What It Is We Do When We Pay Forward the Rhetoric of Fantasy and…the Collapse of Quantum Vampires

I had earlier this year requested copies of Paul Kincaid’s What It Is We Do When We Read SF and Farah Mendlesohn’s The Rhetorics of Fantasy, only to find myself ensnarled in other deadlines and, also, frankly, turned off generally by a certain brand of snarky, insular critic that was, at the time, coloring my vision.

This is not a jab at either Kincaid or Mendlesohn, just a frank acknowledgment that here were two thick books of a kind that often don’t get reviewed outside of specialized circles, and not only was I going to have to read them fast, I was going to read them in a generalized grumpy mood. This didn’t seem particularly fair or useful, so I passed them forward (something I recommend as a positive act for any reviewer in similar circumstances) so that someone who might do them justice could take a crack at them.

Thus, this past week OF Blog of the Fallen has posted reviews of both the Mendlesohn and the Kincaid, providing me with a fresh perspective on these books. Each comes off well, although the Kincaid appears to be better suited, in general, to a title of What It Is We Do When We Read British SF. (AND, the follow-up on the same blog.)

As for the Mendlesohn, I’m now interested to cross-reference her rhetoric to some of Clute’s recent work. Mendlesohn showed me both mentions of my fiction in the draft stage and I, out of not wanting to influence one way or the other, nodded dutifully when I probably should have said, “um, no, not at all”. Still, I hadn’t expected it to be so weird re-reading the brief context of my work before re-gifting the review copy.

Her analysis still did not seem correct, from my perspective, but is such a tiny blip in the book that I didn’t feel particularly passionate about it. Often, too, when I pick up a critical work, I feel as if therein I will find more about the mind of the author than about the texts pinned for display. This isn’t specific to any particular books of critical theory, and I use parodies of such work often enough in my fiction that I’m aware this is perhaps an individual and meaningless quirk.

In a sense, then, I will read criticism as form of metafiction. This take is more pronounced when encountering something as gem-like and yet eccentric as Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, Volume IV: Concept Horror, edited by Robin Mackay and with contributions from, among others, China Mieville and Thomas Ligotti.

Mieville, with his “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire,” had me at “The spread of the tentacle–a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in Western aesthetics)–from a situation of total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to Weird culture.” Indeed, I can interpret this as fiction with no problem whatsoever! The piece is fascinating whether you read it as (1) straightforward, earnest essay, (2)a. serious yet with tongue-firmly-in-cheek or (2)b. the reflection of a deranged and obsessed yet brilliant mind. In my current mood, I read it as (2)b. and was well-satisfied.

Thomas Ligotti’s “ThinkingHorror” interspersed with Oleg Kulik’s “Memento Mori/Dead Monkeys” (literally, photographs of dead monkeys with very surprised or very serious expressions) enters the mind indistinguishable from fiction in an even more forceful way: “For ages they had been without heads. Headless they lived, and headless they died. How long they had thus flourished none of them knew.” A footnote explains that the piece is “an extract from the nonfictional The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Short Life of Horror“.

This seems very much like a writer now telling us what he’s been showing us his whole life through his fiction. However, in a sense that doesn’t matter. The bleakness of the thoughts and the strange qualities of the prose–rich yet austere–make the experience mesmerizing. (Also included, an essay in which James Trafford tracks Ligotti’s anticipation of the radical thesis of neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger’s book Being No-One: namely, that ‘nobody ever was or had a self’.”)

Collapse is a thick, fat journal that sits nicely in the palm as if always meant for it. I haven’t yet read everything within its covers, but what I have read has held my attention in unexpected ways. I highly recommend you seek it out. Ordering information and the entire contents can be found here.

Meanwhile, I will continue my attempt to lift reading critical nonfiction from the tyranny of its self-imposed context…

11 comments on “What It Is We Do When We Pay Forward the Rhetoric of Fantasy and…the Collapse of Quantum Vampires

  1. Paul Jessup says:

    Oh, now I have more things to read. Who knew Quantum Vampires could be so popular?

  2. And just think, all this, because we are afraid to die, or cannot imagine a world without us. ;>

  3. Larry says:

    New book to add to the queue now, it seems…

    As for the Kincaid and Mendlesohn books, I purposely left out discussing “grounding a work” in the two reviews, because it is something I want to cover separately. It’s my own particular bias speaking, I know, but I think cultural groundings have to be done in order for there to be a more complete image done. Neither Kincaid nor Mendlesohn wanted to do this, therefore I tried to examine their books through their own sets. But I do think such a grounding might have helped in the case of Mendlesohn’s brief mentions of Faulkner and (now that I think of it) yourself, Jeff. Hopefully, I’ll have my thoughts written out in full by midweek, if not tonight.

  4. Look forward to it!

    Janie–Yes, all this kerfuffle! For nuthin! Literally!

    I’m not afraid to die. I just want it to be quick–like being hit by a truck. Nothing lingering. I figure I’ll live on in at least one book a hundred years from now, in a footnote on page 565: “123 – Not Jeff VanderMeer, who was a squid enthusiast.”

  5. Larry says:

    Perhaps after dinner and some chores, if this 90º muggy heat doesn’t drain me first!

  6. Paul Kincaid says:

    Jeff, thanks for passing the book to Larry, I was really grateful for the review.

    But when you say: “although the Kincaid appears to be better suited, in general, to a title of What It Is We Do When We Read British SF” – well, there is a fair bit on British sf because a) it’s an area I specialise in, and b) it tends to be underrepresented in critical works on sf. But I don’t think essays on Steve Erickson, George Turner, Steven Millhouser, Joe Haldeman, Russell Hoban, Jorge Luis Borges, and no less than four pieces on Gene Wolfe can really be considered ignoring the rest of the world …

  7. I googled for ‘Teratoculture’ and got exactly one hit, Jeff: Yours.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Thanks, Paul–and for the clarification. I wouldn’t really consider Millhauser, Hoban, or Borges to be “SF”, but I didn’t get a chance to read the whole thing as indicated. Still, I appreciate the corrective.


  9. Larry says:

    Although I can’t quite recall what Borges had to say in regards to SF, I do know that he considered some of his stories to be fantasies, since he included one of them in his Book of Fantasy that he published first in the 1940s. If you haven’t had a chance yet to read it, I highly recommend it, as it has some of the most memorable short stories I’ve ever read in an anthology.

  10. Farah says:

    Next time, try saying “um, no, not at all”. All criticism is and should be an act of discussion. I may still write the same thing, but I would always quote and acknowledge your opinion.

  11. Farah:

    You don’t really listen, not in a way I’d consider hearing, so it’s not really that useful to do so.

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