Other literature: Neil Gaiman and China Mièville

By Tina Resch

Fiction, especially under the category of Fantasy, always means taking the reader into an other world. This is mostly a world in which things that “do not exist” in our reality, exist, and things which we know are “impossible” are possible. If you mention the fantasy genre to people and ask them to tell you their associations to this word, you will sooner or later (though sooner is likelier than later) hear prompts such as “dragons”, “magic / wizards / witches”, “heroes” and the like.

There is, however, fantasy literature entirely without dragons, without wizards or witches, and where even the term “hero” does not necessarily seem appropriate. So much for clichés. Modern fantasy, that is, fantasy which has been written for, say, the last 10 or 20 years, has much more to offer than your average “hero fights monster, aided and opposed by magic” structure.

Of the many modern fantasy-authors who are worth reading, I would like to recommend two here. One of them is Neil Gaiman. His novel Neverwhere presents us, just like C.S. Lewis’ magical closet from the Narnia books, with another world right next to what we call reality. Neverwhere’s other world, or London Below, exists just below the real London. The inhabitants of London Below are usually invisible to the inhabitants of London Above (this is what they call “our” London), and the novel’s “hero”, Richard Mayhew (naturally, of London Above), gets drawn to this other London rather involuntarily. In this other world, rats have authority, even angels exist and darkness itself is not only uncanny, but in fact dangerous. In short, many things that are “impossible” are in fact possible in London Below. The fact that the novel’s hero is not heroic at all in the general sense, but is instead an average, “normal” guy who neither understands what has happened to him, nor has asked for this big adventure he gets involved in, makes the novel both easy to read and, in a way, trustworthy. The reader identifies with Richard’s confusion, and is at the same time fascinated by this other world which is presented in the novel. As in his many other novels, Gaiman manages to reveal magic and mystery where we would least have expected it.

Another author who sets fantastic worlds right amidst reality is China Mièville, which is my second recommendation. His novel The City & The City presents us with otherness of its very own kind. Here, we have two cities that exist parallel to each other. The de facto borders are invisible, and the reader never knows where exactly those borders really are, or whether there are any. At some points, the cities overlap, and the inhabitants of both cities make a great effort to unsee the respectively “other” city’s inhabitants, buildings, in short each other’s existence – for seeing and acknowledging each other is the worst law-breaking act they could commit.

While Gaiman’s oeuvre is characterised by his ability to “feel at home” in various genres and sub-genres of fantasy literature (that is, both “classic” fantasy and what I have earlier called “modern” fantasy – and various states in-between those two distinctions), Mièville’s works clearly belong to the “modern” kind. This is by no means meant in a negative way for either of the authors. Both authors actually utilise what we know as reality in order to create fantastic worlds, giving old monsters and wonders a new place to dwell. Precisely this “otherness within the familiar” is what makes their books worth reading.

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Want to read Gailman’s book Neverwhere? You can find it here.

China Miéville’s The City & the City can be found here.

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