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Geoff Ryman
Gollancz, 456 pages

Geoff Ryman
Geoff Ryman is the author of several novels including The Unconquered Country (1984) which won both the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award and the World Fantasy Award. The Child Garden (1989) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award (First Place). An extract of it, published in Interzone, also won a BSFA Award.

Geoff Ryman Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

Geoff Ryman's 1992 novel Was has now been re-released as part of Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series, even though it is neither a fantasy nor a masterwork, although, depending on how you look at it, it could come close to being either.

Was is an odd book, a book that wrestles with itself. It is a genre novel, but its genre is realism, while its subject is fantasy -- specifically, the fantasies created by the popular film of The Wizard of Oz and, to a lesser extent, the original book that inspired the film. Was is woven from three main strands of narrative: the story of a girl named Dorothy who lives a sad and painful life in 19th-century Kansas and once made an impression on a young substitute teacher named Frank Baum; the story of Frances Gumm, whose difficult childhood forever haunted the persona she became when she changed her name to Judy Garland; and the story of Jonathan, an actor dying of AIDS who dreams of one day playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, and who, before he dies, traces Dorothy back to Kansas and Baum. At the end, once all the strands have frayed into whatever they will be, Ryman provides a sort of afterword in which he says what is true and what is not in the stories he has just told, and tries to justify himself:

"I fell in love with realism because it deflates the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth -- history."
That final chapter may be the biggest fantasy in the book -- the fantasy of the all-powerful author who can dictate how readers interpret the words he has set down on a page. Taken at face-value, it's an arrogant move, because what Ryman actually created was a novel open to a wide variety of readings. I prefer to see that last chapter -- the one Ryman has labeled "Reality Check" and in which he lays out exactly who and what is real, then pontificates -- as yet another lie, yet another use of realism against itself. Who's not going to believe it, after all? Its tone is authoritative, and it uses the names of real people and places. Just like the rest of the book. The author's voice in the "Reality Check" is as much a character as is Dorothy or Baum or Judy Garland or Jonathan, and this, rather than any pompous blather about the subversions of the quotidian, is the real illustration that Ryman has given us of how sneaky realism can be.

Consider this: Was is a tour through various genres of realism that have been popular over the past couple of decades. It's a heart-wrenching story of child abuse. It's an AIDS narrative. It's a behind-the-scenes tale of the perils of fame. It's historical fiction, it's sentimental claptrap, it's a plea for compassion, it's Psych 101 with a plot. It's epic, it's personal, it's romance, it's comedy, it's dull, it's a page-turner. The prose is clumpy and serviceable, the details accumulate like dust, and every action of every character is presented with the kind of care that would make any aspiring Updike proud. This should be the recipe for an unreadable book, and yet, because it keeps promising to fulfill our expectations, it's not at all painful to read. It exploits familiar templates, setting them up like the practical joke even the most intelligent among us fall for again and again and again. We know how these sorts of stories end up, we know their contours and their corners because we've seen the TV movies and we've read the books that Oprah sent our way. Once the last page has been read, Was doesn't seem to have any events, characters, ideas, or themes strong enough to justify its length, but this fact is not at all obvious until everything is done, because it's so easy to be suckered in to the stories we already know, the comfort food of the culture maven. Ryman's novel is a masterpiece of misdirection, and its greatest accomplishment is to show how the techniques of realism can make a book feel far more substantial than, on reflection, it proves to have been.

If you want to compare it to actual masterworks, you could say that Was lands somewhere between M. John Harrison's Viriconium series and Michael Cunningham's The Hours. Harrison uses fantasy against itself in a manner that illuminates both the fantastic and the real, while Cunningham tells three realistic stories, one of them based on historical facts, to explore the ways that yearning and dreaming sculpt the lives we both live and read. Ryman adds childhood to the mixture, linking arms with Freud to declare youth the force that determines everything later. Sex in Was is oppression, desperation, a sin against innocence, and the thing that makes us bury our true names, the names bestowed on children and cast off by adults who think escape is easy until they discover that vision is delusion and delusion is what the brain offers up when it's ready to die.

Realism is a matter of style and attitude, not content. The words in Was are no more real than the words in The Wizard of Oz, the Dorothy in one no less real than the Dorothy of the other. Realism requires as much suspension of disbelief as fantasy, because any fiction writer begins a story with the unspoken words, "Let's pretend..." Let's pretend the story we're about to begin is true, let's pretend the words refer to a reality we know, let's pretend what has been imagined is possible, let's pretend we believe when we don't believe, let's pretend this is all about us. Ryman flips the world Baum coined, but on the other side of it all is not some revelation about fantasy or reality, but just another fantasy.

Imagination, though, is suspect, and attracts moralists like sugar attracts ants. Late in Was, a character says,

"You should always pay attention to embarrassment, Jonathan. It means there is something too tangled to deal with. And humor, when people turn things into a joke. Or when they make them weird or spooky. It means that there is something people cannot face."
This character's delusion is that fantasy turns away from reality and offers an escape. At one point, the principal of a school even says to Frank Baum, "Fantasy is pretty unhealthy as a general rule." Is the universe of the storyteller a feedback loop of symbols blurted up by some unconscious oversoul? The writer of fantasy, in these character's mind, is a threat to mental health, and the events of the book bear this idea out, repeatedly proving the apparent hypothesis that childhood is a haunted house no-one can escape from without imperiling their membership in the real world. There's no place like home, but home is no place you should ever want to go.

The fantasized writer at the end of Was begins the "Reality Check" by saying,

"I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however, realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one."
Then we get to find out what is real and what is not -- the wizard pulls his own curtain aside. Each reader is cured; the shadows on the wall of the cave are suddenly just shadows. Realism gives way to reality, but the reality has no meaning without the fantasy, and whatever interest it possesses on its own is the interest possessed by trivia, not truth. The shards of reality and fantasy can fit together in an array of forms, and Was is, finally, a puzzle where the missing pieces can only be dreamed.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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