- Kingdom of the Banal
Why is it I find it so hard to finish novels these days? And I’m not talking about trashy supermarket fluff, either. I mean the stuff that in Canada is given the imprimateur of ‘literary fiction.’ Our creative writing faculties seem to be producing writers whose books are well-crafted yet curiously bland. The focus seems to be on the minutiae of daily living, the domestic scene writ large. Too often, it’s the domestic scene writ small. Certainly the feminists gave us the insight that the domestic is also political, a microcosm for what plays out in the larger world. But the domestic too easily becomes the banal, just as Hemingway’s tight prose merely looks stripped and dead in the hands of a lesser writer. Fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin has lamented this lack of imagination in modern fiction and I have to concur. As C.S. Lewis said, “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it.”
So why the fixation with domestic drama? Why the high literary monoculture of realism? With the exception of Magic Realism, which remains a minor tributary of contemporary literature, domestic realism seems to dominate prose. The feminists protested the heroic narrative in literature, missing the point that mythic archetypes are fundamental to human consciousness, male and female. We are all the ‘heroes’ of our own journey. But these days, unless one is reading fantasy novels or science fiction—both long stigmatized as somehow ‘beneath’ literature—the grand narrative is entirely missing. Writers seem to be groomed into cultivating the small, the ordinary. Yet as Jean Paul Sartre said, “If literature isn’t everything, it’s not worth a single hour of someone’s trouble.” (italics mine)
Naturally not all prose writers are equally gifted. In the talented hands of a writer like Jane Urquhart, the domestic and personal becomes mythic, her prose richly steeped in the language of poetry. This in my view is what takes novels like Away and Changing Heaven from the pedestrian to the sublime. Margaret Atwood, whose early poems and novels embodied feminist thought, has ventured into the realm of science fiction with her excellent Oryx and Crake trilogy. In these novels she vaults from primarily feminist concerns to issues that concern all humanity. Her post-apocalyptic vision, while deeply dark and unsettling, serves the purpose sci-fi utopias and dystopias have always done—creating a moralist parable that also happens to be literature of high craft. From Zamyatin’s We to Huxley’s Brave New World to Orwell’s 1984 to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, all are part of a canon of allegorical tales that serve a high social function. This is the writer in the role of the seer, using his or her insight to project forward from current trends in the hopes it will modify our actions, even if only a little. It may be a vain hope, but it has to be attempted.
And while I applaud calls for a ‘new mythology,’ in fact, it’s already here, hiding in plain sight. It’s known as science fiction, or to use a more hip, up to date term, speculative fiction. But the fact that millions of people read speculative fiction or watch it in films disqualifies it—to some—as literature. Instead we’ve had four or five decades of either the realist or the postmodern novel—the former insistent upon the banal, the latter hopelessly complex to all but the initiated. As Le Guin writes in her essay, The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists: “To declare one genre—realism—to be above genre, and all the rest of fiction not literature because it isn’t realism is rather as if judges at the State Fair should give blue ribbons only to pigs, declaring horses, cattle, and poultry not animals because they’re not pigs.” Orwell’s Animal Farm dictum that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” comes to mind. Too often, literary awards are blue ribbons pinned on the best-behaved sheep, rather than indicators of actual literary merit. This then sets up a self-perpetuating literary elite, an unofficial academy of standard setters. In this canon, sci-fi and fantasy are left out. Le Guin urges the reader to turn the looking glass around: “…judged by the standards of fantasy, modernist realist fiction, with its narrow focus on daily details of contemporary human affairs, is suffocating and unimaginative, almost unavoidably trivial, and ominously anthropocentric.” Amen.
- Enchanted by the Sirens of Sci-fi
These days we’re hearing a lot about the need for a “new narrative,” or a “new mythology.” But is it ever really ‘new’? There’s the old writer’s dictum that there’s only a finite number of story types, for one thing. Then there’s the fact that, from a Jungian perspective, archetypes are universal and consistent through time, with local variations according to culture. Unless you’re talking fairy tales, which tend to arise from folklore and thus can vary in the cultural values they impart. Joseph Campbell said, “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” It could be argued then, that the fairy tale is more of a culture’s personal myth (dream), though obviously universal human values also come into play. But when we’re talking universal archetypes, what may be needed isn’t so much the ‘new’ as the newly refurbished myth tale. And every generation will do just that—take the mythic archetype and clothe it in its own local costume, dialect and technological appurtenances. As myth-making animals, we can’t help it—again and again we return to the universal themes.
