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Tale of Circulation

Entry updated 2 January 2023. Tagged: Theme.

In the eighteenth century, tales tracing the circulation of an object from its original manufacture or discovery through various owners in various walks of life were not uncommon. A cumulative vision of life in contrasting regions of the world was normally achieved, often serving as a natural engine for Satire, with this category of tale normally focusing on the figures and scenes encountered, not the object in transit. The only example of real Proto SF interest may be Tobias Smollett's The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769 2vols), where the eponymous object, a Democritian atom, is in fact animate.

After the eighteenth century, the Tale of Circulation became less common, and was more likely to focus on conscious travellers whose travails were likely to be extreme, though the nonfantastic Accordion Games (1996) by Annie Proulx (1935-    ) focuses on human stories connected by the eponymous object, and films like The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964) directed by Anthony Asquith, or John Hersey's Antonietta (1991), or Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), or Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) by Anthony Doerr, continued to concentrate on the vistas uncovered rather than the object in transit. The sentient book in The Pages (2022) by Hugo Hamilton (1953-    ), which is a first edition of the real novel Rebellion (1924) by Joseph Roth (1894-1939), travels from owner to owner, warning them when history is at the verge of repeating itself, almost certainly to dreadful effect. Some not yet remarked upon uses of the format may be discoverable in romance fiction, an example being The Disturbing Charm (1919) by Berta Ruck (1878-1978), the eponymous love-inducing trinket here being the Invention of a scientist intended to rationalize human interconnections (see Sex), and passed from one character to another. Children's stories, on the other hand, are far more likely to focus on the object – typically a bird or a doll – as protagonist, and incorporate elements of the picaresque implications of the Fantastic Voyage. Titles include Angelo's Adventures of an Atom: Its Adventures by Itself (1880), Mrs Rouquette's Our Polly: The Adventures of a Parrot During her Life of 100 Years (1898), Roverandom (written 1926; 1998) by J R R Tolkien, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929) by Rachel Field (1894-1942), The Ghost of Opalina; or, Nine Lives (1967) by Peggy Bacon (1895-1987), Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child (1967), the film Paulie (1998) directed by John Roberts, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006) by Kate DiCamillo (1964-    ), and John Crowley's Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017).

The estrangements and reunions typical of the Tale of Circulation may also be seen as analogous to the narrative disruptions and exemplary returns of the sf Fixup, though one essential distinction – over and above that between sf and children's fantasy – differentiates these modes. The fixup almost invariably traces the odysseys through time and place of a human protagonist; the Tale of Circulation does not necessarily do so. Significantly peripatetic Space Opera sequences, like E C Tubb's Dumarest series, derive some of their power from a contrast between changing worlds and an unchanging hero; a similar dislocation afflicts the protagonists of a tale like Joe Haldeman's Forever War (1974), whose soldier protagonists travel by a form of Matter Transmission instantaneous to them but in fact governed by the theory of relativity, so that each awakening dislocates them into a new world. Weary travellers or immortals (see Immortality; Superman) who have seen too much can express a sense that Circulation can pall, a danger very intensely and metaphysically pondered in Robert Silverberg's "Schwartz Between the Galaxies" (in Stellar 1, anth 1974, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey) . On the other hand, tales of Reincarnation, which may also seem analogous, rarely evoke much sense of uncanny illumination through new vistas, being normally preoccupied with redemption, revenge and/or Transcendence. [JC]

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