Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries from Across the Known Multiverse
Almost as long as there has been speculative fiction there have been speculative fiction anthologies. This seems to be a particularly fruitful time for them, fueled by electronic publishing and sites like Kickstarter which can bring together a niche idea and its audience. Accordingly, the anthologies are getting more and more specialized, with recent examples like Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's Queen Victoria's Book of Spells and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. In this vein is a particularly esoteric anthology of speculative fiction, filled with imaginary Wikipedia entries from, as the introduction puts it, "the many Wikipedias across the Multiverse."
The cover, which appears muddled and garish in .jpg form, is striking in hard-copy: pastel green and blue framing a distorted Unisphere, which of course resembles the Wikipedia logo. The book is edited by L. Timmel Duchamp, which at first I thought was an amusing pseudonym befitting a postmodern project like this one, but who is actually a real person, a veteran speculative fiction author and founder of the feminist science fiction publisher Aqueduct Press. Thankfully we have Wikipedia to clear up such matters.
The fictional encyclopedia is hardly foreign to speculative fiction. Isaac Asimov's classic science fiction series Foundation is punctuated with excerpts from entries from the future Encyclopedia Galactica. The device became so famous that Douglas Adams could easily parody it with his spacefarer's travel guide The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Wikipedia itself has also been creeping into fiction, such as the recent example of Matt Ruff's 2012 novel The Mirage, which features excerpts of entries from an alternate universe Wikipedia called the Library of Alexandria. Using Wikipedia entries themselves as the actual story is a new innovation, however. It's one of those delightful ideas that seems obvious in hindsight but inspires jealousy in those who didn't think of it first.
Using Wikipedia entries as a storytelling device is an idea full of possibilities and challenges. The dry, neutral tone of Wikipedia, often the butt of jokes and complaints, presents enormous difficulties to a writer, who must find a way to use that often emotionless tone to carry the emotional weight of the story. Most of the writers in the anthology are comfortable with the basic format of Wikipedia articles, and most of the stories feature well-placed and appropriately used tables of contents, citations both real and fictional, citation needed tags, and article warning banners. Some of them, however, mangle the format in ways that would make a veteran editor wince. Many of them have introductions that don't ring true as Wikipedia article introductions, with one article beginning by stating the subject of the article "is a figure of paradox" or another whose introduction refers to the subject only by her first name and omits her last. Others falter when they try to use citations and tags in unusual ways. One story ends with the sentence "Citation removed by unknown source", which instead of creating menace or mystery, seems laughable to those familiar with the workings of Wikipedia.
Both of these aspects of dealing with the Wikipedia form are well illustrated by the anthology's first story, "Mystery of the Missing Mothers" by Kristin King. At the heart of the story is an extraordinarily intriguing idea connecting the paucity of maternal figures in modern corporate fiction to Sumerian mythology, one that seems well suited to the format of an encyclopedia article. King is the only author to construct her tale as a series of articles instead of a single article to simulate the experience of a reader following links to each one in succession, a clever approach which allows her story more flexibility and a broader range. Aside from a few minor things, the articles are largely convincing as Wikipedia articles and real and fictional citations mingle comfortably. But her story, like a number of others in the anthology, is overly reliant on lengthy excerpts from fictional texts that would not appear in a real Wikipedia article to carry the story forward in ways the encyclopedic tone of Wikipedia cannot. And that tone fails in other ways, making menacing elements seem ridiculous or the intentionally black comic seem slapstick.
The majority of the stories in the anthology are metafictional texts which operate in the framework of another fictional text, the kind of story made famous by novels like Wide Sargasso Sea, Grendel, andThe Wind Done Gone. Editing the original story like it was a Wikipedia entry, they reimagine the story from the point of view of a secondary character like those three novels do or reinterpret the story through an entirely different frame of reference. Here we have a resistance movement to the fascist government of Flatland, Tolkien's Galadriel in a future world of cyborgs and artificial intelligences, "Bunnypedia" documenting the life of notorious reprobate and Planned Rabbithood founder Peter Rabbit, and a mash-up of Heart of Darkness and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Mark Rich's stories initially read like graduate term papers about Edgar Rice Burroughs' Dejah Thoris and Rudyard Kipling's The Light that Failed, but he quickly weaves fantastic reinterpretations of these ideas. There are so many of these metatexts that they are accompanied by a story that functions as a sort of parody of this mini-genre, Jeremy Sim's amusing "Thaddeus P. Reeder", which posits that the "Dear Reader" addressed by so many Victorian novelists was actually a real person who grew up with the Brontë sisters. Nick Tramdack's "The Gimmerton Theory", which has Heathcliff, during his absence from Wuthering Heights, on the Continent mingling with characters from the works of the Marquis de Sade, is among the best of these, though overly reliant on a lengthy but well-written text excerpt. And perhaps the best story in the entire volume is Alisa Alering's "Madeline Usher Usher", which casts the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a lovestruck stalker preying on Poe's wraith-like character, reimagined as both a victim and a creative force in her own right.
