by Terence Taylor
At the end of a story critique in my latest writers’ group meeting, someone commented that after the fact he’d realized that the setting, a grim mining colony in deep space, was the only science fiction element in it. The same events and characters could have been sent in Detroit or Chicago, with a similarly mindless crappy job as the main character’s obstacle to overcome. It didn’t make it work more or any less for him; it was just an offhanded observation that led us into an interesting discussion of what makes something a science fiction story.
There are those who resisted the early lure of what was called speculative fiction, setting stories in the future or far distant galaxies simply to tell stories about ourselves and our world at sufficient remove to address real world issues more objectively. They argued that science fiction was about examining the impact of changing technology and human knowledge of the universe and its workings in literature, not social subjects, except as they pertained to that one area. If used as a filter to exclude those that don’t, many science fiction classics would fall well short of the mark. Star Wars could easily be set in the Old West or Europe in the Middle Ages, its mystic Force transmuted to Eastern or Western philosophy, or even Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking… 1984 could be set in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s Bronx or Roaring Twenties Chicago…
Of course, Lucas always called Star Wars a space opera, a pulp movie not sci-fi, more about melodrama than the devices. And the novels cited are considered “literary classics”, not hard core science fiction classics like I, Robot or 2001, A Space Odyssey. Does that mean that the less integral to the science the fiction is the more seriously it’s taken? Or that science fiction needs to include more of the human element to achieve lasting mainstream popularity? In any genre, how much of that genre has to be responsible for driving the story for it to be called genre, and can something be considered effective science fiction, horror, or fantasy, even if those elements are secondary to the core themes of the tale? The two books from my stack that I review in this issue approach that question from two directions in supernatural fiction.
Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Wicked City is a follow up to her first Zephyr Hollis novel, Moonshine, about a reformed vampire hunter turned crusader for social justice for both humans and vampires alike. The first book introduced Zephyr in 1920s New York, her erstwhile flapper and spiritualist medium roomie Aileen, and the enigmatic and attractive genii Amir, accidentally bound to her while she saved his life in the first book. Whether he is friend or foe, lover or threat, is only one of the mysteries Zephyr has to solve in her adventures through a hot hazy prohibition era downtown Manhattan that take her from speakeasies for humans and “suckers”, to the inner offices of his honor Mayor Jimmy “Beau” Walker. A vampire intoxicant, Faust, introduced in Moonshine, seems to be poisoning vampires to death on the eve of a vote to legalize and tax it, in sufficient numbers to start a panic in the embattled undead community.
The style is in a breezy first person and Zephyr is a fun companion to spend time with, chatty without being loquacious, insightful without figuring things out so quickly that the mystery seems thin and unsatisfying. Instead we are pulled into her confidence as quickly we are into her head and events unfold at a breakneck pace, giving us a period tour of the city and its workings, mechanical and political, and a sad reminder that today’s smarmy politics are merely the fruit of its roots. Dubious deals are made routinely, alliances tenuous and subject to change on a whim as soon as the wind blows in a new direction, no matter how slight. Zephyr’s course though the cesspool of New York political double-dealing, the underworld’s twilight haunts, and her own family’s past, darker than she’d dared imagine, is as precarious as her bicycle rides through town as she pedals from one disastrous revelation to another.
As I read the novel, the words said in my writing group resonated with my realization that the same story could have been told without the supernatural trappings. “Sucker” hate could easily have been turned to race or religion, immigrants of any stripe or other misunderstood minority. Faust could have been any established drug, Zephyr a reformed prohibitionist preaching a more temperate Temperance movement. I can go down the list offering appropriate exchanges, but you see my point. The supernatural is at the heart of the story and its world, but is not its essence. The core tale being told is a human one, of love and betrayal, social ills and inequities. The supernatural is a good way to bring those ideas to an audience that might otherwise overlook or reject the same story in the form of historic drama. So the Zephyr novels become an example of how genre elements can enhance a story and expand its appeal, but don’t necessarily shape its essential nature.
