Academic journal article Style

The Problem of Impossible Fictions

Academic journal article Style

The Problem of Impossible Fictions

Article excerpt

"In fiction, anything is possible." This statement appears to be such a truism about literature that its utterance seems hardly necessary. And yet the implicit assumption in this platitude is that those events and circumstances whose realization in the actual world is practically impossible are nevertheless possible in the realm of fiction. The notion of an "impossible fiction" is an ostensible oxymoron. Traditionally, according to theorists of possible-world semantics, impossible worlds are those worlds that violate the foundational principles of classical logic: the laws of noncontradiction and bivalence or the excluded middle. Such worlds, considered so radically different from the actual world we inhabit, are thought to be inaccessible. However, as Marie-Laure Ryan has noted, logical impossibility is but one conceivable form of an impossible world. Other forms include physical, causal, taxonomic, temporal, and geographic inaccessibility.(1) She writes that "genres will be defined on the basis of the number of accessibility relations linking FW (the fictional world) to the culturally predominant representation of AW (the actual world). The greater the number of accessibility relations, the shorter the distance from AW to FW" (Ryan, "Possible Worlds" 536).(2) A number of fictional works, though, are constructed taxonomically and/or physically in radically different ways from the actual world particularly in science fiction and fantasy. Though such worlds would naturally be considered as impossible, they are more often construed as highly improbable. Their eventuality is significantly minuscule but nevertheless not impossible, according to Ryan ("Possible Worlds" 538).

Not only is the transgression of taxonomic and physical norms possible in fiction, but in the development of so-called "postmodernist fiction," the once sacred laws of logic have been opened to violation as well. The logically impossible is a salient feature in the fictional universe of many works in recent literature.


In all, there are roughly five principle types of impossible fictions. One form explicitly violates the logical law of noncontradiction and might also be described as a sous-rature world, a world under "erasure." Another type is the so-called "forking-path" fiction, where more than one narrative path or possible world becomes actual at the same time. A third example is the "squaring-the-circle" fiction, where otherwise logically consistent fictions have a capacity to lead to logical paradoxes. A fourth division is the mixing or traversing of ontological levels in a fictional work, what might be called "diegetic violations." The final type of impossible fictions is that of characters inhabiting more than one fictional world: in other words, the problem of the compossibility of characters.


An event might be described by a narrator as having taken place in a fictional work, only to be asserted subsequently as not having occurred. It cannot be the case, at the same temporal moment and in the same geographic location, that an event has occurred and not occurred. This is a transgression of the first fundamental principle of informal logic. An example might be found in Alain Robbe-Grillet's La maison de rendez-vous, where Edouard Manneret's death occurs in more than one temporal moment. Johnson hears of his murder from the police yet still manages to call on him later that evening. Kim, his murderer, finds his corpse after having killed him, only to reencounter a living Manneret waiting for her in a room. Manneret manages to be alive after having been found dead, clearly a contradiction.

In Brian McHale's useful inventory of characteristic impossibilities, he discusses what he calls sous-rature worlds, worlds under erasure, which are usually withdrawn immediately after their construction only to be reinvoked. "First one state of affairs is projected. …

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