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Dislocated Fictions
by Gabriel Chouinard

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I've been obsessed with journeys lately.

There is something inherently beautiful about a journey, whether across physical or mental landscapes, and the sense of exploration that comes with any new territory. We are at our peak when we are confronting new places, after all; senses are heightened, attentions are focused, our minds are attuned -- we truly EXIST in those moments of discovery. We are aware in ways that are not common in everyday life.

A good story is always a journey. It is a trip through lands foreign and strange, whether it be an imaginary world or the internal landscape of a character's psyche. We yearn to go somewhere when we read. Sadly, many 'experts' interpret this desire for journey as escapism. That is not so.

'Escapism' is a word that is often attached to fantastic literature, though it has no right to coexist with 'fantasy' or 'science fiction'. Escapism is a dirty word, with impure connotations; it presumes that the primary reason one reads fantastic fiction is to flee our own existence, to avoid the concrete world around us, as if there were something horribly wrong with our world. In the process, escapism has come to signify a type of mental imbalance, as if all readers of SF dwell on the outer edges of society, ready to drift off into a spontaneous schizophrenic trance.

Not true, of course.

The best fiction is not written to avoid our world, but to confront it. For many of us, speculative fiction is a framework that allows us to view our own world and society through a blurry lens; to corrupt the view just enough to gain the necessary distance to sit back and comment on the things that we see, without being colored by mundane perception. And in that fuzzy realm of half-seeing, we see truths that are normally obscured; we are allowed to focus on the whole, rather than the detail, and to see the picture for what it really is.

Meanwhile, critics of SF (and by critics I mean actual reviewers as well as those who are steadfastly against reading anything with an SF label upon it out of pure boneheadedness) tend to focus on the 'escapism', rather than the journey, which is unfortunate. After all, the destination is never the important part; it's the trip that counts, and what you see along the way.

There's a difference between going out to pick up a gallon of milk, and going on a journey. A journey is a trip of discovery, and that is the kind of fiction that I read -- the sort that lets you go places, lets you explore and examine and contemplate. When I take the time to read a novel, I don't want to read about going to get milk. There has to be a purpose to the trip.

See, my parents were adamant about exposing us kids to travel. Every summer, we took trips; either overseas or around the US by Chevy Blazer. They wanted my brothers and I to be exposed to different cultures, different ways of life, so we would grow up with wide-open minds. Similarly, they encouraged SF in our household, because of all fiction, SF demands an open mind. You cannot read SF if you are close-minded; it's an exercise in futility if you do not have the capability to suspend disbelief, if you do not have the means to travel... reading speculative fiction with a closed mind is like trying to row upriver inside a tractor tire.

Diversity of ideas has always been the primary strength of speculative fiction. There has always been a market for highly individualized works of SF; we have always supported our madmen. Even though Phil Dick couldn't afford food half the time, the people inside the industry still respected him, still believed in his vision and his individuality. The SF community embraced him, lauded him (well, eventually), and finally named an award after him. We love our crazies. Surely PKD was going hungry because of our support of him. After all, it was best to keep him at the edge of despair, wasn't it? That's when he wrote the best; when he cranked out the most important works.

So why all the close-mindedness within the spec fic community these days? Why the oppressive resistance to new ideas, new styles, new everything? Am I the only one that thinks having a traditionalist view of SF is not only foolish, but also working at cross-purposes with the very genre itself? Shouldn't we be encouraging our madmen, taking away their food and clothing and forcing them to subsist only upon grubs and ideas?

I admit it -- I am baffled.

For a long time, the tide of traditionalism swayed between the various movements that swept through the industry. But now that seems to have died down; there is less in-fighting, less scorn between schools of style. Witness the next wave writers, who come in not to attack their predecessors, but to embrace and expand upon them. To build upon their works and create bigger, even more beautiful works. There is no enmity here; only respect, coupled a desire to push the boundaries of the bubble ever outward.

No, we're experiencing a different kind of traditionalism. It is a type of intra-genre wanking that I've never seen before.

