An Inquiry into the Purposes of Speculative Fiction-Fantasy and Truth

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An Inquiry into the Purposes of Speculative Fiction-Fantasy and Truth. By Graham Dunstan Martin. Studies in Comparative Literature 58. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003. xxii + 284 pp.

This Inquiry argues that the best imaginative narratives of any era challenge prevailing modes of thought. Martin uses the term "ultrafiction" to define such narratives, which are nonrealistic and include literary modes that are not commonly considered together, such as fairy tales and science fiction. The author not only condemns the undervaluing of such fiction by most literary critics and theorists but also claims that "if a theory produces boring results, then it can not possibly be true" (146, 150). In accordance with these principles, Martin generally disparages realistic fiction as well as exclusively metafictional works produced in the wake of the French nouveau roman. Literary critics singled out include Todorov and Frye, who are blamed for focusing too narrowly on purely literary and textual features of imaginative works and for sealing them off from real human experience.

For Martin, "speculative fiction" (ultrafiction) imagines scenarios that transcend normal reality, but such works always reflect the real world and encourage readers to consider psychic, philosophical, and metaphysical truths or assumptions that we normally pass over without reflection. Such fiction remains forever ambiguous in its meaning and capable of endless and multiple interpretation. It is not limited to science fiction (SF) and modern works of heroic fantasy (FF) but includes religious and other myths, folktales, and fairy tales as well as later revisions of such archaic narratives. Given such a wide scope, Martins choice of texts is necessarily eclectic and partial, although he focuses on writers and works that may be relatively unfamiliar to many readers: "I do not wish to offer you the customary parade of the usual masters, such as Tolkien, Borges, Mary Shelley or Ursula LeGuin" (xx), he explains. Borges and LeGuin are frequently alluded to and given a few pages of sustained analysis in the penultimate chapter, but otherwise Martins subjects are a miscellany of works, including Genesis, Plato's Laws, the 1001 Nights, Perraults "Bluebeard" and its revisions, Kieslowskis film Le double vie de Véronique, and the work of Stanislav Lem. Martin's career as a lecturer in French literature at Edinburgh has determined his focus on the French fabulists Jules Supervielle and Michel Tournier, the latter of whom he regards as "probably France's most important living writer," one who "works quite deliberately with myth and the fantastic" (118).

The work, which contains thirteen chapters and an afterword, begins with a preface, "The Train in the Mind," in which Professor Roger Cardinal (University of Kent) notes that the world exceeds our ability to comprehend it linguistically and yet "our linguistic potency exceeds the dimensions of our material experience . . . and its propensity to deviate from enshrined notions of objective truth is staggering" (xiii). This paradoxical combination of ultimate uncertainty and mystery with endless linguistic fabrication is the domain of ultrafiction, which Martin defines in his foreword and further justifies in "Why Fantasy?" (chapter 1). Chapter 2 examines a wide variety of Bluebeard narratives from Charles Perrault to Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, and the Grimm brothers, and chapter 3 similarly summarizes and then exfoliates "Le Grand Louis" (Tall Louis), a folktale collected in Jean Markales Contes populaires de toute la France, with literary and speculative excursions on the significance of the number three and the motif of the transformational chase (AT 313, 314). After considering various interpretations of Sheherazade's situation in chapter 4, Martin discusses possible origins of the double figure (ch. 5) and some examples in Kipling and Kieslowski (ch. 6). Chapter 7 considers fantasy narratives by Supervielle ("Les suites d'une course" ["The Sequel to a Horse-Race"]) and Tournier ("La fugue du petit Poucet" ["Little Thumbkin Runs Away"], "La Famille Adam," and "La Mère Noël") together with a discussion of Tournier's own remarks on fiction in Le vent paraclet. …