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. Chapter 8, "Advice on How to Ruin a Novel, Or, Modernism, Realism and the Fantastic," combines criticism of realism and the nouveau roman with analyses of Emmanuel Carrère's La moustache and Christopher Priests The Glamour, novels that transcend mere metafiction and remain open to multiple interpretations, according to Martin. In Chapter 9 ("How Big Is the Mind?"), Martin champions fantasy novels by contemporary English writers (lain Banks, Michael Holdstock, and Jonathan Carroll) that raise questions about the powers and dangers of the human imagination. Chapters 10 and 11 examine and ultimately condemn the ideal of Utopia, using writers from Plutarch and Plato to B. F. Skinner and Marge Piercy. In his final two chapters, Martin considers the importance of awe (Burke's and Kant's sublime) in fantasy and science fiction. Chapter 12 instances relevant works by Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Borges, LeGum, Hesse, and David Masson and includes a brief comment on Martins own novel Time-Slip. The final chapter, "Fantasy as Philosophy, or, Stanislaw Lem," examines four of the fifteen chapters of Lem's A Perfect Vacuum, a collection of reviews of imaginary novels. A conclusion uses Lem's life and work to validate the philosophical and metaphysical power of fantasy and science fiction. Martin's Afterword sums up his argument for the value of ultrafiction: "compared with 'realist' fictions, FF relates to reality in more ways than they do, and 'refers' to the world in a less reductive, more comprehensive manner. The function of SF and FF is to stimulate the mind to new understanding, not to rehearse the already known. That it revolves in a world of imaginary or speculative events is no objection to its having a bearing on truth. For there can be no doubt the Universe must include things now thought to be impossible" (262).

This brief overview may help readers locate those sections most relevant to their own interests. Unfortunately, despite its focus on revaluing nonrealistic fiction, the book is an overly digressive, poorly organized collection of plot summaries, analyses, and interpretations. The selection of books and writers frequently seems arbitrary (e.g., Why choose only four sections of Lem's A Perfect Vacuum, and why these four sections? What governs the choice of modern heroic fiction and science fiction texts throughout individual chapters?)

As a professor of French literature well acquainted with the hypotheses and speculations of postmodern science who has published in the fields of philosophy and aesthetics and has written fantasy himself, Graham Dunstan Martin seems an ideal author for an Inquiry into speculative fiction. Too often, however, general observations are overly casual, judgments overly idiosyncratic. Martin dismisses text-centered, stylistic literary analysis and interpretation as tedious and relatively insignificant, but his own interpretations are so open-ended and narrowly thematic or parabolic that they are not always compelling or satisfying. His style sometimes takes informality too far, resembling when it does so a series of lecture notes rather than a sustained argument. On the whole, Martin's expertise is not as effectively utilized as a reader might wish: despite his strong apologia for speculative fiction, metaphysical speculation and personal taste too often substitute for literary interpretation.

[Author Affiliation]

Mark A. Heberle

University of Hawaii, Manoa

Mark A. Heberle is Professor of English at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa, where he teaches courses on Renaissance literature and on Vietnam and other literatures of war. He has published articles on child characters in Shakespeare and has most recently given presentations on Tolkien at three conferences that dealt with children's literature and children in warfare.


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