Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Consistency

Jo Walton reviews The Explosionist at the Tor blog!

This is a huge thrill for me, as Walton's one of my absolutely favorite writers (I have also gotten a kick out of seeing my novel on end-of-year roundups by several other writers whose books I particularly enjoy, namely Ekaterina Sedia and Tamora Pierce - and forgive me if I have mentioned it already here - it might be that I have one too many blogs! - it's also great news that the book's on the short list for the Cybils young-adult fantasy and science fiction award).

Walton mostly likes the book quite a bit, but she has a very interesting objection on one significant count:
[T]he book ought to have made up its mind whether to be fantasy or science fiction.

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. Fantasy needs to be as integrated into the world as anything else, and it isn’t. I kept trying to think of the laws of magic in Randall Garrett, but Garrett’s magic is integrated into Lord Darcy’s world in a way that the spiritualism here just isn’t. It’s further unfortunate that the spiritualism is needed to drive the plot at every turn.
I have never read Randall Garrett, clearly I must... Hmmm, my inclinations are much more strongly towards fantasy than science fiction, but that doesn't answer the objection.

I guess that I fudged this in my own head - it wasn't that I was entirely unaware of this issue, but I thought of spiritualism (in fact I remember having a conversation with my editor about this!) as something practiced by and available to a mandarin class alone. In my vision of it, ordinary people who went to ordinary spiritualists were almost as likely to be cheated (like, approaching to 100% likely) as they would be in our world, so that didn't really make much of a difference; and it was only a tiny elite who had access to techniques and knowledge that would let them practice something more genuine, and still contested (like string theory!).

So that the real-world people like Henry Sidgwick or Conan Doyle or the world-of-my-novel people like Great-aunt Tabitha and her cronies are a kind of mandarin class whose doings are in certain respects isolated from the rest of society, though those activities must have a trickle-down effect that I think I have not sufficiently attended to: the nature of the mandarin class is like the class of nuclear physicists rather than the class of, say, Old Ones in Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising books, though Sophie is a figure like Will Stanton in certain respects. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books have the world of the towers fairly isolated from the ordinary social world (it is a world of sociopolitical elites with power to determine the fate of the planet), Anne McCaffrey's Pern books also have the world of the dragonriders relatively isolated from the daily lives of ordinary people - it may be that I have followed this sort of model too closely....

Hmmm, just thinking out loud here, this is very useful: the sequel in many respects moves more roundly into the world of historical fiction, I've done much less playing-around with alternateness and spiritualism is less of an issue, only there are several striking fantastical components, including talking animals, so clearly this is something worth thinking through more rigorously!

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