Fantasy is another popular genre in this anthology. One of the biggest highlights of this book is Mari Ness' trio of amusing tales set in a world where Wikipedia matter of factly documents the doings of fairies and other fantastical creatures. She also proves the most hilarious fictional citation in the book: I Cannot Take Any More of These Dying Birds and Mournful Songs: The Collected Correspondence of Marguerite-Amelie d'Seductrice-Levres, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Catherine Krahe's "The Blacksmith" is remarkable in that it manages to wring a mysterious and haunting tone out of Wikipedia's normal emotionless prose. Nisi Shawl's "The Five Petals of Thought" is the most successful of these as a Wikipedia article, as it takes the perspective of an objective observer trying to interpret the history of a mysterious religious movement which might be something else entirely, with the book's most well-placed citation needed tags on a statements that might be vandalism or might hint at the more fantastical nature of this enigmatic group.
Disappointingly, few of the stories are overtly science fiction. Perhaps for these authors the nature of the anthology seemed more appropriate to rewriting the past than the original research of writing the future. Duchamp's own story "Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett" is the seemingly straightforward biography of a 25th-century author most famous for the 2407 "alien visitation fable" New Amazonia. Its closest analogy may be not from the world of science fiction, but the nonfiction work A View From the Year 3000 by Michael H. Hart, which places biographical articles about fictional people representing posited future trends alongside the biographies of the likes of Washington and Einstein. But the story is more complex than it appears, as Duchamp's Aqueduct Press is also republishing an 1889 utopian science fiction novel called New Amazonia by a 19th-century Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett. Corbett is an author so obscure I initially thought that New Amazonia and Corbett's Wikipedia article was part of an elaborate hoax, a postmodern art project that stretched beyond the bounds of this anthology. But what Duchamp has done was to, instead of reinterpreting a fictional text, reinterpret a real person's life in fictional terms, using the future setting to examine contemporary issues, just as Corbett and other utopian novelists did. Corbett's fictional biography, especially her conflicts with the Standards & Values Party, illustrates that future citizens will wrestle with many of the same issues that we do today, but also reminds us that progress has been made, as the real Corbett was a journalist who wrote under the name "Mrs. George Corbett" while the future Corbett wrote under her own name and was a Privy Councilor and Eve Fawcett Chair in Ethical Studies at New Cambridge College.
Jeremy Sim's "Sanyo TM-300 Home-Use Time Machine" is another of the few overtly science fiction stories in the anthology, and it is also one of the few stories to manipulate the format of Wikipedia itself to serve the story. It is a classic cautionary tale of technology gone awry and Sim's article changes in real time as the story progresses and the article is "vandalized". It is only marred by the insertion of lines like "edited by amorris, 09:59 5 September 2010", which wouldn't appear in any Wikipedia article and the story is effective enough that these crutches are unnecessary. Duchamp concludes the volume with two other stories that also dramatically subvert the encyclopedic format: Anna Tambour's "God", a satirical "biography" of a deity as juvenile delinquent, and Lucy Sussex's "La Cucaracha Rules", which begins with a flurry of warning banners and becomes a bizarre romp that quickly dispenses with the idea that it is any sort of encyclopedia entry.
Missing Links and Secret Histories is a fascinating experiment. While a number of the stories fail at what they set out to do, even in the worst cases the attempts are interesting to watch. The territory it explores leaves much terrain unmapped; science fiction and alternate history (Alex Dally MacFarlane's excellent "Gerayis (or Gedayis)" is the only story here that might be labeled alternate history under an expansive definition of the term.) are particularly promising genres for this format. I hope it is only the first anthology of its kind and not the last.
- L. Timmel Duchamp, Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries from Across the Known Multiverse (Aqueduct Press, 2013). $18.00 (trade paperback)/$7.95 (ebook).