Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 09, 2004


Science fiction and literature have had an uneasy relationship in this country for almost one hundred years. When most popular fiction was published in the slick magazines of the late 19th and early 20th century, fantastic literature stood as an equal alongside serious literature. But with the growing popularity of the pulp magazines, things began to change. Where the slicks were aimed at an educated class of readers, the pulps were aimed at the common person. And, at least in the view of the editors of the pulp magazines, the common person was not interested in serious literature but adventure fiction. The incredible sales of such magazines as Argosy and All-Story Weekly lent credence to such a view, so that the pulps positively crawled with fantasies, horror fiction, mysteries, war stories, westerns and romance stories, not as diverse types of literature, but as slam bang action stories. Since serious literature apparently had no place in publications with cheap pulp paper and ragged edges, an almost immediate split took place between serious literature and popular fiction.

The split was aggravated when the general pulps gave way to the specialized pulps, magazines devoted entirely to one specific genre, whether they be mysteries or westerns or, *gasp* fantasies and their newly-popular sub-genre science fiction. The fact that the early science fiction pulps contained mostly hack writing and purple prose sandwiched between lurid covers aimed at teenaged boys was undoubtedly a factor in the literati rejecting any fiction which appeared in the pulps. What was really unfortunate, however, was the fact that the literati also unilaterally rejected any form of fiction which appeared in the pulps. Therefore, all mysteries were immediately frowned upon, along with all westerns and war stories and horror and fantasy and science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon's serious studies of love? Trash! Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett's examinations of the underside of contemporary American life? Nonsense! Louis L'Amour? Bah! Unceremoniously thrown into the literary trashheap were More Than Human, The Maltese Falcon, Shane, Lord of the Rings, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Stars My Destination, and countless other worthy novels. No serious American writer dared write any genre fiction at all and expect to be taken seriously as a writer. Even as late as the 1960s Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a serious writer who was also a science fiction writer in every way that mattered, including publication in both Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction, found it necessary to disclaim that dark secret and denounce his SF credentials in order to be taken seriously by the literary establishment.

The situation was not so grave in England where serious writers had no qualm about including fantasy and science fiction among their repertoire. Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell all achieved considerable reputations in the British literary community while writing explicit SF works. Stapledon even pulled off the rare double of achieving a considerable reputation in the American science fiction community as well. In the late 1950s, Brian W. Aldiss became a major science fiction writer without sacrificing his literary credentials in the process. And, of course, New Worlds survived for several years due mostly to government funding, publishing an eclectic mix of literary and pulp-derived science fiction.

Obviously the situation has improved to a great extent for several reasons, but a chasm still exists in the minds of many people, both literati and genre fans. Many high-brow but narrow-minded editors and critics still consider science fiction writers genre writers who produce high level entertainments and interesting diversions, but rarely works of true literary merit. Many devoted genre fans also react against such discrimination with an almost religious discrimination against all literature. So for every Ursula K. Le Guin who has been embraced eagerly by both sides, on one hand the Michael Bishops and Kim Stanley Robinson are virtually ignored by the literati, while on the other hand Toni Morrison and Michael Chabon are unfairly neglected by some genre fans.

Fortunately, most writers have largely rejected any artificial divisions and write from the heart rather than to impress the small group of editors and critics who comprise the literati. The list of major literary authors who have incorporated science fiction and fantasy motifs and images in their fiction has grown so large as to be almost unmanageable. Many have produced very good works, both by literary standards and by science fictional standards. Some have achieved considerable popular acclaim as well, even being embraced by the literai who simply downplay the sfnal or fantastic aspects in their works, and by much of the genre community who simply ignore their membership in the literary community.

Which brings us to Toni Morrison who deserves to be embraced enthusiastically by every serious reader in the world, no matter what type of fiction they prefer. Toni Morrison is indeed a darling of the literai. She has taught literature at Princeton University, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and in 1993 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But reading Beloved made it immediately apparent that Morrison has no interest in appealing to any small cabal of editors and critics. She is a writer first, concerned only with telling the best damned story she can. It is a grave misfortune that she has been mostly overlooked by the genre fantasy community because Beloved is one of the finest, fantasies I have ever read.

