The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University


Brian Baker


What is fantastika? It’s a term that doesn’t have the currency of science fiction, fantasy, or the Gothic. It was coined by John Clute, editor of the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia, a critic who has been working in the fields of science fiction and the fantastic since the 1960s. The definition in the Encyclopaedia reads like this:

A convenient shorthand term employed and promoted by John Clute since 2007 to describe the armamentarium of the fantastic in literature as a whole, encompassing science fiction, Fantasy, fantastic horror and their various subgenres. […] Generic works written within the time-frame and overall focus of fantastika generally exhibit an awareness – on the author's part, or embedded into the text, or both – that they are in fact generic; that stories within the overall remit are usually most effective (and resonant) when read literally; and that the pre-emptive transgressiveness of fantastika is most salutary within the context of the Western World, but when addressed "outwards" can seem invasive (Clute n.p.).

‘Fantastika’ is an umbrella term of sorts, an attempt to provide a looser framework of generic inter-relatedness in fields which are beset by issues of definition.1 Not least of those issues is the term ‘fantastic in literature’, which itself could be deployed as a kind of umbrella term (as in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts) but brings with it the spectre of the work of Tzvetan Todorov, whose The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre (1973) remains deeply influential on critical writings on the fantastic and of Fantasy literature more generally.2 Todorov’s definition of the fantastic is useful but formally limited. He argues that fictions that contain inexplicable events or things which ultimately can be explained by rational means fall into the generic field of ‘the uncanny’; fictions that contain events of things which are ultimately not explainable rationally (such as in the use of magic) are ‘the marvellous’. The ‘pure fantastic’ are texts which maintain an ambiguity as to the status of these strange phenomena right up to the end of the text: the are ‘undecidable’ in a radical way. Very few texts fall into this category, of course; Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1899) is one of very few.

‘Fantastika’ is then a term which attempts to work around a Todorovian perspective on ‘the fantastic’. (Where to put science fiction in his scheme? Surely, sf works through what Suvin calls the ‘novum’, an invented newness which is not part of our world. But what if that ‘novum’ can be explained rationally and scientifically? Is sf part of ‘the marvellous’ or ‘the uncanny’?) What is particularly interesting about Clute’s definition given in the Encyclopaedia is in the centrality of a kind of self-consciousness: ‘Generic works written within the time-frame and overall focus of fantastika generally exhibit an awareness – on the author's part, or embedded into the text, or both – that they are in fact generic’. Another word for this might be intertextuality, of course – that at a certain point in the development of a genre, one text will consciously and unconsciously draw upon and refer to other texts. This is why, one can assume, that the Encyclopaedia excludes ‘Proto-SF’ from ‘fantastika’, as it cannot display the same degree of generic self-consciousness. Clute suggests that ‘fantastika’ can be seen to develop in the early 1800s: in the lee of first-wave Gothic, with texts such as Frankenstein (1818).3 ‘Fantastika’, then, seeks to work across generic divisions and sub-divisions, allowing scholars and writers working on sf, Fantasy, the Gothic, horror and hybrid texts to enter into dialogue, to see similarities and shared concerns across these fields. This is, of course, how genres themselves develop: by importation, stealing, hybridization. Genres are not ‘pure’. When I teach science fiction to undergraduates, I often look at the generic boundaries rather than at ‘classic’ examples of the genre, because this enables us to see how sf texts work intertextually both within and without the genre: Alien and horror or the Weird; The Time Traveler’s Wife and the romance; Blade Runner and the Gothic. ‘Fantastika’ is a means by which those connections can be made more visible, and the several fields that it encompasses made more rich.

