Random Musings on the State of Fantasy

My critical juices have been flowing recently (thanks in large part to Black Gate Magazine and The Night Bazaar websites). So, I’m going to unleash a few hundred words of my musings about what I believe when it comes to fantasy as a genre.

I believe in experimentation. Why limit oneself to the old standby, the stereotype Fantastika Medieval shell world that has been the typical setting since before Tolkien? Okay, it is likely that instead of the Medieval Shell, we’ll be seeing the Classical Greek Shell, the Babylonian Shell, the Caliphate Shell, the Shogunate Shell, ad infinitum with the stench of exploitation added in.

What I mean by Shell, or stereotype, is that the worlds often used by commercial fantasy, the endless rehashes of Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. very often seem to come from past fantasies. Tolkien was a professor, extremely knowledgeable about Medieval Northern European literature. I’ve read some of his academic work, and he is quite brilliant. Tolkien had the background knowledge to create Middle Earth. Now, those who followed him, his clones and their clones, do they have as much knowledge about the equivalent historical period? I would doubt it.

And that’s the point. You see, there needs to be some knowledge, some research involved to make it work. It cannot be just a continued rehashing, a copying, of the same stereotype devoid of what it is. It becomes an empty shell for the same empty kind of story. As Kameron Hurley states in her essay “Garbage In, Garbage Out, and All That:”

“When it comes to creating new people and new worlds, you’re only as good as what you take in. So if all you read are Tolkien knock- offs and endless re-runs of Saved by the Bell, well, it’s highly likely that your fiction is going to sound a lot like a watered- down Tolkien rip-off populated by 20th century teens. Garbage in, garbage out, and all that.” (17 August 2011 Night Bazaar)

I couldn’t agree more with her statement. So much of fantasy seems to be endless repetitions of Tolkien xeroxes or RPG game sessions without any research or knowledge. This brings me to Matthew David Surridge and Sean Stiennon’s posts on Black Gate. They seem to be arguing that the way to go is to focus more heavily on making the medieval world as “realistic” as possible. What they mean by that is, I think, focus in on one frame of time, say the Wars of the Roses, and explore the mindsets, the technologies, the way of life, etc. of the period and go from there. This approach is a must if the work at hand is a work of historical fantasy, but would a work set in a secondary world be too hampered by such a strong binding to Earth’s history?

Yes and no, I think. The key is, I think, to be aware of the history, the psychology, etc. and apply it to a new world. And depending on how the writer wishes to proceed, how closely the work follows Earth history. There are dangers in being both too narrow and too loose.

When I first read Sean’s post, I was troubled, and still am, by the implication that the writer has to follow, be bound, by the period of their inspiration. While some readers welcome this new devotion to verisimilitude, there is undoubtedly a limit on the potentials for expression inherent in this argument.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a fine, if not the finest, example of what is called for, but where would that leave works like Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Hyborian Age, and (equally close to my heart) Kishimoto’s Naruto and Mashima’s Fairy Tail? Non of these works are completely bound by specific time periods. But they all work magnificently at combining different temporal, cultural, and civilizational influences into fantastik wholes. Should these works be denigrated in favor of “realist” fantasy?

I argue no, one can have both. But it takes a skilled writer, imaginative mind, and willingness to do the research to make it work, whether it is historical fantasy, secondary historical, or sheer crazy goodness. That is what I believe.


Posted on August 23, 2011, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. *Applause*

    Needless to say I agree, since I do push for authors going back to historical/literary sources from which they derive their milieu, if only to play with and recombine various elements into a new cohesive whole. Fantasy is dead when it becomes a simulacra, endless copies of copies within a rigid framework, as with any other form of art.

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