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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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The Man in the High Castle

28 Feb

The Man in the High Castle (1963) is an alternative history novel by American writer Philip K Dick depicting a nightmare world divided by Germany and Japan, winners of the second World War in an alternate timeline from our own. Set in 1962, fifteen years after an alternative ending to World War II, the novel concerns intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under the resulting totalitarian rule. The story features a “novel within the novel” comprising an alternate history within this alternate history wherein the Allies defeat the Axis (though in a manner distinct from the actual historical outcome). A hypothetical Axis victory in World War II is a common concept of alternate history, the second World War being one of the two most popular points of divergence for the English language alternative history fiction genre (the other being the American Civil War). As such, The Man in the High Castle (which has recently been adapted into a popular and critically acclaimed series by Amazon) has much in common with other fictional alternative histories, such as Swastika Night, Fatherland and Dominion.

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Different Kingdoms

14 Feb

Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.

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Strange, Norrell and Clarke

20 Jul

I’ve just finished reading Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – after five years – and, to put it mildly, it was a less than pleasurable experience (as the length of time it took me to get through it perhaps gives away). What made this such a disappointing experience in particular was the fact that I came to the book with such high hopes. For those who don’t know, Strange & Norrell is an alternative history novel set in 19th century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The fantasy twist is that it is based on the premise that magic once existed in England and has returned in the form of the two eponymous wizards. Normally this kind of thing appeals to me greatly. The novel’s critical and commercial success did nothing to rein in my sky-high expectations: it reached number three on the New York Times best-seller list, was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. No less a luminary than Neil Gaiman described Clarke’s book as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years”. The novel’s impact was compared instantly to that of Lord of the Rings and its writer’s talent to that of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. On second thoughts, perhaps this stream of hyperbole should have hinted that the whole thing sounded too good to be true. So where did it all go so horribly wrong?

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The Tales of Alvin Maker

27 Feb

In the Tales of Alvin Maker series, an alternate-history view of an America that never was, Orson Scott Card postulated what the world might have been like if the Revolutionary War had never happened, and if folk magic actually worked. In Card’s books, America is divided into several provinces, with the Spanish and French still having a strong presence in the New World. The emerging scientific revolution in Europe has led many people with ‘talent’ (i.e. magical powers) to emigrate to North America, bringing their prevailing magic with them. Race and culture seem to shape the way that the abilities of people of different groups develop. For example, white Europeans have cultivated skills that we might recognize from the folklore and traditions of colonial America and western Europe; Native Americans align themselves with the rhythms of nature but also use blood to perform some of their magic; and people of African descent channel their skills into creating objects of power, in a manner somewhat similar to the beliefs and practices of voodoo. While many people in Card’s world have a limited supernatural ability, or ‘knack’ to do some task to almost perfection, Alvin Miller, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, discovers that his knack far surpasses those of everyone else. In particular, he can change both living and nonliving matter simply by force of will (hence the title ‘Maker’). This power comes at a cost, however; not only does Alvin feel a great responsibility to use his power for good, but there are forces that actively seek his demise.

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S M Stirling’s Emberverse

20 Dec

The ‘Emberverse’ or ‘Change World’ is the setting for a series of post-apocalyptic novels written by S M Stirling which depict the events following a worldwide cataclysm that causes electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion engines and steam power to stop working. There are two sets of novels in S M Stirling’s fictional universe. The first, beginning with Island in the Sea of Time, tells of an electrical storm centred over the island of Nantucket which transports it back in time from the 1990s to 1250 BC. The stage is then set for a fascinating contrast (and conflict) between the people from the present and the past, their technology, culture and attitudes. This in itself is a brilliant concept and the Nantucket trilogy has all of the best features of the work of Stirling (who is an amateur military historian). For me, however, it is outshone by the second set of ‘Change’-related novels, which start with Dies the Fire. These tell the other side of the story i.e. what happens to the world that Nantucket island left behind when it is suddenly returned to a medieval level of civilization. The Nantucket trilogy’s central conceit of transporting people from our own world to another time and place is familiar from everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Buck Rogers in the 25th century. However, I find the concept of people from our own world and time trying to deal with effectively being returned to the middle ages much more interesting and original – at least the way Stirling does it.

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