Beloved is the story of a former slave named Sethe who lives with her daughter Denver and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs in Cincinnati, Ohio, after the Civil War. As a young woman, Sethe lived on a farm the slaves called Sweet Home. The owners Mr. and Mrs. Garner were gentle, caring people who never mistreated their slaves, or even allowed them to be mistreated. Sethe had the good fortune to actually marry a fellow slave named Halle and have 4 children by him, a rarity for slaves indeed.

But, of course, there are no constants in the lives of slaves. When Mr. Garner died, his wife was unable to "keep up" the farm. So she asked her brother-in-law to take charge of the farm. The slaves called the new master Schoolteacher and, as gentle as Mr. Garner was, Schoolteacher was cruel. Several slaves tried to escape, most failing, but Sethe with her two sons and two daughters succeeded, eventually reaching the home of Baby Suggs in Cincinnati.

But something mysterious happened in Sethe's early years in Cincinnati. One of her daughters, named Beloved, as in "Dearly Beloved", died under tragic circumstances, and her ghost continued to haunt the house for the next eighteen years. The presence of the ghost eventually drove Sethe's two sons away, leaving the three women together in a rather shaky relationship.

Until the arrival of Paul D changed everything. Paul D was one of Sethe's fellow slaves at Sweet Home, and he and Sethe quickly become emotionally involved. When the ghost of Beloved tried to interfere, Paul D successfully exorcised her from the very house, but none of the inhabitants were prepared when Beloved returned home in a physical, human form.

In structure, Beloved is a mystery. Most of the important events in the early lives of Sethe and her fellow slaves are withheld at first, occasionally hinted at, and then slowly revealed through the novel like the layers of an onion being peeled.

The immediate question raised here is why did such a serious author as Toni Morrison choose to structure her novel as a mystery? Since all the key scenes in the life of Sethe took place early in her life, Morrison might easily have structured the novel in a linear fashion, showing the key scenes first and using the rest of the novel to examine the effect of those events on Sethe's life.

The main reason I can see for Morrison's decision to reject a linear structure for a mystery structure is her realization that the best fiction should not only be a learning experience, but also an emotional experience. A linear Beloved would have contained considerably less emotional power than it has in its present form. In the early sections of the book we learn the relationship between Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, and Paul D. When the book flashes back to their early years we slowly begin to understand why they are how they are and, as each layer of the onion is peeled back, we are pulled into their lives deeper and deeper, like being trapped in an emotional vortex that is almost impossible to escape. When we eventually encounter the three defining moments in Sethe's life--her escape from Sweet Home, the birth of Denver, and the death of Beloved--we are already so familiar with the effect those events have had on Sethe and her family that the effect on our emotions of the events themselves is the emotional equivalent of having sat atop a landmine all novel and having it suddenly explode beneath us.

And by the time we have experienced all of Sethe's traumas--and we truly do experience them thanks to Morrison's wonderful prose--we begin to understand Sethe the human and Sethe the mother in a way we could not possibly have understood her if Morrison had simply begun the novel with those early defining moments before we were able to develop such a deep emotional stake in Sethe's life.

Beloved is a successful novel on three levels. On one level it is a moving examination of the life and attitudes of former slaves trying to make a life for themselves in post-Civil War Ohio. Because of the novel's relative brevity, it barely scratches the surface of this aspect and is more of an introduction than a truly serious study.

On a second, deeper level the novel is a successful character study of Sethe and how her traumas have affected the people close to her. The novel is more successful on this level with Sethe and Denver, but slightly less successful with Paul D and Baby Suggs although, admittedly, they were never intended to be given the full attention Sethe and Denver were.

Finally, the novel is an incredibly powerful emotional experience as gripping as any novel I have read in many years. To paraphrase Alfred Bester, it hits the reader in the face at the very start and keeps hitting you repeatedly until Toni Morrison finally grows weary and rests her arm.

Beloved is great literature about the human heart, great storytelling with a powerful emotional impact, and pure fantasy, not just in a token way since the fantasy element is arguably the most important aspect of the entire novel. What I want to know is: where was this novel when the 1987 World Fantasy Awards were presented?


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