Not to be confused with SF series by either Stephen Donaldson or Peter F. Hamilton.
And, yes, they say make your blog entries short and pithy, but when I get my rant on it's hard to stop, Explains why the books tend to break the 200,000 word barrier, certainly.
And before I start, the Shadows of the Apt Wiki has just had a superb facelift, so go check it out!.
OK, apropos of nothing save my recent Christopher Priest binge, secondary worlds for real, or for make believe:
Getting past any initial objections about considering the reality of fictional worlds, when sundry children found their way into Narnia this was presented as a real place. You’d have to stretch the text past breaking point to find an interpretation where it was all, as Edmund originally claims, just a game, imagination by consensus. Narnia exists, insofar as the books are concerned. It’s a real place, as real as the “real world”, and indeed set within a wider multiverse of linked worlds (and aren’t those parts of The Magician’s Nephew actually more intriguing than actual Narnia itself?).
There are similar stories where the balance of probabilities tilts strongly the other way, though: that the fantastic world is the product of imagination, or even mental disorder. This can also be found in work intended for a younger audience. The film Bridge to Terebithia, for example, is pretty much impossible to interpret as a genuine fantastical encounter. Although we see the world the children “visit” it’s explicitly all in their heads.
Or the reality of the secondary world is up for grabs. Of the “big three,” for example, Wonderland could go either way, although as it is essentially a satire (indeed a mirror, in the 2nd) of the real, a “realist” argument possibly carries more weight. On the contrary, Neverland and Oz are both presented as very real (save perhaps in the best-known filming of Oz, where they chicken out) and both Barry and Baum go as far as to present their fantastic worlds as superior and preferable to the actual one. It’s a bold move that I think would cause difficulties today – the idea of children retreating into a fantasy world being a good thing would catch a lot of flak from conservative critics (1).
Fiction aimed at adult/older audiences also shows this uncertainty. Leaving aside Walter Mitty(2), whilst the phenomenal film Pan’s Labyrinth looks on first viewing to be about a child escaping a traumatic home environment by taking refuge in her fantasies, it’s quite possible to watch through on the basis that it’s all real, and arguably that brings a more satisfying (certainly less depressing) closure to the film.
For me, I’m an unregenerate fantasist. A secondary world presented as a therapeutic tool or delusion to be escaped from in order to find wholeness is always a bit of a let down for me – “it was all a dream” sort of thing. Terebithia was a well-made film, and heavy with meaning and poignancy and all that, but at the same time the Scooby Doo of it left me feeling empty. Just my personal take, but I’ll go some distance to find a reading that will give that world reality.
Iain Banks pulls some interesting sleight of hand with some of his early “mainstream” books. On the face of it, The Bridge is a look into the damaged mind of an accident victim trying to find his way out of his own injury, and that’s the standard reading I think. The world of the Bridge that we’re presented with, however, is fascinating and bizarre, a kind of mix of Kafka and Gormenghast stretched over the unending structure of the title – it seems almost too much to be just a fleeting construct. The world is a satisfying one in its own right (lord knows there have been straight out secondary worlds with less depth (length, breadth?) than that of the bridge.)
What precisely is going on in Banks’ Walking on Glass is even more uncertain. It’s like Lao Tzu and the butterfly – anyone’s guess as to who is dreaming who. Banks, of course, has something of a unique relationship with the bookshelf, having his two personas, ostensibly genre and non-. Whilst a number of his “non-M” books are solidly rooted in the real world, one wonders how much of a sly game he’s playing with the critics. Transitions, the latest “non-M”, has a great deal of topical relevance, but although it sits there on the general fiction shelves it’s surely a stretch to read it as anything other than flat out world-switching science fiction. With that in mind, it’s worth a re-reading of The Bridge and Walking on Glass with an eye to the reality of the fantasies presented.
The secondary world can also decline in reality as a series goes on. M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence, for example (3), kicks off with some epic far-future dying earth fantasy that could link arms with Jack Vance or Michael Moorcock, but each iteration of the setting brings more uncertainty and a greater distance. The very reality of the world is explicitly malleable, the issues at stake become more nebulous and less epic, the heroes less classically heroic, until we are left with “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, locked out of the world that we have known, left with nothing but the real, and maddening, unfulfilling whispers. At the end of our journey, we are forced to ask if any of it was actually real, or just our own delusion (4).
But it can go the other way. I give you Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, where the main character is a Londoner who has a breakdown and ends up torn between the demands of the real, and the fantastic “Dream Archipelago” as he tries to address his own past and identity. Simple. Except it’s Priest, so it’s not at all. The protagonist has written an ‘autobiography’ that is not only inaccurate but takes place in the Archipelago, another world. The “him” in the Archipelago has memory issues and has to rely on an account he wrote that is set in our world. Although I suspect the mainstream reading of the book is “real world man with mental health issues suffers from delusions” it can be read the other way, it really can.
And then Mr P brings out The Dream Archipelago, and, very recently, The Islanders, the first a collection of stories set in the Archipelago’s fully detailed world (with no concessions at all to the real one) and the second a purported travel guide interspersed with short fiction, much of which relates to the stories and characters of the original, making the whole enterprise something remarkable and possibly unprecedented as a literary endeavour. But the Archipelago has its own reality, however much it cannot be mapped or quantified. It is that rare thing, a modern secondary world – not an alternate history, not a possible future, but a world that (post-Affirmation) has no concrete link to ours, and yet is recognisably on a par with our 20th/21st century existence (5). Indeed — and with the caveat that, like Gene Wolfe, you can’t take anything Priest writes at face value — arguably Islanders is more fantastic than Archipelago – there’s one story pair, mentioning no names, where the Archipelago original seemed to be strongly indicative of repressed traumatic memories in the narrator, but where it’s Islander “counterpart” pretty much says, “No, that horrifying crap was real.” Priest has therefore given us a world that has gone from a dream of mental imbalance to a self-contained reality over three volumes. Of course, his next one, should he revisit the islands, might turn it all on its head again.
(1) Unless, possibly, that fantasy world had strong Christian overtones.
(2) Unrelated, but it is an odious thing when someone is described in the press as “something of a Walter Mitty character,” because this seems to be wheeled out specifically to describe a shyster who has taken advantage of other people and ruined their lives, but whom we are apparently supposed to dismiss as a harmlessly deslusional/loveable rogue. Digression over.
(3) Firmly on my list of “You Must Read This” books/series.
(4) The reworking "A Young Man's Journey to London" (in Things that Never Happen) is cited by some reviewers as Harrison 'making peace' with his earlier genre work, and though I can't comment on this, not being up on the history, it's a welcome reading but not what I took away from the story. To me it seemed to be continuing the trajectory of the original story, taking us further out and killing/excising Viriconium altogether. I found it an unsettling read but I'd be happy to find I was reading it wrong.
(5) There is a whole extra post in this topic.