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Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, by Laura Miller, ed., Black Dog & Leventhal Publishing, 2016, $29.99 hc.
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, Skyhorse Publishing, 2016, $24.99 hc.
Summerlong, by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 2016, $15.95 tpb.
So wrote Lord Dunsany in the epigraph to his 1912 The Book of Wonder, a collection of tales he described in the book's epilogue as "Chronicles of Little Adventures at the Edge of the World." Dunsany's first work of fantasy, The Gods of Pegâna, appeared in 1905, when the Edge of the World was far more sparsely populated than it is now, and also relatively unmapped. Its most ancient and distant precincts included Babylonia, Greece, Anatolia, and Baghdad; the Indian Ocean and the land of the Geats; Asgard and Jotunheim and Midgard, Heaven and Hell and Purgatory; Gwynedd and Dyfed, Criachan and Cooley. Later explorers came across Utopia, Faerie, Brobdingnag, Wonderland, Neverland.
These were all places that someone like Lord Dunsany—Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany in Ireland, schooled at Eton College; a friend of Yeats and Lady Gregory whose mother was cousin to Richard Francis Burton—might be expected to have encountered before leaving university and serving in the First World War. J. R. R. Tolkien, born fourteen years later, traveled farther afield, to Pohjola and Tuonela, the Kalevala's Land of the Dead. In the aftermath of WWI, myriad writers began to colonize the Edges of the World—E. R. Eddison came across Demonland and Witchland and Zimiamvia; C. S. Lewis, Narnia. Tolkien returned from Tuonela to plant his standard on the vast expanse of Middle Earth. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the very few women explorers of an earlier era, founded Herland. Two decades later, Evangeline Walton reclaimed Gwynedd, and added psychological realism to the country's heroics.
By the late twentieth century, the Edge of the World had become a very crowded place. Most of this was due to the popularity of Middle Earth as a holiday destination, with Narnia a stop-off for those with kids. Modern conveniences like electricity, faster-than-light drives, and the internet made it possible for even the most remote places to become thickly settled and swiftly modernized. Today, well into the twenty-first century, it's hard to find a vacant spot to stake one's tent and mobile hotspot.
And yet they still keep coming, to Hogwarts and the Sprawl, New Corbuzon and Earthsea, the Republic of Gilead and Westeros, Macondo and Bellona. The numinous, uncharted vista that Dunsany saw beyond the fields we know has become a literary Sprawl crowded with underworlds and overlords, dystopias and dream archipelagoes. How to navigate it?
The sumptuously illustrated Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller, does an excellent job of providing entry to nearly one hundred imaginary worlds, from the Babylon of Gilgamesh to Nnedi Okorafor's post-alien-contact Lagos Lagoon. Miller is well situated to organize a tour of these fabulist environs. Her delightful, erudite The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia is one of the best and liveliest works to take on C. S. Lewis's fantasy series, and she's a longtime contributor of essays on literature in places like The New Yorker, The Guardian, Slate, and Salon (she was one of the founders of the latter).
In Literary Wonderlands, she assembles an able group of writers and critics to act as literary cicerones (Miller provides an introduction as well as the exemplary entry on Narnia). The book is divided into five sections, each encompassing a chronology and theme: Ancient Myth and Legend (c. 1750 B.C.E.–1666), Science and Romanticism (1726–1900), Golden Age of Fantasy (1906–1945), New World Order (1946–1979), and The Computer Age (1982–2015).
Readers expecting a sort of literary Baedeker's may be disappointed. There are some fine descriptions of secondary worlds (and a few lovely maps), most of them well-known—L. Frank Baum's Oz, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, C. S. Lewis's Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, George R. R. Martin's Westeros, China Miéville's New Corbuzon. The book is weighted toward late twentieth-century works—more than half of the titles were published after 1946. Some of the entries consist of plot precis, without much in the way of literary analysis, or effort to put the title into context with contemporary works.
And the categories, while not exactly arbitrary, occasionally make for odd bedfellows. The entries for Ancient Myth and Legend include Gilgamesh and Beowulf, but also Don Quixote and Margaret Cavendish's "The Description of a New World, called The Blazing-World." In The Golden Age of Fantasy, Peter Pan cavorts with the Moomins, Cthulhu, and the Little Prince, the denizens of Kafka's Castle and of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland.
Much of the heavy lifting is left to Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, who contributes stellar entries to two-thirds of the titles in Ancient Myths and Legends, as well as those on Gulliver's Travels, Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, and The Lord of the Rings; and to the U.K. scholar and critic John Sutherland, who covers most of the Victorian and early twentieth-century classics—The Water Babies, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Erewhon, Treasure Island, et al. He also provides strong commentary on Slaughterhouse-Five and Never Let Me Go.
Standouts among other entries by the book's forty-one contributors are Reyes Lazaro's exceptional brief piece on Don Quixote. Lazaro analyzes Cervantes's "reactions to the very real and traumatic technological transformations that were being implemented in the Castilian landscape by the ruling Habsburgs," which adds a science fictional gloss to the notion of tilting at windmills. Lev Grossman takes on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a novel one might not expect to see sandwiched between A Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Andrew Taylor deftly examines Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. Lisa Tuttle looks at modern classics including Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Octavia Butler's Kindred, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Matthew Cheney gets high marks for summarizing and deconstructing one of the most challenging and influential novels of the last fifty years—Samuel R. Delany's brilliant, sui generis Dhalgren—in roughly 800 words.
There are some serious omissions: the Ramayama and the great eleventh-century Urdu epic "Amir Hamza," Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Hope Mirlees's Lud-in-the-Mist, Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, David Anthony Durham's Acacia series. And while China Miéville's Bas-Lag cycle gets an expansive and sharp appraisal by Jonathan Newell, there's no mention there or elsewhere of M. John Harrison's Viriconium books, one of Miéville's primary influences. A handful of bestselling novels published since the turn of the millennium seem unlikely to stand the test of time, despite the number of copies in print. I would prefer to have seen works that reflect Arab and Middle Eastern influences: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen and Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, for starters. Ditto with books that reimagine the rich material of the Hindu world, like Amish Ripalni's Shiva trilogy and Paul Park's Starbridge Chronicles.
In Literary Wonderlands, seventy of the authors whose works are represented are Anglo, American or European white men (I'm counting Homer here, along with Ovid, but not the unknown authors of Beowulf or The Mabinogion, who'd skew the numbers even more). Fifteen are women. Only a handful of black, Latino, and Asian writers are represented. This lack of diversity isn't Miller's fault—during most of the period covered here, the majority of writers were white guys, whether they wielded a quill pen or a Royal Upright typewriter. But now more than ever, it underscores the importance of encouraging, and reading, authors whose voices have been underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy—people of color, women, LGBT, neuroatypical, you name it.
I'm writing these words in the shadow of a year that ominously presages a future out of the darkest worlds conjured in Literary Wonderlands: that of books like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, Never Let Me Go. Books give us the power to shape the future. So all you young writers out there—stop reading this, and get to work.
The U.S. edition of Graeme Macrae Burnet's Man Booker Prize finalist His Bloody Project bears the description "A Historical Thriller." Reviewers here and in the U.K. (where the novel was published by small press Saraband) often took pains to call it a psychological thriller. Much was made of the magnanimity of the Man Booker judges, who allowed a genre novel into the ranks of Serious Literature. Welcome to the twentieth century, folks!
Burnet's novel, his second, is far more bleak than most historical novels. And "thriller" isn't le mot juste. It's more of a psychological horror novel set in the past, as intense and terrifying as Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. A dark sheen of the fantastic shimmers around this tale of abuse, trauma, and murder in a village of Scottish crofters in 1869, the time of the Highland clearances that viciously deprived families of their homes and livelihoods in order to fatten the already bloated aristocracy. Burnet prefaces his novel with the claim that it consists of a manuscript he discovered while researching an ancestor accused of murder, along with newspaper articles, police statements, testimony of neighbors, a transcript of the trial, and the medical report of the alienist brought in to determine whether or not the murderer was in his right mind.
There's also a map of Culduie, the minuscule coastal village where the events take place. Culduie does exist. Macrae does appear to have some interesting ancestors, and he makes skillful use of several real-life persons in his narrative. Everything else, however, is testament to Macrae's storytelling skills and his gift for channeling the voices of numerous characters, as well as the modes of Victorian writing in his various reports.
The central document in His Bloody Project is seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae's own account, written in prison, of the events leading up to his murder of Lachlan Mackenzie. Known as Lachlan Broad, Mackenzie is a vile, brutal and vengeful crofter neighbor of the Macraes: he ranks up there (or Down There) with Cormac McCarthy's demonic Judge as an avatar of human evil. We know from the outset that Roderick has killed Lachlan Broad. He makes this clear to Andrew Sinclair, his court-appointed legal advocate.
"Now Roderick," he said, "some days ago a dreadful crime was committed in your village."
Mr. Sinclair wants to have Roderick declared insane, which would spare the boy execution. On the surface, this shouldn't be that difficult to prove—nearly relentless trauma is as much a part of Roderick's life as the gray sea and stony fields that surround him. His mother Una died in childbirth. "It is this event, which, in my mind, marks the beginning of our troubles," Roderick tells Sinclair. "There was a general outpouring of grief in our village, my mother's presence having been akin to the sunlight that nurtures the crops."
