I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember fully reading A Game of Thrones and being impressed that it wasn’t the usual dreck that I read. Which consisted mostly of the old Tor Conan pastiches. This was ten years ago. Then, about 2o03, I picked up A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. I skimmed those two novels. And I was not impressed. Now, almost a decade later, I have no desire to go back and give them another look. Why?
My problem with ASoIaF is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At first, the historic-political elements of the novels are balanced by the high/ epic fantasy elements. But as the series gains in popularity and the series has to be approaching its conclusion (if there are still to be seven novels), the stronger fantasy elements seem to be thrust into the back seat. And the game for that damned Iron Throne takes center stage. (As an aside, I also think the series is too bloated).
The series, when advertised for the HBO adaptation, is described as The Sopranos meets The Lord of the Rings. Am I the only one who goes ugh? Am I the only one who really does not want this kind of fantasy?
I think I shall start calling the school of fantasy that has developed around Martin the historicist school of fantasy. Or just historicist fantasy. Now what is this new genre? Well, it is a constructed world fantasy that utilizes history as inspiration and the basis for world building. It is separate from historical fantasy in that it does not take place on Earth.
And I really don’t like this type of fantasy. If I wanted to read fantastical visions of history, I’d read historical fantasy. Or I would actually read a history book. Which would be more entertaining.
What I want is fantasy not history. I want myth not realism. Often, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief is brought up in critical discussions of fantasy. Maybe I just have an easier time of accepting the world building, but I could give a crap if a writer inserts bales of hay or gets the weaponry wrong or neglects religion. I don’t care. Is the story good? Can I see it in my mind’s eye?
This brings me to the grimdark fantasy. I’m honestly not very interested in them, either. I did enjoy reading Morgan’s The Steel Remains and liked Polansky’s Low Town far more than I thought I would. But Bakker, Abercrombie, etc.? No, thank you.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of darkness in what I read. But, I like that darkness mixed with almost an equal measure of light. I want joy with sadness; I want hope with despair. I don’t want a continual parade of despair and horror.
I guess what I’m yearning for is a rediscovery of the fantastic, of pushing the boundaries of the imagination out from what we have.
Will I ever write a historicist fantasy? Maybe. But if I do, I want to do it right. I want to write the type of story that I would enjoy.
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.