I haven’t checked the news yet to see if our internet links to the rest of the world have been fully restored, but over the last few days enough traffic has been re-routed that I’ve been able (among other things) to read the Black Gate blog. I had intended to post today about Garth Nix, as the first in what I hope will be an intermittent series on MR/YA adventure fantasy, but yesterday proved to be the Islamic New Year (it’s determined by astronomical sightings, not by absolute date), and my spouse had the day off, so we all drove up the coast to the northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah. No time, therefore, to write anything that requires fact-checking.
More of RAK in a minute. Reading James Enge’s last post on fantasy and realism led me to further thoughts on the same… for example I don’t think they are the strict dichotomy suggested in that post. Like JE, however, I have always felt that there is nothing remotely realistic about my inner life.
But what about external, intersubjective life? The great Soviet fantasist Andrei Sinyavsky, originally published in this country under his pseudonym Abram Tertz, denounced Soviet Realism in his early screed The Trial Begins. Realism, he wrote, is a literary technique that is no longer adequate to describe reality, because reality is no longer realistic. While I agree with that with regard to the present, I’m not sure that reality has ever been realistic. I had a good friend tell me that she thought I probably wouldn’t be interested in writing science fiction and fantasy after my son was born. I guessed that she meant that I would be forced to grow up and would then take interest in adult things. I often thought about her comment during pregnancy, because it was the most science-fictional experience I had ever had. It’s alive! It’s inside me and growing! It’s going to be a whole separate human being! I mean, what’s more bizarre and fantastic and estranging from the ordinary self than that?
Here in Dubai every day is chock-full of estrangement. It’s just like being in the suburban US… except that it’s utterly different, that fantasy trope where a familiar landscape has been re-populated by people out of an entirely different mythos. Actually, in the case of Dubai, several different mythoi.
Yesterday we drove from the land of shopping malls, subdivisions, and skyscrapers northward, and first passed walled villas and date plantations, which gave way to desert and occasional herds of goats and camels. We followed E11 north all the way to Rams, which is about 20 kilometers from the Oman border (one of them) and then tried to find a beach to walk on. We passed a man herding camels over the packed sand on a bicycle. Rams itself is on an inlet and has old- (wood) and new-style (fiberglass) fishing boats pulled up on its beach. Parts of the town look reasonably prosperous and others … are not, being clumps of one-room cinder-block shacks roofed with tin, or even palm fronds. About every block there was a dumpster, and an untethered cow or bull, a dog or two, and several stray cats, all foraging together in spilled bags of trash.
We headed down the coast again to Ras Al Khaimah City, where we found a lovely sand beach with breakers and a sign, “Sand beach is useful for swimming.” (On the other side of a jetty: “Rocky beach no swimming.”) No one was swimming (mostly only Europeans and their colonial offshoots do so here); but south Asian men in traditional salwar kameez (long shirt and loose trousers) played cricket near the water’s edge, and an elderly Arab man in a white robe strolled along the shore, picking up shells and looking at the waves and the sunset. The beach-scape looked very like the Jersey shore… but was utterly not.
Whether or not fantasy is or should be about estrangement could be a long post in and of itself. To go back to the subject of convention in fiction, an argument could be made that much fantasy is more about familiarity than the strange. And yet one of the reasons I love both f and sf is that they have so much room for the strange and the monstrous and the strangely beautiful… which is, from here in side my skull, what both the inside and outside worlds look like.