Speculating

Coloured contour map of Mars (NASA image)

“But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?”
Asimov: “Type faster”

It’s a truism that fiction, but more particularly what’s called speculative fiction, tries to answer the question “What if?” A speculum is, after all, a mirror or reflective glass, and looking in one gives the viewer an image of reality — but it is not in itself reality, because what is seen is reversed, or distorted, or limited by the frame.

I recently did some notes for other participants on a Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction module run by Aberystwyth University for a creative writing course, and offer it here in the hopes this basic discussion, with links to my reviews and some external sites, may prove helpful for any others yet to sample the genre.

Note that it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive, or even authoritative; I have nevertheless slightly rejigged the original text to suit a different audience.

There is, as with all specialist areas, much disagreement, even controversy, as to what to call the genre, what to include in it, and so on. All I’ve done is to take the outline for the course and add a brief commentary.

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Emotional landscapes

Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’

Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.

And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?

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Playland

Title page to Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’

Dedicated Joan Aiken fans among you will know I have been exploring her novel called Is (1992) over several posts now; less enamoured readers will naturally have passed over them, and I don’t blame them. For what can be more tedious than discussion of a book one has neither hear of, let alone read, nor has has any intention of reading?

However, I have tried hard to show what a rich little volume this is, both for its own sake and for the fact that it has overtones of so many other motifs. Among these have been the Arthurian legends and Brontë juvenilia, child labour and Dickensian names, social customs and industrial conditions, rhyming riddles and nursery rhymes, folklore and fairytales, natural disasters and classics of children’s literature, among much else.

In this post I want to expand on a few final thoughts. If final they turn out to be…

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An unhappy ménage

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
Introduction and notes by Pamela Knights
Wordsworth Classics 2004 (1911)

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

Even this passage, full as it is with the exhilaration and joys of sledding in the snow, is full of the portent of tragedy: the night is hollow — it opens out below them like the abyss — the sound of the organ evokes both weddings and funeral services. The settlement of Starkfield, desolate both by name and by nature, has a secret in the form of Ethan Frome which a visitor, an engineer, seeks to penetrate. It is a sad tale, yet one with an unexpected ending.

Ethan, sometime in the late 19th century and somewhere in the mountains of Massachusetts, is cursed with a loveless and childless marriage and a failing timber business, any prospects of advancement and intellectual satisfaction denied to him due to having a semi-invalid hypochondriac partner to support.

When his wife’s cousin, Mattie, saved from destitution by coming to stay and help in the house, proves younger, more convivial and attractive compared to Zenobia, he can’t help but feel a lighter heart when Mattie is in his presence. But things come to a head in the dead of winter when Mattie is faced with banishment.

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Desperado philosophy

Inverted Commas 15: a vast joke

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
Moby-Dick, Chapter 49

When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.

And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?

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Holdernesse

Holderness and the Humber Estuary

Following a post about some of the characters in Joan Aiken‘s 1992 novel Is, also known as Is Underground, I want to examine the remaining characters, most of whom live in a town constructed in caverns below a hill.

But before launching into completing the Who’s Who of this Wolves Chronicle I want to add to comments I’ve already made about the town in earlier posts, so as to explore some of the literary influences that may have contributed to this fiction.

WARNING: spoilers follow

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Everyone dumbfounded

Agatha Christie:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Introduction by John Curran
HarperCollins 2013 (1920)

“It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” — Hercule Poirot, Chapter 8

Styles Court, Essex, July 1917. Captain Hastings, invalided from the front, is given a month’s sick leave from his convalescent home. He is invited by an old friend John Cavendish to stay at a country house a few miles from the sea, not guessing that it will be more eventful than he anticipated: in less than a fortnight after Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court Cavendish’s mother is fatally poisoned by strychnine.

Thus begins Christie’s first published novel, introducing retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the world and initiating what would be known as the ‘cosy’ mystery. As Dr John Curran explains in his introduction here is the stereotypical mystery, set in a country mansion or village and involving a cast of extended family members, friends and acquaintances, often ending with a gathering in a drawing room for the revelation of ‘who done it’.

As the brusque Evelyn Howard puts it at the very beginning, “Like a good story myself. Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in the last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime–you’d know it at once!” As an arch metafictional device this is as good as it gets.

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Is Overground

Another post for die-hard fans of Joan Aiken and her Wolves Chronicles.

Also for readers who love words and the names authors give their characters.

And for those wondering how far down a rabbit hole a curious blogger is prepared to go.

This post is the first of two discussing the people of Joan Aiken’s fantasy Is, a kind of prosopography* or Who’s Who of the individuals we meet, plus a bit of speculation about what inspired their creation.

Even if you don’t intend to read the novel you may still find the personages curious enough to wonder a bit about them, as I did.

