December 5th 2012
Back Door into Magic
I’m not sure if this was something that is hard-wired in us humans or if it is something that we have acquired along the evolutionary path somewhere – and if so what possible advantage it gives us – but we seem to have a need to CLASSIFY something when we meet it. Including books.
You pick up a book and it begins, the little ticktock on the back of your brain. Classify, classify, classify. Pigeonhole.
If you walk into any given bookstore you will find things shelved and classified according to rigorous criteria. Cookbooks, hither, not to be confused with memoirs, there, or history, over there…There is entire section called FICTION which now has to be chopped and sorted into its own little sub-boxes. Mysteries. Thrillers. Young Adult. Romance. Science fiction and fantasy. And then you hit the sub-boxes and you hit the sub-boxes – what KIND of fantasy? Is it historical fantasy (with hints in the background about a real historical era)? Is it urban fantasy (Gritty city streets? Werewolves? A headless chick with a leather-upholstered kick-ass butt on the cover)? Is it high fantasy (is there a dragon on the cover)? Secondary world fantasy? Tolkien clone? Does it take place in Hogwarts?…
My novels have had their share of labels. “Secrets of Jin Shei” – by virtue of being carried by eight female protagonists – has been called “feminist fantasy” by at least one reviewer searching for proper pigeonhole. The latest novel, “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, has been called “religious fantasy” by someone struggling to pin this rather uncategorizable book down to a soundbite (although I myself would struggle to find anything overtly “religious” in that novel…)
There’s a new kid on the block, now. The article on http://io9.com, here:
calls it “backdoor fantasy”. Here’s what they mean by that:
“When our everyday lives are full of devices and discoveries that feel magical, it’s time for fantasy to reinvent itself. And it has, in a new form you could call backdoor fantasy… instead of drawing us deeper into an alternate world of magic that seethes just beneath the city…it draws us deeper into the real world.
What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can’t be explained by science.”
This… actually… sounds rather like what I write.
The io9 article uses “Among Others”, Jo Walton’s Nebula- and World Fantasy Award-winning novel, as a possible flagship for the new moniker. In their own words,
“…Jo Walton’s Among Others, is a perfect example. In it, we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton’s protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy.”
If you haven’t read that book, go read it. I’ll wait.
But (and this is a kinda spoiler, so if you haven’t read it and mean to, skip this paragraph) here’s the thing about that book, for me. Walton’s heroine… was kind of… me. Okay, I didn’t have a vanished twin, or a witchy mother who could do actual awful crazy magickal stuff, or an estranged guilt-ridden dad who sent me off to a posh boarding school… but the boarding school, and the escape into books, that was my own life, and at much the same age as the heroine of this book.
I daresay that this particular back door is hardly likely to be there for other readers who haven’t shared my own particular life and times and experiences. The point, however, is that the magic in these cases might just lie in that kernel of pure recognition – something that leaps from the page at you and catches you by the throat and screams, YOU KNOW ME! YOU LIVED ME!
I touched that, for at least some of the readers of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”. I know I did because readers and reviewers have spoken of a feeling that they got from the book, a feeling of being able to identify with the place in which the novel is set, with the circumstances in which it takes place, with the relationships of once-friends which were being picked up after years of hiatus. Phrases like “it feels like you had just sat down for a cup of coffee with some old friends”, “it seemed as if I had been to this particular café before”, “I kind of knew the people in this book, because they were me, they were my friends” – these things recur, in reviews, in feedback from readers.
The only magic in this book is the faintest sprinkling of fairy dust – there is a character who is a being manifestly supernatural in form, a creature who refers to himself as “the Messenger” although never specifying from whom, someone that the readers have identified as variously an angel or a sprite of some sort – someone through whom the power to make a choice is transferred to a human soul. And it is in that choice that the magic lies.
I write about people. I write about what makes people change. Like I said to someone recently, in a conversation about this very novel, what makes people change are answers to two polar-opposite questions: what makes you happy, and what do you fear. The first will make you run towards something; the second, away. But both will MOVE you, and once you are in motion you cannot help but encounter choices.
The io9 people go on to say,
“This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn’t mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.”
I say, amen. There is just so much magic in our world, the “real” world, which we are so often too busy to stop and appreciate. Let me give you some examples from a real life. Mine.
