No Clear Door or Window or Gateway

About 7 months ago, V.E. Schwab gave the annual Tolkien lecture at Oxford. Her theme was gateway stories, books that really draw someone into the world of literature, especially fantasy. Her overall thesis was two-fold: 1) She argued that stories and book considered “literary” should not be required reading for fans of a genre because forcing yourself or being forced to read something just to say you’ve read it risks killing any potential enjoyment. 2) There is no such thing as pure fantasy. To be good, proper fantasy, what a story should do is allow “the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world. But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.” I also had the chance to hear her speak in person around the same time, at the Decatur Book Festival 2018. In her talk she suggested that there are two general kinds of fantasy- those which provide doors (a more immersive and complete experience of the world and narrative) and windows (those which provide only a partial view of the world of the story ad require more inference on the part of the reader).

About a month and a half ago, I participated in a series of interviews with high schoolers, many of whom mentioned (often prompted) the book or story that really got them interested in literature and reading. There were connections, both in titles as well as general ideas. Several shared V.E. Schwab’s experience of Harry Potter being their gateway into fantasy and reading. Some others named Rick Riordan, particularly the Percy Jackson series. What caught my attention was not only the trends of these two series for this generation, but also how uncanonical they are in terms of the traditional “literary canon”; both series are best-selling popular fantasy fiction.

About the same time as the interviews, there was a thread bouncing around Twitter which had been started by someone asking academics and scholars about reading they considered guilty pleasures or fun junk; the majority of the responses were likely not what the author of the original Tweet had been looking for. Most of the responses that I saw were something along the lines of, “why should any reading be shameful?” and “just because something like a romance novel isn’t considered literary doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about enjoying it”. Putting these three events together in terms of both proximity and general argument, there would seem to be a bit of a trend developing where tradition and popularity converge, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy.

All this got me thinking about what titles were my gateways since many of those mentioned above were not the ones that really got me into reading; I’m slightly older than V.E. Schwab, and now nearly old enough to be the biological parent of a high-schooler. I’m also a professional academic and scholar who tries to make time for ‘fun reading’, which in my case often leans towards the speculative, both fantasy and sci-fi. I avoided Harry Potter at first because it was on the best-seller lists, and I didn’t have much luck with enjoying titles that usually ended up there. But by the time the third novel was published, I’d gotten curious and borrowed a family member’s book club copy of the first one. This was my senior year in high school. Throughout college and a few years following, I became one of those fans who waited in line for the midnight release, and who downloaded and had to wait for the filters to buffer the movie trailers for the first film. Around the release of novel #6, I’d started to lose interest. I didn’t find out about the Percy Jackson series until I was in my early 30s, but I read all of them and enjoyed them. I tried a few of the other series as well, the Roman one and the Egyptian one; I just couldn’t get into the Egyptian mythology series, which is too bad since the actual mythology is fascinating. My point is that neither of these series could be my gateway since I’d gotten interested in reading beforehand, and neither really made me a lifelong fan of fantasy.

I agree with V.E. Schwab about the nature of fantasy and the nature of fandom. I also half agree with the Twitter thread. While I agree that there should be no shame in enjoying a book of any sort, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty clear expectations and cultural assumptions about what is canonical, popular, and literary. These things sometimes intersect, but frequently they do not.

I was always encouraged to read as a child. I don’t remember any favorites, but I do remember some series’, which I take to mean I must have liked them. I remember Dorrie the Little Witch (fantasy), Amelia Bedelia (comic but real world), and Babar (fantasy). I also remember reading C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia in the originally intended publication order which is not fully chronological in terms of narrative. I remember more about the BBC tv movie versions (late 1980s, early 1990s) than I do the books. The one novel I do remember was The Horse and His Boy which is set in the same world, but features characters that have little to do with the Pevensies. I also remember liking the Little House on the Prairie novels. With the exception of Dorrie, all of these series are well-known canonical children’s series’; I honestly don’t know if Dorrie is still especially remembered and read.

The novels that stand out to me most as my likely gateway into fantasy and reading for fun are both something I found in a used bookstore in downtown Dublin (Ireland), Chapters, which is apparently still there (Long may it prosper!).  I had two experiences here that I’m pretty sure shaped my reading habits towards what they still are 20 years later. Both times, I saw a book, picked it up, thought it looked interesting, but put it back. After repeating this a few times, I finally bought and read the book. The first one was Watership Down by Richard Adams. The second was Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Both of these titles are fantasy, but one is recognized as more literary than the other. Part of this may be due to Watership Down being older (1972) than the Discworld series (The Color of Magic, 1983), but the best-selling nature of many installments of the Discworld series likely also factors in. Both have also been turned into tv programs, cartoons and live-ish action.

Terry Pratchett led to Neil Gaiman which led to Gail Carriger and a years-long steampunk kick. After college, when I started getting interested in Gaiman (I think Anansi Boys was my first novel of his- I really enjoyed it), I also got interested in manga and graphic novels. This I distinctly remember and can place. In 2006, I’d moved to an area rural enough to not have a bookstore, and to have a library but one which was not terribly well stocked for my tastes. I started picking up the Shonen Jump monthly, which was still in print at the time, at the grocery store, and flipping through it. I started buying that, then subscribed, and eventually started getting into the graphic novel forms, manga first, then comic books. The interesting thing about the graphic novel world is that no matter what the form or style (manga or comic book) a significant percentage of the titles belong in some way to a genre or sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m reasonably sure that it was manga and anime that brought me away from fantasy to science fiction; not that I don’t still read fantasy; I most certainly do, but I seem to have been expanding my fun reading a bit more the past year or two.  I just can’t quite pin down a gateway. If I had to, I supposed it might be either Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (c. 1390s) or Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (2018). I’ve also read some of the more canonical and popular science fiction but it’s never really grabbed me. I read Neoromancer because I figured I should; I didn’t enjoy it. I read Planetfall by Emma Newman because I loved her fantasy Split Worlds series. I didn’t like Planetfall.

