The War for the Future of Fantasy: A Rant

My mood has not been a very good one over the past few days. For one thing, I’ve been battling a series of colds for over a month now. For another thing, I’ve been pretty annoyed by some recent fantasy criticism. This rant is mainly an extended response to Brian Murphy’s recent blog question over at Black Gate. So, on with the rant.

How big is fantasy’s tent? Just because the latest thing in fantasy is gritty, mature, etc. heroic fantasy does not mean that gentler, more whimsical fantasy  is no longer being published. If you look hard enough, scour the internet for more fantasy sites, read a lot of recent literary fantasy short fiction, etc. You are bound to find the type of fantasy you want.

But of course, Murphy’s post is really more about navigating the future of fantasy. Is fantasy going to succumb to this new, brasher, school? Or will the paragons of tradition save the day? The issue, the attempted binary, is very obviously muddied. The focus is in the politics, both as influence and expression, and its conflict with whimsy, with imagination, with transcendence. Now, are China Mieville and Ursula K. LeGuin the best speakers for each camp?

China Mieville is, obviously, known as a very political writer. But are his sentiments of 2000 the same as 2012? As someone who follows Mieville, he seems to have softened his views while still maintaining his keen interest in politics. And LeGuin  herself is a very political writer, especially in the realm of feminism. So while their quotes set up a nice binary, neither writer is really bound to either “pole.”

Here’s how I look at this whole issue. As a writer, I write for today. What interests me, forces me to think, ignites my imagination? After I’m dead, let the critics and readers of tomorrow parcel out whether or not my work is dated or for the ages. Shakespeare, Dickens, Wells, Howard, Tolkien, etc. wrote for the moment. That we, as readers, still read them is because their works speak to us today no matter what they intended.

Now, lets move on to some of the comments.

Personally, I think that George R.R. Martin is overrated. When argued that A Song of Ice and Fire is the greatest fantasy series in the world (barring The Lord of the Rings), I could not help but be amused. I liked the first three books, and haven’t read the recent two. Liked not loved. I get that Martin intended to write a sweeping epic saga that includes a cast of hundreds. But there is too much going on with very little plot development. How, in two books, is the series going to be resolved?

And I don’t know if I really buy that Martin is as bloodthirsty as he is sometimes depicted. Yes, killing Ned is shocking because the reader is fooled into believing that he is the protagonist. He isn’t. He is a false protagonist. I would argue that Jon or Dany is the true protagonist. Also, besides the Red Wedding, has any major POV character been killed off yet?

Keeping with Westeros, we can all accept that it is heavily based on 14th century Europe, especially England. Now, a constant argument that I’ve heard from some Black Gate commenters is that it (and other similar worlds) do not reflect the religious culture of the period they are inspired by. I argued that religious faith in ASOIAF is subtle, but I do not believe that absolute fidelity is a necessity.

But I think my question was not quite answered. Why? Why is it so important to have that religious fidelity (or even focus)? And, after thinking about it, I should have followed up with what. What would this religious take look like?

I remember from my own readings of medieval literature, especially the romances, that religion is not overly important save as a matter of course. That Gawain attends church several times a day and a prayer concludes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not seem overly important to me. Now, I know that religious faith plays an important role (or is supposed to) in being a knight, doubly so for an idealized knight like Gawain. But there are other readings that are just as valid, and to me, more interesting.

And there is one thing to remember. Every scene, save for a few possible tangents, should be devoted to advancing the plot. Everything should be geared towards the inexorable, twisting path to a conclusion.

So, that’s my rant for today.


Posted on February 4, 2012, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. In part, I think I might be a little to blame for Brian’s article, as we were corresponding about this topic shortly beforehand in regards to reading strategies–specifically, those who seem to read through a single ideological lens. The Mieville/Le Guin quotes were really just to illustrate extremes, though there is a problem in setting up such a dichotomy–one I don’t think Brian succumbed to, but which we do find in the comments.

    The level of “historical accuracy” in a fantasy novel is directly tied to whether the novel in question is actually attempting to explore historical issues. I don’t think that Martin’s religions in ASOIF are particularly imaginative or well-constructed, but the religious mindset is certainly there. The complaints seem to come from those who believe religion was the prime motivator beyond all else; religion was indeed important in the Middle Ages, but nothing in history is reducible to a single element, focusing on religion to the exclusion of all else is just as conspicuous as its complete absence in any setting that takes inspiration from premodern societies.

    • Michal, finally! Someone has answered my question as to why a group readers want a particular religious fidelity. I largely agree with you that what those readers are after is their own interpretation of what religion was like in that period. And of course that is an important thing to remember in regards to fantasy, especially secondary world: the secondary worlds are constructed via inspiration from versions of a particular period. I like the idea that fidelity to a period is only necessary when elements of that history are being explored.
      On Martin’s religions in ASOIAF, while they are lack imagination, they do work adequately given that religion is not the focus of the series.

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