Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
Library and Information Science

Home Books Essays Curriculum Vitae

A Subjunctive Geography

by Fred Lerner

Over the centuries writers have used the blank spots on the globe as settings for narratives of events that lay well outside the experience of their audience. (There’s a reason that unbelievable accounts are dismissed as “outlandish”.) But as the supply of unmapped lands has diminished, writers have had to move their settings to alien planets or dimensions, or to terrestrial locations that both they and their readers acknowledge to be imaginary.

At the 2016 World Fantasy Convention there was a panel called “Fantasy without Magic”. Its description read:

Is this a subgenre? Gormenghast, Islandia, Ambergris are all imaginary places, quite apart from known history and geography, fantasy-lands but without anything supernatural going on. When the magic is in the place instead, how do we read and explore those works?

I had asked to be on this panel, and was appointed its moderator. As things worked out, I was unable to attend the convention, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about the relationship between geography and the fantastic.

As is often the case when I think about the nature of speculative fiction, I turned to Samuel R. Delany. In his groundbreaking essay “About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy Five Words”, Delany uses the “level of subjunctivity” to differentiate among naturalistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and reportage. Reportage (“this happened”) is irrelevant to the present discussion. Naturalistic fiction describes events that “could have happened”, science fiction describes events that “have not happened”, and fantasy describes what “could not have happened”. In an endnote to this essay Delany observes that “naturalistic fictions are parallel-world stories in which the divergence from the real is too slight for historical verification”.

Does Delany’s essay adequately cover the taxonomy of speculative fiction? To my mind the “fantasy without magic” of the WFC panel is closely related to several other types of fiction that inhabit our literary universe. The “secret history” story could be described in Delanyesque terms as describing events that could have happened without our knowledge. The “alternate history” subgenre describes events that might have happened had some aspect of our consensus history occurred differently. (Delany does allow that a story such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle falls into the SF subcategory of “events that have not happened in the past”.)


A significant number, perhaps a majority, of fantasy stories are set in an alternative version of our own world. Its geography may be significantly different from ours, its flora and fauna divergent from the species of Linnaean taxonomy, but the basic principles of astronomy, geology, and biology are all identical with those of our native planet, and its gravity, atmosphere, and climate are unremarkable and unremarked upon. Even George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire seems to fit into this category, though indications are that the climate of Westeros will become very remarkable indeed in the forthcoming sixth volume, The Winds of Winter.

The three places named in the WFC panel description are meant to be understood as sited on Earth. They exist on a world whose basic conditions are all identical with those of our native planet; and they all have some degree of interaction with the world that we know. If the reader is so minded, he can play the game of finding some spot on the globe in which this interaction can be imagined to take place. One gets the impression of Gormenghast Castle existing in some remote corner of Europe. The Karain continent whose southern tip Islandia occupies is either a distorted Africa or someplace in the Indian Ocean. I don’t remember Ambergris well enough to place it on a map, but to me it feels like it belongs in some Caribbean venue.

The invention of imaginary places to be tucked into some otherwise unused part of the world is not limited to genre fiction. Neither The Prisoner of Zenda nor The Mouse That Roared is usually acknowledged as fantasy. But why is this? Is the “divergence from the real” in Titus Groan or Islandia more pronounced than in The Prisoner of Zenda or The Mouse That Roared? Does the faux-Mitteleuropa of the latter two resemble the Europe that we think we know too closely for us to read them as fantasy? But if that’s the case, what about Avram Davidson’s Limekiller, set in an imagined country called British Hidalgo that the careless reader might easily mistake for Belize (the former British Honduras)? The few elements of the fantastic that I recall from that book seem more like extrapolations from Caribbean folklore than seriously intended encounters with the supernatural. The same might be said for The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy, Davidson’s venture into Mitteleuropa. A map on the Avram Davidson Society’s website shows its setting, the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania, squeezed between Hungary, Serbia, and Rumania – and just one country over from Ruritania. (The Balkan Peninsula has been described as an area that “produces more history than can be consumed locally”. Davidson seems to suggest that the same is true of its geography.)

Writing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Gregory Feeley uses the phrase “exotic sense of place” in describing the work of Avram Davidson. I think that this captures the appeal of the non-fantastic fantasies of Peake and Wright and Vandermeer to those of us whose reading tastes are not unduly restricted by an overwhelming affection for the everyday world. “Fantasy without magic”, like secret history and alternate history, offers readers something akin to the “cognitive estrangement” that Darko Suvin posits as the distinguishing feature of science fiction. It seems to me that “fantasy without magic” is really no such thing, for it is infused with the magic that enables a gifted storyteller to make an imaginary place real enough to supersede the world in which the reader has lived since birth.


A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared in Lofgeornost #125, November 2016.