New Writings in the Fantastic, by John Grant
Review by David Hebblethwaite
Now, I'm a big fan of John Grant's attitude to fantasy, which is that it should not be funnelled into narrow marketing categories, only to be diluted in the process; but should instead be let free to do whatever it wants and generally be, well, imaginative. I'm all for that, so naturally I was interested in reading a big anthology (41 stories in 360 pages of small, close-set type) edited by Grant and intended to embody those very principles. New Writings in the Fantastic is, says the introduction, 'an attempt to show the full scope of what the literature of the fantastic can do'. Very well, then: what does it do?
Often, in this book, it weaves the fantastic into the world we know, or some approximation thereof. An example is 'The Catherine Wheel' by Geoffrey Maloney, the tale of Jamie, a medical student; Frank, the man in the flat a few doors down (who says he was an astronaut on Mars); and Tess, the mysterious girl whom Frank claims to have brought back from Mars, and who can... but that would be telling. Maloney deftly weaves together sharp reality (oh, the memories of exam revision!) and the kind of fantasy that twists your mind around (which is surely the best kind). A rather different example is E. Sedia's 'Hector Meets the King', in which Hector survived Troy into the present day, where he fights his final battle. Short yet entertaining, it's a fine example of the sort of tale that only comes along when one stops demanding explanations and just lets events unfold.
This anthology defines 'the fantastic' in its broadest sense, encompassing all degrees of fantasy, science fiction and horror; but there's a narrower definition (put forward by the critic Tzvetan Todorov in 1975), namely that a work belongs to 'the fantastic' if its events could be explained equally well by mundane or supernatural means and it leaves the question unanswered. Several stories here fit the latter definition: sometimes it works, as in Kim Sheard's 'The Letter Editor', about a man claiming to be an alien visiting Earth in human guise; the ending is nicely ambiguous, and it's fun to think through the possible interpretations. However, this approach doesn't work in 'The Career of Edward Northam' by Naomi Alderman: Northam is an artist who attributes his success to a genie; maybe he's telling the truth, and maybe not - but, crucially, it makes no difference which to the tale as told, unlike Sheard's story.
Good as uncertainty can be, the stories tend to be more interesting when they're less equivocal about the fantasy. Gavin Salisbury contributes 'Babble', in which a man tries to uncover the original human language by listening simultaneously to recordings of as many existing tongues as he can. There's not much doubt that he succeeds in the end - and I got a tingle up the spine at that realisation. Further along this continuum is Gary McMahon's 'Raise Your Hands', whose protagonist finds himself inexplicably being hit by people; he's not imagining things, as the final scenes make clear - and it's only by letting the fantasy be real that McMahon can achieve his best effects.
New Writings is full of pieces that demand to be read on their own terms, that yield their riches if you'll meet them halfway. There's 'Eclipsing' by Edd Vick, in which a PI (who cribs the right words from a copy of Chandler) takes on the moon as a client (like I said, you have to meet it halfway). There's 'The Ballad of Universal Jack' by Vera Nazarian, the most beautifully written story in the book, a tale whose web of words leaps years and decades with fluid grace, makes space opera read like a folk tale and spins slang into poetry ('Jack may speak the word, and may even be the word. But a word alone is nothing, and means jack'). There's 'An Incomplete Palindrome Alphabet for Dyslexic Deliverymen' by Derek J. Goodman, which tells, through a most unusual structure, of a pizza delivery gone horribly wrong.
The fantastic does all these things in this anthology, but it also makes you laugh. In Greg Beatty's 'The Clouds Roll By-hi', a grammarian is responsible for keeping the Earth turning; it's essentially a shaggy dog story, but it's a funny one, and that's enough. Andrew Hook raises a smile with 'Wake Jake', wherein a cop ponders one of Zeno's paradoxes (how can you begin anything when you can divide time into ever smaller intervals?), with unexpected results. But my favourite of the humorous pieces is 'Employment Gremlins' by Holden Herbert, which is neatly summed up by its title: Ryan is trying to apply for jobs, but gremlins are sabotaging his efforts. It's nice to see a story like this in here, as it helps broaden the scope of the anthology - and, of course, it's highly amusing.
Yes, the fantastic can do lots of things; but the best thing it can do, I think, is make your head spin. And there are three stories in this book that make my head spin in particular. One of these is Paul Pinn's 'Borderline Charm', where an Englishman visiting the American West encounters a girl with a power who warps his reality into new shapes, and ours with it; Pinn's handling of this is subtle and unsettling. Greg Story contributes 'The Transmissionary', whose protagonist's worldview and life are built around television to an extreme degree; our brief visit inside his head is as disorientating and uncomfoprtable as it should be. Then there is 'Encoding the Rose' by Andrew Magowan, which takes us to a future where humans have become incapable of recognising beauty, and it falls to computers to do so instead. The head-spinning feeling here comes from imagining the transformations our mental worlds would have to go through for this situation to arise. Magowan's tale (like Story's and Nazarian's and others') is also a salutary confirmation of Grant's suggestion that genre boundaries are illusory, that science fiction (in this case) is really a form of fantasy. Job done there, I'd say.
It struck me while I was reading New Writings in the Fantastic that an anthology is very much a personal vision, even though it's built from the work of many hands (I knew this implicitly already, but that didn't lessen the impact); and, arguably, the more personal that vision, the better. John Grant has succeeded in showcasing a diverse range of work and demonstrating the power of fantastic fiction; but his personal vision for the anthology is also clear, and the book is all the more valuable for that.
What to get... your most pretentious friends this Christmas
By Neil Ayres
For Him: The Quiet Girl, by Peter Hoeg
Kasper Krone is a tax-dodging superstar violin virtuoso clown who also has a supernatural ability to hear people's internal music. Living in a Copenhagen threatened by severe earthquakes, to avoid extradition to Spain, he agrees to help a group of nuns fostering several 'quiet' children; that is, children who emit no music, a state of being Kasper sees as his quest in life. Throw in a millionaire, dying father, an amputee getaway driver and a treacherous non-linear narration and you've the most disjointed but oddly involving metaphysical thriller since, er, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. Just try and avoid drawing parallels with Krusty. Oops, too late.
For Her: Playing with the Grown-ups, Sophie Dahl
Kittie has a perfect life in the present, but she receives news of her socially decadent mother, the past returns to, well, tell us all about it. Dahl's tone and language is a joy, but most will probably only empathise with her characters by sheer force of will. Maybe the moral is it doesn't matter how wealthy you are, you can still have a god-awful childhood thanks to your parents. Not a bad moral after all, perhaps. Merry Christmas.
Previous: Amber Rain by Neil Williamson | Next: Magical Realist Films by David Isaak