Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Readercon: Excellent Foppery: The Use of History in the Fantastic

Last one! Done before the next con!

Excellent Foppery: The Use of History in the Fantastic.
Graham Sleight with discussion by Christopher M. Cevasco, John Crowley, Greer Gilman, Victoria Janssen, Robert Killheffer. Talk / Discussion (60 min.).
Following on from his talk at last year's Readercon (a potted history of the last twenty years in speculative fiction), Sleight now discusses the use of history in the fantastic—from John Crowley's AEypt sequence to Tim Powers's fantasies of history. Other works discussed include Road Runner cartoons, Harry Potter, slash fiction, and the stories of Elizabeth Hand, Russell T Davies, and Thomas Pynchon. Overarching theories may be suggested; gratuitous mentions of Shakespeare may also take place.

The talk was humanities-paper style, reading a prepared text; it's not a method of presentation I'm used to and I found it difficult to keep up with at times. Sleight said he wasn't quite happy with the text but if he put it on the web, it would go up on the Locus Roundtable blog.


overview: describe or isolate a particular habit of human thinking, then how manifests in fiction, [which is?] a problem if used too much without underlying consciousness or awareness

extract from Shakespeare, _King Lear_ Act I Scene 2, two nobles discussing what just happened & then Edmund's argument against what other just said: all our evil is thrust on us by heaven = denial of agency

[Hence the panel title:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! . . . ]

suggest underlying model: world out there of inchoate stuff; perceptions of people always incomplete and mediated by preconceptions etc; therefore we impose narratives on world, & one is causality

kind complained about by Edmund: narratives of _excess_ causality

quote from Gene Wolfe's Severian books that I didn't follow because I haven't read

might say that science is attempt to be as rigorous as possible about causality

another kind of meaning is clearly "story"

carries with it entailment, one thing after another

world out there is not narrative-shaped, writer must impose

differing writers do to different degrees

long quote from critic about Ibsen imposing more story than Chekhov

the more plot imposed on underlying material, the more away from "pure naturalism" (not that can ever achieve such a thing)

to write in fantastic genre is to impose more story than in naturalistic

Clute talk about _Greenmantle_ (?): felt fantastic because web of coincidences felt fantastic not mimetic

another simpler example: Road Runner cartoon, bursting with excess causality (anvil comes down _exactly_ on Coyote's head; so many things would prevent happening in real world, but feel is Right Ending)

why might we feel stories ought to be shaped this way? childhood & suffering: in childhood we like to feel center of world, thus also feel that our suffering is what matters

DH Lawrence poem re: Icarus falling: suffering happening while other people going on with their lives

re: fantastic: case for is: nature of history in last 250 years so extreme that mimetic response not sufficient; to respond fully, story must be more shaped than facts will allow

not argument that more story-shaped = better, or more accurate

but interesting place to start


* fantasies of history

_Declare_, about nature of Philby's betrayal, couldn't do without nonhistorical facts

anything with secret society, to make concrete idea of whatever root motivation is

* fantasies of personal history

1st person narrators enclose responses to trauma into something can live with

* paranoia

increasing scale from

van Vogt solipsism
_Demolished Man_
PK Dick--by now duality of whether protagonist is actually right to be paranoid
_Gravity's Rainbow_

general point working toward: spectrum within the fantastic as well of more or less story

at one end, devices: chosen one, prophecy, Mary Sue

(extreme end: slash fiction [I infer, the kind that forces incompatible characters together for purpose of genre])

at other end: refuse neatness of story, celebrate contingency. M John Harrison; _Dhalgren_

two meta ideas:

1) one job of critics to come up with ideas that are encompassing explanations, one job of writers to write things that confound (sometimes before critics have come up with idea)

Crowley's AEgypt sequence has many kinds of ways of imposing story on history and all wrong/insufficient

other works got there before him, particularly those conscious of story

2) why urge to impose story/causality?

adaptive response, to survive

other side: terror of alternative

Rorschach in _Watchmen_ : it's not God that kills the children, it's us

illusions that we need, as consolations

* * *


Gilman: example of windharp from AEgypt that it all resolves around, which I did not follow not having read the books; anamorphic paintings where use cylindrical mirror to view (Wikipedia); on far end of anti-stories, some of Kelly Link

Killheffer: we're the mirrors, it's all still dog barf [*]

[*] Sleight early quoted someone (Rudy Rucker, apparently) saying something to the effect of the world is just "seething dog barf", which I didn't really understand because I thought he said dog _bath_ and I couldn't make sense of the remark as a result.

Gilman: that's why he's named Rorschach

Killheffer: another way of looking at question, are we looking anamorphic painting that would have sense if we could find right mirror, or we're just making it up; Sleight arguing all imposed, but maybe not

Janssen: we're genre readers, how much of does pool of genre tropes give us different mirrors (romance & fantasy readers or novels)

Sleight: yes, entirely different way could've phrased entire thing, intepretation and reading and any number of readings of given thing

Janssen: but how much we're forming image of story has to do with person as individual mirror

Sleight: thinks hugely, what call sensibility

Janssen: doesn't work without reader interaction

Cevasco: thinking of Impressionist paintings, proper distance; why not each dot is a story and then step back and can't see; why not get close enough to pick out stories of world, being extracted not imposed

[When Chad's book comes out, y'all need to read the chapter on decoherence.]

Gilman: much in literature depends on what the dog has eaten

Sleight: possible we're talking the metaphor too far

Janssen: [causation is the?] smallest unit of story (it rained . . . because I washed my car)

Killheffer: people say "it is or isn't meant to be", insistence on causality

Sleight: Deal or No Deal, ask contestants what their plan is, but there shouldn't be a plan because random

John Crowley from audience: does it spoil interest in historical stories, [knowing that history is just?] one damn thing after another

Sleight: history always mediated by how finding out

JC but yes if you know that, spoil enjoyment?

[this is where my PDA battery ran out & I switched to paper notes]

audience: narrative hardwired, not imposed or received: "tell me about your day": in the form of a story

Killheffer: literature does this even more than what we do in everday lives regarding causality

audience: very problematic to say the last 250 years of history have been so extreme that resulted in genre

Sleight: why?

audience (same): medieval literature is full of fantastic

Sleight: chose period for increase of self-conscious use of fantastic [I think; this was a particularly bad section], but can't assert causality between history & genre

audience (same? different?): in Middle Ages, very strong unified sense of Christian narrative; writers not inventing modes where theology might exist, places stories within that theology; also there was a cohesive culturally unified history that _explains_ the world

[something about the World Wars, I have no idea what]

Sleight: "filling God-shaped hole" is a very crude argument (for? about?) the fantastic

audience: or the historical narrative hole.

audience: difference between physical & moral causality (people _deserve_ what happens to them)

audience: discussed European & North American works, is this different in other cultures?

Sleight: almost certainly, absolutely right to call him on that

Killheffer: may even be that literature of fantastic not as prevalent

Janssen & others disagree

Killheffer: hears different reports from native speakers

*end panel*

Because of the nature of the presentation, I'm not sure I have a full grasp of the concept. I definitely think it will be useful to talk about some books in terms of how much causality they involve and what kind (there's an argument that magic realism's distinguishing characteristic is that "it's the universe producing magically what ought to happen"). Other than that I'm not sure what I think. What about you?
Tags: con reports, cons, readercon, readercon 2009

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