Fantasy gets a bad rap. While science-fiction has enjoyed something of a restoration of sanctified hipness in recent years, thanks in part to the genre-bending efforts of authors like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, as well as a reappraisal of the works of authors like Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, novels that find themselves classified in the fantasy genre can often be outright dismissed as having no artistic or literary merit. Amazingly, even the work of king daddy J.R.R. Tolkien still finds itself in need of critical defense from time to time. And while fantasy certainly has more than its fair share of rote genre exercises, including countless copycat cash-ins, it’s also an imaginative space buzzing with invention and the capacity for social commentary. Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories exemplifies the best kind of invention and social commentary that we might expect from post-modern fantasy.
Diana Comet collects fifteen stories connected via shared motifs, characters, and settings. McDonald crafts a world that inverts or displaces our own. This world, with its lands like New Dalli and Massasoit, is slightly decentered from our own: we find familiar iterations of our history here—there’s war and imperialism, colonialism and poverty, homophobia and racism—but the idioms are all slightly off, displaced enough be paradoxically familiar and alienating at the same time. “Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy,” for instance, seems set in a 19th-century American milieu amidst a civil war (there’s even a poet named Whit Waltman), yet the transposition, articulate as it is, is also nebulous, disturbing even. McDonald’s spare distortion forces the reader to reconsider his own notions of cultural history, and she does this to great effect, whether taking on gender ideologies (“Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover”), homophobia (“The Fireman’s Fairy”), or racism (“Fay and the Goddesses”). None of these issues are presented glibly, didactically, or clumsily; indeed, it’s through the slightest distortions of fantastic imagination that the reader must re-examine his own society through McDonald’s reflective lens. Most of the stories end with enumerated discussion questions, often silly or whimsical, that serve to puncture the seriousness of the tales; they sometimes force details from our “real” world into the texts of Diana Comet in a way that’s doubly disconcerting. It’s a meta-textual gambit that pays off, however, both in belying any self-seriousness to the narrative proper as well as establishing a thin membrane between fantasy and reality—a membrane of questions that allows the reader to “play,” to disrupt that boundary through his or her own imagination.
McDonald’s world-building in Diana Comet never comes at the expense of good storytelling. With a few exceptions, most of the stories here piece together the frame of a world, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in most of the gaps. Most of the stories seem to take place in an iteration of the nineteenth century, but some to be set earlier, later, and even in a displaced future, like “Kingdom Coming,” a playful apocalypse tale. McDonald’s expositive restraint does wonders; too many writers of inventive fiction feel the need to tell the reader every single detail and nuance of their worlds. I think here of Ursula K. LeGuin’s marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book toward which I believe Diana Comet bears considerable comparison, particularly with respect to the exploration of how gender and sexuality functions in a society. While LeGuin’s book is terrific and fully-realized, she spends a bit too much narrative energy transmitting every detail of that realization to her audience. Diana Comet is rewarding in its gaps and mysteries, as well as its ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in its reader. Oh, I should probably add that McDonald can write; her prose is elegant, lively, wry, and spare.
Diana Comet is a smart, thoughtful post-modern fantasy that may appeal to the kids out there who have outgrown the narrative simplicity of Harry Potter and are looking for a challenge; it will undoubtedly appeal to fans of writers like LeGuin and Atwood, writers who know how to channel narrative traditional tropes of imaginative fiction through distortion and ambiguity and force their readers to think, even as they entertain. Recommended.