Post Modern Technique in Fantasy Fiction

(Originally posted on the old blog–I’m gradually migrating over anything pertaining to writing.)

I’ve already been quoted in various interviews as saying all fiction is fantasy in a sense. As a result, all fiction is “escapist” in a sense–there are simply varying degrees of escapism. The importance of this distinction, to me, is not to buy into the untruth (“lie” is perhaps too harsh a word in this context) that any writer of fiction fails to be “escapist” in some way. For one thing, it allows us to see the worth of truly escapist fiction by allowing it to exist in the same continuum, within the same spectrum. “Escapist” should not be a pejorative, in other words. Fiction can fail in so many ways that to focus on “too much escapism” strikes me as a convenient way to overlook defects in “non-escapist” fantasy, for example.

But what I really want to discuss in this post is how postmodern techniques in fantasy fiction often actually supports the “fantasy” element, if we, for purposes of this discussion, define “fantasy” as “containing non-real-world elements”–a non-Earth Prime setting, for example. I’ll use my own “fantastical” setting of Ambergris for purposes of illustration. My “mosaic novel” or short story collection City of Saints contains quite a bit of postmodern technique, applied with varying degrees of depth. Most of it serves to support the reality of the fantasy setting–“King Squid” and “The Early History of Ambergris,” for example, use the structure of nonfiction forms for fictional purposes. In “Early History” the “fictional purpose” is to present a history of Ambergris without the need for the traditional methods of plot and character development. This device strengthens the conceit of Ambergris being real, rather than in any way disabusing the reader of his or her suspension of disbelief.

In “King Squid,” the structure used is that of the scientific monograph. “King Squid” sets out the delusions of a supposed resident of Ambergris–in other words, most everything set out in the monograph is false to the supposed “truth” (or Reality2) of Ambergris (“our world” being Reality1). In a sense, the structure of “King Squid” allows the narrator his delusions but denies him the escape one might expect is inherent in a “fantasy” setting. Its effect on the reader is to uphold the reality of Ambergris because the reader is forced to conclude that the “facts” about Ambergris set out in the piece are either distorted or untrue–in a sense, it forces the reader to consider Ambergris as real and the “King Squid” story as false.

Other postmodern techniques I use do, in fact, breach the wall between author and reader, and expose the “lie” of suspension of disbelief. More on them later. My main point here, I suppose, in what has become a somewhat rambling yet truncated post that will probably require revision, is that a postmodern technique used in a “fantastical setting” often supports the milieu, even if those same techniques used with a modern-day setting can seem artificial or distracting from the reality of place.

7 comments on “Post Modern Technique in Fantasy Fiction

  1. Andrew Dickson says:

    The problem with “realist” fiction is that it tries to hide its dependence on literary artifice for its verisimilitude.

    The problem with “escapist” fiction is that it tries to hide the economic and social realities of its creation in order to achieve its pleasurable (and often nostalgic) effects.

    I wouldn’t try to lump the two together in order to cobble together a defense of fantasy or postmodernism. I’d also add that the postmodern techniques you describe aren’t actually postmodern, but a mainstay of “fantastic” fiction going back to the 18th and 19th centuries (found documents, letters, fake articles, journals, etc.).

    If you were to put fantasy fiction through the postmodern grinder, you’d probably end up with something very different: something that would directly attack the inherent problems of fantasy fiction (a la Mieville): religion, racism, sexism, conservatism, etc.

    What you describe here hovers somewhere awkwardly between postmodernism as a style (rather than a substantive worldview) and cliche.

  2. Ivan says:

    As for me, I’ve read stories in City of Saints very fast and think that they are great. But King Squid was thomesing crushing “referential illussion”, deconstructing “quasi-truth” of fantasy fiction.

    Like marxist I see in your book social sences, like filister – “escapist fiction” and like literary critic – postmodern techniques.

    (Sorry for my english, I’m russian)

  3. Well, yes and no, Andrew. And Mieville wouldn’t describe his approach as pomo. I also don’t see a postmodern worldview as being inherently progressive. I can’t actually imagine someone being a convert to a postmodern worldview. It is, in fact, a style.

  4. BTW–I was hoping you were this guy so I could ask about the humungous fungus:

    Ivan–hey! So you’ve read the Russian edition then. Is it a good translation? “King Squid” isn’t for everyone, but it’s one of my favorites. Did you mean you see it as escapist?

    Forgive my lack of Russian.


  5. Ivan says:

    Translation of Sity is good enough I think, but I can’t say the same about Veniss Underground – it’s translated very roughly.
    (I read in annotaition that your writings are like Mervyn Peake’s one – I read the Sity and find it great).
    What’s a pity – we have many novels of Powers in russian (and also of Gaiman and Di Filippo of course), but your books is not so popular yet and then – only two translated books.

    I try to said, that I see in Sity two kind of narratives: ‘traditional’ fiction, escapist intellectual wired fantasy (?), and quasi-scientific works, that deconstructing opposition between high\low fiction, between realism and (antonym of realism), demonstraiting that science and history is ‘narrative genres’ itself.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ivan: Shriek was bought by the same publisher that put out the others and the advance was much bigger, so they must be doing pretty well.

    Thanks for the compliment. Sorry to hear the Veniss translation is rough. :(

  7. Technique is bit hard to nail down, though, isn’t it? Mine has been pretty accidental. I just wrapped my first of a trilogy of ‘postmodern’ fantasy novellas, and I’m now thinking back over the history of this book and realizing how lucky I am that it even exists.

    The seeds of it were in my D&D campaigns from when I was about 8 years old, and I started writing a story based in a tweaked version of that world… oh, six years ago. I realized it was going to be somewhat pomo when the main character dropped an F-bomb in the first paragraph, and I was committed. The project stalled due to my divorce and my reading of “Perdido Street Station.” I thought that there was too much similarity between the semi-steampunk worlds we had created, so I stopped working on it.

    When my now-publisher expressed an interest in the concept, I reexamined it and I found that D and Bas-Lag are pretty different. Mieville let his fantasy races proliferate… I killed them off to almost nothing. His political concepts are high, mine are deconstructions of pop culture and lite philosophy. So I was okay with it. He’s the better writer by far, so there’s not really that much of a comparison anyway.

    After that, I still found that there wasn’t much thought involved in “How am I going to make this book postmodern?” It just kept happening, often when I didn’t realize it, and I hope that’s a sign of the soundness of it and not just sloppiness on my part. :)

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