Monday, January 2, 2017

A Transistor Radio in Faerie


I've been reading Ursula K. Le Guin's new collection of talks and essays, The Wave in the Mind and admiring it immensely -- both for its erudition and for the patient way she explains matters that are perfectly obvious to any professional writer but need to be spelled out to readers who have not encountered them before. It may well be -- and probably is -- her best collection of non-fiction to date.

But it will never have the importance of her 1979 collection The Language of the Night, simply because at the time she was writing its essays, there had been very little masterful writing about modern fantasy. Yes, Tolkien and to a lesser degree Lewis. A few others. But there was a lot of uncharted wilderness at the time.

One of the most influential essays in that collection was "From Elfland to Pougkeepsie," which was chockfull of useful insights to at least one would-be fantasist. Among other things, it tried to establish that what distinguished good fantasy from bad was that it went all the way into the strangeness and otherness of the fantasy world, stating that "the point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different."

She also stated in there somewhere (I can't locate my copy of the book -- if you could see my office, you'd understand -- so I'm working from memory here) that you couldn't have a transistor radio in Elfland without losing all the enchantment.

I was thinking of that statement when, in The Dragons of Babel, I wrote the following scene . Young Will le Fey, a refugee fallen into louche company, is on a train traveling through Babylon on his way to the Tower of Babel:

Esme had grown bored with the passing landscape and was rummaging through Nat’s luggage.  She hauled out a transistor radio and snapped it on.  Music more beautiful than anything Will had ever heard flooded the car.  It sounded like something that might have been sung by the stars just before dawn on the very first morning of the world.  “What is that?” he asked wonderingly.
 Nat Whilk smiled.  “It’s called ‘Take the A Train.’  By Duke Ellington.”

Which technically defies Le Guin's proscription.

I was particularly pleased that with that little tidbit because it epitomized the strangeness of the world I had created. But it was nothing compared to what Rachel Pollack did with Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency, the first a novel and the second two novellas that together make up a novel, both of which are set in Poughkeepsie sometime after a mystic revelation in which the shamanic world has made itself manifest.

Pollack's Poughkeepsie is a terrifying place, where parades include high school cheerleaders marching with human blood smeared on their naked breasts, and the man from the power company comes by once a month to read the meter and sacrifice a wren for the continued operation of your wiring. I highly recommend both books to anyone who loves great fantasy.

So right there are three works that violate the letter of Le Guin's essay. But they in no way invalidate it. They are mere contradictions of specific words within the essay. The spirit of "From Elfland to Pougkeepsie"remains inviolate and its insights as wise as ever.

Both "From Elfland to Pougkeepsie" and The Wave in the Mind are highly recommended to anyone interested in learning from one of the great writers of our time.



Zvi said...

Love this, and how it spurred you on. (Sarah Vaughn's 'Take the A Train' will always be my favourite because of her huge swoop at the beginning....).

The Wave in the Mind came out in 2004. Are you reading that, or the newest one from Small Beer, Words are my Matter?

Michael Swanwick said...

Whoops. You're right. I'd lost track of which was which.

I'm reading The Wave in the Mind, which I bought sometime in the past decade or so and which surfaced among my books just recently. Now I have to go digging through my books to see if I have Words Are My Matter or should put it on my "to buy" list.