The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

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Fantasy as constraint

I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.

It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading