A Cabin on the Coast by Gene Wolfe


So, where do we think the barrier between science fiction and fantasy lies? It’s one that’s hard to police, and I’ve always felt that I fall more on the good cop end of the spectrum: any definition of science fiction that doesn’t allow for Star Wars or Dune is probably not much use, in my opinion.

There’s got to be a limit, though. There are some things that – no matter how you dress them up – can never be part of science fiction. I would say that fairies are one of these things.

So I’m a bit surprised to find a fairy story in this anthology. Timothy Ryan Neal encounters a fairy ship while staying in a beach house with his girlfriend. He’s forced into making a deal and ends up, of course, getting the wrong end of it. I mean surely we all know – and especially a man with a good Irish name like that – that you never win in the fairy bargain.

There’s some modish 80s-era talk about a po-mo approach to reality that feels like a gesture towards answering the question ‘fairies, WTF?!’

‘Are you about to tell me you’re a leprechaun? I warn you, I won’t believe it.’

‘Me? One o’ them scamperin’, thievin’, cobblin’, little misers? I’d shoot meself. Me name’s Daniel O’Donoghue, King o’Connaught. Do ye believe that now?’

‘No,’ Tim said.

‘What would ye believe then?’

This this is – some way, somehow – what people call a saucer. That you and your crew are from a planet of another sun.’

Daniel laughed. ‘’Tis a close encounter you’re havin’, is it? I can do that too.’

‘Don’t bother.’

‘All right, I won’t, though ’tis a good shape. A man can take it and be whatever he wants, one o’ the People o’ Peace or a bit o’ a man from mars. I’ve used it for both, and there’s nothin’ better.’

Well, I don’t really know what kind of definition of science fiction that Dozois is using. Probably a fairly loose one, based on this evidence. None of the stories in the golden age anthologies I read was quite so overtly fantasy, and that makes me wonder if there was some kind of change during the sixties or seventies when this kind of thing was considered to be part of the broad umbrella of science fiction.

I realise, of course, that fantasy and science fiction have always had a close relationship, but I’m led to ponder what this anthology is actually about. Is it ‘the best of science fiction’ or is it ‘the best stories that were published in the magazines that we agree constitute a shared culture, that we call science fiction regardless of their content’? I realise as well, of course, that this community has also always been part of science fiction: attempts to define what science fiction actually is are always undermined by the fact that science fiction is as much about a shared culture as any rigorous external literary approach.

I offer once again my three-pronged theory of genre. This anthology seems – albeit based on the evidence of two stories – to be hewing more closely to the ‘community’ definition than one that relies on symbolism or thematic structure. The same wasn’t true of the golden age anthologies I read: none of them flirted with outright fantasy imagery (although I admit there a couple of marginal cases in The History of the SF Magazine volumes).

So, I wonder is that an evidential point about some fundamental change in the genre betweem 1960 and 1984, or is it just editorial preference? Hm, I guess I’ll to think about that one as I read through. What do you reckon, gentle reader?

Themes: fairies, fable, fantasy.

Header image: a photo of Gene Wolfe I swiped from the internet: if it belongs to you I’ll happily take it down if you prefer. However, it’s everywhere, you know that?


Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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