Posted by Niall Harrison
31 January 2011
This week we have our second piece on mythpunk, a round-table discussion led by JoSelle Vanderhooft and featuring Amal El-Mohtar, Rose Lemberg, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Shweta Narayan. Over here I want to talk about specific works, because I always get twitchy if I go too long without talking about specific works. I ended last week's entry asking if anyone had ever felt mythpunk'd; this entry will be about my suggestions, or rather about me testing a bunch of books I've read to see if they can fit. But first, although Wikipedia is a bit sparse on the subject of mythpunk, via Twitter I discover that there is a TV Tropes page (yes, that hated place!), which has the following to suggest by way of a definition:
Characterized by baroque multicultural fashion, alternative/queer sexuality, bizarre retellings of familiar faerie tales, pervasive anxiety, fear of inevitable change, elaborate symbolism and radical reinterpretation, mythpunk is a cross-media movement. Although largely defined through literary works like Andrea Jones's Hook & Jill, Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series and Catherynne Valente's Orphan's Tales, the mythpunk aesthetic occasionally manifests in music (The Decemberists), film (Pan's Labyrinth), jewelry and other media forms.
Although this (sub)genre shares many elements with Urban Fantasy, mythpunk stories tend to avoid linear or obvious story structures, simple prose and easily-discernible character archetypes. You may find talking dance shoes or carnivorous zebra-satyrs in a mythpunk tale, but lovesick vampires are right out!
Cross-media! Steampunk is such a trend-setter. Anyway, I'm not sure about some elements of this definition (fear of inevitable change?), and I'm at the disadvantage of only having encountered one of the works listed (Pan's Labyrinth), but at least this provides something against which to base my own judgments of what mythpunk should be. So:
In The Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss
Myth-y? We're going to need a working definition of myth at some point, aren't we? Dictionary.com is suitably vague: "a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation." Plenty of that in Goss's fiction, from -- as Matt mentioned last week -- "The Rose in Twelve Petals" to more recent fiction (and more recent myths) in last year's "The Mad Scientist's Daughter." ****
Punk-y? Back to the dictionary: "a style or movement characterized by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc., and the defiance of social norms of behavior." Transpose that to fiction, and in addition to the stylistic points listed in the TVTropes definition, I'd suggest there has to often be an element of the contemporary injected into a story for it to qualify as punk. "The Rose in Twelve Petals" is perhaps Goss's most obviously confronting story in this respect, although she's written plenty of more conventional narratives; as Abigail notes in her review of the collection, however, there's "a free-spirited disdain for social conventions" in a good number of Goss's tales. ***
The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M Valente
Myth-y? I pick this Valente because I happen to have read it recently (or at least because, as noted above, I haven't read The Orphan's Tales). It's mythed out to the nines, as you might expect: one of the novel's central points is Prester John's slow discovery of and reaction to the creation myths of all the variegated creatures he encounters on his travels. *****
Punk-y? On the face of it, less so than some of Valente's works. The structure of the novel is relatively straightforward -- three narrative strands subsumed within a framing story. But Valente pulls off a clever trick by injecting the contemporary into her construction of the utopian society to which Prester John travels: physically weird its creatures may be, but in morals and mores they're much closer to us than John can be, indeed beyond us in some respects. ****
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Myth-y? The winner of this year's William L Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy, this is a retelling of a Sengalese folk tale, with infusions of various other mythic bits and pieces. So a high score here ... ****
Punk-y? ... but I'm not so sure about here. Lord's chosen voice is confidently contemporary, unafraid to address the reader directly, and often witty with it; but her (extremely effective) style is to charm rather than provoke. **
Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo
Myth-y? I owe this one to this list of mythpunk works at Goodreads, and now I'm wondering how it didn't occur to me before: it creates an entire fictive zoology for trolls. ****
Punk-y Absolutely. Playful and provocative in both form and in content. ****
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Myth-y? I include this as something of a test case; it seems to me that it's easy to think of mythic fantasy that isn't particularly punky, per Redemption in Indigo above; harder to think of punky fantasy that isn't particularly mythic. There is a folkloric root to the magic in Zoo City, but it's sufficiently buried that the mythic tones are pretty much non-existent. *
Punk-y? Here, on the other hand, is the novel's strength: a sharp and whip-smart voice, thoroughly contemporary, thoroughly urban, an obvious heir to cyberpunk. *****
What else? Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, perhaps (Myth *****, Punk ***); Hal Duncan's Book of All Hours (Myth *****, Punk *****); M. Rickert's Map of Dreams (Myth ****, Punk ***). Probably not Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (Myth *****, Punk **), or Steph Swainston's Castle novels (Myth *, Punk ****). Maybe Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World (Myth ****, Punk ***), or Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity series (Myth ***, Punk ***). Over to you, again.