From Second World to Secondary World

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The conspiratorial fantasies I propose to study are only sometimes explicitly fantastic in form, despite the ubiquity of fantasy and science fiction on the post-Soviet scene.  The Russian adaptation of the hit British television series Life on Mars, whose twenty-first century protagonist wakes up after an accident to find himself in the body of his father in the Brezhnev era, is an example of the portal quest fantasy, in which a traveler from “our” world finds himself in a magical land.[1]  Calling the  Late Socialist USSR “magical” is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but the rosy nostalgia that has come to surround the “era of stagnation’ and the Soviet Union’s status of capital of the Second World,  along with the unexplained mechanism by which the hero makes his journey, suffuses the entire series with a sense of the fantastic.   As Farah Mendelsohn writes in Rhetorics of Fantasy, “When we think of portal fantasies, we commonly assume that the portal is from ‘our’ world to the fantastic, but the portal fantasy is about entry, transition, and negotiation” (xix). [2] This process of negotiation is one that can lead to insights about both worlds, not just the “other” one. 

The portal quest guarantees an external perspective to the fantasy world; Narnia’s delights unfold largely in the consciousness of its visitors.  Such stories sharply contrast with the other most common form of fantasy narrative, which Mendelsohn calls “immersive.”  Here, there is no external perspective.  As a result, the fantastic in these tales is almost entirely in the minds of the reader.  Frodo may be unequipped to deal with orcs, and the inhabitants of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros may have grown skeptical about the existence of dragons and the walking dead, but in each case, the characters live in a world where the impossible is defined differently than it is in ours.  Frodo does not know that he lives in a fantasy world, but Dorothy is acutely aware that she is visiting one. 

By extension we can posit that all fiction, including the default realism of most popular and literary fiction, exists in a variation on Tolkien’s idea of the “secondary world” (one that is internally consistent, but operates according to different rules from our “primary” world). [3] In realism, the secondary world is constructed to mimic the primary world as closely as possible, and yet it is still a world that is constructed rather than simply found, posited rather than given. Casual discussions of fantasy genres engage in a simple but flexible taxonomy that distinguishes various subgenres and even specific texts according to a simple metric:   just how much magic do they contain?  Epic fantasy can range from great gobs of magic (as in Tolkien) to relatively little (Martin's Game of Thrones) to virtually none (Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast), while urban fantasy can combine the veneer of contemporary realism with quasi-Manichaean metaphysics (Sergei Lukianenko's Night Watch novels), show a mundane world shadowed by various mythological or magical other worlds (almost anything by Neil Gaiman), or exploit the cognitive dissonance inspired by the casual acceptance of one, perhaps two, elements of the traditionally supernatural in an otherwise recognizably mundane world (the early entries in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series, which inspired HBO's True Blood). Realism, then, is just a special subcase of fantasy that allows no magic whatsoever, a secondary world that tries its best to pass for primary. 

For most purposes (and most readers), the constructed nature of the realist secondary world is unimportant.  This changes if the plot seems contrived, or the characters’ behavior incomprehensible.  But it also varies to the extent that the text has a satirical function or serves as social criticism; referring the reader to a social injustice or societal foible requires that the reader will actually recognize the problem as relevant or possible.  Ideological, tendentious, or political fictions are immersive fantasies whose secondary world attempts to pass for the reader’s primary world; they are successful when they get their readers not merely to suspend disbelief (understood as a prerequisite to successful fantasy since the days of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), but to adopt the belief posited by the fantasy, and, if only briefly, reconsider their primary world in terms of the lessons of the secondary. And, as with all immersive fantasies, the lack of an external viewpoint or reader surrogate only goes so far; when we close the book (or turn off the screen), we realize that we, like Bilbo, have gone there and back again. As readers, we have traveled to this secondary world whose primary difference from the one in which we live lies in its sheer legibility.  The Russia narratives reprocess the primary world, producing an imaginary version that, unlike life, comes equipped with a user’s manual.  These narratives explain why the world is the way it is, and sometimes indicate what is to be done to change it.  The Russia narrative moves seamlessly from the descriptive to the prescriptive. 

And this is what unites the Russia narrative in both its fictional and non-fictional forms.  The non-fiction version may claim to be enumerating facts on the path to the revelation of truth, but its purchase depends on its ability to create a cohesive simulacrum of Russia and its place in the world.  The non-fiction, like the fiction, is deeply committed to world-building. But where non-fiction plays down its resemblance to fiction for the purposes of persuasion, the fiction plays down the polemical in favor of the fictive and the entertaining.  In the Russia narrative, the forms of fiction and non-fiction are not in opposition to each other, but rather represent two ends of a road on which the narrative travels.

Next: Ideological Cosplay 

Note

[1] Russian fiction even has its own subgeneric variation on the portal quest, usually in a more science fictional mode:  the numerous stores about “попаданцы”, an untranslatable word that suggests “reluctant travelers in time and/or space”.  The lurkmore page for “попаданцы” acknowledges numerous non-Russian precursors and analogs (most notably in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series,” but gives up on any attempt to provide an English definition. 

[2] Mendelsohn , Farah.  Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. 

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tree and Leaf Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969: 37.