Sunday, April 10, 2016

Exploration narrative, magic, and the Thing

So, "And Then We ate the Dogs" -- some thoughts triggered by the panel discussion at ICFA, and by reading Locating the Thing: the Antarctic as Alien space in John W. Campbell's "Who goes there?" an article by Elizabeth Leane, published in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jul., 2005), pp. 225-239.

Without delving into exploration as a human endeavor and the reasons behind it,  let us just assume as a default that at least some societies were, are, and will foster the enterprise of exploration and at least some people in all societies will be exploring whatever they can get to explore, either on their own or as part of an organized enterprise. What I want to discuss instead is why an exploration narrative invites, more so, can't help being perfused with the fantastic, which let it readily colonize science fiction when the latter came along as a genre.

Here is what I think may be the answer. All starts with the capacity of a human mind to generate ideas of the fantastic, wondrous, and miraculous.  I believe it is innate, something of a side effect of a highly developed consciousness. Our minds are figment generators as well as consumers, and  this ongoing "magical thinking"  may be a just another part of a healthy relationship with the world and reality, as important as its opposite -- the operational assumption that the world is regular, understood, predictable, and mundane. The fantastic is brain's sugar, the mundane is its oxygen.  And the fantastic, in this context, needn't be a fully developed Narnia or Skyrim, it can also be all kinds of small, everyday, sometimes deeply personal "magical" associations, explanations, fables that we generate spontaneously. It can be something as trifle as "crows carefully swap plant tags in my vegetable garden" or "rocks self-generate underground in wintertime and then work their way to the surface". 
If so, it is not surprising that the fantastic needs a legitimate place, a safe harbor where it can dwell unmolested and unquestioned by the mundane and regular; and what better place than the terra incognita beyond the boundary of the well-known world? Thus Coleridge uses a sea voyage to the South Pole, and before him, Mandeville needs a journey to the Arctic to introduce strange creatures and occurrences; let's also not forget Gulliver's travels.

As the world became more and more explored, mapped, and regularized, and the terra incognita shrank, new dwellings for the fantastic had to be found. Mars became one of these places in the 19th century, boosted by the notorious discovery of the martian "canals".  And the space, of course, the cosmos, has proved the best of them all. It is practically infinite. It can accommodate endless output of our figment machines. As if the Universe was not big enough, however, we are already claiming a multitude of parallel Universes for the same purpose. Not to mention rounding up virtual realities, refurbishing the past through time travel, and carving out new caverns of terra incognita in zones of urban decay or natural disaster.

There are, I will argue, a couple of more reasons other than simply territorial, that solidify the union of exploration and fantasy, and these reasons may have to do with mental, physical, even biological effects the endeavor of exploration appears to have on an explorer. The unknown world both fosters conditions where fantastic becomes more prominent on the brain, and forces on a human something that rightfully belongs to the realm of the fantastic: the metamorphosis. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

ICFA 2016

Earlier this month I was at the annual conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts -- my first time attending this truly fantastic conference, which mixes scholars and writers of speculative fiction in an Orlando area hotel complete with a luscious pool and nearby -- a natural pond where fat carp dig holes in the muck and where one can readily spot off a view deck an alligator's snout sticking out of the water (besides, where else can one glimpse Ellen Datlow with a fishing rod, standing over that pond and fishing, no doubt, for the alligator?)
I had a great, great time, and I want to say big thanks to the incomparable Karen Burnham who invited me to attend the conference.
I took part in the panel cheerfully titled "And then we ate the dogs" where we looked at historic relationships between exploration narratives and speculative fiction, in particular the science fiction of space exploration. Moderated by the awesome  Siobhan Carrol, an author, scholar, and my Clarion West workshop classmate, we poked at the tropes of exploration/expansion into the strange and new, the romantic explorer, and last but not the least, the disaster.
I'm still mulling about all that, and I figured I might as well put some thoughts and impressions from the panel and from my homework for the panel, on paper (digital "paper," at any rate). But since I cannot compose it fast enough it will have to be in the next post.