The SF community seems to have given up on clawing from the 'ghetto'. Rather, it seems that more and more folks want to close themselves off in a reactionary fit; instead of assaulting the city of SF, people are increasingly building the walls higher, digging in for a siege.

What is wrong? Have we finally buckled beneath the ponderous weight of commercialist interests? Have we gone the way of television and Hollywood, of pop music and designer clothing?

Here we stand, in an industry that is being overrun by homogenous riffs on a few themes, with only a few voices ringing out above the general masses.

Fewer new writers are coming in with the desire to buck the status quo. Instead, new writers are selling watered-down versions of stuff we've already seen a hundred times over. Exactly how many times can we rip off Tolkien without adding anything new to the canon? Exactly how many Wheel of Time volumes can this genre sustain? And yet, there is only a small handful of authors and fans that are fighting this. Right?

Actually, I don't believe that.

I think the SF industry is caught up in a vicious cycle. We are all participants in a vast hyping machine, and the machine continues to chug along on inertia now. Surely, the machine is beginning to show the strain; surely, at some point the machine will blow a part, will suddenly come to a herking, jerking halt. Some of us will be thrown off. Some will be buried beneath the wreckage.

But speculative fiction will survive. There has been a breeze of change going through the publishing industry lately, as readers slowly come to realize that homogenous crap just doesn't count anymore. Smaller presses, once relegated to filling niches, are slowly coming into their own with greater exposure through the internet and word-of-mouth. More and more good work is being produced each month. For all of my naysaying and doom-crying, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. From the dreamy poetics of people like Zoran Zivkovic, to the hard-boiled wild ideals of Steve Erickson; from the gloomy gothic probings of Caitlin R. Kiernan, to the intricate language of Greer Gilman, there is magic brewing. Everywhere you look, there are hints of an evolution. Slowly, slowly, the commercial garbage is being pushed aside by works with more lasting impact. Slowly, slowly, the endless parade of "seen it before, don't give a shit" work is being forgotten; we're getting up from our seats and wandering away, looking for something with more substance than fantastic princesses stiff-arm waving from the backs of convertibles. Commercial fantasy and sci-fi is going the way of the plastic smile.

And this is a Good Thing. Perhaps you'll just have to trust me on this one, if you've only read things like David Eddings, or Harry Turtledove. I say to you, with all honesty, that the future of fantastic fiction is at stake. We stand now at the cusp of Something Big. With the proper pushing, the proper buying, we will be able to send this industry into a new heyday of innovation and excitement. But if we all stand around with hands jammed in our pockets, mumbling to one another, this opportunity -- this golden moment -- will pass. We will have our little movement swept aside, and the traditionalists will quickly sweep past us to batten down the hatches before any more crazies escape from our ghetto. The time for internalization is past. It is now time to go out into the world, to make some noise, to show the masses that our language, our stories, are what have been driving them to buy most of their products for the last ten years.

heresy and elfland

Heresy Of course, not all is fine and dandy. There are still novels like Anselm Audley's Heresy being produced.

I was supremely disappointed with this novel, Audley's first, which seemed on surface to have all the trappings of a good Next Wave edition; an 18-year-old author, comparisons to Frank Herbert's Dune, gorgeous packaging with its moodily brilliant Steve Stone cover.... And yet, where it matters most -- in the story -- this novel fails so pathetically that I must break my general tendency to review only books that I like.

As early as the first page, we are treated to Audley's stiff, unnatural and unreadable dialogue.

'Escount Cathan, it's fortunate that you have arrived; may Ranthas be with you."....

"What's all the commotion, Maal?" I asked. "What's so important that work's been interrupted, with the ship due to arrive at any day now?"

Ugh.

Similarly, Audley's attempts at info-dumping are clumsy and feeble in extremis; at the end of the first chapter, we are given a clichéd conversation between young Hero Cathan and his mother, which sets the stage for the entire tale to come. But it is done so artlessly, so gracelessly, it was a struggle to turn the page. And this dump was only the first.

