Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
In adopting the term “conceptual fiction” to describe a body of modern writing — which I have done in more than 50 essays and reviews to date — I have tried to draw attention to an area of experimentation in contemporary novels that is still poorly understood. These works of conceptual fiction cut through the great divides in criticism: divides between highbrow and lowbrow, genre and mainstream, popular and literary. They represent the fruition of a quasi-hidden alternative tradition in modern writing, with its own genealogy and masterworks. As such, they deserve -- but rarely receive -- a response from critics and scholars that is sensitive to this larger framework.
These works have their strongest roots in the often despised — but more often merely neglected or patronized — science fiction and fantasy books of the middle of the 20th century. This alone explains much of the incoherent response to this tradition, which treats half of the defining books as hack work, and bows down before the others — Márquez, McCarthy, Saramago, Rushdie, Auster, Murakami, etc. — but only after isolating them (safe from contamination) in a different section of the library. Yet this is only part of the richness and complexity of the conceptual fiction tradition: an even longer lineage can be constructed, back to Verne and Wells in the nineteenth century, even further to Swift’s Gulliver's Travels, Thomas More’s Utopia, and eventually to the earliest stirrings of conceptual fiction in myths and folktales. In short, the tinkering with conceptions of reality and delight in the fanciful — key qualities of these works — are as old as storytelling itself.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is almost a textbook example of how this tradition is enlivening contemporary fiction. It is an exemplar of this vital area of development in modern writing - all the more vital because it manages to be bold and experimental without destroying the key elements of narrative structure, character development, and linguistic comprehensibility that earlier progressive movements often ignored at their own peril. The power of a book such as Cloud Atlas is amplified because its higher level complexities don’t require the ground floor level of the story be burnt, pillaged, and destroyed. Instead of trying to keep up with the Pynchons and Gaddises, who only live in the penthouse, Mitchell occupies the whole building, even the boiler room and broom closet.