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July 2008
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by James Sallis

The New Weird, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Tachyon Publications, 2008, $14.95.

The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick, Tor Books, 2008, $25.95.

LEST you've forgotten, the world is a mysterious place.

And we do forget as quiddity sweeps in, all those milk cartons and trash cans and dentist appointments—what Heidegger terms dailyness—bearing us away from the mysteries at the heart of it all. Truly to see, we must forget the name of the thing seen, forget all we know or think we know of it. More truly to live, we must recover something of that same innocence.

Formalist critics call this estrangement: defamiliarizing the familiar, making it new. And as creative artists, whether we're writers, visual artists, or musicians, in some manner, to some degree, that is what we all do. Writers of fantasy, science fiction, and other arealist fiction, of course, work both sides of the street, willfully courting the unfamiliar, taking the familiar for joyrides out past the campfires, hoping they'll all get along….

At the baseline of creativity, meanwhile, lies a paradox. On the one hand, what we create has to be representative, alignable with the reader's experience of his or her world in such a way that it resonates—those Aristotelian recognitions. Yet countering such universality, what we create—our world, our characters, our trash cans, trains, and street signs—must be specific.

Rather than progressing, art moves forward by continuous self-edit and emendation, reinvesting itself with this bit of clothing, that contour or calumny, abandoned years before. From penny dreadfuls to P.I. stories to urban crime novels, from swing to folk to hiphop, each culture and virtually each generation seems to find its own twist, its own place to pitch a tent and go about the work of defamiliarizing dailyness.

Our most useful view of any new movement in the arts may come at the moment things begin palpably to change, that in-between stage where the fish has hauled itself up onto land and sits there thinking Now what?

Within the field of fantasy and science fiction, intimations of such a change became apparent in 2003 with M. John Harrison's entry on a message board: "The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?"

There followed a cascade of respondents and rejoinders. Often, when waters are so disturbed, potential swimmers find themselves rallying about a specific venue or work; in this case, China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. And the beat went on.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's anthology documents "the moment or movement known as New Weird," that particular moment when strains of science fiction, epic fantasy, and transgressive horror got thrown together in the basket and hauled up to the builders.

Of course that moment is gone in the very instant we fix upon it, as the editors acknowledge:

The constant flux-and-flow of support and lack of support for New Weird in the same individuals would be taken as 'waffling' in a politician. In a writer, it is part of the necessary testing and retesting connected to one's writing, as well as part of the need to continually be open to and curious about the world.
This comes as one of several footnotes to an introduction that is in fact a remarkably concise, thoughtful, and balanced essay on the "moment or movement." The VanderMeers touch upon the lineage in Mervyn Peake, Jack Vance, and the New Wave; the influence of Clive Barker's grotesquerie; multiple, shifting discourses from Harrison, Miéville and others; the commercial and "corrosive" aspects of the label; what it may have wrought.

There are three sections of fiction here. The first, "Stimuli," comes from pathfinders, with stories by Harrison, Barker, Moorcock, Simon Ings, Kathe Koja, and Thomas Ligotti. The second comprises China Miéville's "Jack," Jeff Ford's "At Reparata," K. J. Bishop's "The Art of Dying" and six more, works squarely in the rubric and bearing, as it were, the imprimatur. The surround includes thirty-odd pages of discourse—message-board transcripts, an essay, and three pieces written for this anthology—along with a final round-robin story written to embody strains and individual takes on New Weird. Co-conspirators here are the editors, Paul Di Filippo, Cat Rambo, Sarah Monette, Daniel Abraham, Felix Gilman, Hal Duncan, and Conrad Williams.

Some touchstones:

New Weird had the sense of unease that is found in Horror, but that unease wasn't resolved in a moment of terror. Instead, that grotesquerie was part of the secondary worlds' aesthetic as a whole.
—from the essay, "Tracking Phantoms" by Darja Malcolm-Clarke

The New Weird attempts to place the reader in a world they do not expect, a world that surprises them—the reader stares around and sees a vivid world through the detail. These details—clothing, behaviour, scales and teeth—are what make New Weird worlds so much like ours, as recognisable and as well-described. It is visual, and every scene is packed with baroque detail.
—Stephanie Swainston, from the Third Alternative Message Board

While one might question the general reader's interest in what is after all rather a scholastic pursuit, there's little doubt that the editors achieve their goal. We have here a long thought suspended in time, a moment during which writers caught sight of, and struggled toward, new ways to (in Goethe's words) recreate the world around them through the world inside them.

Making no overweaning claims for New Weird, the editors are content to present the dialogue ensuing from work in evidence and from both formal and informal discourse that clustered about it.

