By Ted Gioia

Are you looking for stories that anticipate the future?  
Well, first of all, ignore science fiction.  Back in the
mid-1970s,
Star Wars might have been the biggest box
office hit with its extravagant futurism and cutting
edge special effects; but for my money,
The Rocky
Horror Picture Show
(1977) did
a better job of anticipating
American ways and means of
a later day.  In pop music,
David Bowie was closer to
the mark with
Ziggy Stardust
than "Space Oddity."  And
the same is true of early modern
fiction: in the late 1920s, Edgar
Rice Burroughs excited readers
with his adventure books set
on the planet Mars and in the
mythical world of Pellucidar
(located beneath the Earth's
crust), but Virginia Woolf's
Orlando (1928) was far
more forward-looking than anything in the sci-fi camp.

Back in the 1920s, the word 'gender' usually only
showed up in your high school Latin textbook, or in
other equally boring discussions of grammar.  You
talked about it with the same enthusiasm you referred
to the 15 uses of the ablative case or the hortatory
subjunctive.  For the record, 'gender' only appears
once in
Orlando—in a description of an article of
clothing 'of ambiguous gender'—but even this
passing mention is revealing.  
Orlando is a book where
the concept of gender is wide-ranging and deliberately
amorphous, and not just with the clothes (or anything
else) left hanging in the closet; in Ms. Woolf's fictive
universe, the biological imperatives seemingly set in
stone at birth can be countered and redefined.  Male
and female are no longer binary oppositions, but part
of a fluid continuum.  Sound familiar?

Orlando enters chapter one as a man and—about a
third of the way through the novel—turns into a
woman.  If this were a science fiction novel, some new
technology or advanced medical procedure would be
inserted at this point, or a strange nuclear fallout that
messes with X and Y chromosomes.   But Virginia
Woolf did not write
that kind of a novel.  In her story,
Orlando simply falls asleep as a man and wakes up as
a woman. "He stretched himself. He rose. He stood
upright, and….we have no choice left but confess—
he was a woman…..The change seemed to have been
accomplished painlessly and completely and in such a
way that Orlando herself showed no surprise at it."  
Nor do the many people who deal with Orlando
express any amazement—although the courts have a
field day dealing with the legal implications of this
transformation (another way in which Orlando
anticipated a later day, no?).

And Woolf takes the same liberties with biological
aging as she does with gender.  Orlando is born
under the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, and by
the time the book concludes, she is still around for
the birth of the second Queen Elizabeth.  Over the
course of more than three centuries, Orlando has
aged a little but, with no help from Botox of the
surgeon's knife, is still barely into middle age at the
conclusion of our story, which Woolf tells us, in the
final sentence, takes place at "the twelfth stroke of
midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October,
Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight."

Along the way Orlando has a dalliance with Elizabeth
(the first, not the second), pursues an ill-fated
romance (while still a man) with a Russian princess
—an interlude based on an affair between Vita
Sackville-West, a real-life model for Orlando, with
Violet Trefusis;  he serves as ambassador in
Constantinople, and (now as a woman) lives with
gypsies before returning to England.  Orlando takes up
the cause of British letters, and associates with John
Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison and other
esteemed authors—who invariably are less
prepossessing in person than on the printed page.
After friendships and courtships with women and
men—or, in one instance, a woman who turns out to
be a man, in a mirror image of Orlando's own
transformation—our heroine marries a sea captain,
and becomes a prize-winning writer herself.

But no synopsis of the plot can do justice to the
distinctive qualities of this novel.  For all its fanciful
storylines, the tone and atmosphere of Orlando is
what readers will remember about the book.  I first
read Woolf's novel during my student years, after a
visit to
Knole House, one of the largest country
estates in England, with hundreds of rooms and
located on a thousand acres—a residence for
Sackville-West's ancestors and the inspiration for
Orlando's palatial home in Woolf’s novel.  In my
memory the texture of the novel blurred with the
colors and images of the Knole House paintings and
tapestries.  A mythic quality pervades these pages,
which seem to present a stylized and heightened kind
of existence, not real life as we live it, but as we might
encounter in a hallucination or dream.   

"Sunsets were redder and more intense," Woolf
writes; "dawns were whiter and more auroral.  Of our
crepuscular half-light they knew nothing.  The rain
fell vehemently, or not at all.  The sun blazed or there
was darkness….The withered intricacies of and
ambiguities of our more gradual and doubtful age were
unknown to them.  Violence was all. The flower
bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover
loved and went."

But on re-reading the work nowadays, I pick up so
much more than I perceived at the age of twenty. I
am now familiar with Woolf's other novels, and turn
to her for the sheer beauty of her language as much as
for the story itself.  Few writers in the history of the
English language have ever written better, on a
sentence-by-sentence basis, or gone further in blurring
the boundaries between prose and poetry.  But above
all, Orlando stands out today as a prescient forerunner
of so many later novels—from
The Left Hand of
Darkness to Middlesex—that present gender as dynamic
rather than static, and have made femininity and
masculinity as surface themes, rather than unstated
presumptions, in contemporary fiction.   

But, ultimately, no single category or label can do
justice to this
sui generis work.  Woolf offers the sub-
title "A Biography" to her novel, and in the course of
its pages repeatedly adopts the tone of a biographer or
historian—albeit, usually in mockery of the
conventional attitudes adopted by chroniclers of past
lives.  We might also be justified in treating
Orlando
as a roman à clef, and attempting to find the real life
people that stand behind the fictional characters.  Or
we could classify this novel under the rubric of
magical realism or fantasy. Just as readily, this novel
can withstand interpretation as a political novel, or
serve as a springboard for discussions of various
social, psychological or cultural themes—as
documented by the numerous dissertations written
on this book.  But I suspect that Nigel Nicolson, son
of Vita Sackville-West, may have summed it up best.  
In his words,
Orlando is "the longest and most
charming love-letter in literature."  And though Woolf
may have written it with Nigel's mother in mind, we
can still fall under the emotional sway of her
billet-doux
these many years later.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Orlando
by Virginia Woolf
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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
share.  

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
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

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
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

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
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

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
Borges

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
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

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
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

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

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

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

Apuleius
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.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

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.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

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.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas
Camp Concentration

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

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
Light

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
Dune

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
Solaris

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
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

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

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

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
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

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.
Slan

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
Slaughterhouse-Five

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

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

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
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The Millions
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