In the past year, I’ve been reading M. John Harrison. I went backward, starting with the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, which appeared between 2002 and 2012: Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space: A Haunting. Then I read the Viriconium series, which originally came out between 1971 and 1985: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, and Viriconium Nights.
This has been a captivating, breathless reading experience. It’s absolutely fine that I did it backward. Harrison’s novels and stories are unconcerned with finding the right order: they are tales of disorder and dissolution. Whether employing the tropes of hard science fiction and space opera, as in the dizzying novels of the Kefahuchi Tract, or those of epic fantasy, as in the dense tapestry of the Viriconium books, Harrison refuses the usual consolations of these genres. His universe is an abyss. Within this universe, change is the only constant, but that doesn’t lead to hope: it means tiny humans struggling through atrocious metamorphoses. They are dismantled physically and psychically, preserved in tanks, wired into ships, inhabited by insects. Yet how beautiful they are! There is something of the marionette theater in these narratives, something of ritual, of the tarot. Harrison’s dreamlike images—a queen accompanied by a giant white sloth, an oracular metal bird—stand out as if painted on cards.
How can an image be frozen and shifting at exactly the same time? Tell me that, and I’ll explain M. John Harrison to you. Better yet: read these legends of chivalry steeped in modernist spleen, these nightmarish interstellar fantasies, these mystery plays performed for a divinity who, like Rimbaud’s indifferent witch, will never tell us what she knows.
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Her fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Joyce also co-edited The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Her alter-ego is J. Damask. She can be found on Twitter as @jolantru.
I would say Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That book really affected me. The protagonist, Lauren, isn’t exactly a person I could connect to straightway. I found her curt at times, sometimes distant, sometimes brusque – and I was thinking: “Wow, you can actually write female characters who are unlikable?” We are often so familiar with the stereotype of the nice girl/princess etc, thanks Disney. That’s a trope that has been overused. Lauren is a female character who is not often very nice and definitely not a princess. With political upheaval in a near-future America and murder of her family, Lauren couldn’t afford to be nice, roll over and play dead. She has to stay strong and determined. She has to go out of her comfort zone and protect herself all at the same time.
And the fact that Earthseed has become such a powerful belief system is also important. Lauren’s sayings stayed with me for a long time. How many SF/F/H books have turned religion on its head – and that religion could also be simply intense self-beliefs? We make things into reality. We are the change. Granted that I read the book when I was still into Goddess spirituality, it was a startling revelation.
Jaime Lee Moyer
Jaime Lee Moyer is the author of the Delia Martin fantasy series, published by Tor: Delia’s Shadow, A Barricade In Hell, and Against A Brightening Sky. She’s published a handful of short stories as well, including a newly released ghost story in The Haunted Bundle. You can learn more about Jaime at www.jaimeleemoyer.com, or find her on Twitter @jaimeleemoyer.
I started reading SF/F/H at about nine or ten. At that age I didn’t know there were such things as well worn or common tropes. Everything was fresh and new, exciting and full of wonder. That perspective changed as I got older, and the pile of books I’d read got bigger. When you see the same thing over and over in SFF or H books, used in exactly the same way, it stops being exciting.
Luckily for me, genre writers are more than up to the task of finding new ways to look at the world and old tropes anew. Finding books to talk about isn’t the problem; limiting myself is the issue.
Cities built in or above the clouds are a tried and true trope, dating to before the old Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers serials. No one has done it as well, or in the same way, as Fran Wilde does in Updraft and Cloudbound. The city rises high above the clouds, built of towers of living bone. People live their entire lives without seeing the ground, depending on traders flying between towers to survive. The skies are full of monsters, but so are the towers. The ability to fly in this world is strongly grounded in engineering, as are the towers’ way of life. Everything about these books and the world they portray is fully realized and delightful. I can’t recommend these books strongly enough.
Mention vampire novels and most people roll their eyes, and grimace. Vampires are the poster child of tropes run into the ground and stomped on. And yet, M.L. Brennan found a fresh take on vampires in her Generation V series based on biology, and came up with a whole new mythos. I’d totally given up on urban fantasy, and especially urban fantasy with vampires, before I read the Generation V series. Fortitude Scott is your typical college kid, with typical problems, and does what he can to stay independent of his family. One day, when he grows up, Fort will be a vampire. He isn’t happy about that and does everything he can to hold the change at bay. Great books, lots of fun. Highly recommended.
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I look at this quote, and think about fiction that’s frame-breaking, that makes you reconsider how you see the universe. I don’t associate that necessarily with subverting tropes, but in its best form, traversing new territories.
I think it’s hard to predict what kind of fiction will do that for people. For one thing, it depends heavily on a reader’s previous experiences, as well as their receptiveness to a particular text. For another, it’s time-dependent. What seems frame-breaking to people at one juncture often won’t be frame-breaking later, because it’s already been integrated into the cultural dialogue. Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings seem to traffic in clichés, but some of those clichés exist because they were founded by Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings.
Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild” is acknowledged as frame-breaking by a lot of people. It’s the story of a human child who is bound in a reproductive relationship with an alien who lays eggs, parasite-like, in mammalian hosts. The story confounds notions of bodily autonomy, slavery, and even love. Butler’s perspective on all these things is unusual, both bleak in its way and also optimistic. I think she had one of the most unique voices in twentieth (and early twenty-first) century fiction.
I’d also highlight Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It also dances with bodily autonomy, slavery, and love, but it also constantly challenges the readers’ sense of reality, and the boundaries between living/dead, imagined/experienced, and dream/waking. The metaphorically real and the literally real blend in ways both seamless and marked. This becomes most dramatically apparent in the poetic interlude between the first part of the book and the second, which is a rush of images and emotions which the reader is left to experience in uninterrupted intensity, and left to process on their own.
I think reading outside of one’s personal experiences is most likely to lead to frame-breaking experiences. Read books by people unlike you, writing from different lives. I think most Americans, for instance, would learn a lot by reading more international books—myself included. I certainly have some more frames that could use some breaking, and I look forward to the next unsettling, rewarding horizon.