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Monday, October 7, 2013

GUEST POST: Magic And Realism by Tim Powers


To my mind, the problem with Magic Realism is that it's got plenty of magic but falls short on the realism - if only in that no one in the stories is ever surprised by the plain fact of magic actually happening. Wouldn't you be? When Remedios the Beauty floats away into the sky, in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, it's certainly a remarkable event, but the general response of the citizens seems to be ... well, you've got to expect that sort of thing sometimes. That night, we're told, it rained flower petals all night long and all the short-legged dogs in town smothered. A nice effect! But nobody wonders where on earth all the flower petals came from.

This is the logic of dreams and fairy tales and mythology, and it rings a strong response from the pre-logical part of our brains - G. K. Chesterton said, of the magical events in such stories, "We do not know why something stirs in the subconsciousness, or why what is impossible seems almost inevitable" - and I certainly want that numinous sort of effect in my stories! But I also want the realism. I want the reader to imagine that my magical effects are happening, or at least have happened, in the same world he or she wakes up in every day, and in that world everybody agrees that it's impossible for a woman to float away into the sky. Ask anybody. It simply can't happen, it's a violation of plain reality. So - if a woman nevertheless should do that... people would be profoundly surprised. Disoriented, even.

I want the magic to be an actual intrusion of the impossible, right here where we live. It ought to be, in Kingsley Amis's words:
 "something monstrous, so monstrous that the mere fact of it, its coming to pass at all, would be harder to bear than its actual menace to me personally."

Amis was describing the appearance of a diabolical ghost in one of his novels, but even beautiful supernatural events should be similarly "hard to bear," just in their blatant violation of our most basic assumptions. They should be awful, in the sense of awe-full. In the Bible, when angels appear, the first thing they have to say is always, "Don't be afraid!"

Aslan is not a tame lion.


So if angels or ghosts appear and the characters are not afraid - not profoundly discomfited! - the reader is going to conclude, Oh, I see. This is an imaginary story. A real woman didn't float away into the sky, a woman in a Magritte painting did. And even if the readers should keep reading after thinking that, they'd now be reading in the wrong mental gear. They'd be reading it as they'd read Aesop's Fables. But I want the readers to be in the same mental gear that they're in when they read police procedurals, or political thrillers. I want them to be vicariously experiencing the events of the story, not just noting them. I want them to respond to the incongruous magic with at least a bit of vertiginous disorientation. This would be difficult to achieve in a story set in an imaginary world. ("Well, it's an imaginary world, after all - you've got to expect that sort of things sometimes.")

So I set my stories in the real world. They may take place now or in the past, but it's always Los Angeles, Rome, Beirut, London, Cairo ... I want the readers to be quite sure that the events of the story are happening in the same world they're sitting in. Of course the history of our real world doesn't include the supernatural among the factors - like economics, epidemics and explorations - that have shaped that history. So obviously any supernatural stuff that has been going on has been going on secretly! And even though it's been kept secret, obviously it must have had some unnoted but substantial effects on economics and all the rest of it - and therefore the stories I write, in which I trace ("reveal"!) those hidden influences, tend to be what you could call "secret histories."

I don't see it as a special category of fantasy. I just can't imagine any other way to "believably" posit real magic happening in this world!




Author Information: Timothy Thomas "Tim" Powers is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author from Buffalo, New York. He is also a double recipient of the World Fantasy Award. "On Stranger Tides", a solo novel of his was used as a template for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He studied English literature at Cal State Fullerton and currently lives with his family in California.

NOTE: Tim Powers’ most recent novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, is now out in paperback with Corvus at £7.99. Aesop's Fables picture courtesy of Plasticenglish. Author picture courtesy of Serena Powers, Alison Flood and The Guardian.

Read the remaining part of Tim's tour at these amazing blogs on the following dates:
 8 October: Falcata Times
 9 October: A Fantastical Librarian
 10 October: SF Signal
 11 October: Civilian Reader
 14 October: Fantasy Book Review
 18 October: The Speculative Scotsman
 21-25 October: Pornokitsch

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