The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Strange fictional worlds

Posted on: August 15, 2007

I’ve noticed an amusing aspect to my exploration of old Paris Review issues: whatever my opinion on the merits (or lack thereof) of any author, the critical world is sure to the think the exact opposite.

James Salter? Pretentious bore who shouldn’t be placed anywhere near the label of “impressionistic”. (You can’t read anything by Ford Madox Ford and then call Salter’s prose anything of the sort. You just can’t. It’s blasphemy.) Critics? “[O]ne of our most important writers in the last fifty years; a master of his craft”. Leonard Michaels? His story was a bit daft really: didn’t see the point or the effect he was going for. Critics? “[O]ne of the most highly regarded contemporary American literary figures…a master of the short story”. Dallas E. Wiebe? Ahh, he seems to have slipped through the cracks, although the Review of Contemporary fiction gave his 2003 short stories collection a favourable review.

I thought Rosalyn Drexler’s story was disturbingly crazy in the best way possible: she is now more or less creating in obscurity. Jesse Hill Ford’s fiction was an atmospheric immersion: his life ended in a tragic suicide, and that was that for the most part. Wurlitzer’s Nog appears to be generally viewed as a dated curiosity. I thought it was one of the better “strange” examples of 60s fiction, as I’ve experienced it through the lit magazine’s archives.

I fear that my present anointed Best Contemporary Writers in the world are destined for future obscurity and neglect. My apologies to them in advance.

From one strange landscape to another, I have initiated contact with the science fiction world. *applause* It was a rough start. In an impressive bout of self-delusion I picked So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, figuring that the “postcolonial” label was merely a convenient geographical grouping. Then I read Nalo Hopkinson’s introduction.

A friend and fellow science fiction writer, Zainab Amadahy, once introduced me to a friend of hers, a black scholar who had recently completed his PhD. We got to talking about my short story “Riding the Red”, which does a jazz riff on the folk tale of Little Red Riding Hood. He listened to my description of my story, then asked, “What do you think of Audre Lorde’s comment that massa’s tools will never dismantle massa’s house?”

I don’t know if this makes me a terrible (black) person but I immediately threw back my head with raucous laughter. Hopkinson’s answer was better and far more measured — her adaptation of the fairy tale to a Afro-Caribbean context naturally led her to use the tools to build her own house — which quieted any fears I had about being led into a merry old political rant.

Nisi Shawl’s “Deep End” was the first story and it tripped me several times; there were three moments (at least) when I stopped abruptly, chuckled in fear and confusion, and wondered whether it was not too late to switch to another option. The first stumble occurred at, “Psyche Moth was a prison ship”. Uh oh, spaceships. Spaceships. You have to understand I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fantasy reader. I do not blink at wizards, elves, necromancers or secret assassin groups with mysterious powers. (I draw the line at mages and “watercraeft”). But once you present space ships and aliens and colonised planets, and some stuff about your mind being uploaded, and clones, “freespace”, I panic. The eyelids blink rapidly, I begin to worry about all of the strange technological content that I must be misunderstanding (for is this not my first SF?), and the Asimov and Heinlein (or whoever) references of which I am assuredly ignorant, making my understanding of the story pathetic at best. Isn’t there a kids SF book I should probably start with first, to ease me in? Who on earth told me I could write anything about these kinds of books?

Inhale. Exhale.

I’m proud to say that I survived (barely). It was a strange feeling but at the end I was happy to realise that I did have things to write about in my dangerous moleskin — print critics, shudder in despair! — so I was not befuddled.

Andrea Hairston’s “Griots of the Galaxy” was a more welcoming read because a) lots of action, baby and b) it drew on an aspect of African culture reimagined it a fantastical way, a technique with which I’m more familiar. She writes “speculative fiction” but I don’t know what that means precisely, and her plays are described as having SF “themes”. I thought, at first, that she wasn’t strictly SF because her story didn’t have a spaceship, but nope, one appeared near the end. There wasn’t a lot of science in her story, I guess, although there was reincarnation and a very Wilson Harris like interpretation of collective consciousness. But there was space travel. I concluded that there wasn’t enough technology and shit to make it SF, no fairies so it couldn’t be fantasy, and a little too much un-literary action scenes and fantastical content to make it “magic realism”. Whatever it is, I liked it a lot, not the least because of the novelty of African culture being used in the kind of stories I, more or less, uniformly associate with European myth.

