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Fantasy, horror, science fiction and more

3 November 2017

At our literary coffee klatsch on 2 November 2017 we had a wide-ranging and very interesting  discussion. I can only record a few highlights here, to jog my own memory, and for those who couldn’t be there to catch up. Present: David Levey, Duncan Reyburn, Val & Steve Hayes.

David Levey had been reading A Wind in the Door by Madeleine l’Engle, and said he wasn’t enjoying it as much as her earlier book, A wrinkle in Time. He said the plot was ingenious, but not enough was made of it. I had recently reread A Wrinkle in Time, but had not been tempted to re-read A Wind in the Door. I too found it rather dull by comparison.

Having got started on children’s fantasy books, I mentioned that I had recently read Children’s Literature: the Development of Criticism and had been particularly impressed by one of the essays in it that referred to the implied reader of the books. For example books by Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit and other popular authors assumed that their readers would not only be familiar with households with domestic servants, but that they actually lived in such households. Duncan Reyburn and David thought that science fiction did not make such assumptions, because much of it is set in the future, and thus out of the reader’s experience. I tend to disagree. A lot of science fiction, in both books and film, assumes, for example, that the reader is familiar with concepts like warp drives and hyperspace.

Duncan said that Jung’s archetypes said something about our cognitive experience, and so some people liked fantasy and science fiction, while others could make nothing of it. People had different mental containers, and some preferred their fiction realistic, while others preferred it mimetic, though these sometimes got mixed up in a bizarre kind of way. He had seen an online discussion where people were discussing Superman in a kind of realistic way, calculating that if he caught a girl who was falling she could not possibly have survived, and were discussing this in all seriousness with G-forces and everything until someone pointed out that we are talking about a man flying here.

Val remarked that her experience of Superman was the radio serial, at 4:45 pm on Springbok Radio Monday to Friday without fail, and we talked about radio as a medium for such things, with sound effects. Some of the science fiction radio programmes we recalled were No Place to Hide, The Creaking Door and such things, and I mentioned Strangers from Space. It had been broadcast on Monday evening when I was at boarding school, and our dormitories were equipped with earphones, so we listened to it in bed after lights-out. The first episode was in the format of a news broadcast — there was shrinking of the polar ice caps, and scientists were concerned about the sea levels in coastal cites around the world, and this was being caused by strange radiation. It sounded utterly realistic, and we were half-convinced by it until, in the next episode a week later, it became clear that it was fiction. The two main characters, Benson and Bold, set out to track the source of the radiation but that aspect of the story was lost when they were captured by a sentient and conscious machine on Mars, and then they encountered the mysterious and terrifying Horgoid. I never heard the end of the story because I missed the last episode a year after it started.

We discussed the similar effect of a broadcast of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which actually caused panic in the USA.

David Levey recommended a book Science Fiction Theology by Alan P.R. Gregory. According to the description in GoodReads: Gregory examines the sublime and its implicit theologies as they appear in early American pulp science fiction, the horror writing of H. P. Lovecraft, science fiction narratives of evolution and apocalypse, and the work of Philip K. Dick. Ironically, science fiction’s tussle with Christianity hides the extent to which the sublime, especially in popular culture, serves to distort the classical Christian understanding of God, secularizing that God and rendering God’s transcendence finite. But by turning from the sublime to a consideration of the beautiful, Gregory shows that both Christian and science-fictional imaginations may discover a new and surprising conversation.

David also commented on the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick.

Duncan said he had been thinking a lot about zombie books and movies, and thought they expressed the modern condition, especially since 9/11 — that people were faced with a dark force that could somehow infect them that they could not control. I mentioned that Pet Sematary was Stephen King’s zombie book, and most of what I’ve had to say on the topic is in another post here, to commemorate Stephen King’s 70th birthday.

Val and Duncan said they liked Stephen King’s stories that had been filmed as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Both had Christian symbolism. In The Shawshank Redemption an innocent man is buried in a tunnel by which he escapes from prison and resurrected on the outside, while the guilty man inside is redeemed.

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