On the other hand, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a supernatural novel that relies on magic as its raison d’être. Without it, there is no story. As a New York Times Bestseller for some time and now a highly adapted SyFy “original” series, it hardly needs an introduction, but was not only in my stack, it made a perfect complement to Wicked City for the purposes of this discussion.
When alienated adolescent hero Quentin Coldwater, on his way to an interview for Princeton, is sidetracked by the interviewer’s dead body and an odd envelope from him that Quentin is handed by an overly familiar-acting paramedic, he walks away only to turn a corner in a Park Slope community garden and end up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. It is oddly located in Upstate New York, behind a concealing wall of wards maintained by the administration, always two months and a few days behind the times the rest of us live in.
In no time at all, after passing the entrance exams, he has abandoned any ambition to traditional academia for a five-year program of magical studies, his parents enchanted into thinking he is away somewhere far more traditional. He is advanced almost immediately, and the first half of the novel covers his lengthy and arduous training in the ways of magic, an ordeal capped by their fifth year final exam, better discovered as you get there than given away. Along the way he discovers that an old friend, Julia, failed the entrance exam he aced, but hasn’t forgotten the test as she was supposed to when expelled. She’s been tormented by the failure and her glimpse of a larger mystical world beyond ours. It’s a sharp bite of the real world he has largely rejected and her desperation is that of a junkie denied a fix, startling in its intensity when compared to his other conflicts.
By embracing magic, Quentin divorced himself from any life the rest of us could lead and Julia’s rage at being excluded from that life is more than tangible, it is identifiable. It is the rage of those who voted in Trump and the rage of those who hate that choice — the fury of the dispossessed, those denied the kind of power that so arbitrarily seems placed in the hands of a chosen few, not so very different from us, so close yet so infinitely far, selected by a process we can neither understand nor influence. It’s the rage of the daily lottery buyer who sees an out-of-towner buy a winning ticket at their local market “for the first time!” It’s identifiable in a way Quentin’s success is not — he seems to succeed with unfailing ease, and despite occasional hiccoughs, seems destined to succeed from the moment he enters Brakebills.
If I have any complaint, it’s that feeling of inevitability pervading the novel. Quentin is clearly the novel’s Chosen One from the moment he steps on campus, despite his initial introduction as morose and self-hating, superior to everyone around him in ability, no matter how badly he feels about himself, and he’s a bit of a self-centered prick more than once. His awkward and unexpected confrontation with Julia easily slides into the past for him and he only casually brings up her request to remind Brakebills that she exists when he returns to campus, some time after his return. My understanding is that her story rises to the fore in the second novel and I have to see if that fulfills the promise I saw in her character for a deeper, darker, more realistic exploration of this world. Fillory and Further, the Narnia-like novels of a magical world reached through a grandfather’s clock that shaped Quentin’s childhood, gave him a craving for a magical world he could escape into. They turn out to be real, but the nature of that place they find is too much like the books that inspired them, with the same sense of safety that underlay the Narnia I loved as a child. Despite its frequent wars, it felt safer than my real world, and this one should not.
I want a realistic world of magic as this starts out as to be more threatening at its core than this one’s sole true villain turns out to be. The faculty’s explanation of the evil that intrudes into our world in the early chapters was far more terrifying than the actuality turned out to be, and I had wanted to see the book rise to that ambitious level of existential evil.
Nonetheless, we have two compelling stories, the last firmly built on the fantastical elements that lay at its heart, the first a ripping good yarn that would succeed with or without them. Both entertain, both convey more than their supernatural aspects, so in the end, I suppose it can be argued that science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all genre fiction have more to offer than one note expressions. One of the great joys of fiction and all art is that it can be whatever we want it to be, as long as it is done well, which, joyfully, both of these novels are.
Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. As an author of fiction, his first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was one of a handful of authors to be included in the next two volumes, with “The Share” in Voices from the Other Side and “Wet Paint” in Whispers in the Night. Terence is also author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy: Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. After a two-year hiatus he has returned to the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. Find him on Twitter @vamptestaments.