In July 2014 Visualising Fantastika took place at Lancaster University, a one-day conference that drew on scholars working across the UK. I was privileged to be invited by Charul (Chuckie) Patel, the chief organizer, to give a keynote, alongside that of the graphic novelist Bryan Talbot. Grasping an opportunity (as I had long admired Talbot’s work), I gave a talk called ‘Zeppelins, Iron Towers and Brass Engines’, which looked at how comic book writers and artists, in particular Talbot in his Luther Arkwright and Grandville books, and in the Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, used the form of the late 19th-century scientific romance to critique Empire, both in its pre-WW2 British and contemporary ‘neo-Imperialist’ forms.4 The three icons of the title I used to explore some of the pre-occupations of these comic-book neo-scientific romances, namely: war and global extensions of domination; utopia and ‘nostalgia for the future’; and the hidden machinery of power. While I took quite a direct (even literal) approach to the idea of ‘visualising fantastika’, the methods and subject matter of other presenters was wide-ranging and plural, from literature to films to film adaptations to games. This issue of The Luminary collects some of the presentations from the conference together, and on reading, you will see how the dialogues between genres and modes and forms that is presupposed by the very term ‘fantastika’ were given voice by the articles and by the discussions that followed.

We have, then, eight articles, which I will introduce while suggesting some connecting threads and recurrent ideas that emerged both during the day and which become evident when reading the articles. The issue begins with Will Smith’s reading of DC Comics’ character Equinox and the sequence of Justice League which investigates her life, as Miiyahbin Marten, living in Moose Factory, Ontario, Canada. Smith identifies the problems of representation of indigenous peoples throughout ‘comic storyworlds’ as well as the history of Canadian female superheroes, in reading the Canadian writer Jeff Lemire’s renegotiation not only of generic tropes but also of contemporary Canadian understandings of citizenship and nation. This is followed by Glyn Morgan’s essay on representations of, or perhaps the unrepresentability of the Holocaust, and in particular Spiegelman’s Maus and much earlier forerunners, such as Horst Rosenthal’s Mickey au camp de Gurs (written in 1942 by the Polish-Jewish Rosenthal while interred at the same Gurs camp), or Edmond-François Calvo’s La Bete est Morte! (1944). Also drawing on the Uncanny X-Men figure of Magneto, whose history as a concentration camp survivor becomes increasingly important to the series, Morgan argues that these comics are able to ‘normalise the Holocaust without diminishing it’, and that (by implication) they do important cultural work.

This is a recurrent motif in the articles collected here. There is a focus on the work that the reader, viewer or game-player does in the experience of interacting with each particular text, and by extension the affective work that such experiences bring to bear on the reader/ viewer/ user. That is, reading a comic book or playing a game not only makes us think (which is the crucial aspect of Darko Suvin’s conception of science fiction as ‘cognitive estrangement’), but that it makes us feel. In particular, the essays by Stephen Curtis and Orion Mavridou very much focus upon the investments that play (game play, cosplay) encourages in the act of reception. (I won’t say consumption here, as the models that both use suggest a different relation between text and its reader/ viewer/ user than one of simple consumption.)

Both Asami Nakamura and Alison Tedman concentrate on dystopia: Nakamura on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and its film and theatrical adaptations, and Tedman on the YA dystopia Divergent, in both literary and filmic forms. Both, understandably, are concerned with agency, with the protagonist’s freedom of choice (or otherwise), but both also explore the spaces of the text to fascinating effect. Utopia, of course, is very much a spatial form (in Thomas More’s 1516 text that names the genre, King Utopus cuts a trench that turns an isthmus into the island of Utopia), and its inheritors in both Utopian and Anti-Utopian modes or often suffused with imagery to do with enclosure: the glass walls of Zamyatin’s We, the Reservation in Huxley’s Brave New World, the Factions in Divergent. Where Nakamura argues that a theatrical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four constructs a kind of utopic space or ‘no-place’, Tedman’s essay concentrates on images of the ‘gamified’ city and the motif of spatial agency as a ‘defiance’ of the regime.