Sadly, the book continues to exhibit these symptoms of underdeveloped style and skill. The publishers seem to revel in the fact that the author is only eighteen; sadly, there is no point to celebrating subpar work from an author of any age. I found it extremely difficult to read this book in its entirety, and when I finally set it aside, there was a bitter tang of disappointment in my mouth.

Still, I have mild hope for Anselm Audley. The world he has created has its intriguing points, and the religious undertones and overtones throughout were somewhat interesting. With a bit of maturity, and a bit of nurturing, it's possible that Audley will bloom into a worthy addition to the speculative fiction fold. One can hope, at least.

Dismayed by the huge amount of bad prose I had just read, I then turned to an old favorite; a tale that never fails to remind me of what fantastic fiction is capable.

The King of Elfland's Daughter The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany is the fifteenth in Gollancz's series of Fantasy Masterworks. Sporting an introduction by Neil Gaiman, this newest edition of Dunsany's classic tale is a classy, no-frills book whose packaging steps artfully aside to present the tale within in all its glory. And what glory there is!

For any serious reader of the fantastic, The King of Elfland's Daughter should be required reading. Few authors have ever managed to duplicate or rival Dunsany's lush, poetic language; fewer still have managed to rival his pure visionary beauty or his commingled magic and reality on the page. From the first page, we are swept away, pulled directly into this story of magic and its consequences; the words on the page reach out, grab hold of your lapels, and do not let go until you have wended your way to the last page, the last sentence, to stumble at last from the land of Eld and its wonders and horrors.

It is such a shame that so much of Dunsany's writing has been overlooked; like Mervyn Peake, Dunsany was overshadowed by Tolkien and his hobbits, and I often wonder if the world would be a better place had Dunsany been discovered first. Because at its heart, The King of Elfland's Daughter is not about landscapes and war and language; it is about people, and magic, and consequences, and the things that dwell in the twilit realms just beyond our gaze. That is more of a journey than any derivative quest novel that I have read.

an afterword

It is with extreme great pleasure that I get to announce a project that I have been working on.

Coming soon to a browser near you is Fantastic Metropolis, a new website that will focus on the Dislocated authors, and all that is good in speculative fiction. Designed as a resource for all things blurry and fantastical, Fantastic Metropolis will be the source for all your needs. It will contain a host of content -- and enough of it to make any reader drool in anticipation.

My goal for Fantastic Metropolis is to provide a centralized site for the next wave of fantastic literature. Here you will find in-depth criticism, op-ed essays from writers and reviewers alike, short fiction, interviews, a message forum, and all the associated goodies that go hand-in-hand with such a site.

This is not a webzine! I feel the need to point that out, as I'm sure that there are people out there muttering under their breath about competition and gluts and other bullshit. This is meant to be a gathering point, a resource. All works have been donated by their authors; there is no payment made for any work submitted, and there sure as fuck isn't any payment for the creators of the site! This site is a reflection of a love for speculative literature.

What do you have to look forward to on October 15th? How about an essay by M John Harrison, entitled "What it might be like to live in Virirconium"? Or a piece on John Sladek entitled "The Steam-Driven Author" by Rhys Hughes? Or Jeff VanderMeer's twosome, "In Pursuit of the Imagination" and "Death of the Imagination"? Or how about an in-depth interview with Serbian fantasist Zoran Zivkovic? Perhaps John Marco floats your boat, or perhaps you groove to the Matthew Woodring Stover beat? Fantastic Metropolis is the direct outgrowth of Dislocated Fictions, and will continue to present my particularly slanted view of the industry. So feel free to stop on by; the site is located at http://www.sfsite.com/fm, and the forum can be accessed at http://www.delphi.com/metrofanatic You can also email at metropolis@sfsite.com Give your thoughts; I'd like to hear them. Your ideas will run the site, you know.... Until next time.......

Copyright © 2001 Gabriel Chouinard

Gabe Chouinard is a reader, writer and editor who is very vocal in his support of cutting-edge speculative fiction. He detests skiffy, deplores Fat Fantasy... but is a good guy to have a drink with. Expecting his second child, Mr. Chouinard is now writing with much more frantic vigor, in the hopes of getting published before he has NO time...


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