In the context of a ‘new’ mythology then, I would argue we already have it in the great sci-fi/fantasy novels and films. But as Le Guin explains, it has been denied this role by the high priests—the gatekeepers—of literature. Fantasy novels tend to be somewhat more uneven and prone in the hands of lesser writers descends into self-parody (Oh, no, not another fantasy land populated by goblins, elves and wizards…) Naturally there are exceptions, such as the Thomas Covenant Chronicles by Stephen R. Donaldson, whose ‘white gold wielder’ main character is the ultimate antihero. The series introduces him in a shocking scene that challenges the reader’s ability to care about this character enough to keep reading. Not an easy thing for even the most skilled writer to pull off. Yet Donaldson somehow keeps you reading. In many ways Thomas Covenant is Hamlet and Richard III rolled into one—a clever move, since it’s much closer to the truth of ourselves. In Jungian terms, we’re all composed of both light and shadow sides in varying shades. Our lifelong quest is to strike a harmonious balance. In this sense the more ‘pure’ characters of Tolkien—Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn—are far less ‘real,’ pitted against the ‘pure evil’ of Lord Sauron and the hordes of Mordor. Though to be fair, both Tolkien and Peter Jackson exposed the inner turmoil experienced by their heroes, particularly Frodo. And there are moments when Donaldson plunges his antihero up to the neck in the dark side. These two series are to each other as Star Trek is to Bablyon 5, a yin-yang balance of opposing forces.
During my twenties I couldn’t get enough of sci-fi, and read all the masters: Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Zelazny, Clarke, Bradbury—many of whom laid the foundations for the genre as we know it today. Or at least, built the columns that support the edifice on the foundation laid by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. And I remain a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut, although most would probably consider his novels more fantasy than sci-fi, with the exception of The Sirens of Titan, one of his best and possibly most overlooked books. His breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is arguably a fantasy novel, with the constant shifting through time of his lead character Billy Pilgrim. Yet it was probably the first postwar novel to criticize the carpet-bombing of non-military targets like Dresden by the Allies. A fantasy novel with socio-political relevance.
Sci-fi films—both original series and those based on novels—deserve equal consideration here. Starting with the original Star Trek series and its subsequent incarnations, though by Star Trek Voyager it seemed to have lost its grounding in Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. Many of the Original Series scripts were based on themes found in Shakespeare or quoted the Bard directly. I was equally impressed with Babylon 5, the brainchild of J. Michael Stracynski, a veteran TV scriptwriter who created what is arguably the companion universe of Star Trek. (No small achievement!) In both series we have a vision of humanity post-interstellar travel and post-alien contact. Roddenberry saw the Star Trek universe as a kind of interstellar United Nations, where every effort was made to resolve conflict with negotiation, an attempt to recognize common interests. It erred on the side of starry-eyed idealism, but so what? “Man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Babylon 5, by contrast, being set in the stationary environment of a space station, concentrated on the internal political intrigues and bureaucracies of the various species interacting with humans. In that sense it was perhaps more sociopolitical satire than techno-fantasy, but then sci-fi has always been a vehicle for social commentary. In both series, the protagonists were those who did everything they could to maintain the peace and hold to a high standard of personal integrity. Isn’t this exactly what the best literature has always done—told stories that grapple with the great issues, using characters we admire or can relate to?
While shut in a few winters ago here in the mountains I watched again Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I loved the amazing location footage, the special effects, casting choices, costuming and acting. But I wondered how true to the original novels they were. So for the first time in 35 years I read the books again. What struck me almost immediately, aside from differences in plot points between the films and novels, was just how much poetry is in Tolkien’s books. Poetry! Every time Frodo and his companions camp for the night, they recite poems, sing songs and tell stories, just as humanity has done for thousands of years. This makes the distortion of Tolkien’s work in The Hobbit film trilogy all the more disturbing, with its continual emphasis on war and gore. In that regard it’s about as far from Tolkien’s spirit as you could possibly get.
So why the notion that sci-fi/speculative fiction isn’t worthy of the distinction of ‘literature’? Do they introduce us to fascinating ideas? Yes. Do they give us insight into human character? Yes. Do they cause us to question our political and ethical position in the world? Certainly. Do they often contain profound insight into the struggle to become a fully realized person? Absolutely. Are these not all hallmarks of what defines great literature? So why the snobbery? “For a long time,” Le Guin answers, “critics and English professors declared that science fiction wasn’t literature. Most of them spoke from the modernist-realist basis of never having read any science fiction since they were twelve. They were comfortable with a judgment that allowed them to remain both superior and ignorant, and quite a few science fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre.”
Meanwhile, the New Mythology was staring us in the face all along. I’m not saying writers shouldn’t heed the call to create their own additions to the canon. But let’s first give credit where credit is due.
PART TWO to follow…
 Quoted in Paul Holmer, CS Lewis, 1978. Source: http://www.quoteland.com/author/CS-Lewis-Quotes/839/, accessed Sept. 2, 2015.
 Interview (1960), Quoted in Susan Sontag’s introduction to Barthes: Selected Writings, “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,” (1982). Source: Wikiquotes: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jean-Paul_Sartre
 Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,’ from Cheek by Jowl (essays), Aquaduct Press, 2009, p. 83.
 George Orwell, Animal Farm, first published 1945.
 Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor/Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 48.
 Ursula K. Le Guin, June 4 and 11, 2012 New Yorker, science fiction theme issue.