Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page July 2001
Do you read Fantasy? More importantly, do you read Fantasy that is not part of the medieval, dragon and sorcerer mould that Alan Robson so accurately likens to soap operas? The Fantasy label is at best a fuzzy one, but most definitions usually revolve around the impossible and magic. If a work of fiction has magic in it then it falls within the orbit of Fantasy. What I am sure you have noticed is that not all fiction, which fits within this area, is to be found in the "Sci-Fi and Fantasy" section in your local bookshop. I am not referring to the type of misfiling that means that Jack McDevitt’s very hard SF Slow Lightning is to be found in the general fiction section at Dymocks. What I refer to is material which is not marketed as Fantasy (or SF for that matter) but which has always been intended for the general fiction or "literature" shelves and yet conform in all important respects to the loose criteria which define the genre we regard as our own.
If you have been in a bookshop in recent times, you can hardly have failed to notice Chocolat by Joanne Harris. This work seems an unlikely entry in the bestseller list among all the lowest common denominator stuff that you find in that list. It is the type of work that usually languishes in the literature shelves getting a steady supply of sales, but not enough to make the author rich or famous. Chocolat has transcended this which means that the "serious" book types just love it because it is "literature" that actually sells, or they hate it for the same reason. And yet this book has received very little attention within the community who answered "yes" to the questions at the beginning of this article. This is strange because not only is this book about witchcraft and magic but of course it is about that most perfect of foods, beloved of fans, chocolate!
Chocolat is a tale of a woman and her daughter who move to a small town in France and open a chocolate shop. But through the medium of making chocolate delicacies, she is able to weave a gentle and sweet magic. This of course earns the enmity of the local priest who sees his flock being seduced away. The story is told from these two points of view making for an interesting counterpoint. There are a number of dark themes here but they are overwhelmed by the sweetness of the chocolate imagery. As such it is an easy and fun read. It reminds me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. The latter work may be much darker, but way inner feelings are handled and the writing style which owes more to modern "literature" fashions rather than those of the SF&F genre are what trigger these associations for me. The Catholic religious components also help in this regard.
One of the complaints I sometimes hear in relation to Fantasy works is that it is hard to fill in the gaps of a series because the earlier works have gone out of print before the latest editions are released. If you have not picked up a series from the beginning, you may never be able to back fill the story because you cannot be sure of getting the earlier volumes. Second hand stores are there to fill this need, but they do not always do so. Spare a thought for me then as I try to fill out my collection of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. There are twelve volumes in this series written during the 1950s and I am still missing volumes 2, 8 and 12. There are a lot of second hand bookstores in the Wellington region, but I am running out of ones to try.
Regardless of the title, Powell’s series has nothing to do with time travel and is not in fact a genre novel. At least it is not of not the SF&F genre. It is from a long British tradition of the gently satirical humorous novel.
I do read the occasional time travel novel however. I can recommend Mona Clee’s Break Point. It is a story about the people living on a future Earth going back in time to try to make it better by changing history. This is a well-worn theme, but Clee does it very well by doing her research of history and historical trends very well. In many respects it has more in common with alternative history novels than time travel ones. If you are a fan of either type of story, then this is one to watch out for this well told tale in the second hand stores. Clee’s latest novel is called Overshoot and should be on the local shelves soon, assuming the small group of people who control what we see in the stores believe that it is worth marketing here. Oh well, there is still the Internet.
Finally, a short tale for those of you who think that as SF fans we are considered strange by the rest of society. A work colleague and I were comparing music purchases that we had both made on the same day. I told him about my purchase. This prompted an exclamation of surprise from another co-worker indicating, in a very amiable way, that she would have to re-examine her opinion of me because of my strange tastes. I pointed out that I was also the president of a Science Fiction club. Her dismissive reply was that she knew about that and it was nothing to be concerned about. So much for the thought that we are right out there on the fringe! As for the music, well it was Brand New Knife by Japanese all girl punk-pop band Shonen Knife. Now what is strange about that I ask you?