The monsters that stalk Albion

Never mind Tolkien - who are the Ratbastards? And what on earth is the New Weird? After years of neglect, British fantasy is quietly undergoing a renaissance, and China Miéville is right at its heart
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Sometimes, hankering for the specious gravitas of history, defenders of fantasy claim it is the oldest genre, banging on about Gilgamesh and Beowulf and so on. Fantasy does of course plunder myth and fairy tales, but it does modern things to them. As an aesthetic, a fuzzy set, a mode or whatever, fantasy flourished in the ferment of the 18th century, and nowhere more successfully than in this damp island.

Sometimes, hankering for the specious gravitas of history, defenders of fantasy claim it is the oldest genre, banging on about Gilgamesh and Beowulf and so on. Fantasy does of course plunder myth and fairy tales, but it does modern things to them. As an aesthetic, a fuzzy set, a mode or whatever, fantasy flourished in the ferment of the 18th century, and nowhere more successfully than in this damp island.

The fantastic is indispensable for expressing the anxieties of modernity, and in Britain, where that trauma was so early and so sharply felt, fantasy flourished in various forms: the Gothic, ushered in by Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764); the science-fictional, of which Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is the tap-root text and HG Wells the most brilliant and particularly English proponent; the ghostly, in the stories of Oliver Onions, M R James, Robert Aickman, May Sinclair; the teratological, in the Victorian proto-pulp of Varney the Vampire and idiot-savant grotesquerie of William Hope Hodgson; the visionary, in writers like Arthur Machen and Charles Williams. And that doesn't include children's fantasy. The roll-call of British fantasists is long. Monsters have always stalked Albion. But they haven't always been taken seriously.

When the Booker longlist was announced, the inclusion of Susanna Clarke's excellent debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell caused a flurry of press interest. Whichever way you cut it, Jonathan Strange is a fantasy - among other things. It's also, and not just in its Regency setting, extremely English. For all that the book is so original, it also feels classic: it's part of a tradition, and the excitement which it's generating is a vindication of that tradition. The novel comes during an upsurge of interest in fantastic fiction, in venues that might previously have ignored it. Newspapers have increased the extent and quality of their coverage. There are discussions of the genre on the radio and at the ICA. Things are changing for fantasy.

Part of the reason for the attention is that so much of the work is so good, right now. There are a proliferation of little moments and movements - the Ratbastards, the Interstitial Arts Movement, the New Space Opera, the New Weird, the Romantic Underground, et al - vaguely related cousins, all emphasising that the fantastic doesn't have to mean clichés and workaday prose. British writers like Liz Williams, Justina Robson, Alastair Reynolds, Steph Swainston, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and too many others to mention are at the forefront. Their work is gothic, gonzo, grotesque; playful and deeply political. It draws on dissident fantasists like Mervyn Peake and M John Harrison (whose influence on what's going on can't be overstated) rather than Star Wars and Tolkien.

With its obsession with the awesome, even the most debased and crappy sf and fantasy is related to the visionary tradition of Blake and Julian of Norwich. Ideally you want both vision and craft, but if I have to choose, I'll choose the former. Happily, these days, the fantastic has both: the sense of wonder, and the style to do it justice.

In the 1970s, new wave writers around the journal New Worlds, like Ballard, Aldiss, Harrison, Moorcock and others, brought what's sometimes sniffily called a "literary sensibility" to bear on genre. It was their astounding and astoundingly rendered visions which brought me into the field, and it's their example I've tried to live up to in my own writing. And I'm not alone; there are loads of us, and some people are talking about a new New Wave. So does this mean we'll have to stop whining about the "marginalisation" or - a popular if politically reprehensible formulation - "ghettoisation" of the fantastic genres? Well, yes and, predictably, no. The literati - that relatively small cadre of intellectuals who through nebulous cultural hegemony exercise a disproportionate influence on received taste - have always had a conflicted or downright hostile relationship to the fantastic in fiction. The recent thawing is partial and contradictory, particularly in Britain, paradoxically, where the boom booms loudest.

Take you. You're a literate, well-read person, interested in modern fiction. Did you know there was an internationally feted boom in sf and fantasy? In the US, the trendy fiction magazine McSweeneys and the highbrow literary journal Conjunctions have both run special issues devoted to the new cutting-edge genre. So where has been the symposium in Granta? The article on the fantastic renaissance in the London Review of Books?

