Saturday, May 06, 2006


Fact and Fiction

In his latest "Off the Shelf" column for Science Fiction Weekly, a review of Joe Lansdale's much anticipated Flaming London, Paul Di Filippo has some interesting things to say about a matter close to my heart:

It's hard to know where the postmodern urge to appropriate famous fictional characters and blend them with historical personages into new ironic meta-adventures first originated. Mainstream historical novels have always employed real people, of course, as characters. Then, "sequels by other hands" have resurrected famous characters created by, say, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens for extended lives. But the unique mix exemplified in Joe Lansdale's new book probably stems from two genre titans: Philip Jose Farmer and Michael Moorcock. Their efforts to emulate old forms of genre fiction and to create fresh hybrids opened up vast new vistas of collage and pastiche. Second-generation writers like Alan Moore, with his The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman, with their Back in the USSA (1997), crystallized the format. In some sense, these romps are alternate histories. But they defy the sober, linear speculations of mainstream counterfactuals in favor of wild effects.
Paul certainly speaks from a position of experience. The stories in his brilliant Lost Pages walk a fine line between plausible counter-factual and the kind of post-modernist play he discusses here, and his contribution to Pamela Sargeant's Conqueror Fantastic anthology, "Observable Things," in which Cotton Mather recounts a childhood encounter with Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane, is one of my favorite stories of recent years.

One aspect of Paul's review, and the above paragraph in particular, that I find particularly interesting is that he namechecks the four authors I consider to have had the biggest influence on my development as a writer: Farmer, Moorcock, Moore, and Newman. It's little wonder that so much of what I do attempts to "emulate old forms of genre fiction and to create fresh hybrids."

In anticipation of Flaming London's release I picked up the reissue of Lansdale's Zeppelins West a few months ago, and it's next on my To Read pile, right after Xavier Maumejean's strange and fascinating League of Heroes, which covers much the same ground to different effect.

I'd trace part of the impetus for the incorporation of historical/contemporary characters to the dime novels, which often used Teddy Roosevelt and other well-known people in the stories.

But that's because I'm a Victorian geek.
I knew you would, Jess! I was thinking, too, of those foreign language Holmes pastiches and similar you've been uncovering, which seem so often to feature the local culture's resident detective hero teamed up with Holmes, or facing off against Lupin, or some such. I think Paul is correct to point to Farmer and Moorock as sparking a modern revival of the notion, though, since so much of the great Victorian and Edwardian stuff you've been unearthing has been so little known in recent decades.
Oh, certainly--the dime novels and pulps' influence was broken by WW2, and it was Farmer and Moorcock who began this trend again. I don't think there's a direct influence, but there is a kind of overall continuum of the trend. But, yeah, people who've been doing it in the past couple of decades are influenced by Farmer and Moorcock rather than anyone else.

When was Paul's Steampunk trilogy published--early 1990s? Late 1980s? That's another good example of this sort of thing.
The Steampunk Trilogy was first published in '95, I think, though I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't yet read it. It's on the "To Read Eventually" shelf, but remains one of the notable gaps in my education (along with things like Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates).
My contribution to this learned discussion is to say, "Zeppelins West is fun." Joe was commissioned to write it for a short story anthology, and, as he puts it, "It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and dumber and dumber." Which is probably why I love it like I do. Nobody can write big and dumb like Joe. ;-)
Along with Powers' THE ANUBIS GATES, I would highly recommend Blaylock's THE DIGGING LEVIATHAN.
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