Monday, August 06, 2007

Other Worlds

I have a pretty strong preference for alternate worlds. Fantasies that are set in decidedly not-earth places (especially if there's some aspect of it that borders on the absurd) rather than fantasies that reveal some supposed unknown magical underpinning to our own world. Science fiction that's set far away in distance or in time more than near-future pieces. I've certainly enjoyed stories that fit each of the latter halves of those two comparisons, so it's not that I dislike those. But give me a fiercely imagined alternate location, and you've caught my interest much more. It's a part of why I like Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris stories, a big part of what attracted me to China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels. And if you look at the things I've reviewed on Tangent, I think you'll see this preference played out.

This isn't a new realization to me, and probably isn't anything new to those who've read my stories. But it hit home in a book I'm reading now (though I'm unsure if I'll finish it)--Doris Lessing's Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta. The story is science-fictional, at least superficially--generally I'd say that under the surface there's no real difference between SF and fantasy, and those who like to maintain a fierce wall around their precious hard-SF would probably call this more fantasy. But the story is of an agent for a broad stellar empire of some sort who is making his second trip to the world Rohandan / Shikasta (its name chances in the course of the story). The first part of the story flashes back to his first visit. It isn't an easy story to get into, as it's a very distant report of the event rather than anything with immediacy. But eventually I found myself enjoying it as the agent deals with the forced exodus by some of the people who'd come down to guide the natives of the planet toward some sort of enlightenment.

Then the story moves to the second visit, and it's revealed that Shikasta is Earth, and the time is mid-20th century. There were certainly hints that Shikasta might be ancient Earth in the first part, but as soon as it became certain, I could feel myself groaning. Now part of that is an aversion to the various theories people have of aliens coming down and influencing the early development of humans--it seems overdone and often brings out crackpots ideas. But part is just that it's so here-and-now. I find myself wondering if I really want to use my reading time to continue with it.

Does that make me escapist? Maybe at some level, and maybe at that level I don't consider it a bad thing. But it's certainly not escapist in the sense that celebrity magazines are escapist. Or soap operas. I think often when people denigrate speculative fiction as escapist, they're only looking at the surface. For me, that very distance on the surface allows the story to speak in metaphorical ways, in images and structures, about here-and-now. I'm not trying to make a grand claim about speculative fiction being able to do this better than all other forms--that's not a dichotomy I'm interested in exploring. But I know that for me it often works better.

So will I keep reading this book? I'm undecided. It isn't awful, and it's one I'd like to be able to say I'm familiar with. But at the same time I have so many other books I'd like to read. I think I'll give it a few more pages, but then I'll move on to the second book of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (I just finished book one a week ago and am looking forward to continuing). Then when I finish that, I'll see what my thoughts are about this book.

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