A back door into magic

Skating alone on a pond photoPHOTO by Filip Mroz at Unsplash

If you walk into any bookstore you will find things shelved and classified according to rigorous  criteria. Cookbooks, hither, not to be confused with memoirs, there, or history, over there. There is an entire section called FICTION sorted into boxes such as Mysteries, Young Adult, Romance, Science fiction, Fantasy. .

And then you hit the sub-boxes – what KIND of fantasy? Is it historical fantasy with hints in the background about a real historical era? s it urban fantasy with gritty city streets? Is it high fantasy with a dragon on the cover? Secondary world fantasy? Tolkien clone? Does it take place in Hogwarts?…

My novels have had their share of labels.

For example, “The Secrets of Jin-shei” – by virtue of being carried by eight female protagonists – has been called “feminist fantasy.”

My “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“ has been called “religious fantasy” by someone struggling to pin this rather uncategorizable book down to a soundbite, although I struggle to find anything overtly “religious” in that novel.

An article on io9 a few years ago offered a new sub-category — “Bckdoor Fntasy”. Here’s what they meant by that:

When our everyday lives are full of devices and discoveries that feel magical, it’s time for fantasy to reinvent itself. And it has, in a new form you could call backdoor fantasy… instead of drawing us deeper into an alternate world of magic that seethes just beneath the city…it draws us deeper into the real world. What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can’t be explained by science.”

This sounds like most of my novels.

The io9 article says a Jo Walton novel “Among Others” is a perfect example of Back Door Fantasy. “In it we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton’s protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy.”

If you haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so. But here’s the thing about that book for me. Walton’s heroine… was kind of… me. Okay, I didn’t have a vanished twin, or a witchy mother who could do actual awful crazy magickal stuff, or an estranged guilt-ridden dad who sent me off to a posh boarding school… but the boarding school and the escape into books, that was my own life.

I daresay that this particular back door is hardly likely to be there for other readers who haven’t shared my own particular life and times and experiences. The point, however, is that the magic in these cases might just lie in that kernel of pure recognition – something that leaps from the page at you and catches you by the throat and screams, YOU KNOW ME! YOU LIVED ME!

I touched that for readers of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“. I know I did  because readers and reviewers have spoken of a feeling that they got from the book, a feeling of being able to identify with the place in which the novel is set, with the circumstances in which it takes place, with the relationships of once-friends who were being picked up after years of hiatus. Reviewers and readers said things like: 
“It feels like you had just sat down for a cup of coffee with some old friends”,
“It seemed as if I had been to this particular café before”,
“I kind of knew the people in this book, because they were me, they were my friends”

The only magic in this book is a sprinkling of fairy dust. There is a manifestly supernatural character who refers to himself as “the Messenger”, although he never says whose messenger he is. Readers have identified him as variously an angel or a sprite of some sort – someone through whom the power to make a choice is transferred to a human soul.

And it is in that choice that the magic lies.

I write about people. I write about what makes people change. Like I said to someone in a conversation about this very novel, what makes people change are answers to two polar-opposite questions: what makes you happy, and what do you fear. The first will make you run towards something; the second, away. But both will MOVE you, and once you are in motion you cannot help but encounter choices.

The io9 people go on to say, “This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn’t mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.”

I say, amen. There is just so much magic in our world, the “real” world, which we are so often too busy to stop and appreciate. Let me give you some examples from a real life. Mine.

The first one concerns a skating pond in the woods behind one of the world’s great hotels in Banff. This is one of those unreal hotels build in the shape and form of a castle, situated amongst tall firs, and I was there one cold, cold winter. You could go down a winding stair into the woods to a frozen pond. I went down the stair and found that it gloriously and completely empty of any other soul except me. Christmas fairy lights in the trees twinkled on the snow around me. The trees stood like silent white sentinels in the dark, and the stars in the night sky were bright and sharp like shards. It was just me and the wilderness.

I started skating, alone in the night, the swish of skate blades on ice, multicoloured shadows falling about my feet. And I felt like weeping with a holy joy because I felt as though I could pass right through this unreal scene and step – or skate – into a whole other world which trembled just there, just in the corner of my eye, just out of reach.

Tell me this moment had no magic in it. True magic. Real magic. MY magic.

The second example is a long way from that night, a bright day in the Florida Keys. I’m kneeling on a low wooden platform next to a pool with two dolphins, a mother and son I had just spent a half hour swimming with, holding out treats. The younger dolphin was still very much a “child” in every sense – exuberant, playful, pushy and completely and passionately free with his emotions. Instead of coming for his treat, this baby dolphin came swimming full-tilt at the jetty, leaped out of the water completely, and tucked himself under my arm. Our eyes met, and I swear he smiled. And then, with one flip of that powerful tail, he had reversed himself and had slid back into the water.

A dolphin had HUGGED me.

A little piece of magic, right there. Right in my arms.

The third one. A letter arrived at my house one day. From NASA. FROM NASA.

They were producing a commemorative poster for the Mercury 13, the women who trained in the early astronaut program back when women had no chance of going into space. They had stepped up anyway, because they refused to relinquish the dream of the stars or the idea that those stars belonged to them just as much as to men. NASA wanted to know whether I would grant them permission to use an excerpt from one of my poems on that poster.

I cried. I was so humbled, so proud, so full of feelings I cannot begin to describe to you.

Like the Mercury 13 themselves, I would never myself float out there amongst the stars – but my words are there now, for keeps, on a poster which commemorates women reaching for that then impossible dream. That is a piece of magic that I treasure, a very real piece of magic, something that I am reminded of every time I walk past the wall in my house on which a framed copy of that poster hangs.

I will find some little piece of magic to build into my next story, too, and the next, and the one after that. If that is what they want to call it, a back door fantasy, I’ll take it. But I’ll keep on opening those back doors. There is too much joy and beauty and sadness and glory and pure humanity behind them to leave them closed, and people need to be reminded – always, and constantly – that the magic is there for the taking, just by reaching out and touching it.

In this December, if you live somewhere where you might be expecting snow, remember this presence of magic in the white silence of a snowfall – go out and walk in one, and let that silence and whiteness surround you, and listen for the songs of that silence. If you live in a place where you aren’t expecting snow, wander out into the balmy air in your shorts and your short sleeves and wonder at the magic that lets you walk along a beach with your toes in warm water breaking into white foamy lace at your feet while someone else out there is wandering in that joyous snow.

When you wake up January 1 of the new year, open your eyes and know that you are living in a brand new world, just born with the sun. And that, right there, is a piece of magic that you can carry with you every day of your life.

Open the back door. Step into magic. It is waiting.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

“Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.” – Brian Herbert

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

“The ability to “fantasize” is the ability to survive. It’s wonderful to speak about this subject because there have been so many wrong-headed people dealing with it…. The so-called realists are trying to drive us insane, and I refuse to be driven insane…. We survive by fantasizing. Take that away from us and the whole damned human race goes down the drain.” ~ Ray Bradbury

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