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In Association with Amazon.com
Monstrous Creatures
Jeff VanderMeer
Guide Dog paperback $14.95

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Damon Knight famously described science fiction as being "what I point to when I say science fiction." This ostensive approach works so well, in part, because most people already have a reasonable idea of what science fiction looks like. 'What I point to' is a useful way of extending the genre territory, without becoming inexorably tied up in taxonomic knots, while the citadel at the heart of the genre remains secure.

Science fiction invites a simple, flexible definition, but what about fantasy? Would Knight's pocket definition work as well if we were to substitute fantasy for science fiction? The answer is, I think, both yes and no. Yes, insofar as the ostensive approach will produce a definition, but emphatically no, in that it will not produce a mostly consensual definition. If SF is a walled city, then fantasy is a series of small scattered settlements, most of them having only the most tenuous of connections with one another, and in some instances knowing of one another only through hearsay or legend. An ostensive approach to fantasy produces a bewildering plurality of definitions, so much so that two self-declared fantasy readers might find it difficult have a conversation without first negotiating what it is that each of them actually means by the term. There is not an immediate meeting of minds so much as a need to determine whether they have any common ground to start with.

As a consequence, the fantasy genre has spawned a bewildering array of subgenres: epic fantasy, dark fantasy, weird fiction, paranormal romance, to name but a few, as well as what might be perceived as cross-genre or breakaway movements, including interstitial fiction and the 'new weird' (we'll come back to this one later). Such a multiplicity of terms is unhelpful, not least because most of the labels are devoid of meaning. Many are simply a renaming of something that had a perfectly good name to begin with, and they merely add to the ongoing confusion, while the vast majority of them emerge from the publishing industry's insatiable desire to identify and isolate new, ever-smaller niche markets.

Having said that neither is there one definitive path through the fantasy forest. One immediately notes with approval the subtitle of this new collection of Jeff VanderMeer's occasional writings: 'Explorations of Fantasy through Essays, Articles and Reviews'. The plurality of fantasy is explored through a series of triangulations, serious and playful, on the topic. There is no one way through the fantasy forest; the path constantly divides and doubles back on itself. VanderMeer's own take on fantasy is made clear in the collection's introduction, particularly in his discussion of the title's terms: "to me, the monstrous is the intersection of the beautiful with the strange, the dangerous with the sublime" (page 9).

Here, VanderMeer seems to me to be reaching into the past, back to Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful (1756). Burke believed that the beautiful and the sublime were antithetical, but equally he believed that the imagination is moved to awe by that which is "dark, uncertain, and confused," and derives pleasure from knowing it to be a fiction. Notions of the beautiful and the sublime shape the Gothic horror of the 18th century, suggesting that VanderMeer's fictional roots lie here rather than in medieval romance. Certainly, VanderMeer claims to have believed from an early age that 'monstrous' does not necessarily mean 'hideous'. Instead, 'monstrous' can mean "things that seem to be continuously unknowable no matter how much you discover about them" (page 9), and it is clear that for VanderMeer, this not-quite-knowing is an important component in fantasy writing, as demonstrated in his own work.

Such an approach does, of course, sit at odds with the currently dominant modes of fantasy, as shaped by the work of people like William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien, the compensatory, the consolatory, and above all the restitutive. This is not to say that VanderMeer dismisses such writing out of hand, but if the stream of the fantastic at times divides, he is as likely as not to be caught in the same current as Lovecraft rather than Tolkien, if not floating down a different river altogether. Post-Tolkien, epic fantasy is caught up in a dream-world of elf-lords, evil tyrants and slaughter on an unimaginable scale, but somewhere along the way it has lost the viscerality that would characterise such events in reality. In his essay, The Third Bear (2007), VanderMeer makes explicit this need when he observes that "sometimes I think modern fairy tales should be horror tales, that to encompass all of the ferocity and animal intensity at the core of the past century's excesses, we need a little bit of the third bear in everything we write" (page 23). Behind beauty lies a beast; and he is by no means a gentleman.

Put another way, VanderMeer encourages both reader and writer to slip the constraints of genre wherever possible. The Language Of Defeat, first published in Clarkesworld magazine in 2008, tackles that perennial issue of genre versus mainstream, in particular the sense that genre is not recognised by the mainstream. This, VanderMeer says, is the 'language of defeat', the labelling of ourselves as victims, the continual carrying historical baggage that we can actually put down. They mystery remains as to why we don't. As VanderMeer rightly points out, "'mainstream' and 'genre', if we must subdivide in this way, are both various, rich, and fecund traditions, with many strands and diverse lineages" (page 24). It is the crossings over that enrich all forms of literature, the fundamental themes that are important rather than the trappings.

VanderMeer and his wife, Ann, addressed this business of crossings-over in their seminal anthology, The New Weird, defining 'new weird' as "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticised ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy" (The New Weird - 'It's Alive' 2008, page 53). This definition seems to me to specifically address the point I raised earlier, about VanderMeer's interests running counter to the dominant modes of contemporary fantasy.

Restitution, compensation and consolation are, for the most part, romantic traits (and that's romantic with a small r, whereas Romanticism - capital R -is, I think, a quintessentially monstrous creation) which, on the whole, do not belong in 'complex real-world models', or at any rate, could not be considered to be dominant elements within the modern world. Traditional fantasy turns away from the horror of reality whereas the 'new weird' embraces it because, effectively, that is all there is. Horror, according to VanderMeer, is what distinguishes the new weird from slipstream and interstitial fiction; at any rate, it did in 2008. As VanderMeer sees it, such literary movements and their participants should constantly shift and change rather than become immutable. This has both virtues and dangers, of course. There is inevitably another frenzy of labelling, but there is also, or should be, a constant replenishment of literary inspiration. This is frustrating for those who want more of the same but for those who are excited by the possibilities of literature, and VanderMeer clearly is, this can only be a good thing.

VanderMeer's tastes in literature are eclectic, to say the least, certainly if the various reviews and book introductions gathered here are anything to go by. Indeed, there were moments when I found myself wondering how I was going to track down all this good stuff which he'd mentioned and which I must now absolutely read. VanderMeer's enthusiasm for literature is highly infectious, but it is also instructive to see, in the light of the discussions of the theory of fantasy, what he chooses to read and comment on. There is an awful lot of fantastic literature out there that people aren't talking about.

In case this all sounds too dreadfully earnest, there is also a playful side to VanderMeer's writing, which surfaces in much of his work, but which really comes to the fore in his tale of the Hannukah Bear, and how his young stepdaughter, Erin, convinced him of its existence, but also in his love for the capybara, the world's largest rodent (basically, it's a four-foot long guinea pig on stilts, that can swim; like Jeff I think they are fascinating beasts), and the highly enjoyable interview he conducts with Melanie Typaldos, owner of the capybara, Caplin Rous.

For some, Monstrous Creatures may prove to be a frustrating read; if you are looking for definitive statements on the nature of fantastic literature, you won't find them here. At the beginning of this review I drew attention to that plural 'explorations', and it remains key to understanding the impetus behind these pieces. VanderMeer's views on fantasy shift with time and while this selection of articles doesn't out and out contradict itself there are moments when the reader might think, didn't he say something different a while back. At such points, it is helpful to check the date of the article one is reading.

For myself, I don't find this a problem; VanderMeer is mapping a territory which by its very nature should, according to him, be constantly changing; as such, his maps are always going to be partial, are never going to quite match up with one another, and there are going to be empty spaces, sketchy descriptions. Immutability is the enemy, whereas a part of VanderMeer's art lies in knowing when to move on!

Monstrous Creatures by Jeff VanderMeer



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