On The Uses Of The Fantastic

For purposes of this discussion I am defining “the Fantastic” as that which is understood by both artist and audience as being a purposefully introduced counterfactual element. 

I am going to take a moment to unpack that before I proceed. All fiction is by definition untrue, but many of the elements in any fictional work–even one regarded as a fantastic tale–are understood to be possible. Philip Marlowe never lived, but he could have. Superman, on the other hand, could not have–he is a counterfactual character.

The fact that something could not happen, however, is in my opinion not sufficient to label it as Fantastic. An author may include counterfactual elements though ignorance or laziness, making up details about a technical issue for example, and the reader may or may not know that what is being described is impossible.

What I am calling the Fantastic is an agreement between artist and audience. “We both know this couldn’t really happen, but we’ll pretend that it could for the duration of this work, okay?”

This unstated contract represents more than simply an increase in the level of willing suspension of disbelief required to accept any work of fiction on its own terms, but is a qualitative shift in the nature of the experience.

I believe that the gulf between “this didn’t happen, but we will pretend that it did” and “this couldn’t happen, but we will pretend that it could” is one not only of degree, but of kind.  And I think that the degree to which genre fiction is separated from “realistic” fiction is an open acknowledgement of this.

Granting that the deliberate inclusion of the Fantastic into a work of fiction requires a greater commitment on the part of both artist and audience, the question arises: why include such elements? What is the payoff that justifies the increased expense in terms of cognitive capital?

I think that the payoff can be broadly divided into four areas;  Stylistic, Narrative, Metaphoric, and Emotive. There will be some overlap and I’ll freely admit that one could draw the lines in different ways. Nonetheless, let me briefly examine these categories.

Stylistic: The innumerable subtypes of the Fantastic (and I make no distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy) are largely stylistic differences. In terms of a character’s capabilities in a narrative sense it makes very little difference if he has blaster pistol, a wand of lightning, or some sort of Steampunk enhanced revolver.

Style, however, is not something that is merely tacked on to a story. It forms the epistemological lens through which the action is understood by the reader. The plot of the Science Fiction film Outland can be mapped with some precision onto the Western film High Noon, however the style does make a difference and the former film is given a particular intensity by the existence of the Fantastic elements, as little as they may grossly impact the story.

Narrative: The “What If” school of Science Fiction–in which a particular Fantastic element is added to an otherwise mundane story in order to explore how the story changes–offers the clearest example of narrative payoffs. The plot of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, for example, could not exist without the Fantastic element of a telepathic police force.

This is a good place to point out that these areas do not exist independently of each other and that in particular focusing on the narrative effects of a Fantastic element to the exclusion of stylistic and emotive effects can lead to a story that lacks immersion. (Which is one reason why Campbell-era “Men with screwdrivers” stories tend to age so poorly.)

Metaphoric: The use of the Fantastic as metaphor ranges from Swift’s Gulliver to Singer’s X-Men. There is always the danger of metaphor becoming polemic, (and that applies to non-Fantastic metaphoric works as well) but when done with evan-handness and deliberation stories told about the unreal can illuminate the real.

The Twilight Zone television series is known for its metaphoric use of the Fantastic and when done well–for example the episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”–yielded some very powerful works.

Emotive: This is perhaps the most difficult area to quantify and tends to blur around the edges into the metaphoric or the stylistic or both. I do, however, believe that it warrants discussion. The most obvious example the use of the Fantastic to inspire a particular emotional response is in Lovecraft’s oft-quoted, ““The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Lovecraft put that theory into practice in stories such as “The Colour Out Of Space”. The unnatural and inexplicable nature of the threat described gives it a horrific intensity that a similar story with a mundane explanation–say a toxic chemical spill–would be unlikely to match.

Nor is fear the only emotion that can be intensified by the inclusion of the Fantastic. The loss of Mycroft the computer at the end of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is a profoundly moving scene in large part because of the nature of the character.

All of the above is prologue to my central thesis, which is that the inclusion of any and all Fantastic elements into a work should be a deliberate act of creation by the artist. If you have a rocketship or a dragon in your story you should be able to say why it is there, and not a railroad train or a tiger instead.

One of the myriad reasons that I dislike “writing to genre” (rather than writing a story first and then deciding how to describe it afterwards) is that it encourages the inclusion of elements for no reason other than “these kinds of stories always have those kinds of things.”

Instead I encourage authors to ask themselves, “What is my reader going to get out of the existence of a magic wand in this story that is worth the additional mental effort necessary to believe in it?”

Something to consider.

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My preferred pronouns

I have a life-long history of mental illness. I spent a lot of time in therapy over the years and have managed to learn behaviours which compensate to the extent that I am able to hold down a job and pay bills and survive on my own.

Maintaining a grounding in objective verifiable reality is crucial to my self-care. I often feel as if I am different or that the world is different from what I know it to be. I recognize these feelings as delusional. I refuse to allow them to overcome my reason.

The language that I use is a reflection of my thoughts. I do not permit myself to indulge delusions–my own or another’s–in my speech.

Thus, my prefered pronouns.

