On My Bookshelf: What’s The Point of Fantasy?

I’ve been reading some interesting books lately. It’s been mostly non-fiction, but a few works of fiction have gotten me thinking on the nature of science fiction and fantasy: what defines the genre, how well this genre can be written, and the pitfalls (as I see them) into which some good authors can fall. So for your consideration, I offer speculation on a historical figure, an alternate medieval Spain, and a sports figure.

First up is the well-regarded Kim Stanley Robinson tome Galileo’s Dream. The sf site ranked it high by both contributors and readers. Other Robinson works I’ve enjoyed. And I confess I’ve enjoyed just about everything else I’ve read from this author better than Galileo’s Dream. To be sure, this book is excellently written, well researched, and contains unique ideas. The chief literary ground it breaks is to serve as a biography of the 17th century scientist with the insertion of a plot based on the 31st century maneuverings of human beings living on the moons of Jupiter discovered by Galileo himself.

If this were biography, it would be outstanding. The 1600’s come alive as we follow Galileo, his ego, his libido, and his fortunes and misfortunes. People from the year 3020 want to use Galileo for their own purposes, so he is occasionally kidnapped into the future in what I thought was a far more disappointing literary construction.

Kudos for the cleverness of paralleling Kepler’s Dream. Kudos for the idea of developing Galileo as the preeminent scientist, and a martyr (in some alternate timelines) for science. Apologists for the meanies in the Vatican will be heartened that Galileo is portrayed as a very flawed man with his own issues. As Robinson writes him he is fascinating, but not terribly attractive.

What left me cold about this book is the sterility of the 31st century plotline. It suffers in comparison to the 17th century, which is a real curiosity for a successful and talented sf author. Was it intended? If only the future plot were as strong as the real-life Galileo and his portrayal.

Billy Lombardo’s The Man With Two Arms is no less a piece of speculative fiction, a baseball novel with a trace of an earlier pioneer of the ballpark, W.P. Kinsella. This book hooked me deeper from the start, especially with its tender portrayal of a man as a husband and father. While some might think the book is mainly about the title character, a baseball Wayne Gretzky who can pitch with either arm and plow under the deadball pitching records of Cy Young and “Old Hoss” Radbourn, I had to wonder if for the first half, it wasn’t about a man balancing two arms: his wife on one, his son on the other.

This novel accelerates from a slow start into a race at the end, the frenzy of Danny Granville propelling the Cubs to .700 ball and himself to superstardom. Did I say Wayne Gretzky? That’s not quite right. What this character does to baseball surpasses what number 99 did to the hockey record book. The man’s “perfect” three-inning stint in the MLB All-Star Game is unbelievable.

I was disappointed with the surprise ending. It seemed a little contrived, and an all too-neat way of wrapping up a novel that morphed quickly into a story about a perfect man. Danny is a little too head-and-shoulders above the human race in this book. Can a father’s love and devotion propel a child to this level of extraordinariness? As a dad, I’d like to think so. But I realize that not only am I a flawed individual, so is my daughter (as much as I love her).

Read the book, though. It’s very good.

When I was at the public library the other night, a friend recommended the fiction of Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s been a long time since I read straight-up fantasy. And sf has been something of a bore for me lately. So I checked out the 1995 novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan. So far, real good. Kay is an excellent writer, and his great work with characters and painting scenes makes for a very pleasurable read. The first night I opened the book, I was on page 65 before I knew it. The next morning, I was still thinking about his characters.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I suspect I will enjoy this book the best of these three. But I wonder if I’m really reading a fantasy work in spite of the little wizard sticker on the spine. This book is really an historical novel in a history that never took place. So far, there are no magicians, elves, rings, or things like that. This could have been a novel about three characters on the Iberian peninsula when the Christians, Muslims, and Jews all co-existed there. The speculation is what-if there was a different geography (and astronomy–this planet has two moons) that looked like just a little different from medieval Spain. Then the fantasy ends and we have three religions, political intrigue, despots in power, and ordinary people caught up in events way beyond their control.

It’s all handled wonderfully well, but is it authentic speculative fiction? I don’t think so.

To me, science fiction and fantasy are guided by one principle. You change something about how things are, and develop a story around that one new fact. Bad sf and fantasy change everything and leave the reader adrift. Masterful sf and fantasy writers can change one thing and delight the reader showing how the dominos fall: what if the Nazis won WWII, what if Britain had a mythology, what if there was a galaxy-spanning empire in the fiftieth millennium. Stuff like that.

With KSR, he starts off well: what if Galileo were influenced by 31st-century politicos? He adds a few juicy bits about ten-dimensional space and three-dimensional time and alien intelligences. Maybe Galileo’s Dream fails to match up to these other two books because it tries to do too much.

Billy Lombardo does it a bit better. What if a doting father could train his son to be a perfectly balanced athlete, able to throw brilliantly left- or right-handed? One premise, and it all falls into place from there.

Guy Gavriel Kay takes what seems to be a fantasy premise, what if Europe were slightly different. But his story, so far as I can see, would work just as well if it were a full-blooded historical novel. The aristocracy would be just as corrupt, the woman doctor just as countercultural, and the men just as heroic. Christians, Jews, and Muslims on one small peninsula? The possibilities for serious fiction, not to mention soap opera, are endless.

Read any good books lately?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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