Indeed, Una seems almost supernaturally linked to the good fortune of both her family and the village. No one understands why she marries the "disagreeable" John Macrae: "she could have had her pick of the men of the parish." She possesses second sight, as does her oldest child, Jetta, who Roddy adores. Sunny-tempered and gay as her mother, after Una's death Jetta "was as greatly transformed as if her fetch had overnight taken her place." John Macrae, always bemused by his wife's affection, swiftly reverts to behavior that can be as vicious as that of Lachlan Broad. He beats Roddy and sometimes Jetta, whom he orders to sleep in the same room with him.
John is also stubborn to the point of a pathological passivity. He repeatedly refuses to do anything that might spare him or his family from privation and increasing isolation from their neighbors in Culduie, and refuses efforts to help him. A sort of fatedness hangs over all his actions; over those of everyone in his family. They're haunted by a constant, irreparable sense of doom, a refraction perhaps of the Nordic notion that no man can escape his fate. When the ax falls, it will be a relief.
Roderick is extremely bright. His schoolmaster begs him to leave Culduie to continue his education, but Roddy chooses to remain. His detached affect often seems commensurate with that of someone with autism spectrum disorder. At times, his memoir seems to be purposefully evasive, even contradictory.
It soon becomes clear that Roderick is a supremely unreliable narrator. We may believe his insistence that he murdered Lachlan Broad, but gradually the other facts of his account—namely, his true motive, and whether or not he's as sexually innocent as he appears—begin to morph and shift disturbingly.
Bleak as this tale is, His Bloody Project rewards a second reading. Its latter sections—the alienist's assessment of the accused "Travels in the Border-Land of Lunacy;" the various accounts of Roderick's neighbors, which uphold or contradict his own; the gripping and horrific description of the actual murder—are a tour-de-force. My Bloody Project marches to its heartrending final pages with the grim elegance and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. As Roderick calmly states when he confronts one of his victims, "I said I was sorry, but that even if I wished things to be otherwise, they could not be so."
There's no mistaking Peter S. Beagle's Summerlong for anything but a straightforward contemporary fantasy—not that there's anything wrong with that. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, one of the best-loved fantasy novels of the last century, long ago established his chops as one of our finest American fabulists. In Summerlong, he sets the myth of Persephone against the backdrop of the contemporary Pacific Northwest. Abe, an aging, retired academic, lives on an island in Puget Sound. His slightly younger lover and companion, Joanna, is a flight attendant based in Seattle. Their relationship has all the hallmarks of a longterm partnership between adults of a certain age and class: unassumed ease and affection, ardent if unscintillating sex, enough money to live separately and enjoy each other's company on a regular basis. In other words, they might both be wearing signboards that flash DECEMBER ALERT: MIDLIFE CRISIS.
Indeed, into this modest vision of paradise sways a young waitress who reminds cranky old Abe of Botticelli's "Primavera," with a face "at once thoughtful and merry, and her eyes were dark green as elm leaves, and shaped like them, tilting up slightly at the outer corners." If that's not enough of a red flag that this is not your ordinary Puget Sound waitress, she introduces herself as Lioness, which Abe immediately recognizes as the same name as the lost kingdom of Lyonesse. (He also quotes a poem about Lyonesse by Thomas Hardy—academics do that sort of thing.)
In an eyeblink, the waitress is living in Abe's garage. She proceeds to enchant everyone she meets, including Joanna's prickly daughter Lily, a young gay woman whose unrequited passion for Lioness is touchingly rendered, most memorably in a wrenching dinner party scene. Lioness seems to want to keep a low profile—she's hiding from something, or someone—but hers is not the sort of profile that one can lower. Even the weather responds to Lioness's charms: the island is blessed (or cursed) with a summer that doesn't end with the turning seasons. Flowers bloom mysteriously. Small children are enraptured in her presence. Abe finds himself taking up the blues harp and playing with a local band whose members are half his age. Joanna considers kayaking lessons, despite a fear of drowning.
She also meets a strange, rather sinister older man on the island ferry. Around the same time, an equally unnerving older woman appears in Seattle. Anyone who's surprised by what ensues needs to reacquaint herself with the works of Edith Hamilton.
Tales such as this are told oft for a reason: like all great myths, they lend themselves to endless recursion and reinterpretation. Beagle's writing here is lovely—the dialogue is sharp, the parallel storylines of estranged daughters moving. And he pulls no punches with his ending. Gods and goddesses may follow their own timeless, unchanging scripts, but fallible humans have to deal with the consequences of their messy actions. Love can't always be restored, any more than youth can. That's why we read, and need, stories like this one.
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Copyright © 1998–2019 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide