Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The fantasy of history

I’d like to quickly take note of Body Surfing’s genre, since it pretty clearly lies the farthest from science fiction on its spectrum with fantasy among the books we’ve read thus far. Not only do I not mean to delegitimize the novel in noting this, of course (not being the hardest of hard-sf fans myself); I actually think Peck’s awareness and curiosity about the idea of fantasy presented within the book could go a long way toward convincing any of those who are suspicious of the genre. From Body Surfing’s very first moments in ancient Rome, fantasy begins to look like alternate history, projecting utopia (or at least varieties of embodiment) onto the known past as a way of making its more curious twists comprehensible. By tracking the Mogran through history, mass disasters as disparate as the fall of Rome (186), the slow-motion genocide of witches in medieval Europe (252) and even the Holocaust can be written into a single account. While it may seem peculiar to call this alternate history utopian—since it looks backwards rather than forwards, obsessing over the worst extremes of which people are capable—I think it accomplishes much the same work. By postulating a kind of transhistorical and inhuman (if not posthuman) force for societal disruption, it manages largely to acquit humanity of its own history and reinterpret our own form of life as less imperfect, rather than imagine another as perfect.

Perhaps the best evidence for this reading is the awareness Peck demonstrates of the work fantasy can accomplish, which is actually an awareness on the part of the “Gatherers”: more or less the academics among the Legion, they go about “[r]ounding up the Mogran’s abandoned hosts like stone-age women picking up acorns while their men go out with spears and hunt bears[.]” That’s Lana, the hunter, speaking to the gentle Dr. Thomas—giving some irony to her following aside that “[t]he gender roles might have softened, but the hierarchy hasn’t” (210). Though it might seem a stretch to identify the curiosity of these figures within the plot with that of authors of fantasy within the world—since there are “real” consequences for the Gatherers, and their work heeds the needs of “real” victims—Peck has Thomas align the history of the Gatherers and the Legion with the history of the genre of fantasy. Thus “the so-called Cult of the Child, a literature of symbolic, often surreal stories that evinced an enormous fear of, and fascination with, adult sexuality” is rewritten as the therapeutic fantasy work of three of the Mogran’s most famous victims—Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, and J.M. Barrie (184). Within the world of the novel, fantasy becomes a personal work of recovery, from trauma and of that trauma’s larger history. The lesson for us in ours might be to listen more closely to fantasy, then, and the truth of the history it fabricates.


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