Dawn Stobbart, in her essay on the 1980s Hollywood films WarGames (1983) and The Last Starfighter  (1984) that place the player of video games as the hero, also has issues of agency at its core, and articulate a wish-fulfilment at work not only in the heroism of the gamer/ hacker but also in an optimistic reading of the potentialities of technology. In a particular connection to Tedman’s essay, Stobbart also focuses on the idea of ‘coming of age’, but here the cultural work proposed is an acceptance of otherness, both of the new technologies and in oneself. In his essay, Stephen Curtis, in a fascinating exploration of the multiple deaths that game-players experience which are ‘a necessary part of the pleasure experienced while playing games’, argues that such ‘deaths’ themselves do a form of affective work: ‘in dying,’ he writes, ‘the player truly asserts that they are alive’. This assertion of an affirmative experience of failure and death recuperates game mechanics in a surprising and, to me, eye-opening way. The final essay, by Ken Fee, is a detailed examination of the culture and practices of video game authors and designers, which rounds out the more critical and textual approaches of both Curtis and (more obliquely) Stobbart.

I have left Orion Mavridou’s essay until last, a little out of its sequence, because I think its explorations of cosplay draw together many of the threads found elsewhere. Issues of costume can be found in Smith’s and Tedman’s essays; the centrality of play can be found in Curtis’s and Fee’s work. The model of fandom that Mavridou proposes, however, ‘creative fandom, where the dissection of the media text serves to inform artistic practice’, can almost be seen as a key to the various methods, approaches and (on the day of the conference) presentational styles of those giving papers. Mavridou provocatively characterises cosplay as ‘posthuman drag’, and academic writing or presentation as cosplay, ‘a platform for introspection on matters of identity, creative expression and socialization’. The suggestion that, as scholars and academics, we are all involved in cosplay, in ‘posthuman drag’, is a fascinating and insightful one, where our critical performances are revealed as play and, most importantly, play is revealed as a critical act.

Visualising Fantastika drew upon the community of scholars at Lancaster who work in science fiction, the Gothic, horror, Fantasy, games; but the department of English and Creative Writing also is home to academics such as John Schad, who works with hybrid, critical/creative forms; Kamilla Elliott, who works on screen adaptation; and Jenn Ashworth, who writes and teaches (sometimes collaborating with myself) on experimental and digital narratives – when she’s not writing novels and short stories. At Lancaster, interdisciplinary work is encouraged but so is reflection upon those transmissions and hybridisations, the crossings-over and negotiations between forms, genres, or technologies of writing and storytelling. Chuckie Patel’s Visualising Fantastika conference entirely reflected this mode of critical inquiry, and the fruits of it can be read here. In 2015, the conference has expanded to become Locating Fantastika; in 2016, it will be Global Fantastika. At Lancaster and far beyond, it will continue to work as a forum for debate and scholarship within and across what John Clute called ‘the armamentarium of the fantastic in literature as a whole’.


1 As I’ve explored recently in the Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism: Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), one of the key things to note about the history of science fiction criticism is the many failed attempts to provide a comprehensive formal definition of the genre, one that doesn’t simply rely upon a catalogue of sub-genres. The most widely cited is that by Darko Suvin, elaborated in his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) which characterizes the genre as ‘the literature of cognitive estrangement’. While very useful this formal approach itself has limitations.

2See also Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1981); and more recently, Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).

3 Brian W. Aldiss suggests a similar starting place for science fiction in Billion Year Spree (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), as well as asserting its shared generic DNA with the Gothic. As with the definition(s) of science fiction, its generic history is also contested.

4 Bryan Talbot, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright 2nd edn (Dark Horse, 2008); Hearts of Empire 2nd edn (Dark Horse, 2008); Grandville (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009); Grandville Mon Amour (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010); Grandville Bête Noire (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012); Grandville Noël (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014). Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 1 (Top Shelf/ Knockabout, 2000) (there are four subsequent volumes); I also referred to Nemo: Roses of Berlin (Knockabout, 2014), a spin-off title.

Works Cited

“Fantastika.” Ed. John Clute. Science Fiction Encyclopaedia. 9 April 2015. Web. <>

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Back to Issue>>

Journal Home | Department Home | Editorial Board | Open Access Statement