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Jo Walton reviewed Jenny Davidson's The Explosionist over at the Tor blog yesterday and while it is a very good and well written review, she did bring up an issue that struck a chord with me, namely whether or not science fiction and fantasy elements can be present in the same story. Here's a bit of the review:

Spiritualism—and all the apparatus of automatic writing, table tapping, mediums and spirit photography—was indeed an obsession in the 1930s, and earlier, from the mid-Victorian period onwards. (See Angels and Insects for a brilliant modern fictional treatment and Unnatural Death for a contemporary one.) But it didn't ever actually work, and it couldn't have ever worked in the real world. Spiritualism was largely a case of people who, as Byatt says, desperately wanted spiritual consolation in a secular age, and were tricked into believing they were getting messages from dead people. It was all fraudulent, as investigator after investigator proved.

This isn't to say you can't take it seriously in fiction, and even have it work just as the gullible people in our world believed it did. It's just that if you do, you've moved from science fiction to fantasy. A world in which you can fairly reliably talk to dead people with crystal radios, where licensed spirit photographers can produce evidence admissible in court, and where mediums are not fakes would be a world far more different than one where Napoleon won. Davidson has thought through the consequences of her science fictional changes remarkably well, but of her fantasy ones far less so. It's unlikely that a world with that kind of relationship with the dead would have been sufficiently like ours through any of its history to ever have got to Waterloo in the first place.

If you haven't read Jenny's book, Walton gives a fine overview of it earlier in her review and it is an alternate history that other than obvious political changes reads as a wonderful piece of fairly traditional (with some fun weirdness) historic fiction. Jenny does rely on spiritualism and communication with the dead for a plot point and certainly this facet of society is respected in the novel. It is not, as it was in our history, a hoax or joke. But does communicating with the dead really push a book over into fantasy? It's not like we're talking flying horses or tiny little fairies here; ghosts have never seemed like full on fantasy to me. And in the book, the ghost aspect is not taken to an extreme; it's communion with the dead and, well, not to get all M Night Shyamalan on you but I've talked to dead people.

More than once.

Okay, I'm Irish (half Irish anyway) and my people see dead people, wake up suddenly thousands of miles away when people die, hear mysterious disembodied voices and one way or another, we have indeed talked to dead people. We also don't wear hats in the house (I have no idea what this is about but there you go) and we completely freak out when a bird flies indoors because it means someone will die and we have stories about how the one event has indeed followed the other. Before you call us crazy remember that we are primarily a people who worship in a religious ceremony where wine is mystically transformed into blood on the altar every week.

Not so crazy now, are we? (And don't even get me started on the saints....)

Walton has a line in her review ("A world in which you can fairly reliably talk to dead people with crystal radios, where licensed spirit photographers can produce evidence admissible in court, and where mediums are not fakes would be a world far more different than one where Napoleon won.") and the minute I read it the name that flew into my head was Joan of Arc. We live in a world that had both Napoleon (winner/loser, not the point here) and also a girl who heard the voices of angels and led an army to victory. We also have the Miracle of Lourdes and the 1917 visions at Fatima...and those are three of the more well known miracles that are held as truth by millions of people the world over. In this world we are living in there are jet planes and the Shroud of Turin and we function just fine, whether you agree with the believers or not.

My point is that there are different kinds of fantasy and some of it - namely mention of ghosts and seances - doesn't seem nearly as fantastical as others, to me anyway. When it comes to The Explosionist I especially don't see the split between Sci Fi and Fantasy as severely as Walton does because the book doesn't read as purely one or the other to me anyway. It is SF primarily because it is alternate history. For the record I have never agreed that alt history is automatically SF. To me SF seems more futuristic than historic and in this particular case you have a world that progressed in a slightly different manner than our own since Napoleon's victory at Waterloo. The differences are sincere but not overly dramatic (some inventions, some politics, some social experiments) but the basics of school and work and men and women dressed in 1930s dress (the time period) are remarkably similar. (We're not talking about giant apes who speak in other words.) It is Sci Fi lite, if anything, and as the fantasy aspects are lite as well what I found while reading The Explosionist is that the story carries you away beyond any constructs.

This is sweeping historic fiction about a girl who uncovers horrifying truths on both a personal and political level and must save both herself and her country. There is also romance and horror (of a Charlotte Perkins Gilman kind) and thrills aplenty. It works beautifully on every level - much as Emma Bull's western/fantasy mash-up Territory also excels superbly as historic fiction about Wyatt Earp and eastern mysticism in Tombstone. (It's wonderful and everyone should read it.)

Sometimes I think we bring too much of our wants and needs about fiction to the table when we read a book. I came to The Explosionist looking for story and it has that in spades. However you want to categorize the book, whatever you want to call the book, don't let the labels give you pause. Some of us talk to dead people and live in the real world; it can happen in literature too, promise.

[I feel compelled to add here that I am a seriously lapsed Catholic but the dead people thing...that I'm not so easily ready to dismiss. :) ]

comments

I liked The Explosionist -- and it wasn't just because it was set in Scotland (and that my aunts worked in those factories!), it was the whole world that got weirder with every leaked detail.


There are a couple of things (i.e. the changed girls/women that no one seems to care about) that needed more work but I'll definitely read the next one.

hope

I am afraid that I agree with Walton. I never felt the book did work on every level. The spiritualism seemed tacked on and inconsistent. I don't have a problem with talking to dead people, I do that, too. But in this world of Davidson's people could take pictures of spiritual images and submit them in court. That's not Joan of Arc. The main character is skeptical of spiritualism at first, which was fine with me, but then more and more evidence piled up that spiritualism worked in this world, *and* was accepted as valid, and I was left wondering how the MC could have been skeptical in the first place. I loved the setting of this book. I didn't think the characters were consistent. I thought the spiritualism was poorly thought out. But mileage varies, doesn't it? I can imagine how those things could seem minor quibbles to someone who is enjoying other things in the book. The digression about cooking stoves for example!

I haven't yet read the book, and wasn't going to read this post until I did, but you had me at the title.

Now I'm DYING to get to this one.

Hey Hope!

I kind of saw the cooking stoves diversion as background for the world - a way to describe the environment more - but the spiritualism for me was more significant. I used Joan of Arc as an example here as she is so well known far beyond the bounds of Catholicism (being the patron saint of France and all). But how the average person, even Christian, views her and how the average Catholic sees here are two different things. In her case the existence of voices of the dead (in this case angels) which directed her were presented as evidence in court (religious court but still). Politics found her on the losing side but if you ever have a chance to read her formal statements they are quite fascinating.

I guess my larger point though was that there seems to be a difference (to me anyway - this is always only about me!) between fantastical elements such as fairies, vampires, etc and ghosts. Ghosts (and ghostly communication) seems to be used so much in so many different types of books to propel plot that drawing a line in the sand and stating that a society in which ghostly communication is accepted must be fantasy is just too harsh of a rule for me. While we have proven that seances, etc in the late 19th century were manipulated and false, at the time they were not viewed as such and many very respectable individuals pursued them. It seemed that Jenny just took that a bit further in her book, but not into the realm of Tolkien's elves and dwarves, for example.

You'll like it T - promise! And Gavin I do agree that the book could have been longer/deeper on certain subjects. I think there was a lot that had to be introduced in the beginning however. I think the next one will be great!

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