Wednesday 28 August 2013

Ten fantastical authors you may never have thought of reading, Part I

I increasingly distrust the terms "science fiction" and "fantasy" because so many people, particularly those who rarely, if ever, read anything in either genre, tend to see them as being narrow and rigid categories, as a way of excluding books from consideration rather than bringing them into the fold.  The truth, of course, is that there are untold numbers of writers out there (including many literary and even Nobel-winning authors) whose works flirt on the edges of SF and/or fantasy or flit between the two and untold more writers whose writings, while fitting into neither genre, have the same spirit of adventure and enquiry that informs the best work in both.  As a result, I've started to prefer the term "fantastical writing" which seems to cover much of the non-realist fiction I like best.

So, what exactly do I mean by "fantastical writing"?  As it turns out, it's extremely hard to define.  For me it's writing that succeeds in combining a sense of the unheimlich (somehow a much more precise word than eerie or uncanny) and of the wondrous, the sort of writing that can leave one at once both open-jawed at an idea whilst at same time feeling a shiver down one's spine.  It's writing that is informed by the spirit of fairy tale, taking us to a place that, wherever it might be set, runs according to rules slightly different from our own.  It's also writing which, at the top of its game, manages to amaze and unsettle even as it echoes to the sound of gentle laughter.  It's writing that... No, let's face it, this really isn't getting me very far at all.  Instead of continuing my attempt to ham-fistedly flail a definition together, why don't I just list some authors I think fit the "fantastical category" nicely and leave you to work out the definition from there?  It's in no way an exclusive list, in general I've tried to look at authors more firmly lodged in the "literary" than the more general "fantasy"/"sci-fi" camps, partly because I'm dreadfully pretentious but also because wonderful writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Moorcock et al appear on plenty of lists already.

So, with the preamble out of the way, let's get on with the first part of the list.

Angélica Gorodischer

You may not have heard of Angélica Gorodischer but if you haven't you really shouldn't blame yourself.  Until very recently only one of her books had been translated into English but what a book it is: Kalpa Imperial is a series of tales drawn from the story of a great empire, mixing fairy tale, political satire and history all told in the style of a marketplace storyteller.  Together they form a subtle exploration of the uses and abuses of power and the whole has a great sense of movement, carrying the reader through the book on a great river of story.  Unconvinced?  How about if I tell you the book's translator was Ursula Le Guin?

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is a writer who flits in and out of popularity.  Outside of Germany, his reputation only really began to grow in the 60s, when novels about identity and self-discovery such as Siddhartha and Steppenwolf seemed a perfect fit for the hippie counterculture.  But many hippies signed up for the flirtation with eastern culture, drug-taking and uncomplicated sex present in those books and failed to take in the deep moral seriousness with which they were written.  The Glass Bead Game, which explores the conflict between the life of the mind and the life of the world remains an astounding achievement (and has been echoed in Iain M Banks's The Player of Games and Neal Stephenson's Anathem, among others).  Best of all though, are Hesse's fairy tales, which use the form pioneered by the likes of Perrault and the Grimms to explore the mystical and romantic themes so close to Hesse's heart.  Martin Amis once accused Hesse of "impregnable humourlessness" but then no-one listens to Mart any more, do they?

Karel Čapek

The brilliant, humane Karel Čapek is a slightly odd inclusion in this list, not because he lacked any sense of wonder but because, far from his writing being unheimlich, he somehow managed to make the most extraordinary ideas - the enslavement of a newly-discovered race of humanoid newts, a scientist's new power source creating little bits of the essence of god, a robot uprising, a man who meets multiple aspects of his own self - seem absolutely real, playing them out with total conviction amid a cast of characters at once as comical and as true to life as you could wish to find.  His books are suffused with a deep understanding both of mankind's follies and of its potential.  His satires in particular, while as clear-sighted and unsparing of human foibles as anything in Swift, are filled with a sense of gentle laughter.  In the 1920s, Capek was one of the world's most famous writers, his books translated into multiple languages, plays like RUR and The Insect Play appearing in productions on Broadway (Spencer Tracy played one of the robots in the former) and London's West End and The Makropulos Affair going on to form the basis of Janacek's celebrated opera.  Now he is best known for having invented the word "robot", a term in fact coined by his brother Josef.  Do your best to help put that right: go away and read War with The Newts or The Absolute at Large.

Jorge Luis Borges

Ah, Borges, creator of a world of labyrinths, mirrors and doubles within doubles, where everything and nothing is exactly what it seems.  The magic realist's magic realist, his work manages to combine philosophy and adventure, reality and fantasy and is so wide-ranging it is easier to give examples than to describe.  How about The Library of Babel, a universe which is itself an infinite library, whose books and scrolls contain every possible ordering of its letters, spaces and punctuation marks and thus must contain, besides an infinite amount of gibberish, every coherent book that had been written or will be written?  Or how about The Secret Miracle in which a man standing before a firing squad finds himself given a subjective year in which to complete his unfinished play before the bullet hits?  Or Funes, The Memorious, the story of a man plagued by the fact he remembers everything he has ever witnessed in absolute detail? Or ... but no, there are too many tales to mention and every last one is worth your time.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Krzhizhanovsky is yet another writer whom it's hard to pigeonhole, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is often compared to Borges. Combining Gogol, Chesterton, Poe and RL Stevenson, he managed to come up with a style all his own.  This is a man who will tell you the story of a nationwide craze inspired by a man's attempt to bite his own elbow, of the decision by a pianist's fingers to run off and find a life of their own, of a lover who spies, while looking into the eyes of his beloved, a tiny man looking back at him.  Krzhizhanovsky is one of those writers whose lack of success during his own lifetime (his archive was only unearthed in the 1970s, two-and-a-half decades after his death) seems to have freed his imagination.  Reading him is endlessly rewarding.

[For Part II of this list, see here]

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