I use “he” to refer to male persons and animals.

I use “she” to refer to female persons and animals.

I use “it” to refer to objects.

I use “they” to refer to multiple persons and objects.

I use “she or he” to refer to a single individual who may be of either sex.

This is how I use the language. How you use the language–in fact, what language you speak–is up to you.

You may choose to use a contrafactual pronoun to refer to yourself. You may choose to invent new words to refer to yourself. I will not correct your usage (out loud, anyway, my internal editor will cringe).

Do not seek to change mine.

I will not cater to your delusions.

Not going to happen. I have fought too long and too hard to overcome mine.

I sympathize with people who suffer from identity disorders. I do know exactly how you feel. I know that the way to overcome the issue is to learn to accept reality as it is, and yourself as you are.

This is not easy. It is only necessary.

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Kickstarter Fulfilled, Amazon Woes, and Submission Guidelines update

New and improved submission guidelines. October 1st a new era dawns.


Issue 9 is out the door and can be bought here.

Amazon is folding Createspace into KDP. The fact that KDP’s backend isn’t working today as I try to upload issue 10 as a test bodes ill.

We’ve updated Cirsova’s submission guidelines and pay-rates. They can be found here.

We will be opening for submissions on October 1.

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Want a signed set of The Book Of Lost Doors?

It is coming down to the wire for Cirsova.  He wants to raise $5,000 to fund next year’s run of the magazine, and he’s up to just over $3,600 as of this writing, with 6 days to go.

Let me reiterate–this Kickstarter is to fund next year. The current two issues are already funded, the stories paid for, the cover art paid for, the editing paid for. There is zero chance of the issues that are being offered in this campaign not being delivered. They are done.

So this is a no-risk project for funders.

What is at risk is the future of the magazine. If this campaign gets funded, then he will have working capital to buy stories, artwork, and editing for issues #11 and beyond. If not, then we may not get another volume of Cirsova.

As both a writer for and a reader of the magazine, I think that would be a tragedy.

Personally, I have bought ads for the next two issues. I have backed the kickstarter. And now, as we get into the crunch, I am offering a bonus. One backer will have the chance to get a set of The Book Of Lost Doors (Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves) signed and personalized, as part of the reward package.  They will be shipped, by me, and come in a handcrafted slipcover case made by Susan Clontz, the photographer who created the covers for the books. (She’s working on it right now. I can hear her muttering in the other room over her glue gun.)

So if you want something that is unquestionably one of a kind, go to the kickstart and scroll down the side to the $173 level. There is only one of these. For that you get both the hardcover and softcover of issues #9 and #10 and the set of my books.

All of that money goes into purchasing quality content for the next volume of the magazine. I’m providing the books and paying shipping on my own dime because I believe in the magazine.

I’ve done all I can. Now it’s your turn, and the time is now. 

EDIT: The reward has been claimed! But we still need backers. Just over a grand away, and less than a week to get there.

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One Mortal Year

I am going to make a completely unreasonable suggestion to the content creators who read this blog and I would like you to seriously consider it.

I am going to try an experiment for one year, from August of 2018 to August of 2019. I want you to join me.

No sequels. No series. No Book X of The Chronicles Of This And That.

Every character, every setting, every story an original one.

For one year.

Short stories, novels, whatever you create. I know that some of you are no doubt in the middle of a project and don’t want to set it aside. Fair enough.

But just imagine it. If for one year all of the creative energy that went into writing fiction went into building fresh worlds and coming up with something brand new. Where would that take us?

Sure, it’s scary to blaze a trail, and there’s a lot of pressure to keep going on an established route. A lot of readers want the familiar, and the publishing business for last few decades has trained them to expect that any story they like is going to have a dozen more just like it.

Consider the possibilities, though. Instead of being locked into a room with your creations, seeing the same faces and hearing the same names, suppose that you could break out. Into… who knows where. Someplace you’ve never dreamed of before.

Just one mortal year. From August to August commit to making every new project a new project, something that doesn’t ride on the coattails of what has gone before.

Think about it.

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Reminder, Just Over One Week Left!

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Originally posted on Cirsova:
We’re down the home stretch, but still need to raise about $1800 more to fund.  To that end, we’ve decided to throw up our entire back-catalog for the interested. $20 – Digital copies of all of…

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Sins of the Fae Submission Call

The Sins Of Time is open for submissions for next year’s project.



Sins of Time Anthology: Volume 4
Theme: Sins of the Fae

Sins of the Fae. Stories should be based around the world of fae. Keep in mind that stories should not only contain the fae element but also an element of horror as well.

Word count between 1,000-5,000. All stories must be edited to the full extent of the writer’s abilities. Stories need to have indentations of .2 (if you use the tab feature for indentions that is fine, we can fix that quickly to reflect the appropriate indentation.) 1.5 spacing between lines. Typed in Times New Roman, 12-point font. All stories need to have the title and author name in the beginning as well. Also if you break between scenes please include either bullets, asterisks, even chapters so that we know where the breaks are, because all stories will be formatted in the end to reflect the same…

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