"The struggle to name," Mike Harrison writes in one of the message board entries, "is the struggle to own." And the true revolutionary does not want to own; he wants only to transform. And perhaps, then, to have entered into history what his struggles have brought.

More than anything else, perhaps, the revolutionary struggles upstream of received wisdom, against all that we know inviolably to be true, all the homilies festooning our samplers, our sound bites, our popular arts. He wants new glasses, a new prescription; new tools, charts, and tables. Things as they are, are changed upon the blue guitar.

In 1994, before any codifications of New Weird, Michael Swanwick published, as a sidebar to his novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter, an essay titled "In the Tradition…", in which he called for a new species of fantasy, one that might regather wonder and strangeness to the genre while also limning its worlds in convincing, realistic detail.

For an interview with Nick Gevers, Swanwick expanded on this, explaining that, as an admirer of classic fantasy, "the recent slew of interchangeable Fantasy trilogies" had hit him in much the same way as finding that the woods he played in as a child were now a shoddy housing development.

Consciously, I was trying to write a fantasy that was true to my upbringing and experience…. So when I came up with the image of a changeling girl forced to work in a factory, building dragons, I recognized it as an opportunity to utilize the kinds of environments I knew and had grown up with: factories, and garbage dumps, and malls and stripper bars, and to invest them with a kind of faerie glamor, which would in turn comment fruitfully on the world we have.
Though not a sequel, The Dragons of Babel is set in the same world as that earlier novel, cybernetic jet fighters crashing near isolated villages, elves and alchemy chockablock with malls and massive trains, hippogriffs and Harleys hitched to the same post outside biker bars. It's a world at once familiar and bizarre, often reminiscent, in feel if not in content, of work from two other great originals, Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers—and as deeply troubling.

In a sense, it might even be considered anti-fantasy. Swanwick plays with genre conventions, alternately acceding to and upending them, buffing shadows to hard edges, doing the dozens on our expectations, then on the very expectations he himself has set up. "In practice," he said in that interview, "holding a fantasy world to the same standards of consequence as the real world does result in a harrowing criticism of the Fantastic." While always behind—behind the great war being waged, behind political intrigues, behind epic quests and a malleable, ever-changing history—we witness the real history of this world in ordinary people doing their best to live out, as best they can, their lives.

Part mortal Will la Fey becomes informant and enforcer for the dragon that crashes near his village and declares itself king. Then, after destroying the dragon with the magic of a name-stone and elf-shot, he's cast out from his village, adrift in a landscape of warriors, wanderers, and refugee camps, on his way to the great city of Babel. Accompanying him are an ancient woman in the form of a seemingly simple-minded young girl, an infinitely resourceful foxwoman, and con man/trickster Nat Whilk. Here is an early view of the great melting pot where, of course, Will's destiny awaits him.

[T]rains were continually arriving, disgorging passengers, and then proceeding to a further platform to take on more. Such were the numbers of travelers and immigrants that, though individually they jostled and bumped against one another like so many swarming insects, collectively they took on the properties of a liquid, flowing like water in streams and rivers, eddying into quiet backwaters, then surging forward again until finally they formed an uneasy lake behind the long dam of customs desks at the far end of the hall.
The novel is everywhere filled, as one expects from Swanwick, with such fine, closely worked writing, laden always with perspectives afforded by intelligence and humor. He can go from tough to tender in mid-phrase, have you laughing through the sob half-formed in your throat.
Blind Emma found her refuge in work. She mopped the ceiling and scoured the floor…. The rugs had to be boiled. The little filigreed case containing her heart had to be taken out of the cupboard where she normally kept it and hidden in the very back of the closet.
Or this:
Lack of sleep gifted everything with an impossible vividness. The green moss on the skulls stuck in the crotches of forked sticks lining the first half-mile of the River Road, the salamanders languidly copulating in the coals of the smithy forge, even the stillness of the carnivorous plants in his auntie's garden as they waited for an unwary toad to hop within striking distance—such homely sights were transformed. Everything was new and strange to him.
As indeed, with each turn of events, with almost each sentence and turn of phrase, it is to us.

Things as they are, are changed upon the blue guitar.

It's been said of Hammett and Chandler that they took murder out of the manor houses and drawing rooms and gave it back to the people who actually commit it. In the fifties the very magazine you are reading, with stories by writers like Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, became a beacon in the blending of grainy realism—the stuff of daily lives—with the fantastic. Something of the same demotic impulse is at work, I think, in much of the best contemporary fantasy such as that written by Michael Swanwick and by New Weird writers and those influenced by them. There seems an ongoing effort here to take back the soul of fantastic fiction, to steal it away from glib commercial forms and restore to it its heritage as a dark, troubling form, one rooted deeply in our psyches: to reestablish it as a literature of substance.

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