THE FANTASTIC SURROUNDS US: divers elements of the unreal

Sunday, October 7th 2012

I was captured by this event in the program by the fact that it focused on more than just one interpretation of the ‘genre’ of fantasy writing. The authors slated to appear were from all areas of the literary world, and wrote all different kinds of fantastical stories. While realism is something I admire and am interested in, the long-form texts that have captured my imagination with the most strength in the last few years have always incorporated some element of the unreal.

The authors who appeared in the cosy and intimate venue of the Variety Preview Room were each hugely different and stunning, both for their prose stylings and accolades.

The afternoon opened with a piece of spoken word storytelling by Steven R. Boyette, bringing the audience away from the venue and down through circles of hell to meet Nico, who had sold his soul to the devil. The piece was wonderful: I’m an easy sell when it comes to any kind of skilled storytelling, and Boyette was utterly charming and spun a wonderful atmosphere. He introduced the reason that he was performing off-book as that we, as humans, love more than merely stories: we love the sound of them. This is a thing I wholly and entirely agree with: listening to stories being told is a wonderful experience. He brought us right down beside a campfire in the underworld where demons listened to the broken musician spin out passionate tunes: each creature was in a ‘shifting orange monochrome,’ and one in particular looked like ‘something made of space itself.’

After Boyette finished, and returned us unharmed to the auditorium, Chaz Brenchly took the stage. His introduction informed us just how prolific he was, having authored over 30 novels and almost countless short stories. The piece he read was a short story titled, “From Alice To Everywhere, With Love.” It focused on an indeterminate point in the future, at which intergalactic races had made contact with humans. It was written in accessible and lucid language: which is something I feel really strongly about when it comes to science fiction. It is far too easy to allow oneself to get caught up in impenetrable jargon when telling stories set in a future that incorporates alien races: whereas Brenchly spun this narrative with grace and simplicity, drawing the audience in to a world where Alice, a pioneering scientist, takes a journey on the first interstellar matter transporter, which moves her at the speed of information (faster than the speed of light, light is ‘such an idler,’ which was a turn of phrase of Brenchly’s that I absolutely loved). She is the connection between alien races and humans: an ambassador. From the space station at a far away place, she transports herself again, duplicating herself, again and again, thousands and thousands of times, until she disappears, but has seen all reaches of the universe. It is ultimately a story about the frontiers we face as humans exploring the universe around us, and the courage that curiosity often requires. I also loved that the protagonist was a courageous, intelligent woman, more concerned with the future of humanity and exploration than with her own life: something that too rarely occurs in the often patriarchal domain of science fiction.

The next reader was Steve Engleheart, a giant in the comic books world, having written for both Marvel and DC. I was a little humbled in his presence: the man who had contributed so much to the canon of graphic novels I so much admire. He read excerpts from his new series, Max August, about a wizard existing in a contemporary reality. He likened the construction of the series to The Wire, in that it focuses around 30 characters’ narratives. He read from a passage around a minor goddess, a shapeshifter and telepath. The fragments were a little disjointed, which I unfortunately found somewhat hard to follow. I was gripped especially by the construct he introduced of another female character who had had a second personality spliced inside her: who could see too many things and feel too many things; including the grotesquery of germs moving inside food. He used a particularly gorgeous simile which is still resonating with me: lines of a foreign language on a page appearing like caterpillars with soft undulations – marching endlessly onwards.

Pablo Hidalgo, a writer for Lucasfilm, followed. His piece was read from a nonfiction book about the Star Wars tie-in book series – he prefaced this reading by talking about his own experience of the franchise as a child and how it enchanted him, and introduced him to reading at a much younger age than he would have been otherwise. “The bright shiny object of Star Wars draws kids like a magnet: makes them read.” It’s a gateway, he stated, which I found to be true: young people read what grips them, and hopefully forge a longlasting love affair with reading from those early experiences. His reading that followed was a summary of the first trilogy of Star Wars books, which preceded the films by six months. He spoke with such passion and enthusiasm for the world of Star Wars, it was quite contagious. The book that he read from decodes the mire of timelines and universes within the franchise and seemed a great starting point for anybody beginning their journey to that galaxy far, far away. I really enjoyed his presence; his excitement was truly inspiring.

Hannah Jayne Schwartz then read from her urban fantasy series, Underworld Detective Agency, which is based around a fictitious strand of the San Francisco Police Department, whose offices are buried 35 floors beneath the part the public gets to see. The piece she read had a strong colour of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in it (which is no bad thing) – the protagonist detective investigating the discovery of a drowned centaur found down by the piers at the bay. She perfectly captured the panic and mob mentality of such a discovery: women murmuring about the presence of a chupacabra, a vicious reporter like a vulture salvaging all the information he can, juxtaposed with the morbid tragedy of a dead mythical creature. The dialogue was bright, natural and fast, and she was a pleasure to listen to.

The afternoon was capped by Catherine Sharpe, who had been somewhat scandalously previewed to read a lesbian space fantasy. What in actual fact she read was her own space fantasy, as a lesbian mother of one. It was stirring and sad and beautiful and at moments almost drew tears from me, ‘the thrill of the vastness of space, the wanderlust,’ being something I relate to wholeheartedly. She captured perfectly the curiosity and spirit of adventure that so many of us have, played a little with dialogue and never allowed the piece to fall too deeply in love with it’s own conceit: it was very much a personal fantasy, but because of that was rich and human and true. My favorite moment was when, during a space-walk, the narrator for a moment, peering down on the planet, thought of her own small daughter – ‘the force of the Earth in miniature.’ Sharpe was by far the standout for me of the reading.

The selection-box of different kind of fantasy writing here was both excellently curated, and truly inspiring, showing a huge variety of different facets we are capable of as creative individuals who desire to explore something more heightened than the everyday. I left with stars on my heels.


Sarah Maria Griffin has performed and been published widely in Ireland. Last year, she represented contemporary Irish performance poetry in New York with Culture Ireland and The Glór Sessions. Her first collection,Follies, was published by Lapwing in 2011.