If you’d like to know what a griot is, here’s an informative website.


16 Responses to "Strange fictional worlds"

I begin to worry about all of the strange technological content that I must be misunderstanding (for is this not my first SF?)

I do sometimes wonder where this reaction comes from — it’s so very common, but does it come from the sf? Or is it a more general nervousness of *science* as something esoteric and outside the everyday? I can’t help thinking it’s the latter, and I don’t really know what sf can do about it.

In my case I don’t think it’s a general anxiety about science. Three of my best reads of last year were by Paul and Patricia Churchland and V.S. Ramachandran. I bought the latest Richard Powers because of the neuroscience element. I’m anxious about the strange technological content: Made-up googleymock about the Quantum Biophysimatacum that does god knows what, heaven knows where (so I like to imagine it to amuse myself) in the hands of authors writing for audiences who are used to such scientific fabrications. (Perhaps its similar to the way people fear the “world building” fantasy with a lot of made-up races with who knows what genealogy, in kingdom knows where, never mind one has a map, that’s half the problem.) Marry that to the fact that I have a grave mistrust of any science book written by non-science folk (journalists and the like), now amplified by the fact that now there is made-up science by fiction writers (of all people!).

(I also hate Physics.)

Of course this is an impression completely made out of ignorance — half the fun — to poke fun at the campus role-players group, that I ended up taking seriously anyway, once I had an actual SF book in my hand.

Now I have a feeling of satisfaction not unlike, perhaps, the way some white readers feel when they’ve read (and not disliked) an “African-American” novel. (Aren’t I such a broad-minded reader. Go team!)

This was a great post, Imani. Your paragraph on Nisi Shawls story, etc.. was just wonderful and funny writing, and I love the word gooleymock – it’s a new one on me.

I’m like you! Love fantasy, but really don’t like sci-fi that much. I find most of the accoutrements distracting. I tried it for the first time since Stranger in a Strange Land earlier this year, and it was weird. Maybe I’ll try it again someday….but not until at least next year. 😀

Made-up googleymock about the Quantum Biophysimatacum that does god knows what, heaven knows where (so I like to imagine it to amuse myself) in the hands of authors writing for audiences who are used to such scientific fabrications.

But for the made up stuff, all the information you need to understand the whatever in question should be in the story; and if it’s not, it’s a bad story.

Hmm. The closest I come, I guess, is when I read some kind of retold fairytale when I’m not familiar with the original — I feel uneducated for not knowing the orignial, and always wonder how I’d be reading the story if I *was* familiar with the original.

Ted thanks! SF inspires me, for some reason.

Eva the rumour of techno info dumps and “hard SF” and such do scare me back into elf land, more often than not. But after months of reading Niall’s site and years of reading Scalzi’s, I figured it was time.

Niall oh, I don’t pretend that my fears are based on logic. SF, of all the different genres, seems so exclusive to me, so built on references inside the genre, so…well somewhat impermeable that right off the bat, at the mildest insertion of anything galactic, I assume I won’t get it.

“But for the made up stuff, all the information you need to understand the whatever in question should be in the story; and if it’s not, it’s a bad story.”

Amen, Niall. Amen.

Imani, I’d love to send you a review copy of my novel Crystal Rain, a caribbean SF adventure (I grew up in Grenada), if you’re interested, drop me an email with your address.

Thanks, Tobias! I appreciate the offer and the intentions behind it. (And a Caribbean SF? That’s different.) I’ll be sure to drop you e-mail.

Re: Sci Fi of a possibly cantankerous sort:

Am I permitted to indulge in shamelessness for a bit?

If not, feel free to delete/punish. If so….

Oh ho, this ought to be funny. I only delete spam.


But isn’t this merely a higher form of spam? (larf)

Real elitists are only interested in higher forms of crap.


Goodgod, that was the best ambiguous quip I’ve read in quite awhile!

[…] amusing and disheartening that such ideas are still being wrestled over. Even Nalo Hopkinson met up on it.) Edna declared These young hot-heads were in their cradles when we were struggling for universal […]

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