Despite all the new open-mindedness, the underlying attitude was visible in the apoplexy of some commentators when the recent BBC Big Read competition was won, entirely predictably, by Tolkien. In The Times, Felippe Fernando-Armesto spluttered that fantasy was, to quote the title of his piece, "the opium of the ignorant and indolent". The charge was the usual one, that fantasy is escapist, its popularity an expression of "cultural impoverishment". Of course there are plenty of excellent reasons to dislike Tolkien, but this isn't one.

It's tempting to respond with Adorno's point that Kafka was one of the few writers capable of writing about the modern world because of, not despite, his use of the fantastic. But that would lead only to the energetic insistence of those hobbled by the constraints of polite taste that the works of Kafka, Bulgakov, Borges and the like aren't fantasy at all.

There's a welter of euphemisms. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has been described, by him, among others, as "Stark Realism". Words like "Slipstream" help, as do "Utopian" and "Dystopian". "Fabulism" is handy, as are "hallucinatory", "visionary" and the like. The most invaluable is the hoary-but-still-serviceable "Magic Realism" (once reportedly defined by Terry Pratchett as "science fiction written by someone who went to the same university as me").

These terms are useful less for taxonomy than as inoculation against the facts that many great works of literature are fantastic, and that many well-respected writers like to dabble. Dickens, George Eliot, Chesterton, Forster, Woolf, Michel Faber, Margaret Atwood, P D James, Fay Weldon, Paul Theroux have all had a go, and with terms like these, their readers can feel safe.

Some writers slap on camouflage themselves. Discussing his 1987 novel O-Zone, which ignorantly rehearsed antique genre tropes (sealed future cities and radioactive wastelands of have-nots, blah blah), Paul Theroux explained with crass hauteur that it wasn't science fiction, which was just "flapdoodle". One of the great things about Susanna Clarke is that when literary journalists helpfully explain to her why her book isn't fantasy (but is instead, ooh, say Historicated Fabulationist Meaningfulism), she'll have none of it.

The real distinction between the tourists and what has become the "generic" fantasy tradition shows up in the weaknesses of the mainstream. When writers don't respect the field from which they borrow, let alone when (cough, Theroux, cough) they despise it, their work doesn't believe itself. On every page, nervously scrawled in invisible ink, are the words "It's ok! It's not fantasy! It's really about oppression/marginalisation/exploitation/etc!" The curiously philistine and simplistic belief is that fantasy is only "meaningful" so far as it's narrowly allegorical.

By contrast, writers within genres know perfectly well that they are writing about refugees, or economics, or gender oppression, or whatever else, but they also enjoy the strangeness they create for its own sake. And they always have done. Gulliver's Travels is a vicious satire on various social ills, but it also revels in the uncanny spectacles it creates: squadrons of tiny people tethering a man to the ground; talking horses; islands floating with a giant lodestone. It trusts the reader to get on with the tasks of understanding, and of enjoying the strange. It is a book that delights in fantasy.

One of the great signs of fantasy's health is that often these days, those who borrow its tropes from outside genre, like David Mitchell, the hot favourite to win Man Booker prize, do so with facility and respect. Mitchell writes brilliantly about human society and emotion, and about ghosts, sentient computers and transmigrating souls, without sneer, anxiety or generic despite.

In this generic blurring between fantasy and horror, and between the mainstream and the fantastic tout court, it's difficult not to read confidence and joy, born of a sense that all potentialities are there to be tapped. After years when the social imagination was foreclosed, and in sf cyberpunk was, often brilliantly, aestheticising neoliberal breakdown, we are now in the era of post-Seattle fiction. One of the cultural expressions of the new era of anti-capitalist protests is, to quote a favourite slogan of the movement, the sense that another world is possible. That's expressed not only in the surge of critical political novels by Ahdaf Souef, Nicholas Blincoe, David Peace, John le Carré and others, but in the explosion of dissident fantasy, in which - as, increasingly, in grassroots political life - we believe we can do anything we want. That's why, at its best, the fantastic, far from being escapist fluff, is the literature we most deserve.

China Miéville's latest novel, 'Iron Council', is published by Macmillan at £17.99. To buy a copy for £16.99 (free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 or post your order to: Independent Books Direct, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP