Book Wormhole Introduction

PrintE-mail Written by Kate Fathers Sunday, 08 May 2011

Book Wormhole - by Kate Fathers

There was a first draft.


When I started this column, despite the parameters I was given, I found myself falling into academia. Tripping over a burst of inspiration; a Terry Pratchett quote about the final frontier into pages awash with similes and quotations and a thesis; I thought I was too long out of school to be susceptible to the pull of the essay. For all that, some passages were pretty. The more my eyes ghosted over the computer screen, the more I grew to hate what I had written.

Familiarity does, indeed, breed contempt.

Pen and paper in place of keyboard and dust-speckled screen, I started over. Bold-faced honesty bolstered by endless cups of tea appeared to be the best policy, and while I’m sure some form of the first flowery draft remains imprinted in this final version, I hope I have succeeded in leaving formality at the door.

If there is anything anyone knows about me, it’s that I like to read. On slow afternoons, while waiting to meet someone or walking the uneven Glaswegian pavement out of boredom, I like to go into bookshops. Used bookshops and new bookshops; shops in apple-pie order and shops so cluttered every step threatens to topple stacks. I like to stroll past the shelves, running one finger along books’ spines, half-expecting them to shiver. I like flicking to the copyright pages in old books, to see when they were published. I like sitting in front of the H’s—or I’s or J’s or Z’s—reading passages at random. I could happily live in a bookshop, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my future home ends up resembling one; I do have enough books to make it possible. On one such afternoon walk, through a Waterstone’s, I wandered up the stairs and to the genre fiction section, past the displays and around the Dalek, flipping through the recent releases and having to peel myself from the pages of Robin Hobb’s collection of short stories before I sank into it entirely. As I came to the end of the science fiction section, to Jules Verne and HG Wells, I took note of them and then continued, moving through the shop until I’d made it almost to PG Wodehouse. And that’s when I saw it: Around the World in Eighty Days.

It was alone, the sole Verne lingering a few shelves above a handful of Vonnegut, and I wondered at its presence. Was it misplaced, by a careless employee or a confused customer? Or was it supposed to be there, separated from its brothers because no matter how extraordinary travelling the world in such a short span of time in the nineteenth century was, it didn’t have the trappings that would have it labeled science fiction? I paced around the shop, searching out titles and authors and muddling my mind with questions. There is no Kurt Vonnegut in the science fiction section, despite Slaughterhouse Five centering around a time travelling protagonist. There is no 1984 or Oryx and Crake or The Turn of the Screw. Despite them being genre fiction, in tale and label, they have been shelved elsewhere, and I wondered why.

And then I remembered; I knew exactly why.

The primary difference between genre fiction and literary fiction can be defined simply (and often is): genre fiction is focused on plot, while literary fiction is focused on character. And that’s that; black and white, night and day, wet and dry. Genre fiction sets its characters on the back burner, and consequently, it is seen as something lesser, something silly, something that shouldn’t dare compare with the likes of Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen. It doesn’t hold the same weight, and is something for the masses—the everyman. With the intricacies of the human mind glossed over in favour of spaceship battles, it is more accessible, and to many; accessible is tantamount to refuse. As far as those ‘many’ are concerned, genre fiction should be written in crayon for all the good it contributes to the literary world. Genre fiction is not the type that is taught in schools and lauded as a mark of one’s having reached a state of higher learning when they have finished the book’s final page. Certain assumptions are made when you see someone sitting in a café, cup of coffee and half-eaten biscotti by their side, head buried in War and Peace; and assumptions are made when you are strolling through the park and the light hits the cover of someone’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Reading genre fiction is a guilty pleasure, something few are willing to shout from rooftops, books instead hidden under more literary dustcovers or read from the safety of our living rooms. You are uncultured if you read genre fiction. You are uncultivated; stunted and simple and devoid of social skills, and any other stereotype that floats through the ether like a plague.

I disagree.

There came a point in my life, upon entering university and leaving the melodramatic halls of high school behind, when I stopped caring about what other people thought of my passions. Previously, I had been terribly self-conscious, keeping quiet when anyone commented negatively on something I liked for fear of ridicule. I had more tolerant friends than most, friends who saw The Lord of the Rings on midnight viewings and read Douglas Adams. But telling them I liked Japanese anime or Harry Potter seemed, somehow, shaming, all of us infected by those ideas and assumptions I have mentioned previously. Then high school was over, and suddenly, I found myself inoculated. I no longer felt there was anything to be ashamed of, because I am happy with my reading, happy with the worlds I venture into and the variety that abounds when one’s tastes are uninhibited. I don’t care who knows, and happily sit in coffee shops with both Anne Michaels and Neil Gaiman, unafraid and unabashed.

I like Star Trek novels, too.

With this acceptance of my own literary preferences then came the desire to write genre fiction, and hand-in-hand with that desire was a firm belief in the power of genre fiction as an informational tool, as something that brings the horrors in our world and within ourselves into stark relief; because nothing is so fantastical, so wondrous and terrifying, as the world in which we inhabit or the people who inhabit it. It’s what allows genre fiction to resonate, why many have withstood the wear of decades. Science fiction and fantasy and horror; they turn the fears of humanity into entities that stand just as tall as we do, that feel just as solid. They take what lurks in the cracks and crevices of our psyches, those things we push and prod and wish away, and amplifies them. To say that all genre fiction is purely plot-oriented, and thus it cannot be affecting or say anything of importance is, to me, extremely narrow-minded. There exists genre fiction that is character focused (such as 1984), and there also exists genre fiction that, while plot-oriented, uses that plot to comment on the many facets of our world and the societies that exist within it (such as Good Omens).