My point? Inspired by the conversation going on about the nature of literature, popular, canonical and otherwise, examining my own reading habits and what got me started both supports the current discussion and disagrees. I definitely agree with V.E Schwab that there should be no such thing as required fan reading. Case in point: the things I’ve read because I figured I ought to, I frequently did not enjoy. V.E. Schwab is herself an exception to my general experience with best-sellers, since I don’t often agree with the general public opinion on the amazing-ness of the novel. The things that I don’t agree with quite as much is the existence of the single or few gateway books or stories. For those who have them, I say ‘good for you’. My experience suggests that it is also possible for the introduction and fandom of anything, including fantasy, also has the potential to be lot be more gradual. As far as I’ve seen, this option hasn’t been really addressed.

Tracing Science Fiction Trends from the 1300s on

Here is the list that I am working on to base my eventual argument that Science Fiction has genuine medieval roots. I’ve included a few basic notes with each to briefly summarize what the text is and how it fits into the genre.

This list is not comprehensive or complete at the moment, as I’m still working on finding sources. I’ve also include links to the text, but some of the earlier texts are not translated into modern English, and some that are I’ve not had time to track down the original language to verify the accuracy of translation. I also can’t make any promises as to the stability or availability of the links.

Here’s a general outline of the texts upon which my argument so far is based:

1300s- Chaucer “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale”: a skeptical description of both ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ alchemists at work

The Book of John Mandeville: a travelogue to other lands, based on possibilities but not on known facts about real places

1400s- ??? still looking

1500s- Thomas More Utopia: a travelogue as above except that the place itself is also a possibility, not fact

1600s- Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene Book 5: features Talus the metal man-servant of a star given to a knight as his helper. This text raises a question of fantasy vs sci-fi; I would suggest that while it’s largely fantasy, in an otherwise standard fantasy, this part stands out as different.

Johannes Kepler “Somnium”: describes what life on the Moon is like. This might pass as fantasy save that Kepler was a scientist {astronomer}/ mathematician, and may have believed in the possibility of what he was considering. NB: there is no formal open access translation into English that I’ve found so far.

Francis Godwin “The Man in the Moone”: similar to the above, although with a Utopian emphasis

Francis Bacon “New Atlantis”: full on scientifically based fictional world that also takes a Utopian approach to a world based on experimentation and the scientific method.

1700s- Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels Book 3: the section exploring the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by a bunch of science-obsessed philosophers, is most relevant, although as with other of Swift’s writings, the satirical nature must be kept in mind.

Voltaire Micromegas: visitors from Saturn and Sirius are bemused about Earth customs. This may be the first alien visitation story.

Louis-Sebastian Mercier The Year 2440: the story of a science-worshipping society where science is the religion, and plays a role in all aspects of life.

1800s- Mary Shelley Frankenstein: the classic tale in which a scientist brings to life an artificially created man. Also The Last Man in which the lone survivor on a dead planet wanders around looking at the remains of a civilization.

Edward Ellis The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairie: Eliot, a curious young man, finds a steam-powered robot man and hijinks/adventures ensue.

Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under The Sea: a submarine adventure that shares qualities with the travelogue. See also Journey to the Center of the Earth in which a crew of explorers discover dinosaurs etc. under the Earth’s crust.

HG Wells: The Time Machine: time travel both to the distant future and speculation as to what society becomes with some commentary on current Victorian England. See also War of the Worlds: an alien invasion and subsequent attempts by humanity to defend Earth.

William Henry Rhodes “The Case of Summerfield”: a mad scientist creates a death ray and must be stopped.

1900s- Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World: dinosaurs still survive on a remote island, although more time is spent with the local tribe of ape-people.

Arthur C. Clarke 2001: Space Odyssey: space travel and artificial intelligence that goes awry.

Isaac Asimov I, Robot: a series of short stories about the interactions between robots and humans.

William Gibson Neuromancer: cyber world versus reality in which a suspense/action story plays out.

One argument that gets brought up sometimes about the earlier parts of this list is that at the time they were written they were considered fantasy or another genre entirely, and only in retrospect might the stories by the likes of Kepler and Spencer be considered science-fiction. Another objection to some of these titles being true science fiction is that while they might demonstrate very early sparks of what would become science fiction, they don’t really show a building or continuing trend that constitutes genre.

To the first I say while that may be true to some extent like with Spencer (although even then, I would dispute is slightly), the sciences upon which the ideas were based was developing at the time the stories were written, and some of the key research was in fact being done by the authors. This would suggest that said authors, like Kepler, may well have considered what he was doing science fiction although he may not have known the genre term. Similarly when texts might have been intended as travel narrative or utopian fiction, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have been based upon extensions of current knowledge, which is the basic definition of science fiction. Even in the Middle Ages, the concept of genre was fluid and flexible, far more so than many people realize, or even consider today.

To the second problem, I answer that the list I have compiled does in fact illustrate a trend. In fact, the earliest stories are travel narratives, a popular historical practice and genre at the time, and while satire might apply in some cases, it does not change the fact that such stories remain plausible within the realm of current knowledge. Next comes stories based on the rise of various scientific disciplines including astronomy (space travel and civilizations), then biology (Frankenstein or Hawthorne “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), then physics (time travel), then computers (AI, VR, etc).

A third and final potential problem that I can foresee being held against this list and its argument is that it is pretty thoroughly uninclusive. This is true; however, the purpose of this list is to present the basic historical outline, not the current developments which include increasing attention to gender, race, and a variety of other identities, in terms of both author and story.

Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.