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ARC Review


Layers of Reality

As an English Undergraduate at a UK university, I often feel an obscene sense of guilt and embarrassment when asked what, specifically, I enjoy reading. When I respond with “science fiction and fantasy”, I’m greeted with blank stares, or, worse, with outright derision. “What do you read those for?” is the implied question, “they have no literary merit!” Au contraire my dear fellow student, they truly, truly do.

Embassytown (cover)I have come to a conclusion that I should have come to long ago, that I should feel neither embarrassed nor guilty about my preferred genres, but instead sell them to the oh-so-intellectual philistine who dismisses them out of hand. For this, I fix upon the ideas of ‘layers of reality’. Every secondary-world novel, be it displacement through time, physical laws or land, has these layers of reality to them. There is the everyday that we would recognise – the elements of the novel that link to the experience of the reader. These can be as basic as the feel of the wood of a table, to which we can relate, or as complex as the feeling of hatred towards one who has taken your lover. From a fantasy perspective, this is key. Without a base line, the oddities of fantasy, where reality is blurred, will become too much.

Indeed, some speculative fiction novels that are described as ‘difficult to follow’ or ‘overly complex’ fail purely on this part. Their layers of reality are too distinct – the base level of reality is too far flung from the new ideas being propagated, or requires too specialised base experiences. This is particularly prevalent in hard science fiction. China Mieville’s Embassytown struggles at times with the difference between the basic reality of language as the reader knows, and the new ideas that he is propagating. Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief similarly throws us off with complex AI and philosophical explorations of machine-constructed identities. Fantasy too can struggle. Magic systems improperly or incompletely explained can seem alien to us, and throw us, as readers, off our stride. However, in all these cases, this alien feeling can be used positively, as a deliberate rendering of the reader’s brain to a confused state, only to right it again with an excellently attuned plot twist.

Therefore, when I discuss SFF with fellow students, I touch upon these layers of reality. I compare the alien world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth with the alien world of Shakespeare’s Verona, and its bizarre machismo. Why are the stiff upper class worlds of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh, alien to all but a few, so different from the medieval landscape of George R. R. Martin, with its highly defined hierarchical system? A Game of Thrones (cover)In fact, one could argue that Martin’s characters mitigate the setting in much the same way as Austen’s do, and it is our understanding of these characters that make the setting so unique, so exciting and so ‘literary’. The base layer that we latch on to is that of character. The layer apart from reality gives it flavour – in Austen, upper class, inter-house diplomacy, in Martin, upper class, inter-house diplomacy. Oh. Wait…

So, it has sharp swords and not sharp tongues. So it has space ships and not shipwrecks. The layers of reality are just that slight amount further apart. We have seen ships, we haven’t seen starcruisers. We have seen people verbally savaged, but not savaged by iron. It really shouldn’t be a surprise to these so-called literary types that it is a form of ‘mild’ fantasy that, contemporaneously, is drawing the most literary plaudits: magic realism. With fantastic elements blending seamlessly into the realistic depictions of our modern world, writers such as Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Varags Llosa are enormously studied living authors. The similarities in their work are that they make the layers of reality almost touch, converting the fantastic into the known, and the known into the fantastic. And, after all, isn’t that what all fantasy ought to aspire to, within its particular setting?

Title image by BrookeSchmidt.



  1. Avatar AE Marling says:

    A spoonful of reality helps the fantasy go down. Likewise, I believe reading speculative fiction helps reality become more bearable, both because of the revitalizing aspects of participating the hero’s journey and because the whimsy touches upon our elemental desire for play. Lastly by allowing ourselves to imagine the impossible we open ourselves to creativity, new ways of thinking, and innovation.

  2. Avatar Mark says:

    I can’t think of a better English language writer than Guy Gavriel Kay.

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    All I can say is don’t feed the troll. If they are too closed-minded to accept that something other than ‘literary’ fiction can have literary and artisitic merit, then it isn’t worth discussing it with them. You know the truth, and they’ll figure it out if ever they try the genre.

  4. Avatar Dan H says:

    Agreed. I’ve struggled with a fair few novels because of that distant base level of reality. Sometimes being dropped in at the deep end with no touchstones can be a major issue and doesn’t exactly encourage you to read on. That said, while writers like Mieville seem to relish in ‘the deep end’, a few of them do it so masterfully I’ve been swept along regardless.

    I had a friend who studied English at Oxford (lucky guy!). I got the impression there was a lot of pressure there to veer towards studying/reading literary works as opposed to genre fiction. Which is a shame because, as you suggest, they aren’t that different and both can have merit.

  5. Good article. I think most of us here know, at least instinctively, that the attitude you describe, but it’s always useful to have more concrete arguments to support that knowledge.

    I tend to look at it in a similar but reversed way – that, whatever proponents claim, even the most dour social realism is actually set in a world of the author’s invention, rather than in the “real world” (whatever precisely that is). Speculative fiction is just more honest about it.

  6. Avatar Arlyn says:

    I don’t care what people think. I choose what I want to go into my head, not them.

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