Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Can we really call Frankenstein science fiction?

In his Guardian column recently, Damien Walter lamented the scarcity of interesting new weird fiction. Buy me a coffee and you’ll hear me saying the same thing, but Mr Walter went further. He invited readers of the column to send in their own self- or independently-published novels.

While people like me cower at the thought of a million genre novels being published every year, there’s Damien Walter throwing open the floodgates and standing smack in the way of the oncoming torrent. I can only salute such bravery (a tricky manoeuvre to carry off, incidentally, while simultaneously scurrying for the safety of high ground). He will be remembered.

Personally I’d push the Dalai Lama under a bus rather than read a single trilogy of the G’nar’gh empire or the steampunk adventures of Algernon Blackwood, wendigo hunter. So it is my awe of Mr Walter’s fortitude that leaves me shamed and chastised by his comment in today’s
Guardian that “those writers who make a critical understanding of fantasy part of their work create better stories than those who remain […] ignorant of it.”

The irony is that I do read a fair bit of lit crit, just not in the field of fantasy. In fact, I barely even read fantasy fiction. Given that fantasy is my bread and butter, and stung by Mr Walter’s parting words as he sank beneath the deluge, I scooted over to Amazon and bought Farah Mendlesohn’s book
Rhetorics of Fantasy. At 336 pages it may take me a while, but already I’m intrigued by the core concepts. In essence, Ms Mendlesohn defines four categories of the fantastic. There are portal fantasies (Narnia, The Lost World), immersive fantasies (Game of Thrones), intrusive fantasies (War of the Worlds), and then there are liminal fantasies.

That last one is a little trickier than the rest. It’s also the most interesting. Liminal fantasies are those where the fantastic element is part of the normal universe and, though they may not like its effects, everybody seems to just accept it: Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis”, for example. It’s the kind of fantasy you find in dreams and fairytales. A movie example would be Guy Maddin’s
Careful; in novels, Steven Sherill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break; in short stories, W F Harvey’s “The Beast With Five Fingers”.

All of magic realism could arguably fit into the liminal category. There, of course, we are supposed to recognize the fabulosity and artifice of what we’re being told. I don’t think it’s intrinsic to liminal fantasies that they need to recognize their own fictionality in that way, simply that when literary fiction does include fantasy, it is most likely to be liminal fantasy.

Most fantasy stories belong to more than one category. Harry Potter begins as a portal fantasy but later becomes intrusive fantasy. The Lost World (what is the plateau if not a portal?) has its little bit of intrusive fantasy in the form of the pterodactyl egg that Challenger brings back to London. Raymond E Feist even wrote an immersive fantasy with a portal fantasy element, in the form of a rift leading through to Tsolyanu. I mean Tsuranu.

In Mirabilis, the fantasy at first is intrusive; but, as the green comet draws nearer to Earth, people first begin to accept the reality of previously imaginary things and later, by midsummer, to treat them as though they have always been there. (I even wrote exactly that, in my first draft of the Mirabilis storyline ten years ago. For the month of June: “Liminality; it is as if magic has always been part of everyday life.”)

Frankenstein could have been an intrusive fantasy. If Mary Shelley had treated the story in that way, it would have read more like something written by H G Wells. Instead, in the original Frankenstein novel, almost nothing is made of the science fictional element. The monster’s existence doesn’t impact the world at large, only Victor Frankenstein’s own life. If not for Captain Walton’s encounter with the monster right at the end, the whole book could be read as the imaginings of a highly unreliable narrator. And even Walton’s tacked-on testimony doesn’t quite banish the suspicion that what we have been reading is not an SF tale about creating life, but that immemorially potent fable, the Return of the Repressed. Like the best kind of fantasy, Frankenstein finally reveals itself as a disturbing conjuring trick in which the question, “Is it supposed to have really happened?” is the least interesting of all.
Dave Morris's interactive retelling of Frankenstein is published by Profile Books. Buy it here in the App Store.

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