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Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction, by which I mean both science fiction and serious fantasy, at its best pursues a goal largely abandoned by mainstream literature: It attempts to place, however crudely, some kind of framework around man's place in the universe. This, and speculative fiction's response not to changes in science and technology (as commonly imagined) but to the pressures of change itself, form the genre's imprimatur, the legs on which it stands.

Three new novels, for instance, take up quite directly the problem of evil.

The teleological and personal become intimately intertwined in James Morrow's Blameless in Abaddon [Harcourt Brace, 1997; ISBN 0-15-188656-3], a story moving back and forth between Martin Candle's slow death from cancer and the glacial lawsuit he brings, on behalf of all the earth's damaged and dying, against God. Or more properly against God's body, now on life support: Candle wants the plugged pulled.

Of all the newsworthy objects torn loose from the ice by the great Arctic earthquake of 1998, among them an intact Viking ship and the frozen carcass of woolly mammoth, the most controversial by far was the two-mile-long body of God.

How can one possibly put down a book with a beginning like that? One in which, moreover (as we soon discover), our narrator is none other than the devil.

Morrow has carved out a niche all his own among the handful of contemporary fantasists – Jonathan Carroll, Tim Powers, and Angela Carter come to mind – who seem at the same time almost classical and to be doing something truly not done before. His award-winning City of Truth (St. Martin's, 1992) was by any standards, and especially by those of the science-fiction novel, oddly poetic, an extended metaphor dissolving universal and particular into a single container whose outside was its inside: a container containing itself. He followed up with Bible Stories for Adults (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and Towing Jehova (Harcourt Brace, 1994), for which Blameless in Abaddon is a sequel.

The Eternal Footman (Harcourt Brace, forthcoming) will complete Morrow's Godhead trilogy. Abaddon itself splits into three books: The first, Necessary Evils, sets up Candle's life and impending death, the senseless, random passing of his wife, and his complex, mulish decision to bring suit; the second, Spelunking the Infinite, details an expedition (with gun and camera, as it were) into the Corpus Dei; and God in the Dock covers the actual trial.

This is a wildly imaginative novel, never standing in place for long, dancing when you might better expect a march, hopscotching over all expectations, as barbed with high and low comedy as an Aristophanes play – and just as fundamentally serious.

God's dying (dead?) body is Martin Candle's: our own. Any reasoned, civil rage at the world's injustice is also a childlike, wordless rage against that death.

And whatever court you wind up in, however just your case, you ain't gonna win.


Death is at the center, too, of Rachel Pollack's Godmother Night [St. Martin's, 1997; ISBN 0-312-14604-X], an extraoridnary novel with everywhere, despite its powerful fantastical element, the feel of direct, lived experience. It's a love story of two women, Laurie and Jaqe, and their daughter Kate, all of them courted year after year by Mother Night and her five red-haired, leather-clad bikers.

This is the kind of book for which the term "magical realism" (sadly devalued beyond purchase) was invented: a profoundly literary, profoundly human book managing simultaneously to reassure us of the validity of our lives and allow us to transcend them. Qualities of myth, of the oceanic, abound alongside descriptions of everyday life, early fumblings after love, the pustules climbing Jaqe's arm once she's cut her hand on a can lid.

Death, of course, is Godmother to us all, sweeping irregularly into our lives, bringing gifts. "Possibly I tried to do too much with Kate," Mother Night says of the daughter she adopts, spiritually at least, when Jaqe dies.

"Can we all live happily ever after now?" asks the young girl who mysteriously appears to replace both Jaqe and Kate.

"That sounds like a great idea," Laurie, the survivor, answers.

We're all survivors, of course.

For a while


Evil of the cosmic sort shows up again in Garry D. Kilworth's Angel [Forge, 1997; ISBN 0-312-86107-9].

"As far as we're concerned, the bad guys are the good guys, and the good guy is the bad guy," one protagonist says well into the book, when they (and we) are just beginning to understand what's going on. "I mean, it turns the whole concept of good and evil on its head."

Indeed it does.

Angels have deserted heaven's eternal war and gone to ground, i.e., earth, where now, as demons, they are being hunted down by an inconsequential angel out to make a name for itself. The angel retains its supernatural powers; the demons, abdicating, have given up theirs. And the angel little cares how many human lives it destroys incidentally in its campaign.

So it is that earthly and once-heavenly powers join forces, in a narrative every bit as gritty and realistic as the latest Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard, and as matter-of-fact metaphysical as Borges. It's a blend I've not seen before, a narrative that veers and careens unpredictably, with wholly believable characters, no pretensions at all, and a quiet acceptance of the miraculous in our lives.

Over the years, as an outlaw literature, speculative fiction has codified our basest social fears. Stories, novels, and films of the 1950s, the McCarthy era, embody our sense of being somehow formed, invaded, taken over. Those of the sixties and seventies exhibit, again askew, growing mistrust in our government and its misrepresentations.

Current work may reflect a similar paranoia. We've a sense, perhaps, that our lives are being formed, somehow, beyond our ken; a sense, too, that we're powerless. This time out, the fear is nebulous, free-floating. Oppressive and encompassing as the fear is, we don't know where it comes from.

Perhaps it rains down upon us, as pennies from heaven?


First published in The Bloomsbury Review (July/August 1997).


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