requirements - that Morwenna must not be excluded from our literary culture (i.e. that her experience of Lord of the Rings must be close enough to ours that we can at least recognise the book), and that she must suffer (i.e. her powers must somehow compatible with spending a lot of high school feeling just rotten and alienated and downtrodden and lost) - shape many of the magic's essential features.
Of course, another way is to understand the magic is via precedents. In its sort of darkling, theurgic Christmassyness, it reminds me of CS Lewis’s Narnia and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. That’s a tone and imagery thing, mainly. Alan Garner’s Red Shift too, the way in that book the English Civil War massacre at Barthomley Church mingles with the visions and berserker fits, and with the faith in incarnate deity, of the Celts and Roman deserters who once lived and died there. Doesn’t Red Shift end with “not really now not any more”? Or . . . it ends with a cypher. With RTT PTQZT OD KDRY TOQR UUAI IQ WV MW RPZL.
In Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (highly commendable on the strength of that firefly-kindled batrachian Rubick’s cube snog scene alone), magic wishes only work if you also work hard to achieve them by mundane means. Christmas films are also a crucible for hard-to-pin-down stances on supernature, perhaps because they are conscious of the need to be compatible with a vast array of mutated intrafamilial Santa lies in varying states of decay. The Santa in Miracle on 34th Street is not very supernatural.
And also the magic of Among Others reminds me of the inscrutable, “be careful what you pray for” God of Genesis 28:20-22; Numbers 3:4 (Nadab and Abihu are destroyed for “offering strange fire before the Lord”; could they have been trying to shoot Him with a laser?) and 11:20 (“You want meat? I’ll give you meat”); Judges 11:31 (Jephthah’s daughter pays the price for her dad’s distinct lack of genre savvy); Ruth 2:12 perhaps (Boaz assuring Ruth the right guy is out there) and so on.
It’s not really the genie-with-a-faulty-parser variety magic. It’s not the “So-the-guy-says,-‘You-complain-just-about-a-million-ducks?-What,-you-really-think-I-wished-for-a-ten-inch-pianist?’” variety. It’s more the variety where you do get what you asked for, but the world is so intricately woven up, you fail to spot the unpleasant implications or prerequisites of your wish. Compare W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” the dreams in Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, perhaps the literal Simon Says game in Diana Wynn Jones’s Witch Week, and Eric’s wishes in Terry Pratchett’s
Perhaps that’s another reason why all those other books are important – the Plato, and so on. They make the divide between science fiction and fantasy far less stark. They create intermediaries such that the family resemblance of speculative fiction can emerge. The older books, particularly, have had mercurial relationship with truth-telling down the ages. And of course, most people do believe in magic, and quite a lot of them believe in theurgy. “Because you know, we'd just be honest, and say, ‘Mommy is one of the chosen people, and Daddy believes that Jesus is magic.’” – Sarah Silverman.
Terry Pratchett and Tolkien are quite intricate precedents really. Each of their worlds has more than one kind of magic in it. But at least some of that magic is terribly, terribly mysterious. It is vague in the sense that you can say certain things are definitely magical and others definitely not, but you can’t find the dividing line.
In Pratchett’s Discworld series, I’m thinking more of Granny Weatherwax’s headology than all that Rincewind stuff. Much of the time, Granny Weatherwax isn’t really doing magic. She’s doing bluff and (Perhaps she does conjuring tricks too; I can’t remember). But Weatherwax’s headology is a little different from the legerdemain of our own top crone, Derren Brown. Part of the difference is that Weatherwax has a little “real magic” to leverage. If people see you are a witch, it’s practically as good as being a witch. But the best way to be seen as a witch is to be a witch.
What does Mor think?
“Harriet said she felt they [Garrett’s Lord Darcy books] belonged rather with things like Dunsany’s club stories and tall tales, they were whimsical. I disagreed (probably talking too much and too vehemently) because I think the way in which they’re like SF is the opposite of whimsy, they’re taking magic and treating it as another bit of science, especially in Too Many Magicians.” (276)
They're taking magic and treating magic as another bit of science? Hmm! You could perhaps see Weatherwax’s magic as this kind of stretched-out materialism, which just happens to operate across an extended set of natural phenomena. That’s the nub of a running joke in Wyrd Sisters: Weatherwax teaches Magrat to identify the active ingredients in witchcraft, and thereby demystifies it:
“‘And I invoke and bind thee with the balding scrubbing brush of Art and the washboard of Protection,’ said Nanny, waving it. The wringer attachment fell off.
‘Honesty is all very well,’ whispered Magrat wretchedly, ‘but somehow it isn’t the same.’
‘You listen to me, my girl,’ said Granny. ‘Demons don’t care about the outward shape of things. It’s what you think that matters. Get on with it.’
I wonder if Discworld and Middle Earth are both responding to a problematic (or a set of narrative requirements, or whatever) which, slightly strangely, they share with each other, but not with Among Others. Maybe Tolkien’s ginormous and detailed mythology manages to make elves and dragons and so on, to a certain degree, mundane. It interrelates them and systematises them and enriches them with language and history, and it thereby naturalises them. And Pratchett’s dwarves and wizards and so on of Discworld were summoned as genre satire, but then the dwarviness and wizardiness stuck around whilst the satire shifted its inspiration from heroic fantasy to a range of other subjects. So Pratchett was doing both satire and straight fantasy with materials still bearing the stamp of their satirical and subversive origins.
Who are the changelings' changelings? What would be strange to those who are strange to us? What’s messed up to an elf?
Compare what I tried to say earlier about daisy-chains of lighthouses, and the evasiveness of liars in dreams. (If a review gets sufficiently enormously out-of-control, can you just cite earlier bits of it?). Imagination perhaps resists certain kinds of recursion: imagination grows uncomfortable being applied to itself, trying to imagine imaginings. That discomfort can be construed as a particular dreamlike evasiveness, which I detect in certain representations of magic. It is taken there, perhaps, to solve a problem. If the reader has already accepted that a character lives a thousand years and has very pointy ears, it doesn’t feel special or different to accept fire shooting out of their fingertip. Having these large opacities, to which clued-up characters refer in a roundabout and perhaps reverent way (compare Pynchon’s “ritual reluctance”), allows areas of elevated sanctity to exist within this system of naturalised mythology.
XII. MAGIC & LAWS & REASON & FANTASY & SF & STUFF
Morwenna doesn’t seem to be inhaling any Hume into her massively distended, fluming mind. I don’t know if she’d like it. She might be quite interested in his section on miracles. “A miracle,” he writes, “is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” (Hume 1748/2000: 86–87).
Pratchett is interested in magic (or even just the possibility of magic) as a kind of coefficient, or a small nudge which can splurge large effects. If physical or nomological laws are in principle irregular, susceptible to miracles or spurts of supernature, what does that imply for sociological laws? "It's what you think that matters," says Weatherwax briskly. But that's not to say mumbo jumbo and superstitious trappings aren't important to her. They are often extremely important, because of what people think of them. And what people think of them is informed through and through by the possibility of real magic, howsoever small. That's the crux of headology.
Although the magic in Among Others has a similar elusiveness, its evasive agitations are provoked by a slightly different problem set, and it is distinct from both Weatherwax's headology and Gandalf's going away to do his main spells in the appendices. Part of the difference is that Morwenna tells you that it is subtle, and elusive, and amenable to mundane explanations. It appears that way to her, the witch, not just to the reader. That's one smart way in which Walton manages to make Morwenna's magic seem a burden to her. It is by making its scope utterly unknowable. A boy likes Mor: did the magic make him like her? She can never really know.
TO BE CONCLUDED.
Must write shorter reviews.
I started thinking about immersion as I read Tim Maughan’s “Havana Augmented” – where characters are sort-of-inside-sort-of-outside VR environments (compare Maughan’s “Limited Edition” too). What can we learn by comparing attention-in-reading to attention-in-gaming? Hmm, not sure yet. And I was thinking about immersion a lot by the time I read Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. I think I had the odd experience of feeling almost completely immersed, but somehow missing some crucial threshold and so feeling entirely un-immersed. I was trying to make sense of that).
I can't remember what I wanted to say here. Sorry. Maybe I will later.
Update: compare Jonathan McCulmont, in a post about the Hugo Award (really more "about about" the Hugo Award).
"As Jo Walton’s Hugo Award-winning Among Others describes, fandom used to be quite a lonely existence as most fans only ever saw their friends at conventions. Fanzines and amateur press associations may well have served to give fans a sense of wider community but their principle role was to keep social networks alive in-between face-to-face meetings. This means that, aside from speed of communication, the major difference between traditional fandom and online fandom is that while online fandom is all about the books (and links to authors, publishers, review venues and award bodies), traditional fandom is all about the people meaning that books only ever serve as a sort of common ground and phatic medium."
This is from Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally (1984).
"Here we are," Uhura said, and dropped another tape into the read slot, hit the control. For a second nothing seemed to be happening on the stage. Then a peculiar grinding, wheezing sound began to fill the air. On the platform there slowly faded into existence a tall blue rectangular structure with doors in it, and a flashing white light on top, and what appeared to be the Anglish words POLICE PUBLIC CALL BOX blazoned on the front panel above the doors. There was a pause, during which the noise and the flashing light both stopped. Then one of the box's doors opened. To Jim's mild amusement, a hominid, quite Terran-looking, peered out and gazed around him with great interest; a curly-haired person in a burgundy jacket, with a floppy hat, a striped scarf of truly excessive length, and sharp bright eyes above a dazzling smile, ingenuous as a child's. "I beg your pardon," the man said merrily in a British-accented voice, apparently looking right at Jim, "but is this Heathrow?" (66)
It helps, of course, that the Doctor is a bit of a genre-hopping messianic bumbler, with a rep for rocking up in all sorts of extraordinary situations. It's all pretty finely calibrated, this passage. Perhaps you'd call it deniable metafiction. The plot context is rooting through the archives. It’s not suggested that the crew kick back with some Who on a regular basis or, even if they did, that it would count as science fiction for them.
