Fake news, deep fakes, post-modernism, these terms and others alike are more and more present in our everyday life. Truth is not a solid and imutable concept, but a perspective, an interpetation of the facts that epistomologicaly we cannot fully grasp. It seems truthful, so it should be the truth. It is not true, but it should be. Is not strange to see this reality mirrored in fiction, specially in genre fiction. There are numerous books falsely “based on a true story”, or stories that claim to be lost transcriptions of manuscripts hidden for ages, but what I call “fictional non-fiction books” are what I consider a new strain.
One of the first examples can be found in the work of Jorge Luis Borges or Stanislaw Lem, who both dedicated full literary criticism articles to books that didn’t exist or “Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil” (1985) from the spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas, that tells the story of a fictional secret society with famous real writers, “reproducing” several related documentation.
This type of literature uses the language and codes of non-fiction genre for describing realities that are blatantly fake. I like to think that these are books that simulate books that exist in another fictional universe.
My first contact with this kind of books was the portuguese translation of the “The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases” by the portuguese publishing house Saída de Emergência (2010). This anthology was originally edited by Jeff Vandermeer and consisted of several entries, each devoted to a fictional disease, with description of symptoms, treatments and other “facts”, from authors like Neil Gaiman, China Miévelle and Alan Moore which together would comprise the “secret medical history” of the 20th Century. To the original text, Saída de Emergência added his own anthology entries from portuguese authors as a supplement called “Compêndio Médico de Doenças Notáveis” (compedium of notable diseases) of Dr. Anófeles Calamar Trindade.
Other examples are the wonderfully ilustrated “The resurrectionist” of E.B. Hudspeth (2013, Quirk books), “An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin” of Rohan Kriwaczek (2006, Duckworth Publishers) and “Adventures in Unhistory“, Avram Davidson (2006, Tor Books).
In Portugal, the fictional non-fiction book publishing did not died in Lambsheds Pocket Guide but rather flourished in several projects.
As part of the EuroSteamCon 2012 activities, writers of the genre were invited to contribute with entries for a Steampunk Almanac in all kinds of formats: advertisement, reader letters, an agony aunt column, special reports, etc. In 2013, a new eurosteamcon event, a new issue of the Almanaque Steampunk (steampunk almanac) was published.
In 2014, in the absence of an EuroSteamCon event and with the dissolution of the the initial editors, Clockwork Portugal, the almanac was not published. Surprisingly, in 2015, another group (Corte do Norte – North court) recovered the concept and issued one more number. In 2017 Editorial Divergência in collaboration with Liga Steampunk de Lisboa (Lisbon Steampunk League) and Fórum Fantástico (Fantastic Forum) took charge of the project and a new almanac is promised for 2019 (subscriptions are open).
In 2018, Imaginauta published Lisboa Oculta – Guia Turístico (Occult Lisbon – Tourist Guide), an ilustrated bilingual (portuguese/english) guide book which tells the totally fake (is it?) occult story of thirteen real locations in Lisbon. e.g. the sirens of Principe Real or the super-exclusive supernatural dinners at Abadia (a real opulent subterranean restaurant whose remains can still be visited today).
Although branded as a fiction book, it is not unusual to see this book in the travel guide section in most portuguese bookshops. The same happened to the Lambshed Pocket Guide by being often found in the Medical Sciences section. Just imagine a medically trained reader picking up the book to discover the strange case of “Reverse pinochio syndrome” of the “figurative sinestesia”. How dare they to mix fiction with as prestigious affairs as medicine? How dare they to trick the tourists to visit a subway station in search of a strange fictional door that doesn’t really exist?
It is as frustrating as sweet and stands proudly as a final irony arising from the concept itself.
But not only the traditional publishing houses of this particular genre had adventures in the fictional non-fiction books. Over the years, Afonso Cruz has been publishing several volumes of Enciclopédia da Estória Universal (Encyclopedia of the universal story) which consists of losely related mytical stories in alphabetic order constructing a corpus of legends or facts of a possible world.
It is important to note that traditionaly there is only one word in portuguese for history and story (história). However, more recently, influence by the english form, a new word was created (estória) to designate specificaly “a story”.
Another books that deserves to be mentioned is “Micro enciclopedia, microorganismos, microcoisas e seus amigos, de A a Z” (Micro enciclopedia microorganisms microthings and their friends, from A to Z) an ilustrated anthology of short stories that takes advantage of the scientific jargon/language to present short stories/entries about small entities in general.
Fictional non-fiction stands most of the times as a literary exercise, a new language for constructing metaphors; other times it is presented as an autosustained piece of literature for the sake of itself; other times even as support of the fictional world in other media, like the recipes or history books found throughout the world in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim game.
These books makes us wonder and to start doubting about the writen word – for ages trusted as the last bastion of truth. At the same time, by the same reason, it takes a suspension of disbelief to a whole new level resulting in a experience of immersion like no other. If reality is just a narrative, a narrative can be as strong as any reality.
This is simultaneously an exercise of imagination and an exercise of skepticism. Not everything that formally looks like a genuine piece of non-fiction (citations, references to other works, authority arguments, the never told story that THEY do not want us to know) it is based on true facts, or on a solid interpretation of the existing facts. Sometimes, the only thing that it takes to go from reality to the wildest fantasies is a just little push.
And so, in this age of information flooding, where anyone can tell their story to a wide audience – the fictional non-fiction books are here to remind us to stay alert, humble and to dream about other realities, as fantastical as ours.
Born in 1989, Carlos Silva is a portuguese writer whose main interests are science fiction and weird fiction. He is also editor at Imaginauta (Indie press – http://www.imaginauta.net) and organizes several events as the Festival Contacto.