When somebody asks me, “Who are your favorite sf and fantasy authors?” I duck and mumble. Any answer I can make will be incomplete, invidious, and insignificant. If it’s guidance they want, I’m no expert. I never was a true fan, reading only one genre. To me that would be like living in an immense forest and refusing to see any kind of tree but one — oaks, say. Oaks are great. But then you come to a grove of 300-foot, 1200-year-old redwoods, and you see nothing?
And usually I’m years out of date. At the moment, though, I happen to have been reading a fair amount of recent or forthcoming fantasy; and I feel that I’ve come into a promising young part of the forest. Mixed new growth, quite vigorous. Good to see growing.
There’s a problem, though. People who insist that fantasy is for children still insist on trying to cram all the young trees — oaks, redwoods, mallorns — into bonsai pots.
Since publishers are feeling terribly unsafe these days, and since YA is a big, solid market, and fantasy is a big, solid part of it, publishers feel safe publishing fantasy as YA. And so writers of fantasy may find they’re expected to have kid protagonists and discouraged from writing about adults. Harry whatshisname and the teenie werewolves and the young gladiators have locked the fantasy/YA combo tight, at least for now. Retro macho “epics” of war-and-violence with nominally adult protagonists may escape the YA label, as they reach teen-agers through tie-ins, games, movies.
It’s all marketing, of course, where it isn’t spinach.
Children have no corner on imagination, nor can you limit fantasy to the experience of adolescents. Kids are perfectly capable of reading about adults, and will do so, if the adults do anything interesting — as they do in science fiction, for instance. (Most kids find novels about adults in dysfunctional families with dreary sex lives in the suburbs uninteresting, and by God, they’re right; but that’s another topic.) Also, adults will of course read about kids, if the kids are doing anything interesting — You there, Huck? — The whole idea of YA as a literature apart is shortsighted and arbitrary. But it’s marketing, so it’s a sacred cow. Milk it, and question not.
Jo Walton wriggles almost wholly free of the grip of the sacred cow. I’m sorry, but those words just came to me, and I could not resist them — sometimes one gets these wonderful gifts of metaphor. — So, anyhow, in Among Others, Jo Walton writes in the voice of a 14-year-old girl; but that girl as an adult, doubling the author, is also implicitly present. This unsimplification, this grounding in lived time, enriches the book and frees it from any ‘age-group,’ as well as keeping it clear of the only-kids-understand-anything sentimentality of a Salinger.
Mo is a diary-writing bookworm. Her daily criticism of the authors she’s reading is spot-on 14-year-old-girl-in-1979, funny, acute, and impassioned. (I’m glad she liked early Le Guin. I believe she knew about the movie of Lathe of Heaven a year or so before it existed, but hey, this is a fantasy, innit?) Mo has suffered a lot of major damage by age 14, so her reading could be seen as ‘compensatory,’ or ‘escapist,’ but that would be a mistake. She was a reader before she was damaged. Books continue to offer her not an escape, but a reality. A good many of us know, often quite early in our life and throughout it, that as far as we’re able to, we’re going to live a good part of that life in books, maybe the best part, certainly a vital part. And here’s one of us, a shameless reader, a shameless science-fiction reader, rejoicing with all her heart in the wealth of her existence. An almost too gorgeous boyfriend appears, but, rightly, he isn’t really as convincing or interesting either to Mo or to us as what she’s reading.
Magic in Walton’s novel functions magically, yet can always be seen and explained as nothing unusual. Fairy? what fairy? that was a rabbit. The spell didn’t change reality, reality’s always just been the way the spell made it be…. This is a large, interesting idea, well worked out. Walton’s trying hard to do what I call moving the boundary: to redraw the border of Elfland, to alter, or make more permeable, the wall beween the possible and the impossible. I think she almost succeeds. I don’t think anyone can, in fact, succeed. But it’s a gallant and fascinating enterprise.
If the sf readers who dismiss fictional magic as soft-brained wish-fulfilment will look at what Walton’s doing at that boundary line, they’ll see a harder, more honest intelligence at work than in the kind of “hard” sf that uses the terminology of scientific theory or speculation magically.
In a dry, quiet way, the book is very funny. Mo’s three aunts, who are witches, are witches because they are respectable in a way only the English could imagine and perfect. If I ever again meet a thoroughly nice, refined lady of that sort, I’ll know why she makes me so miserable. She can’t help it. She’s a Britwitch.
Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, which came out this spring is aimed at somewhat younger readers than Among Others, or at anybody who likes adventures following fast one upon another. Set in a conventionally self-contained imaginary place (a splendidly imagined city, not cyberpunk but an interesting variation) and with a fairly conventional orphan child-hero, it doesn’t push out toward any boundaries; but it is outstanding, in this increasingly crowded and imitative field, for the unlabored imaginative authority and completeness of its setting, and for the fine, vivid English it’s written in. It’s an endearing book. And there’s something else to it that I can’t put words to: a haunting quality, a sense of depth, of unspoken further implication, in the adventures and the characters, which is its real magic. I wish I could have read it when I was eleven.
Kij Johnson was a member of workshops I directed, or herded, whatever it is the ‘teacher’ does at a writing workshop — once at Clarion in Seattle and once at The Flight of the Mind on a bend of the McKenzie River. I called her Foxwoman, after the story she was then writing.
The story is in her new book, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. It’s just as good as I thought it was going to be, if not better. My memory in general is very poor, but it holds on firmly to certain intense physical experiences, real or imagined, so that I can always in my mind walk down a certain dusty driveway in California, or stand before the gates of Moria seeking how to open them. Ever since that workshop, I’ve always been able to revisit the fox’s earth under the house/the beautiful house under the house. It was amazing to be able to ‘really’ go back to it in “Fox Magic.”
One or two weak stories might have been left out, but the variety is tremendous, exhilarating. The book definitely won’t do that short-story-collection thing to you where all the stories run together into a sort of depressing porridge in your mind. “26 Monkeys” is as different from “Chenting” as “Names for Water” is from “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and each one is differently excellent. Along with “Fox Magic,” my favorite may be that last one. It’s about an engineer. I like engineer stories, ever since I read “The Bridge-Builders” and others in Kipling’s The Day’s Work when I was ten. I like stories that take you quietly into a place and let you do difficult and interesting work with some of the people there. By the end of the story you know those people, and love them, and wish you could go on and build the next bridge with them.
21 May 2012
PS. And between when I wrote this and when we posted it, both Among Others and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” won the Nebula Award. Hey, Foxwoman! Way To Go!