but is less forthcoming about what her allegory represents. Ursula K. Le Guin, for her part,
prefers to describe
Hav as science fiction—but there isn't much science here, and surprisingly
little deference to the usual modes of fiction. Some readers have even assumed that the book
is non-fiction, and pestered the author for information on how to visit Hav. I think "alternative
history" might be a better label, but best of all would be "alternative geography"—except for
he unfortunate fact that there is no fiction genre called alternative geography.   

In other words, Jan Morris has written a novel that is in a class
by itself…but only because no one else got admitted to the class.

Morris, by trade, is not a novelist, but rather a travel writer—and
ranks among the finest of her generation. She has written
acclaimed book-length studies of Hong Kong, Oxford, Trieste,
Sydney, Venice, and other locales. So who can be surprised
that, when Morris decided to turn her hand to fiction, she
wrote a novel in the form of a travel book. But with one catch:
the city of Hav doesn’t exist. Her novel is the account of
imaginary visits to make-believe locales.

Yet her narrative possesses such intense realism that you can
well understand the confusion of the member of the Royal
Geographic Society who contacted Morris hoping for guidance
in finding Hav on the map. Of course, it appears on no map,
but you can almost imagine where it would reside on a globe,
a gateway between East and West, a conduit on important
waterways and trade routes, centrally located in the center of
things, yet also off the beaten track, easy to ignore and neglect.

This novel was originally written as two separate narratives, published more than two
decades apart. The first two-thirds of the book were issued under the name
Last Letters
from Hav
in 1985, and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Morris published a lengthy
coda entitled
Hav of the Myrmidons in 2006, and both works now reside a single volume
Hav. The two narratives combine seamlessly into a coherent novel, and I suspect
that many readers wouldn’t be aware that more than quarter century separated their

Morris offers a peculiar, but persuasive, explanation for why she turned to fiction to create
a work of travel literature. "I had come to realize that I really seldom knew what I was writing
about," she admits. "I did not truly understand the multitudinous forces—political, economic,
historical, social, moral, mythical — that worked away beneath the forces of all societies.
I blundered around the planet, groping for meanings but not often absolutely understanding
them, and working only with an artist’s often misguided intuition." Her goal with her letters
from Hav was to embrace this sense of mystery, to show that vibrant communities possess
a concatenation of significations and forces that resist reduction into travel book spiel.

That’s an extraordinary self-effacing admission from a
travel writer of the highest order. I will pass over the
issues of whether this sense of humility (very rare in
Morris’s generation, but perhaps even rarer now when
blustering certainty is the calling-card of punditry of any
sort) may have actually contributed to Morris’s superiority
as an interpreter of various cultures. I am dealing with
Hav now, not Hong Kong or Venice, and here Morris
has achieved something quite magical. She has written an account that probes into the
enigma of an unfamiliar place, but actually adds to the mystery the more it probes. The
impact on the reader is akin to the effect of reading a detective story, only to find more
corpses in the final chapter, and all the suspects possessing air-tight alibis.  

Hav, you see, has no shortage of perpetrators, sometimes in the guise of individuals—a
tight-lipped port master, an effusive and discreet casino manager, a caliph-in-exile,
a British consul who doubles as a spy, a wealthy import-export agent with inexplicable
sources of revenue, etc.—but more often in the form of traditions, some of them dating
back to Marco Polo, the Crusaders, Alexander the Great, and even further back to (is
it possible?) the great Achilles himself. On the surface, Hav is a busy multicultural city-
state, a model of tolerance where different races and religions coexist and often collaborate
in all spheres of civic and private life. But the longer our narrator (named Jan Morris, by
the way) spends in the Hav, the more she realizes that hidden tensions and conflicting
ambitions undergird almost everything she sees.

Morris (the author, not the character) has mentioned that the events of 9-11 contributed to
her interest in returning to the subject of Hav, and continuing the story she had begun in
1980s. It would be going too far to claim that Morris anticipated the terrorist attack that
destroyed the World Trade Center and changed the face of modern geopolitics. But she
deserves absolute acclaim for grasping the kind of submerged conflict in world views that
can manifest itself in an instant, and permanently shift the dynamics of everyday life.

This is a deep book, and deserves careful reading. But I fear that Morris has taken a
path here that most readers will resist. People read books for two main reasons. The
close-minded read in order to confirm that they already possess all the answers. The
more open-minded read in order to expand their knowledge of the world. But Morris is
bypassing both of those groups, and hoping to entice a third category of readers: those
who are willing to immerse themselves in a subject in order to realize how profound the
mystery really is. This is a tiny subset of individuals—people who can truly echo
Socrates’s boast that all he knew was that he knew nothing. Don’t dismiss that Socratic
ultra-minority out of hand: the cultivation of mystery can bring both aesthetic and
pragmatic insights inaccessible to others with more confidence in their explanatory models.  

I recall a few other works of fiction that have celebrated the deep, unfathomable nature of
human relations—their ranks include Henry James
The Ambassadors, James Joyce’s
“The Dead,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Soren Kierkegaard's Repetition—and I mull
over the incomprehension (if not outright) hostility they have sometimes evoked.  No,
there isn't much of a market for books like Hav. But there is a need, a pressing one at
that. So even if I admit that
Hav may have a miniscule target market—if I can borrow the
publishing industry term—at least it is in excellent company.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: January 17, 2018
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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 Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

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

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

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

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

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

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

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

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

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.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

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

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

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

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

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

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

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
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

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

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

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

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

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, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

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

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

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
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

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

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
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
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
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

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