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Mirages and breakdowns

Western Asia, 1936 (Bartholomew Atlas)

Agatha Christie,
writing as Mary Westmacott:
Absent in the Spring
HarperCollins 2017 (1944)

A few days before, an old school friend of Joan Scudamore had wondered “what, if you had nothing to do but think about yourself for days and days, you might find out about yourself.” And now that Joan finds herself in just that position, stuck in limbo waiting for a train, she learns that all that she’d assumed about her life and her family may not have been as she imagined.

Will the mental crisis she experiences, and the reevaluation of relationships that she undergoes, represent a sea change in her attitudes — or will she return to old ways of thinking despite all she has gone through?

In this psychological novel the author portrays a woman whose assumptions are profoundly challenged by isolation — well, she’s not totally alone, but she is the only European — and alone with her thoughts she finds them taking very unexpected turns.

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The best teller of tales

Nick Swarbrick’s recent survey has established that young Gwyn Griffiths, in Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, follows the model of young wizards and witches in children’s fantasy getting a call — a vocation — setting them on the path of a magical career and gradual maturation.

Remember, Nick reminds us, Hagrid’s revelation: “Yer a wizard, Harry.” And it’s Gwyn’s turn, on his ninth birthday, to be told by his grandmother (in the novel’s opening pages) that he is fated to be a magician. The reason this is his destiny is because he is directly descended from Gwydion, the legendary Welsh wizard out of time immemorial.

In this, my latest post, anticipating the eventual penning of a review, I want to explore the mythic background of Gwyn’s assumption of the magician’s mantle; it may take us into some quite psychologically dark yet enchanted realms.

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Muddling through

Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Puffin 1986 (1984)

This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.

The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.

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Loss

Somewhere in Wales © CL

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider continues to weave its magic in the recesses of my brain. In this, the second of a short series of posts (and part of a dialogue with Nick Swarbrick) I want to discuss the pain that comes with loss, and how the ache of pain may be partly assuaged with a compensatory gain.

That we are currently in a time of loss — when a pandemic is taking away many loved ones prematurely and leaving huge swathes of the world’s population with a sense of powerlessness — only heightens the theme I’ve chosen and allows us to appreciate the emotional undercurrents in the novel.

While the losses in The Snow Spider may be fictional they reflect the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever, and may account for how the novel seems to have a power that transcends what may be superficially ascribed to a piece of escapist fiction inspired by myth.

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Telltale signs of a booklover

Top Ten Signs I’m a Book Lover

I’ve borrowed this meme from a few blogs who follow Top Ten Tuesday (though I don’t do so myself) because, I suppose, it’s a chance to talk about me again.

After all, it’s not a coincidence that the word meme has the first person singular twice over, surely?

Anyway, here are the telltale signs I’m a bibliomane,* not listed in any particular order. One or two signs seem to match up with the things listed by other bloggers, but I can’t help that — birds of a feather and all that!

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Motifs, emotions and myth

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire

Jenny Nimmo’s haunting children’s fantasy The Snow Spider was first published in 1986.

Nine-year-old Gwyn, son of a Welsh hill farming family still reeling from the loss of his older sister, is charged with taking up his role as descendent of the ancient magicians of the Mabinogi, the collection of Welsh myths and legends.

Through his growing understanding of his magical powers, and with the guidance of his grandmother, the eponymous Snow Spider, and a mysterious girl who joins the family, Gwyn becomes involved in the beauty and danger of a world normally just beyond mortal grasp, and has to confront rage and pain from centuries ago.

In a short series of posts fellow blogger Nick Swarbrick and I will be conversing on a range of topics which will have occurred to us while reading The Snow Spider; I then plan to follow them with a spoiler-free review. Here, to start, are some initial thoughts in response to Nick’s first post here, which I found insightful and thought-provoking.

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Verdopolis for ever

From Greenberg’s Glass Town

Isabel Greenberg: Glass Town
Jonathan Cape 2020

Before Charlotte wrote The Professor or Jane Eyre, and Emily Wuthering Heights, and Anne Agnes Grey the three Brontë girls and their brother Branwell were creator gods. The self-proclaimed Genii founded Glass Town, a place to populate with characters based on public figures of the day (such as the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon), literary ideals such as the Byronic hero, and social archetypes such as revolutionaries and blue-stockings.

Though Emily and Anne, fed up with their domineering brother Branwell and an acquiescent Charlotte broke away to create their own lands of Gondal and Gaaldine, the two older siblings continued with their country of Angria, while Charlotte continued with Angria stories when she became a teacher.

Isabel Greenberg has created her own version of the creation of Brontë juvenilia: in what she identifies as her historical fiction she has “embroidered, embellished and indulged in a great deal of supposing.” More than that, she has illustrated her fiction — full of “inaccuracy and anachronism and many flights of fancy” — with her own distinctive style, producing a delightful graphic novel in which Charlotte discourses with the imaginary Charles Wellesley as they survey the birth, development and fate of this unique paracosm.

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