Italo Calvino on fantasy

Gore Vidal’s 1985 piece in the New York Review on Italo Calvino, who’d just died, popped up on their site today. I was captivated by this quote from Calvino in an interview:

only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can’t make anything.

That could be read as an argument against most genre fiction — better, as undermining its claim to be a workable medium. I’ve been toying with the prospect of SF as a way of writing about Brazil, a country that’s certainly stranger than fiction. What would seem implausible exaggeration in a straight account could pass as poetic licence in space opera. That’s in keeping with the tradition of “Persian” and other orientalising satire, except that in this Kakania, the problem isn’t the censor, but stretching the reader’s credulity.

For instance I remember a story by John Wyndham (I think) in which the hero wakes up to the sound of superdecibel advertising in his street. It turns out that evil experimenters working for an agency have miniaturised an entire town to test the effectiveness of such techniques, which couldn’t be tried in the real world because it would be illegal. If Wyndham was extrapolating from the increasing intrusiveness of advertising in the fifties, he would no doubt be delighted to see his dystopian exaggeration realised in twenty-first century Latin America.


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