By Ted Gioia

One late night in 1986, Neil Gaiman described to
editor Richard Evans a new kind of fantasy fiction
built around the concept of a magical city. He pointed

to recent novels such as Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale
and John Crowley's Little,
Big as examples of the
emerging genre—works
that turned New York into
a kind of Narnia with sky-
scrapers and noisy traffic.  
He wondered aloud why
no one had written a story
of this sort about London.  
Evans looked at him and
said:  "Well, why don't you
do it?"

A decade later, Gaiman got
his chance. The BBC

financed six 30-minute episodes
of Neverwhere, a fantasy miniseries set in "London
Below," an alternative reality domain located beneath
the existing city. His collaborator actor/comedian
Lenny Henry had suggested that the plot focus on
"tribes of homeless people in London," but Gaiman
was resistant to any attempt to glamorize poverty
and neglect. When the story finally crystallized, the
homeless still figured
in the plot, but the tale was
infused with a gritty and dark-magic noir ambiance,
more like Oz the prison (of HBO fame) than Oz over
the rainbow (of  Wizardly fame).

"I could talk about homelessness, mental illness, being
lost in a big city but also talk about the power that
cities have," Gaiman later commented, "and I could do
all of that while, at the same time, telling something
that is a fantasy series."  Although the production
was compromised by some ill-advised cost-

cutting measures—including a decision to shoot it
with videotape rather than film—the show has
continued to enjoy a cult following, and stands out
for a number of distinctive touches, from set design
to music by Brian Eno.    

The television series also served as a springboard for a
flexible narrative that could morph into a novel, a
comic book series, a film script (still in development),
even a stage play.  Gaiman's 1996 novelization stands
out as the best known of these various instantiations of
Neverwhere.  It became an international bestseller and
has been translated into more than 20 languages.  
Although the book follows closely the script of the
miniseries, it gave Gaiman a chance to expand on
elements of the story and also bring back scenes
eliminated from the screen version, notably a colorful
interlude where inhabitants of London Below take over
Harrod's for a night and turn in into a magical
marketplace—which failed to make it into the BBC

series when owners of Harrod's changed their mind
about the use of their store as a TV set.

Richard Mayhew, the hero of our story, is a m
id-level employee for an investment firm in London.

His life revolves around his office cubicle, his ho-hum
apartment, and his attractive fiancée Jessica, a pushy
young lady who has more ambitions for her future
husband than he can muster for himself.  But Richard
stumbles out of this familiar orbit one evening, when

he helps a mysterious young woman named Door
escape from her pursuers. Door comes from
London Below, and has some dangerous enemies.
By befriending her, Mayhew finds he has also cut
himself off from his past life—the residents of
'real' London no longer see or recognize him. He
has become a non-person, one of those individuals
who falls through the cracks of everyday London
and ends up in the netherworld beneath the city.

Gaiman's story follows the familiar meme of the

heroic vision quest.  In order to regain his old life,
Richard must join forces with Door and her

colleagues—the taciturn bodyguard Hunter and the
enigmatic Marquis de Carabas—in overcoming a

series of adversaries and obstacles in pursuit of an
angel, a magic key, and the door that it unlocks. The
ingredients here are familiar from countless adventure
and fantasy stories:  hired assassins, monstrous

creatures, a fortuneteller, talking animals, a maze,
hidden passageways and other time-honored elements
of speculative fiction.  But Gaiman infuses these
staples of the genre with such color and panache
that, in his hands, even a labyrinth gets some new
twists and turns.  He has a sure touch for comedy
and satire, but never lets it take control of the plot
—in the manner, say, of Douglas Adams or Terry
Pratchett.  And his smart and smart-alecky dialogue
reminds you why the BBC sought him out in the first
place to create
a TV miniseries.

Here, for example, is a sampling of the repartee of his

two leading thugs, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar—
wisecracking and Shakespeare-quoting criminals who
seem to enjoy some magical protection against bodily

"So, Mister Vandemar, shall we not also hire ourselves
a bodyguard?"

"We don’t need a bodyguard, Mister Croup.  

We hurt people. We don’t get hurt."

"Oh, Mister Vandemar, if you cut us, do we not bleed?"

Mr. Vandemar pondered this for moment, in the dark.

Then he said, with perfect accuracy, "No."

Mayhew seems overmatched at every turn in the
underworld, and not just by Vandemar and Croup,
who present him with some unusual threats, ( "Do

you know what your own liver tastes like? You'll find
out, won’t you."), but also by an assortment of other
enemies and challenges.  He meets up with the

Blackfriars at the Blackfriars Underground station
—part of an alternative mythology of the London
subway system contrived by Gaiman, which also
includes an Earl in Earls Court and shepherds at
Shepherd's Bush—who force him to undergo an

"ordeal" in a locked room. He deals with a pesky
underworld girlfriend who hopes to suck the

lifeblood out of him.  And, finally, in the midst of
the maze he encounters Gaiman's stand-in for the
minotaur, but with no Ariadne to help him in his


And, for all this, the stakes are so low—the most

Mayhew can hope for is a return trip back to a desk
job and his nagging girlfriend.  Thus our hero is the
mirror image of Gaiman's readers—the latter want
escapism from the everyday, the former wants to

return to the daily grind.  I won't be a spoiler, so
you will need to read Neverwhere to see if Richard gets
his wish.  But as for the readers:  they, I assure you,
are in safe hands.  
conceptual fiction
by Neil Gaiman
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction

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