Some Recent Fantasies

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

Reading/Seeing (#3)

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And usually I’m years out of date.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!



Some Recent Fantasies — 18 Comments

  1. I don’t love Kij Johnson’s writing as much as I love yours, but I love it enough that I give her books as presents for no reason except that I want people to read them, and that’s something I do with only a few authors. So knowing that she was your student makes things click (like knowing that Mary Oliver lived in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house). Since now we have evidence that you’re not only a true national treasure as a writer but also an excellent teacher, would you blog sometime about being a writing teacher–can it be done? How? Could students get there any other way? Did you have a writing teacher, ever?

  2. I got hooked as an adult on reading SF/F because I, though not a kid, found “novels about adults in dysfunctional families with dreary sex lives in the suburbs uninteresting.” (I’m also bored to tears by stories about publishing assistants having affairs with older, married, boring editors with sex kinks.)

    Of course, when I started reading a lot of SF/F, I read you, Chip Delany, C.J. Cherryh, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Vonda McIntyre, leavened with some William Gibson (but not much of the rest of the cyberpunks), so I developed a very distorted idea of the genre. But I was reading good fiction.

    I’d love to read your opinions on the fiction about dysfunctional relationships in suburbia. I still don’t understand why this is considered “very serious fiction.”

  3. Even the legal thriller part of the market has gone to the YA side — John Grisham has a YA series about a kid lawyer.

    Love, C.

  4. I haven’t come across Jo Walton here in Britain, but your description “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” immediately made me think of Alan Garner – a favourite author of mine from childhood onwards.

    “Britwitch”…er, yes, know what you mean.

    • She’s a UK writer but is frustratingly unavailable in the UK. I recommend hunting down Tooth and Claw, and also Lifelode ( much as I love Among Others, Lifelode is better).

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  6. Yes, Kij Johnson kicks ass. I’ve read both “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” which I found beautiful and quite memorable, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which was a stately and proud tale; here’s a writer I keep an eye out for in the yearly anthologies. Good to know she has a collection out, now I can get it.

    I also want to put in a good word for Ursula LeGuin’s blog, which is cantankerous, wry, funny and boisterous all at the same time. It’s a pleasure to read her opinions on writing in particular, and books, and the changes that the publishing industry is undergoing, which seem grim to me. The field of speculative fiction seems incredibly hide-bound these days as publishers pump the same half-dozen formulas for all they’re worth (yet another vampire romance, anyone?) to maximize their profits, and I long to see the field branch out and writers start taking more risks again in the mainstream and not on the sidelines.

    Finally, a shameless plug for my own website, where you can download a free illustrated novel about the Maya Indians. Read, and enjoy!

  7. My ARC of At the Mouth of the River of Bees just arrived yesterday, and moved straight to the top of my to-be-read stack. Kij is one of the most original and incisive new short story writers I’ve encountered in a while. I’m surprised (but pleased) that this collection comes to us from a relatively small house like Small Beer and wasn’t snatched up by one of the big publishers first. Small Beer Press has some amazing short story collections in its lineup now – very nice.

    Among Others is wonderful and deserves the Hugo as well as the Nebula it already has. (It’s also a bit of a shoe-in, I think, as its focus on 70s/80s SF should go down well with the voting audience.)

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  9. I read Kij Johnson’s novel of The Fox Woman last year and it still haunts me. A stunning novel published by Tor and with a follow up called Fudoki. She is now one of my favorite writers and I cannot look at a fox without feeling a little of her magic.
    At the Mouth of the River of Bees is wonderful too.
    ( And I hope you won’t mind me saying that The Wizard of Earthsea has also lived in my mind for many years. I found it when I was in my 20’s and loved the characters and the transformation and the magic. Have always wanted to say thank you, Ursula for your wonderful books)

  10. After reading this blog I picked up Among Others. I really enjoyed Mor’s passion for books. I’m going to have to look up some of the books she mentioned that I haven’t read yet. I agree with most of her opinions of the ones that I have read, although I tend to Wim’s opinion when it comes to Heinlein, his characters always seem rather tiresomely paternalistic to me.
    I agree that it is important to try different genres and get out of ones rut, at least occasionally. However, I spend a lot of time reading and I read mostly fantasy and science fiction and there are still fairly famous authors whose work I have never gotten around to. So, I think a better metaphor for a genre would be a whole ecology. One could spend ones entire life learning about forests and all the trees, plants, and animals in the forest and still never understand or even see the entire thing. At the same time, the studious forest dweller would never get to see the oceans, desserts, prairies or mountains, not because they were avoiding them, but just because they were too busy with the trees.

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  13. Great article – I’ve just happen-chanced on this site (via a reference on twitter) – how wonderful to discover U Le G is with us and as sharp, incisive and humane as ever.

    Hurrah !