Sunday, 24 June 2012

What is Fantasy?

What is fantasy fiction? That may seem like an odd sort of question coming from me, because you’d think I should know by now, but it’s an interesting exercise to try to pin it down. To really think about what goes into it.

Most definitions of fantasy will mention the same core elements. Things like magic, fantastical creatures, possibly non-Earth settings with low-moderate technology. They might even go further and mention classic fantasy elements like elves, dragons, heroes and quests. Yet with that sort of definition, how could we still consider urban fantasy as part of the genre?

I think the danger here is that when we look at a genre, we fixate on the standard elements of the genre. The bits that rapidly become clich├ęs in the wrong hands. The bits that look like they’re a ‘build a fantasy novel in ten easy steps’ kit until it becomes obvious that they’re a ‘build a bad novel in ten easy steps’ kit instead. It’s so easy to think that because it’s a fantasy novel, we have to hit the standard markers. Indeed, at least one approach to story structure treats genre as a set of those markers, which you then add to your basic story idea, hitting each of the main points so that it turns out as a fantasy novel, or a detective one, or whatever.

Is that a big enough definition of fantasy? If it is, then doesn’t it mean that we’re all spiralling round and round a Tolkein shaped plug hole, doomed never to do anything new? There has to be a better way of looking at it than that. Which is probably where terms like ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘imaginative fiction’ come in. They’re much bigger. They’re saying, respectively, that they’re about anything that asks ‘what if’ type questions, and anything that relies on a major leap of the imagination rather than a variation on simple reality.

Now, there are obvious problems with that way of defining something, because the resulting terms are huge, but they also give us a lot of freedom. Perhaps more importantly, they explore what we need to do as writers rather than what specific elements we have to include. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could still use the word fantasy?

Well, we can, obviously. And the best thing is that we can gain something by using it in the same way that ‘speculative fiction’ is used. Speculative fiction reminds us to speculate by asking what if, so shouldn’t fantasy simply remind us to fantasise? To make up things beyond the ordinary and everyday? Isn’t that what it’s really all about?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Ex Heroes

Although I can’t see why any character would want to give up on hero-ing (the privation, the daily risk of death, the hate mail from the giant newt preservation society), here are a few suggestions for potential careers for those who do.

1.      PE teacher. Let’s face it, most of the ones we remember have essentially the same approach as the average barbarian hero faced with a rampaging horde, which is to get stuck in and stop whining just because you happen to have been beheaded.

2.      Underwear model. Let’s face it, many of the more traditional types have been more or less doing this unpaid anyway.

3.      Translator. Because somehow, the heroes of the story never seem to have any trouble communicating with anyone, up to and including twenty headed Things.

4.      Tax collector. Because they’ve tried taking riches from wealthy merchants, wizards and overlords in every other known way.

5.      After dinner speaker. Because it’s one of the traditional careers open to those who have retired from a very physical pursuit. Just don’t let them tell the story about having to eat everyone’s legs in the Great Siege before dessert.

6.      Commentator. Why go around having adventures when you can sit outside the dungeon observing everything via crystal ball connection and commenting on how Thrag the Pointless is using completely the wrong grip with that double headed axe.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Knightly Good Cheer

These days, the kind of environment we like to portray in fantasy is often quite dark and gritty. That’s understandable, and the tone of books obviously has more to do with the times an author lives in (or possibly just what they had for breakfast) than with any notion of conveying the essence of a time.

It’s just that, when we’re talking about vaguely medieval fantasy, don’t be too quick to dismiss notions of knights who were happy and polite, well-mannered and so on. I’m not talking about chivalry here (that’s a different matter, though possibly an important one). Instead, I’m talking about the basic need for a medieval knight to be a ‘people person’ for want of a better way of putting it.

Think about it. Most of them, if they were attached to a lord or castle (and if they weren’t, they were generally trying to be, because the rewards were better, see below), were living a more or less communal lifestyle with other knights, eating at a common table, drinking together, probably sleeping in corners of the same room. Add into that quite large quantities of alcohol and individuals brought up to do violence.

Imagine if you will a kind of never ending rugby club tour and you get the general idea. Now imagine the kind of person who fits in on a rugby tour. What it meant was that the people who did well tended to be the people who got on with other people. Who were always ready with the right joke or the encouraging word. The introverted chap towards the back… well, stories are full of loners who succeed despite winding up everyone around them, but it was probably less likely in real life. Especially when the morose chap who made the wrong comment when slightly drunk could end up stabbed.

But not just because of that. Because how you got on with people directly influenced your chances of success in life. Rewards for lower ranking knights could come through ransoms on the tournament or battle field, but they frequently also came through the largess of their bosses. Read any medieval chanson de geste, and you’ll find that the popular, successful images of lords are those who give away a lot. Indeed, with some characters, it is one of their only good points.

Take Ralf de Cambrai, eponymous villain/main character of a geste I spent some time studying. One of the weird things with him is that, although he’s a murderous psychopath, he spends a lot of time being described as a good lord and a good knight. Why? Because he was loyal to his friends, generous to his followers, very good with a sword and inclined to excel at all the things knights were meant to do.

I’m not saying that you need to change the whole way you write fantasy, of course. I’d much rather read gritty fantasy with troubled, interesting characters, but it also seems interesting sometimes to think about the faces characters would have had to present to the world, just to be sure of their place in it.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Two China Mieville Novels

I thought I’d get in a quick book review, and it’s a double one. Two China Mieville books straight after one another in the form of The Scar and Embassytown. It’s very literary sci-fi all the way with these offerings, the first a huge one about floating pirate cities that steal people and whatever else they need suddenly being given purpose in the form of a quest to reach ‘the scar’ a leftover source of possibility and power. With Embassytown, it’s the story of a city on an alien world where the local inhabitants can speak nothing but the truth, and only a few humans can talk to them at all.

I’m reviewing both, but they’re actually very different books, even when it comes to basic things like length. The Scar is huge. Epic sized. It’s big, and complicated, and has almost more of a fantasy-esque feel to it even though it’s full of steampunk style technology and a few distinctly sci-fi ideas. It’s a sprawling, intricate novel, while Embassytown has a much more focussed feel.

They both have in common some very literary tendencies, without forgetting their original genre, which for the most part makes them very good, worthwhile reads. You know that Mieville isn’t going to trot out the same old characters and creatures, and the world building in both is exceptional. The characters are almost all well drawn, with something interesting to say about the central theme of each book and roles to play that never become apparent before the end. There’s also a playfulness and interest in language which many people will love.

I feel it possibly overdoes it sometimes, though. The constant neologisms can grate after a while, as can apparent fixations on particular words (The Scar bingo: a point for every use of the word ‘puissance’). Indeed, I like the Scar a lot more than Embassytown, simply because of that obsession with language. In the Scar, Mieville has created a tale that plays with the traditions of epic fantasy by taking competing nations, ancient sources of power, fantastic quests and so on, then subverting them, with what he does with language as background. With Embassytown, language is the main theme, with the result that it all seems a bit much.

I have a few other issues with Embassytown. I’m still not sure what the creatures at the heart of the novel look like. I’m not sure the sub-plot with the android does much. Something about the end also feels a bit off. Maybe I’m just holding it up to very high standards since I think that The Scar is an exceptional novel, but of the two, it definitely feels to me like you should read The Scar before Embassytown.