The first one concerns a skating pond in the woods behind one of the world’s great hotels in Banff. This is one of those unreal hotels build in the shape and form of a castle, situated amongst tall firs, and I was there one cold, cold winter, just around this time of year, actually. I got wind of the fact that you could rent a pair of skates from the hotel and then go down a winding stair into the woods to a frozen pond which you could skate on. So I did this thing, got my skates, went down the stair – and somehow, in the midst of a busy and bustling holiday season, I found myself alone out there. Tthe pond, which was gloriously and completely empty of any other soul except me.
There were Christmas fairy lights in the trees surrounding the pond, and they twinkled on the snow around me. The trees stood like silent white sentinels in the dark, and in the night sky above the stars were bright and sharp like shards. I put my skates on, and stepped on the pond, and wobbled like Bambi on ice – a pond, remember, no edges, no railing, nothing to hold on to, surface uneven and bumpy and very unlike the smooth ice on an artificial rink, it was just me and the wilderness. Then I started skating, alone in the night, the swish of skate blades on ice, multicoloured shadows falling about my feet. And I felt like weeping with a holy joy because I felt as though I could pass right through this unreal scene and step – or skate – into a whole other world which trembled just there, just in the corner of my eye, just out of reach.
Tell me this moment had no magic in it. True magic. Real magic. MY magic.
And yet in the hotel just up the slope, beyond the trees, women in off-the-shoulder gowns sat sipping chocolate martinis at polished wooden counters in bars, or couples laughed at one another over dinner tables set with white linen and heavy silverware, or danced to music with a disco beat – a different world.
The second example is a long way from that night, a bright day in the Florida Keys. I’m kneeling on a low wooden platform next to a pool with two dolphins, a mother and son I had just spent a half hour swimming with. The trainers had given me kippers or some such treat to hand to the dolphins, after, and that is what I was doing, kneeling there by the water, holding out the treats. The younger dolphin, the son, was still very much a “child” in every sense – exuberant and playful and pushy and, in the manner of all children who have yet to earn the societal filters of their elders, completely and passionately free with his emotions. Instead of coming for his treat, this baby dolphin came swimming full-tilt at the jetty, leaped out of the water completely, and tucked himself under my arm. Our eyes met, and I swear he smiled. And then, with one flip of that powerful tail, he had reversed himself and had slid back into the water.
A dolphin HUGGED me.
A little piece of magic, right there. Right in my arms.
The third one. A letter arrives at my house one day. From NASA. FROM *NASA*.
They are producing a commemorative poster for the Mercury 13, the women who trained in the early astronaut program in NASA back when women basically had no chance of ever getting into space. They had stepped up anyway, because they refused to relinquish the dream of the stars or the idea that those stars belonged to them just as much as to men. NASA wants to know whether I would grant them permission to use an excerpt from one of my poems on that poster.
I cried. I was so humbled, so proud, so full of feelings I cannot begin to describe to you.
Like the Mercury 13 themselves, I would never myself float out there amongst the stars – but my words are there now, for keeps, on a poster which commemorates women reaching for that impossible dream. That is a piece of magic that I treasure, a very real piece of magic, something that I am reminded of every time I walk past the wall in my house on which a framed copy of that poster hangs.
I will find some little piece of magic to build into my next story, too, and the next, and the one after that. If that is what they want to call it, a back-door fantasy, I’ll take it. But I’ll keep on opening those back doors. There is too much joy and beauty and sadness and glory and pure humanity behind them to leave them closed, and people need to be reminded – always, and constantly – that the magic is there for the taking, just by reaching out and touching it.
In this December, if you live somewhere where you might be expecting snow, remember this presence of magic in the white silence of a snowfall – go out and walk in one, and let that silence and whiteness surround you, and listen for the songs of that silence. If you live in a place where you aren’t expecting snow, wander out into the balmy air in your shorts and your short sleeves and wonder at the magic that lets you walk along a beach with your toes in warm water breaking into white foamy lace at your feet while someone else out there is wandering in that joyous snow.
They say the world is ending this December. When you wake up in the morning after the old world has passed away, open your eyes and know that you are living in a brand new world, just born with the sun. And that, right there, is a piece of magic that you can carry with you every day of your life.
Open the back door. Step into magic. It is waiting.
Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
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