Reading Versus Watching: Fantastic Voyage
Why isn't everyone reading Kelly Link? I mean that as a serious question.
At first I thought maybe it was genre; Link is billed as a fantasy writer and, Tolkien and J.K. Rowling aside, fantasy and science fiction don't sell all that well. Then I thought maybe it's because she's a short story writer, and short story collections tend not to sell well, though who knows why. Publicity is always a problem, and it's a lot harder to get the word out given the budgets a lot of publishing companies have, compared, at least, to television and movies. Really, though, I'm not sure what the answer is.
The bottom line is that Kelly Link is an extraordinary fiction writer. She will take an old saw like the ghost story or the fairy tale or the girl with latent, supernatural powers, and completely reinvent it in a startling way; this always with a depth of character and emotional complexity that is lacking in so much of genre fiction. Even people who are totally turned off by the fantastic and the supernatural should find themselves absorbed by her use of genre methods to get at what it means to be human.
For example, take the story "Travels with the Snow Queen," in which Link imagines ordinary life in the land of fairy tales. Greda, the protagonist, is left by her lover, Kay, who runs off with the Snow Queen in a sleigh drawn by thirty white geese. Greda takes off in search of him, walking half the continent on literal shards of broken glass, being told by everyone she meets that Kay doesn't love her anymore, while having such adventures as nearly getting eaten by a vicious robber queen and being pestered incessantly for kisses by a talking reindeer who tells her it will transform him into a prince. Fairy tales have long been known for their symbolism, but here Link uses the fairy tale as a way to walk through the mind of someone's who's been left by a lover, to create a landscape of heart-ache.
Using sci fi and fantasy devices to create metaphors about ordinary life is not a new idea. It's even been on television, with examples ranging from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the original "Twilight Zone." And yet there seem to either be few people who are doing this sort of thing successfully right now, in any medium, or at least few people who are making it onto my radar. I remember watching both revivals of the "Twilight Zone" and finding it difficult to understand why they were both so bad, why two shows with big TV money at their disposal couldn't track down a single writer who could so much as "do" Rod Serling-style writing, much less improve upon it. And let's not even talk about the relentlessly awful new "Outer Limits" show. They may control the horizontal and the vertical, but they certainly don't control my interest long enough to keep me from changing the channel.
With movies, Hollywood seems to think science fiction equals action, so we get variations on The Terminator over and over again. Can we please have a big budget Sci Fi film that has nothing to do with humans fighting robots? Please? Romero's zombie movies are perennial favorites of post-industrial anxiety, but the greatest film to use science fiction and fantasy ideas as metaphors for the human condition is unquestionably Tarkovsky's Solaris (not to be confused with Steven Soderbergh's vastly inferior remake). Like "Travels with the Snow Queen," Solaris explores the loss of a loved one, though it does so by having that loved one appear as a kind of simulacrum that follows her man around, refuses to be left alone for a moment, and who cannot die. Solaris was based on the novel of that name by Stanislaw Lem, who was always interested in using the fantastic in the creation of great literature.
One quesiton is, since I love books and I love Buffy, why don't I read the many Buffy novels that have been released? For one thing, Buffy creator Joss Whedon admitted in an interview that he doesn't even read the novels, much less maintain any kind of quality control over them. Further, he does say that he reads the comic books, which is perplexing considering how bad the IDW Angel comics have been. So, while I did enjoy the Whedon-penned Fray graphic novel, I consider anything Buffy that Joss Whedon(or at least Ben Edlund) isn't directly involved in as the equivilant of the new Twilight Zones; ie a poor imitation.
And what about the novelists slugging it out in the trenches of non-TV-franchise prose? There are some who did this kind of thing well in the past, notably Philip K. Dick and the aforementioned Lem. As for the contemporary scene, other than Link the only name that springs to mind is Cory Doctorow, whose Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is very interesting. I definitely welcome suggestions. (And promotional copies!)
At any rate, Kelly Link is someone people should be paying attention to, someone who is doing something interesting and exciting. Go read her.