An example of this can be seen in one of the earlier works of genre fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel isn’t just about a monster; rather the text serves as a warning against man’s expansion during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Shelley uses her writing to comment on the world around her, to put across what are likely her own views on her rapidly changing society. Because when change is occurring, one of the key things we can do is talk about it, to try and get our opinions heard, and one way to do that is through story.

Fast forward one hundred and thirty-one years, and George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 hits the shelves, and its message is clear. From the first page where a poster hanging in a Victory Mansions corridor screams “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”, Orwell transforms the world he knew into what he feared it would become, such a transformation allowing him to look through a frigid spotlight on the dangers of totalitarianism. Orwell’s message looms, it stares and crowds and forces itself into your mind and life as thoroughly as the Thought Police, and sometimes we need that. Sometimes, subtlety is overrated. Sometimes, we need to be hit over the head. And genre fiction is capable of doing that without you knowing it.

Shelley and Orwell aren’t alone in their use of genre as a way of commenting on their social environment, nor is this usage limited to those early writers—to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Modern genre fiction is just as rich with commentary as its predecessors, possibly even more full due to our social consciousness no longer being confined to a single city or country and our awareness of what an individual’s actions can have on a global scale. Good Omens (written in 1990) was not my first exposure to Neil Gaiman’s work (that having been Stardust shortly followed by Coraline), but it was the first Terry Pratchett novel I ever read. I had, previously, thumbed through a friend’s copy of Hogfather, but moved countries shortly after it was lent and I had to return it, unable to give it the time I was assured it deserved. If it is anything like Good Omens, than that assurance was not unfounded. It is witty and funny and ridiculous, but hovering underneath Crowley’s flippant remarks and Newt Pulsifer’s insecurity lies a languid rumination on the human condition. It’s a novel about Armageddon, the end of the world, the end of life, but beyond the biblical trappings are the human reactions to their world being vaulted into chaos. The whole book is peppered with philosophy that is not forced or contrived, that flows into the action and descriptions like a river into the sea. “[M]ost of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people,” our writers say, and when I read that I stopped and thought about how right that was, and the farther I read the more I found myself stopping to think about those scraps of wisdom I stumbled across with every few page turns. That is one of the finest examples of modern genre fiction, of the way it can entertain but still be thought-provoking. The way it can be literary.

As you may have guessed, aside from reading and writing about great genre fiction, I’ve given myself a mission. From the classics to the recent releases, I want to demonstrate how genre fiction is not the embarrassment of the literary world; that instead it should be something you are proud to say you read and enjoy, and that it is just as important and powerful as the literary fiction that is touted as being somehow superior. First up is more Pratchett, my first honest leap into his independently written work. Strata is one of Pratchett’s two purely science fiction novels, and a novel that can also serve as a sort-of prequel to his famed Discworld series. I have often thought about starting Discworld, however, with thirty-eight novels published, trying to find a place to start can be rather daunting. With a little research, I discovered my ‘in’: Strata. Following will be Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? by science fiction heavyweight Philip K. Dick. The book is more popularly known as Blade Runner, having been adapted into the 1982 film. Not only is my dad a huge fan of both the book and film, but the 2006 film A Scanner Darkly got me very interested in the literature behind the unique cinematography. Moving on from there are genre fiction staples and books published within the last year, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Robin Hobb’s The Inheritance; John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (both because of its reputation and because it has been reported that HBO will be adapting it for television, and I prefer to read the book first). I can’t decide between HG Wells’ The Time Machine and his much longer, but extremely fascinating, The Shape of Things to Come. The former is one of the classics of genre fiction, but the latter speculates on events from 1933 (the book’s publication) to 2106. The urge to compare and contrast Wells’ conjectures with almost eighty years of history is almost too tempting. I face the same problem with China Miéville’s work, oscillating between Looking for Jake and waiting until his forthcoming novel, Embassytown. Maybe I’ll read both.

Since I first started thinking of books to review over the coming months, more have been added, and more will be added. Every time I turn on my computer or stand in a bookshop influences my careful list-making. Diana Wynne Jones passed, and it occurred to me that there was so much of her work I haven’t read. I talked to my mum and thought of my childhood and realized I’d only ever read the children’s edition of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Every day, with every action, the list shifts and mutates and it thrills me to know that there is so much out there to choose from, that the variety of genre fiction is as limitless as outer space. And I like things that are limitless. I believe that to limit ourselves to those artistic works that a select few have deemed acceptable is to miss out on some truly great pieces of literature. Hopefully, I’ll be able to circumvent that here, because Terry Pratchett and Captain Kirk and many, many others are right: space is the final frontier. For man, it is the final place to explore, a place that has no end to the possibilities every discovery could have for our little blue planet. And so much like space, genre fiction is boundless in its storytelling and in what it can and will provide for us; delivered safely through an author’s pen.

Writers: astronauts of literature. It kind of has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

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0 #3 Mr Cheese 2011-05-24 15:05
Great read - thoroughly enjoyed it and looking forward to the next one.
+5 #2 Gayle 2011-05-24 14:04
Wonderful! Can hardly wait for the next installment.
+1 #1 jim 2011-05-17 22:48
Writers: astronauts of literature. It kind of has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Love that!

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