Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.

Advertisements

“The Lost Island – a Gideon Crew Novel” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Genre – adventure and action.

Don’t read this. Usually “adventure and action” is at least okay with me. But this was preposterous, and I didn’t finish it.

Ripping off The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle doesn’t count as “creative”.

My feminist sensibilities were offended by the male fantasy character of an incident early in the book, in which a female character was “created” and then dropped from the plot for no apparent reason. How come editors don’t ever why? 

Okay for rainy day beach reading, if absolutely nothing else is on hand.

“The Book of Dust – Volume One – La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman

Product Details

This book is a (sort of) prequel to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

Pullman wrote this trilogy between 1995 and 2000. JK Rowling wrote the seven Harry Potter books between 1997 and 2007. Each series was oriented towards young people and each generated a well developed alternate (fantasy) world and world view.

People (like me) who raised kids born from, say, 1975 to 1995 were likely to find themselves immersed in one or both of these literary bonanzas and their associated alternate worlds. What began, for many families, as read aloud frenzies, later evolved into pitched battles over who got to read an eagerly awaited, newly released book first. Adults have been known to stay up until all hours with The Deathly Hallows or The Amber Spyglass.

Two copies of La Belle Sauvage (released October 19) turned up at our now all-adult Thanksgiving family gathering. Serious discussion was devoted to which alternative world is more compelling, Hogwarts or Lyra’s Oxford. Pullman beat Rowling by a narrow margin. None of us could resist the idea of having a daemon.

What’s a daemon? In Pullman’s alternate world, every human has an animal “familiar” which reflects aspects of his or her personality. In classical Greek mythology, a daemon is a “natural spirit which is less than divine”. (Loosely paraphrased from Wikipedia.) In Pullman, a child’s daemon changes animal form from moment to moment – an adult’s is fixed. A person’s daemon provides loving companionship, support, insight… To be separated from one’s daemon is unbearably painful. Pullman makes this complex conceit feel natural.

La Belle Sauvage is a fantasy/adventure story written for young adults. There is nothing condescending about it. The protagonists (a boy of 11 and a girl of 14) living in a place rather like Victorian Oxford, are drawn into adult conflicts that mix politics, religion, science and philosophy. They end up guarding a baby in the midst of a natural disaster. It’s the battle between good and evil, narrated with flair and energy. I couldn’t put it down.

Like the Harry Potter series, Pullman’s books have been labeled a “bad influence” on young minds. “Anti-religious” is one of the claims.

Read La Belle Sauvage! If you haven’t read the Dark Materials trilogy, go for it. I’m planning to order some of Pullman’s other books, and will report on them soon.

“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

Goodness, I haven’t blogged for many weeks! I’m happy to report that most of this delay resulted from good things happening in my life, like travel. Then there were some troubles, but nothing really far out of the ordinary.

BUT also, I read a book that brought me to a bemused halt! Yes, Cryptonomicon.

First, it’s huge – 900+ pages. Perfect if you are crossing Siberia by train in winter. (I wasn’t.) And it’s written in a style that mixes fact and fiction, cutting back and forth through time.

The mixture of fact and fiction makes me wonder if Stephenson wants his work to be accessible only to cognoscenti. His description of, for example, the Hindenburg explosion might be incomprehensible to many people. (And maybe I misunderstood…)

One message of the book is “war is hell”, to which I reply (as usual) “If so, why wrap it in fiction?” I was somewhat reminded of Catch 22 by  Joseph Heller, but that was more linear in narrative style.

Why did I keep reading this sprawling, often confusing novel? For the characters and their relationships. And because I’m interested in “contemporary” history, the times I (and my parents) lived through.

I have not delved into the reviews of this book. On Amazon.com alone they number 1,685, cumulatively awarding Cryptonomicon 4+ stars out of five.

I read (and blogged about) three other books by Neal Stephenson: Anathem, Snow Crash and Seven Eves. Anathem was my favorite, closely followed by Seven Eves. I will await recommendations from friends before I tackle another.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil by Gaiman

A friend handed me this book because “it’s as good as Terry Pratchett”! OK… but I’m ambivalent about Pratchett. See my eulogy, dated March 19, 2015. So where does this Gaiman novel rate on the Pratchett scale?

I would give if about at 90. Not as good as my absolute Pratchett favorites, but very good.

The plot (told entirely as a flashback): A child’s family life is disrupted by the suicide of a boarder. Strange events follow hard on – money keeps turning up – a lottery win, a found coin. Sounds good, but goes all wrong.

The child meets neighbors and they team up to wage a supernatural battle against the forces of disorder. It all makes sense when told from the eyes of the child.

I’ll take more of Gaiman with me to the beach. Perfect reading for a rainy day!

“After Alice – A Novel” by Gregory Maguire

I don’t quite know how to categorize this book. I’d be inclined to say “fan fiction” but I’m quite ignorant about that, and this book seems to be more highly regarded. A blurb on the back cover says it was reviewed in Kirkus Reviews. So I guess it is a “real novel”.

After Alice is a take on the Lewis Carroll classic – not the first I’ve read. It’s whimsical to the point of being bizarre, but so was the original.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Ada, who barely shows up in the original book. It’s clever and amusing, and the “identity” of the Jabberwocky is a surprise. What I can’t quite figure out is how Maguire came up with Siam, a boy escaped from American slavery, now cared for by a visitor to England. Scarred and traumatized, Siam decides to stay in Wonderland when Alice and Ada go back to their “regular” lives. Are all the characters in Wonderland similar displaced persons?

Maguire also wrote Wicked, a modern version of The Wizard of Oz and source for the wildly popular Broadway musical of that name, which I have not yet seen. I’ll take a look at Wicked (the book) before I decide about Gregory Maguire.

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.