Hiromi Goto's Half World: Approaching the Fantastic Like a Realist
Earlier this year, Hiromi Goto's phantasmagorical and often harrowing Half World was published as a young adult novel, although it's the kind of cross-over that deserves a wide readership among adults. It's already received the 2010 Sunburst Award and was just longlisted for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The cover sports a glowing blurb from Neil Gaiman. Goto has received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Caribbean and Canada region, was a co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Award, and has won the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award. You can check out her blog here.
Half World is a potent, deeply felt mix of fantasy and stark reality, and beautifully written. It also avoids cliche by refusing to indulge in stock situations. Yesterday we ran a great piece from Goto about the problems with romance in dark fantasy. Today, the subject is fantasy and reality...
Approaching the Fantastic like a Realist
by Hiromi Goto
There are moments in all our lives when we fervently wish that we could magick our problems away. If only I could make myself disappear! If only I could turn back time. If only I could make her forget. If only....
If only I could magick my character out of this trap! I gnawed at the ragged bits of skin on my lower lip, as my eyes darted from the clock to the pile of unfiled letters and bills on my desk. If she had magic powers she could just turn them on or finally discover them and, thereby, get out of this terrible situation, consequently, relieving me, the writer, of my stuckness....
But the pragmatic, rationalist inside me wouldn’t allow it. Nuts! Come on! Why not? I think it’s linked to a kind of mistrust I developed as a long-time reader of both science fiction, and fantasy, in combination to being limited to reading the bible during those long childhood hours of sitting through the adult sermon.
Good science fiction has a solid foundation developed out of a premise that’s substantiated with supporting details and information. I can willingly suspend disbelief and accept that Octavia E. Butler’s Oankali are grey-skinned, tentacled, aliens of an advanced race who biologically need to interbreed with other species because she has marked out the physical details so specifically and realistically and created a dramatic situation where they could exist. There is a logic to their believability.
Magic in fantasy, however, has often been thrown out into the world as a matter of faith. Kinda like the story of Jesus. Is any of it logical? Well, no.... But believe that he’s the son of God, anyway. That’s the whole point of faith, right?
Some of the faith-based fantasy novels I’ve read are an easier swallow than others.
I think of “faith-based” fantasies as the ones where the hero has some inherent and, often, inherited magical power, usually unknown to her, until the tipping point in the plot. She has magic powers, okay? Some of the “faith-based” fantasy narratives are written more convincingly than others. And I not saying I haven’t enjoyed a great many of them! I have a soft spot for The Sword and the Crown (even with the romance sub-plot!!!), for instance. And it’s not like science fiction isn’t without its share of faith-based fantasy even within the sf construct. Neo, in The Matrix, is The One, for no logical or apparent reason (Again, the messiah figure.), but I went along with it. I accepted the red pill.
But when it came to writing Melanie in Half World, I couldn’t help feeling that granting her latent magical powers would be a kind of cheat, a fantasy deus ex machina that her character did not seem to want or request. She was quiet, unremarkable and humanly flawed. And that was the whole point—I wanted to explore how anyone, even the most humble, could become a hero, through small acts of bravery and determination.
Melanie discovers that her mother became pregnant with her in Half World, a purgatory-like Realm, where the dead from long ago suffer endlessly, locked in a psychic trap of pain. In a Realm where there is not true life, the pregnancy was miraculous, but it did not grant Melanie any special powers. When her mother was forced back to Half World, Melanie is determined to search for her, and she does so as a mortal.
If there’s no magic sword to draw upon, how will you defeat your enemy?
Suddenly, her hands started shaking. Her lips quivered spasmodically as delayed shock and adrenaline kicked in. She felt ready to collapse. Tears began to fill her eyes and she batted fiercely so she wouldn’t ruin the makeup.
What was she doing here, a lone girl, without any weapons?
What did she think she could do?
Melanie dug the hard edge of the hotel swipe card deep into her palm, and the pain helped her pull back from the hopeless spiral.
“Don’t,” she hissed to herself. “It doesn’t help. You can’t change the past. But you can change the future.” (Page 120, from Half World)
Of course I adore a great many fantasy novels where magic occurs. I love the idea of magic and the magical and there’s something so lovely about not being bound by the limitations of the physical world. Magic is about the transformative. Melanie’s challenges in Half World, however, are very real in that she is limited to her own wits, compassion, and strengths. If your worst nightmare came true, how would you cope if all you had was your own human abilities? What kinds of transformations are possible within the limits of human existence?
I asked these questions of Melanie, and she bravely showed me the depth of powers in quiet transformation.