Guest post – Simon Morden discusses Down Station and portal fantasy.

DOWN-STATION-SMA new book that I very much enjoyed reading this month is Simon Morden’s Down Station. For a fuller assessment, you can read my review in the next issue of Interzone.

For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.

One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.

In defence of Narnia and other portals
Simon Morden

I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.

Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.

Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.

The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.

Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.

At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.

I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.

At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.

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