by Ted Gioia

Fantasy and science fiction, marked at their birth
as the most heroic of genres, were destined to flip-
flop and take on a mock heroic stance.  Didn't
Hegel tell us all things turn into their opposites?  
Yes, we've lived through dialectical times.  We now
see Mao smile at us from the currency of the
most capitalist society on the planet.  We've watched
democracies elect "Presidents for Life," and no one
even chuckles at the term. We've even seen Madonna
rise to fame through a song extolling virginity.  So
we shouldn't be surprised when the fantasy hero
turns into the fantasy failure.

But this was heady stuff when
it first arrived on the scene
—and, no, we're not talking
about Madonna's corset. Kurt
Vonnegut was the first sig-
nificant author to develop this
new approach to genre fiction.  
In works such as
The Sirens of
Titan and Cat's Cradle, he poked
gentle fun at sci-fi conventions
even as he employed them on
almost every page.  But the
anti-golden age of mock space
operas didn't arrive until the late 1970s and early
1980s, when Douglas Adams published
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett
launched his
Discworld series.   

These changes in intergalactic entertainments had
more than a little bit in common with terrestrial
fictions of various sorts and stripes.   The
postmodernist spirit pervading the literary world
during this same period inspired a whole generation
of highbrow writers to undermine their own
premises.   Stories swallowed their own tales,
characters rebelled against their authors, and a
general spirit of revelry, sometimes collapsing into
anarchy, prevailed.  The dominant tone of the era
was irony.  The most prized pursuits were the most
futile.  The butt of the joke was often the reader,
who was expected to laugh along and keep turning
the pages.   

And they usually did.  Especially when the story-
teller was Terry Pratchett, who still remains the
master of the mock heroic tone in fantasy fiction.  
In Pratchett's
The Color of Magic—the first book in
his popular
Discworld series—he launched a franchise
that would eventually sell more than 70 million
books, and spawn translations into more than three
dozen languages.  Until Harry Potter came along,
Pratchett routinely dominated the fantasy series
bestseller charts, and if the truth be told, those
amusing scenes in J.K. Rowling's books when spells
go wrong and wizardry blends seamlessly with
comedy will remind readers of Pratchett's
precedence.  For these efforts, our author became
Sir Terry Pratchett in 2009.   

Rincewind, the wizard hero of
The Color of Magic,
could hardly be more incompetent.  He got kicked
out of the Unseen University for wizards (yes, it
was founded before Hogwarts), and only knows
one spell—and that incantation is so dangerous
even he doesn't dare use it.  Rincewind encounters
adventures inadvertently—usually while retreating
from the last one.  Where other heroes rescue,
Rincewind is invariably rescued.  

Rincewind's traveling companion Twoflower is the
wizard's antithesis.  He is a tourist in Discworld,
and his insatiable curiosity for new sights and
experiences invariably prods him forward into risky
terrain.  He scorns danger, not through bravery but
due to naiveté and an appealing insouciance.   
Twoflower makes many bad decisions—first and
foremost, hiring Rincewind as his guide—but
possesses a lucky streak that gets him through the
worst binds unscathed.

Of course, he has a little help.  Lady Luck, an
official goddess of Discworld, even pays Twoflower
a visit during the course of these pages.  But
Twoflower's greatest resource may be his luggage.  
An iron-bound chest constructed of sapient
pearwood, this suitcase has legs and follows
wherever its master goes.  Anyone who tries to
steal its contents finds some sharp teeth and a
Rolling Stones-sized tongue inside.   In the long
history of magical containers—from Pandora's box
to Felix the Cat's
bag of tricks—this loyal luggage is
best equipped to win the popularity contest, and is
awarded with a starring role in Pratchett's novel.

Perhaps I should spare a few words on the
cosmogony of Discworld.  Pratchett himself,
renouncing the time-honored practice of fantasy
writers, refuses to provide a map.  "You can't map
a sense of humor," he explains.  "Anyway, what is a
fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be
Dragons?"  But he is not telling the whole truth
here.  Beyond Discworld, instead of a dragon, one
encounters a giant turtle, the Great A'Tuin, who
slowly trods through outer space.  On the turtle's
back stand four very large elephants.  And on the
backs of the elephants sits the large plate of

Yes, you can fall off the edge.  A nasty experience,
to be sure, but at least you get a good look at the
turtle and elephants as you spin off into outer
space.  Indeed, this is one of the terrors that
Rincewind and Twoflower must face in their
travels, but by no means the only one.  They are
also pursued by thieves, slated for extermination by
evil rulers, threatened by fire, water, earth and air in
many of their nastiest manifestations. Slave-traders
want to sell them into slavery, and the rescuers
want to offer them as a sacrifices to Fate.  As if all
that isn't bad enough, the Grim Reaper shows up
periodically during the course of
The Color of Magic.  
You can tell when he arrives—he's the dude with
no flesh on his skull, and always speaks in capital
letters.  (Typical small talk from Death: THE

How do you wrap up a rambling picaresque parody
such as this one?  Pratchett pulls out all the stops
and delivers an edgy—or perhaps 'over the edge' is a
better descriptor—climactic stunt reminiscent of
Slim Pickens' most famous scene in Dr. Strangelove.  
And how can you top that?  Well, Pratchett rose to
the occasion. He followed up
The Color of Magic with
38 additional
Discworld novels, an encore in excess of
three million words and spanning almost three

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.
His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the
The Color of Magic
by Terry Pratchett
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(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

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 essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

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

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

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

Bunch, David R.

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

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

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

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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
The Centauri Device

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

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

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

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

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

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

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

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

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

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

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

Vance, Jack

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

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other