Fantastic Reality

By Matthew Cheney

In May 16, 2005 issue of The New Republic, James Wood begins a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go with this paragraph:

Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured—Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.

That one paragraph is filled with enough implications for a dissertation, and with a few deft flourishes it accomplishes more than reams of back-and-forth rants from any number of guardians of one bibliographic ghetto or another. It suggests the sort of thing that Borges did with the marvelously odd array of items he, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo selected for The Book of Fantasy, where the table of contents includes such writers as J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Julio Cortazar, James Joyce, Petronius, P'u Sung Ling, Olaf Stapledon, Leo Tolstoy, and Edith Wharton.

Years ago, James Patrick Kelly and I were discussing the theatre, because I was in college and more immersed in plays than science fiction, and he wondered if I encountered much in the way of SF plays. I said there were some—indeed, the word robot comes from Karel Capek's play R.U.R.—and I had once even acted in a production of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, but it would seem absurd, or at least strange, for someone to say, "I'm a science fiction playwright," or "I write fantasy plays." Though various drama critics have identified certain writers they consider "realists" or "naturalists," such writers are in a small minority in the history of the theatre. Any list of major American playwrights, for instance, is a list of writers in whose work fantasy and reality mingle freely.

When I returned to reading SF after having been immersed in the world of theatre, my previous comfort with genre boundaries had broken down. At the same time, I grew more and more restless with any fiction that didn't mingle reality and fantasy. Indeed, the hunger that theatre created within me was for art that upset any strict definition of reality.

It's not surprising, then, that of the novels published in 2005 that I have read so far, the ones that have most captured my imagination and provided the most pleasure are novels that do not take some settled or constructed reality for granted. Three come immediately to mind: Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which sparked Wood to think so insightfully about the problems of genrefication, Natives and Exotics by Jane Alison, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet.

None of these novels was published as science fiction, and purists would certainly not consider any of them to fit that label comfortably, but each to some extent or another uses science as a jumping off point for emotionally and intellectually powerful examinations of human life. Science is supposed to be the opposite of fantasy, but what any reader of science fiction knows is that science mixed with imagination can be a potent combination. The relationship between fiction and life is similar to the relationship between the hard reality sought by the scientific method and the infinite possibilities created by fantasy.

The science in Never Let Me Go is in some ways a red herring; it is a book that has been described as being "about cloning," but it's as much about cloning as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about the moon. Nonetheless, a vague idea of cloning provides just the right fantastic spin for Ishiguro to explore one of Philip K. Dick's favorite questions: What does it mean to be human? More than that, it provides a truly moving story of coming to terms with the facts of death. Plenty of novels do this, of course, but few have been able to create enough tension between reality and fantasy to make such a story feel familiar enough to reflect the lives we each live in our own (very real) bodies and alien enough to make such reflection seem fresh, central, and essential.

In Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, real science is more vital to both the story and themes of the book, because this novel is, among other things, about nuclear proliferation—it is about the history of the making of the atomic bomb, and how that history has affected everything that came after it. Lydia Millet provides nuanced portraits of domestic life, but the most vivid characters in her novel are three real scientists: Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Leo Szilard, who, in the book, travel in time from the middle of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. The time travel is fantasy, but the science that made these men famous is frighteningly real.

Natives and Exotics is concerned with time travel of a different sort: it charts the courses of people and plants through the last two hundred years, letting the reader see how historical moments of ordinary life are intertwined with events—some ostensibly tiny—that alter both history and the surface of the planet. Viewed thus, botany can be as awe-inspiring as astrophysics. There isn't much in the novel that could be identified as fantasy (except in the sense of all fiction being fantasy), but the reality that Alison undermines is as much a political one as Millet's, because Natives and Exotics finds within its allegories of migration, diversification, and evolution a narrative of colonization as well, and so the science of the book becomes a tool to reimagine particular instances of incursion, the moments when societies encountered each other.

A generous definition of allegory would suggest that all fiction, regardless of its label or merit, possesses an allegorical connection to reality: fiction is the shadow on the walls of Plato's cave. It provides an imaginary Real that renders briefly visible selected elements of a vast, intangible reality. In the theatre, where the audience sits in what each member thinks is the real world while actors create an imaginary world on the stage, a narrative propelled by the friction of reality meeting fantasy is nothing to remark on, because fantasy and reality are equally imaginary in such a setting.

Prose fiction achieves its greatest moments not by celebrating some narrow sort of reality at the expense of fantasy, but by keeping every imaginative and imagined option open. Science is the most useful technique we have for approximating the incontrovertible Real, and fiction that incorporates ideas and implications from science while also utilizing opportunities for fantasy may not simply make "allegory earn its keep" (to steal Wood's delightful phrase), but may also provide a deeply affecting way to think about all aspects of the human condition.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.