Shortcut #57: Abarat

Although Clive Barker has been in my consciousness for a long while – through movies, video games, graphic novels – before this I’d only read one other of his books.  That book was Weaveworld and, though I liked it well enough, it didn’t stick with me.  The only parts that I do remember involve the body horror/body magic that Barker is known for.  For example, if I remember correctly, the main hero’s semen is drained from him and used to create tiny monsters which end up threatening him and other people around him.

This book is nothing, really, like Weaveworld, except for the fascination with the body and various mutations and modifications of the body.  For point of reference, Hellraiser was Barker’s invention.

Shortcut #57: Clive Barker’s Abarat

I like Abarat.  It was recommended to me by one of my Installment Plan Novel readers as a comparison title to THE UNDERGROUND EMPIRE OF JOSEPH WUNDERKIND.  And I can definitely see that.  Both involve normal(ish) kids finding themselves immersed in a fantastic world that they, as they discover through the course of their adventures, strange connections with.

In Abarat, Candy Quackenbush is our hero (and demonstrates quite early and quite clearly Barker’s tendency towards outlandish names).  She is drawn to the world of the Abarat through a siren’s call of dreaminess that takes her from her school in Chickentown, Minnesota, to the edge of the town where fields stretch off endlessly into the distance, and where she finds a lighthouse.  The lighthouse calls forth a sea, and that sea transports her into the Abarat and her adventures among the islands of this fantasy world.

It’s a gripping story, not least because of Barker’s ever inventive imagination that seems in line with A. E. van Vogt’s idea of introducing a new concept in his novels every 800 words.  Candy is well-realized even before she gets caught up in adventure – no bland heroine here – and the characters and conflicts are paraded out forcefully and early.

But what I want to talk about is the sense of space in fiction.  Of area.  Of how much what we’re reading seems like a real, fully inhabited world as opposed to an Alice in Wonderland environment where the entire enterprise seems to take place within ten square yards of where you began.

In pulp sci-fi novels of the mid-Twentieth century, there was a tendency to have worlds that would be defined by one characteristic (Ice or Pleasure or Gobstopper) and would seem to consist, at most, of a single town.  You can see this sort of thinking at work in the Star Wars movies where each planet is reduced to a Mos Eisley or a rebel base.  To put this all in perspective, it’s as though an alien were landing on Earth and their entire experience of it was Washington, D.C. or Tokyo or Kraków.  Sure, they might be told that there’s an entire planet out there, but all they see is that city, as though all of Earth is just that city.

I know I’ve used Miéville as an example before, but too bad, here he is again.  Take Perdido Street Station.  It takes place in a city, but in reading it I feel not only the depth and breadth of that city (it takes up a large area of mental space) but also the sense of the world at large, other civilizations, other cities, even though those cities don’t play directly into the novel at all.

Barker’s Abarat creates an island archipelago that consists of twenty-five main islands and a number of smaller ones.  Even though this is a landscape that contains thousands (it seems) upon thousands upon thousands of inhabitants of all shapes, sizes, and kinds, it seems, as a whole, very, very small.  Candy travels across a sea and to three different islands, but it seems as arduous as though she’s crossing a football field.  There is no sense of distance in this book.  But why is that?  Why is it that Barker can tell about distant cities and a flood of population, but it all seems as close together as boxes stored in an attic?

I think this lack of a sense of scale has to do with descriptions of travel.  Or, in the case of Abarat, the lack thereof.  It’s not enough to say that things are distant or spacious or large, you have to show that, either through description (if talking about scale) or enacting travel in book itself.

Granted, travel itself can be rather boring.  Every time I’ve read The Lord of the Rings I’ve dreaded the part where Frodo and Sam wander off on their own, because that section of the books lives in my mind as just an endless jaunt through a featureless, barren landscape.

But travel doesn’t have to be boring.  It can be used to deepen character or for reflection.  But mostly for me, I suppose, what attention to space provides is a sense of reality.  Not real as in not fantasy, but real in that I get a sense that the world exists and that it has real consequences as part and parcel of that existence.  And what I want out of speculative fiction is the impossible made visceral.

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2 Responses to Shortcut #57: Abarat

  1. Megan says:

    When I read “the impossible made visceral,” all I could think of were crawling arm creatures. Thanks a lot, Mr. Speculative Fiction. 😉

  2. Andrew says:

    Ah, the sweet gross-out of success!

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