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Entry updated 5 June 2023. Tagged: Theme.


A convenient shorthand term employed and promoted by John Clute since 2007 to describe the armamentarium of the fantastic in literature as a whole, encompassing science fiction, Fantasy, fantastic horror and their various subgenres (see also Gothic SF; Horror in SF; SF Megatext), but not Proto SF. It is a concept normally restricted to narratives. More generally understood, the term has long been used in Czech, other Eastern European and Russian discussions of genre; it is the title of Bulgaria's first sf magazine (formerly known as F.E.P.) and, as Fantastyka (which see), of Poland's. Many examples of eighteenth-century literature, including Gothic tales in general, and in particular the German Schauerroman (ie "shudder novel"), clearly prophesy the flood of transgressively non-realist work to come; as do the Carceri depicted in Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Invenzioni Capric di Carceri ["Fanciful Images of Prisons"] (graph 1745; rev vt Carceri d'Invenzione ["Imaginary Prisons"] 1761), which as a whole comprise a Prison so illimitable it can almost be deemed planetary in extent. In the very first years of its evolution into a self-conscious writerly form, E T A Hoffmann aggressively asserted – throughout the thirty-three interpolated conversations that make Die Serapions-Brüder (coll 1819-1821; trans Major Alex Ewing as The Serapion Brethren 1886 and 1892) into a Club Story collection of formative significance – a doctrine he designated the Serapion Principle, according to which true sight of the world could only be gained by story tellers when they cast off the rind of the merely visible, the safely "real": to see the world was to envision it. The rind of the visible, a possibly extravagant synecdoche for genre as a whole, must precisely be visible, though at the same time seen through, a negotiation not dissimilar to the operation, in Stanley Fish's iteration (see Checklist below), of the "interpretive community": "categories, such as those of genre," as Fredric Jameson put it in The Political Unconscious (1988) p107, "are implicated in the literary history and formal production that they [are] supposed to clarify and neutrally to describe." [Italics inserted.] Jameson's later and seemingly various use of the botanical term "rhizome" – taking metaphorically the scientific definition of the term as a continuously growing underground stem which generates shoots feasting on their source – might usefully dramatize a mind's-eye snapshot of fantastika as lenticular but never still.

Under the influence of arguments of this sort, where "realism" is seen as inadequate to the task of seeing the world, Clute in "Fantastika in the World Storm" (20 September 2007 Centre for the Future, Prague) and other essays in his Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (coll 2011) advocates a pragmatic application of the term fantastika partly to emphasize the inherent visibility of genre, but primarily to describe works of the fantastic after about 1800, when the genres for which it serves as an umbrella tag began to take on conscious form, and began furthermore, though at first tentatively, to use the planet itself as a default arena conceived both spatially – as at the end of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) – and, even more significantly, temporally (see Ruins and Futurity). In the sense that the inherent gaze of fantastika is planetary in scope, it seems natural to suggest that works so described almost seamlessly befit what has generally come to be called the Anthropocene, the geological epoch Homo sapiens now inhabits, which may be described as that epoch in which the human race has a measurable impact on the planet as a whole; the date it began remains a matter of argument, but a consensus may be growing around (roughly) the year 1950. In his The Birth of the Anthropocene (2016), Jeremy Davies describes this epoch not only quantitatively, but in terms of Perception: the Anthropocene as "a way of seeing."

In Stay (coll 2014) Clute makes three further suggestions: (1) that works written within the time-frame and overall focus of the toolkit of fantastika, which incorporates the SF Megatext and much else, generally exhibit themselves as generic: which is to say as inherently self-knowing; (2) that stories within the overall remit of fantastika are usually most effective (and resonant) when read literally, an effectiveness that increases, certainly in twenty-first century fictions, as the interactions of story-modes become more bare-faced and complex; and (3) that although the pre-emptive transgressiveness of early fantastika seems salutary within the context of the Western World, when addressed "outwards" – when it confuses the First World with the planet – it can seem invasive (see Imperialism). Another tool of recognition is supplied in Lorraine Daston's Rules (2022) [see Checklist below], where the second of three categories of rules – measurement devices, models, laws – is divided in thick and thin models. A thick rule, or model, or paradigm, or canon, does not ask to be copied compliantly, but to serve as a ganglion: in terms of this encyclopedia, it could be described as a fantastika of texts, a fatherly megatext that authors may attempt anxiously to better, but not through disobedience of instructions. Fantastika does not provide instructions. Thin rules generate manuals.

Within this litany of descriptions, the transgressiveness of fantastika can also be conceived as an expression of ostranenie, as coined by Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) near the end of World War One in "Iskusstvo, kak priyom" ["Art as Device"] (1917 Sborniki), a term which might usefully be defined as an uncanny defamiliarizing or estranging of a literary utterance so that the depicted world can be perceived in astonishment and wonder. One further amplification: the generic nature of tales told within the frame of fantastika entails a constant fluidity of generic definition and usage, a fruitful instability here described – especially with reference to more recent work – as Equipoisal, a term increasingly useful in the context(s) of our twenty-first century "Multiverse" of conflicting genres. As Michael Chabon argues in describing the Trickster tale, the natural venues for tales that challenge the fixity of the world are borderlands and inner cities [for Trickster and Water Margins see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Tales of fantastika in general show some predilection for similar venues.

In this encyclopedia the term Lateral Fantastic, sometimes but not always linked to this entry, is used to describe tales whose plots stop short of the fantastic as such but are inherently too conspicuously storyable to be understood as mimetic. In the course of describing the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Carrie Peterson refers to "the poetry of coincidences"; and it can be argued that the presence and exhilaration of Story being seen to be told is the heart of the appeal of tales like Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) or John Buchan's Greenmantle (1916) or Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May sequence; the uncanny tracery of concinnities in tales like these is analogous to Kintsugi, the Japanese art of making visible the joins in repaired pottery. In fantastika as a whole, it can be argued that the most salient and memorable texts are those that work the seam, texts that do not aspire to genre purity, where coincidence, like a Kintsugi vein, is how action becomes fire.

When it is mentioned in this encyclopedia, the term "fantastika" is generally used in a manner polythetically consistent with this suggested frame of application, and with a persistent tendency to treat Story, as exposed by the form, as being all the more effective perhaps for going naked, all the more illuminating for a sense that, when modes clash, the incompossible may be a form of illumination (see Kintsugi above). [For a more extended discussion of fantastika in general by Clute, see the first issue (April 2017) of Fantastika Journal under links below.] [JC/DRL]

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