Of Skeptical Fantasy

Ever since reading Annalee Newitz's review of Hild earlier this week, I've been intrigued by her concept of "skepical fantasy," or works that "[treat] magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power." I've always been interested in novels or stories that feel like fantasy, and might even leave room for the possibility of the magical or supernatural, but don't treat the fantastic as a given. I am probably stretching Annalee's concept here, since she sees "magic" as having a purely political dimension, but I am fascinated by the "skeptical" aspect, which forces the characters and the readers to embrace a wider — and weirder — interpretation of "otherworldly" phenomena.

This is not a uniform group of works. They are definitely not what has come to be called "urban fantasy." Neither are they necessarily magical realism, which utilizes fantastic elements as incidental detail in a mostly contemporary or historical story. Nor are they religious novels, which deal specifically with the characters' faith. Or fabulism, which uses fairy tales and myths for satirical or metafictional purposes. Or science fantasy, in which the fantastic or strange is explained as "sufficiently advanced technology" of the Clarkean variety. So this leaves out most "mainstream" fiction with a genre bent, including Haruki Murakami or Jonathan Carroll, since their novels are filled with unambiguously fantastic plot elements like trips to parallel universes, otherworldly creatures, doppelgängers, etc.

Of Skeptical Fantasy

What I'm talking about are novels that, on the surface, aren't especially fantastic but seem to be suffused with magic and weirdness. The big one that comes to mind is John Fowles' The Magus, which is a classic "things are not as they seem" narrative. Or books dealing with the stage magician's art, like Robertson Davies' "Deptford Trilogy," which feels genuinely weird in places, thanks in part to the ways in which the characters' lives are intertwined. Or books in which there's the possibility that the characters live in a world where magic is, or at least was possible, like John Crowley's Ægypt novels, Geoff Ryman's Was, Philip K. Dick's "mainstream" works like Confessions of a Crap Artist and Transmigration of Timothy Archer (though VALIS is right on the edge), or Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men.* And I'd also throw in random works by Paul Auster, Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing (though not the SF), and Peter Ackroyd.

Of Skeptical Fantasy

I also wonder whether or not it would cover psychological fantasy or horror. You can read Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House both ways: Either as a story about paranormal investigators in a haunted house, or a young, sexually repressed woman who embraces the idea of ghosts wholeheartedly. Neither approach takes anything away from the book. I think it's the ambiguity that makes this stuff tick; if you know you're in a straight-up horror novel, or urban fantasy, or alien invasion story, it's all going to make a lot more sense, because there are ground rules. Without that reassurance, you're on truly unfamiliar territory, with no genre protocols to help you through.

Of Skeptical Fantasy

* I cheated a bit with the Kunzru, since there are some decidedly fantastical elements in the margins of the story. But virtually nobody notices them.