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As our culture approaches its limit, we watch the space shuttle come apart before our eyes, once for real, again and again on the reruns. We hear that children in Poland drank iodine daily for a while to steel themselves against radiation after the Soviet nuclear disaster. We hear from theorists that we are entering a "postcultural" state, Umberto Eco writes an essay indicating that we are living in a new Middle Ages, and Eric Rabkin seems to think it fairly self-evident to observe at the outset of The Fantastic in Literature that "in the twentieth-century world, our preconceptions of the impossible are assaulted every day. Some men learn computer-assisted porpoise language while others shriek at baboons; gentle people all over the world spend hours thinking well of their houseplants." Frank McConnell tells of a T-shirt he saw at a science fiction convention that read: "Reality is a crutch for people who can't deal with science fiction." In other words, the fantastic has become the realism our culture understands.
So it is not surprising that at Florida Atlantic University in 1979 a small conference for teachers of science fiction was set up or that the response was so positive that the next year saw the first International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts kick off in its place, with more than two hundred papers presented by scholars from half a dozen European countries as well as the United States [End Page 704] and Canada and with Nobel Laureate Isaac B. Singer as featured speaker. Nor is it surprising that William Coyle launches Aspects of Fantasy, a collection of about ten percent of the papers delivered at the 1981 Conference on the Fantastic, by saying that "in A.D. 2222 when (or if) historians assess the literature of the late twentieth century, the most obvious trend is certain to be the diminished prestige of realism, which dominated the literary imagination for about seventy-five years." The assumptions behind the essays, then, are that the great tradition of the arts is founded not on a realist impulse but a fantastic one and that fantasy "is not a genre but a mode, a way of perceiving human experience" that finds expression in science fiction, utopias, fairy tales, allegory, myth, fable, nonsense verse, dream literature, absurdist drama, and so on.
Most of these essays are examples of the best that contemporary criticism has to offer. They are informative, intelligent, lucidly written, and to the point. Although they are aware of theory, they do not get bogged down in it. They illuminate not only specific texts but large fields of them. Rosemary Jackson, whose Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion is a cornerstone in fantasy studies, uses Freud and Lacan to supplement Frankenstein. Michael Budd, R. Stephen Craig, and Clay Steinman explore how advanced capitalism frustrates independent adulthood by examining the relationship of commercials to an episode of the television program Fantasy Island. Don D. Elgin, whose essay forms the basis of his 1985 study, The Comedy of the Fantastic, links the tragic vision to an anti-ecological perspective and the comic to an ecological one because "comedy, unlike tragedy, insists that man is part of nature physically, morally, and intellectually and that he must adapt himself to the complex natural system." Other critics discuss creators of fantasy, fantastic creatures, and the relationship of fantasy to literary tradition. The only loss of bite here comes from the strange lack of studies on fantastic poetry (a common absence in fantasy criticism) and the virtual lack of deconstructive approaches, as well as the sad fact that the excellent essays in this collection were written...