You quite frequently come across invented books, in science fiction, which have a kind of science fiction sheen to them. But when you poke them, they usually fall apart into metafiction and/or what you could call diegetical-nonfiction works, works that are nonfiction if considered within the fictional world's frame of reference. In Frank Herbert's Dune series, such books are the sources of chapter epigraphs – just outside that frame of reference, a place where it would be acceptable to put a quotation from, say, The Last Unicorn (although it would not be acceptable to have Paul Atreides go on about The Last Unicorn). Harq al-Ada’s The Butlerian Jihad may sound like a work of reactionary literary theory, but it’s actually something even more unsettling and unsatisfying – a work which relates to us as science fiction, but to Paul Atreides as nonfiction. Similarly all those books in Douglas Adams's Hitchiker series. They may be preposterous books about extraterrestrials, but they're still nonfiction.
Alan Moore also gave some of this kind of thought to his Watchmen story-within-the-story, The Black Freighter. “The pirate narrative,” he explains, “[...] grew out of a kind of incidental comment made by me and Dave. We were trying to work out the texture of the world and so we sort of said ‘Well, what sort of comics would they have? If they've got superheroes in real life, they probably wouldn't be at all interested in superhero comics,’ and I think Dave said, ‘What about pirate comics?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sounds good to me,’ so we dropped a few pirate comic titles into the background, including ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ because I'm a big Brecht fan” (2000 interview with Barry Kavanagh); in another interview, Moore describes how the rise of superheroes in his setting as “objects of fear, loathing, and scorn” meant that “the main superheroes quickly fell out of popularity in comic books [...] Mainly, genres like horror, science fiction, and piracy, particularly piracy, became prominent” (1987 interview with Stewart Bhob). So that's one answer. But I wonder if there could also be a superhero tradition different to ours which is plausible for a superhero-infested world?
Back on the science fiction, here's Barry N. Malzberg:
“This has always been a self-referential field; years before the magic realists, the fabulists, the post-modern allegorists and the students of John Gardner (1933-1982) made all of this fashionable, L. Ron Hubbard was writing of the tormenting activities of characters created by a drunken hack science fiction writer ('Typewriter in the Sky', 1940), Peter Phillips was sending a voyager into the unconscious of a science fiction writer who had become trapped in his own inventions. A prominent character in Fred Brown's Martians, Go Home! (1954) was a science fiction writer eagerly seeking material amidst the invading Martians and fearful that distraction would slow the pulp mills. Word-rates, the questioning of a curious society and what might conservatively be called self-doubt put us on the cutting edge from the beginning. Nonetheless, until the present issue, there was no attempt to bibliographicize what is here called 'recursive' and which I would prefer to term "decadent" science fiction. As ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the bibliographical impulse may be said to pursue extrinsic reality at a certain cautious—but fixated—distance."
"It is possible that this self-referentiality is built into science fiction in a way which is extant in no other form; our reality is science fiction, the very process of entering Plato's Cave must be to make certain ragged connections between the assumed and the observed, often to neither advantage. But this is all too deep for me, I would prefer the term ‘decadent science fiction’ all right and would rely upon that definition of decadence into which I stumbled in The Engines of the Night (1982): the point at which form overtakes function.”
The “present issue” Malzberg mentions has morphed into the online Recursive Science Fiction Bibliography, and it no doubt contains a few of those examples that I’m struggling to find. I am pretty sure Malzberg defines decadent science fiction in a way which precisely excludes what I'm looking for. A moment at which form overtakes function sounds very much like a moment at which the world you are reading reminds you that it is a text, a tissue of quotations.
Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout may be one majorish exception - although is Trout's world really that terribly different to our own? Vonnegut is a big favourite of Morwenna's, BTW. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) is another pretty good exception. It’s set in an alternate history where the Axis powers won the Second World War and the United States has been divvied up between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. It features its own alternate history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which supposes that the Allied powers won the Second World War. Yet the timeline of Grasshopper is not our timeline. Its author indeed chooses Roosevelt’s assassination as a point of departure, but has Tugwell succeed Roosevelt – a third term would be unrealistic, right? “His eyes fell on a scene involving—Hitler. Now he found himself unable to stop; he began to read the scene out of sequence, the back of his neck burning. The trial, he realised, of Hitler” (131). The British Empire does not decline, China does not become communist.