On the last day of Wiscon I was dashing through the Dealer’s Room buying books. I stopped at Small Beer Press for a few items, had a lovely chat with the folks there, and then noticed the small, pamphlet-sized volume on the table’s corner.
I know of Hal Duncan’s work primarily as a blogger. A deeply funny, wickedly profane, sharply intelligent blogger. I first heard of him as That Scottish Sodomite, which, well, gives you an idea of the blog’s humor. I hadn’t heard of An A to Z of the fantastic city, and picked it up with enthusiasm.
Duncan’s work was the first thing I read upon getting home from Wiscon. I think this is because I had an impression that a collection of twenty-six short story-essays would be easier to digest than a novel. This was … a mixed presumption, on my part. An A to Z of the fantastic city is, indeed, composed of twenty-six short story-essays. But they are as easy or as hard as you let them be.
The collection is a guide, a travelogue, an encyclopedia of sorts, to unreal cities. But it’s more complicated than that. Heaven is listed here; so is London. Xanadu and Washington, Erewhon and Byzantium all have their place.
Time for an autobiographical digression.
Before I moved to Minnesota, I read an issue of the comic book Exaclibur in which our hero, Kitty Pryde, met her favorite band, Cats Laughing. The band members were Emma Bull, Steve Brust, Lojo Russo, and Falcon. Three of those people are real; I’ve met them. One is a fictional character created by another member of the band.
When I moved to Saint Paul for college, I read a book called War for the Oaks. In this book, the members of a struggling rock-and-roll band in Minneapolis find themselves embroiled in a war between the light and dark fae. There’s a war on in the streets of St. Paul, a war taking place in Como Park and at Minnehaha Falls. Our hero meets the fae queen at the top of the Prospect Park lookout tower. The showdown takes place at a Battle of the Bands inside the First Ave nightclub.
It was, I think my second MiniCon before I saw the band Cats Laughing play. I saw Emma and Steve and Lojo, with a drummer whose name I do not recall but who was not an alien prince on the down-low. As far as I know. I’ve climbed down the stairs and stood at the foot of the Falls, I’ve been to the Como Park Conservatory many times, I’ve attended shows at First Ave. And none of this reality has ever managed to eradicate the fictional lives these places and people had in my mind before I ever met them.
Hal Duncan understands this.
Hal Duncan knows that the world is a palimpsest of experience, that reality is the fictions we lay on it. He knows, as Elizabeth Bear said at a Wiscon panel on Sunday past, that history has no narrative; we impose one on it. And if that narrative contains goblins and elder gods, so be it.
I’ve never been to Byzantium. But I have been to the fantastic city of Byzantium. I’ve never been to Oxbridge. But I have a perfect map of it in my head, I know its stones and lanes and I know the river and its punts.
An A to Z of the fantastic city is a guidebook. But I fully expect that half of you already have been to half these places. You know them as well as Mr. Duncan or I do. Which makes this book not only a guide, a record of things for the unfamiliar, it makes it a series of love letters you might have written once, a long time ago, and forgotten.