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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Fantasy comes in many flavours

In his Guardian column recently, Damien Walter lamented the scarcity of interesting new weird fiction. Buy me a coffee and you’ll hear me saying the same thing, but Mr Walter went further. He invited readers of the column to send in their own self- or independently-published novels.

While people like me cower at the thought of a million genre novels being published every year, there’s Damien Walter throwing open the floodgates and standing smack in the way of the oncoming torrent. I can only salute such bravery (a tricky manoeuvre to carry off, incidentally, while simultaneously scurrying for the safety of high ground). He will be remembered.

Personally I’d push the Dalai Lama under a bus rather than read a single trilogy of the G’nar’gh empire or the steampunk adventures of Algernon Blackwood, wendigo hunter. So it is my awe of Mr Walter’s fortitude that leaves me shamed and chastised by his comment in today’s
Guardian that “those writers who make a critical understanding of fantasy part of their work create better stories than those who remain […] ignorant of it.”

The irony is that I do read a fair bit of lit crit, just not in the field of fantasy. In fact, I barely even read fantasy fiction. Given that fantasy is my bread and butter, and stung by Mr Walter’s parting words as he sank beneath the deluge, I scooted over to Amazon and bought Farah Mendlesohn’s book
Rhetorics of Fantasy. At 336 pages it may take me a while, but already I’m intrigued by the core concepts. In essence, Ms Mendlesohn defines four categories of the fantastic. There are portal fantasies (Narnia, The Lost World), immersive fantasies (Game of Thrones), intrusive fantasies (War of the Worlds), and then there are liminal fantasies.

That last one is a little trickier than the rest. It’s also the most interesting. Liminal fantasies are those where the fantastic element is part of the normal universe and, though they may not like its effects, everybody seems to just accept it: Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis”, for example. It’s the kind of fantasy you find in dreams and fairytales. A movie example would be Guy Maddin’s
Careful; in novels, Steven Sherill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break; in short stories, W F Harvey’s “The Beast With Five Fingers”.

All of magic realism could arguably fit into the liminal category. There, of course, we are supposed to recognize the fabulosity and artifice of what we’re being told. I don’t think it’s intrinsic to liminal fantasies that they need to recognize their own fictionality in that way, simply that when literary fiction does include fantasy, it is most likely to be liminal fantasy.

Most fantasy stories belong to more than one category. Harry Potter begins as a portal fantasy but later becomes intrusive fantasy. The Lost World (what is the plateau if not a portal?) has its little bit of intrusive fantasy in the form of the pterodactyl egg that Challenger brings back to London. Raymond E Feist even wrote an immersive fantasy with a portal fantasy element, in the form of a rift leading through to Tsolyanu. I mean Tsuranu.

In my graphic novel series Mirabilis, the fantasy at first is intrusive; but, as the green comet draws nearer to Earth, people first begin to accept the reality of previously imaginary things and later, by midsummer, to treat them as though they have always been there. (I even wrote exactly that, in my first draft of the Mirabilis storyline ten years ago. For the month of June: “Liminality; it is as if magic has always been part of everyday life.”)

Frankenstein could have been an intrusive fantasy. If Mary Shelley had treated the story in that way, it would have read more like something written by H G Wells. Instead, in the original Frankenstein novel, almost nothing is made of the science fictional element. The monster’s existence doesn’t impact on the world at large, only on Victor Frankenstein’s own life. If not for Captain Walton’s encounter with the monster right at the end, the whole book could be read as the imaginings of a highly unreliable narrator. And even Walton’s tacked-on testimony doesn’t quite banish the suspicion that what we have been reading is not an SF tale about creating life, but that immemorially potent fable, the Return of the Repressed. Like the best kind of fantasy, Frankenstein finally reveals itself as a disturbing conjuring trick in which the question, “Is it supposed to have really happened?” is the least interesting of all.
Dave Morris's interactive retelling of Frankenstein is published by Profile Books and coded for iPhone and iPad by Inkle Studios. Look for it from April 26 on the App Store.


  1. Quote : "Personally I’d push the Dalai Lama under a bus"... Well, are you trying to become the new hero of the People's Republic government ? ;-)


  2. Actually, I might push him under a bus to avoid reading The Thoughts of Chairman Mao as well :-) (Though I must admit I own a copy and have read it in the past... Just call me Red Dave.)

  3. I'd recommend taking a look at John Clute and John Grant's massive Encyclopedia of Fantasy. I don't think there is any doubt that it's the broadest and possibly deepest examination of fantasy you're likely to find. Even though it was published in 1996, the themes and ideas it examines and discusses remain relevant. And while the internet may have take over for casual reference, this book will make you aware of stuff you never knew you wanted to look up.

    It may prove good way of finding the fantasy trilogies you want to read and avoiding the ones you don't.


  4. With notable exceptions like Lyonesse, I generally think that if it says "trilogy" then I won't bother - except that publishers got sneaky by bringing in pentalogies and heptalogies and whatnot. Luckily, movies and TV have come to the rescue. I don't need to actually read Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, I can watch them in a quarter the time! I haven't even read the Gormenghast trilogy, would you believe? (Yes, I am ashamed of myself...)

  5. Ha, I've not managed Gormenghast myself, and I've tried twice. There's nothing wrong with it, but the writing is so luxuriously dense it requires genuinely dedicated time and energy.

    For a while now, I've been less inclined to read series (especially established ones), on the basis that there are too many different writers to check out to get bogged down with just one. However, I do wonder if I'm missing some good stuff.

  6. People keep telling me I should read A Dance to the Music of Time, which is twelve volumes, but what if I got run over halfway through? I did finally sit down with War & Peace a couple of years ago and that was a breeze (a mere half million words, barely as long as a George R R Martin prologue) so my reading stamina is building.

  7. I think I can name the biggest fantasy series challenge of them all. I read the two Thomas Covenant series in my teens, and I'm sure you're aware of their reputation. Stephen Donaldson has finished three of a four book 'conclusion'. Now, I did enjoy the originals enough that I want to read these final four books... but I feel I really ought to reread the original six books first. I not sure, though, that I have the emotional stamina to cope.

    And then there's that pile of Gene Wolfe's Books of the New Sun, his Books of the Short Sun, and the stack of Kathering Kurtz nine Deryni novels, that collected volume of Helliconia that's been on the shelf for 20 years, and...

    Out of curiosity, was War and Peace worth it?

  8. Helliconia - check, that's sitting on the shelf waiting for me. I read the Gene Wolfe books at the time they came out, and the first few chapters of the first Thomas Covenant book.

    War & Peace? Definitely, it's a classic. But you need to pick your translation carefully. You don't want to get 200,000 words in and then decide you don't like the style.

  9. It's tricky to write good fantasy. It sometimes seems that the fantasy genre depends too heavily on beautiful, creative settings, and extraordinary characters, and yet that it neglects some of the basic ingredients of good storytelling – a decent plot, say, or writing with flair.

    Gamebooks aside, I tend to shy away from fantasy novels these days. If I take a novel off the shelf in WH Smith's, and the back cover blurb says something along the lines of, 'Though born a crown prince, Rolaynn Gar'ith was raised in the Assassin Citadel of...' I can't even make the journey to the end of the sentence, much less into the intestines of the book itself. It would be a torturous exercise to try to create any sort of shortlist of my all-time 'favourite' books, but I suspect very few fantasy books would be in there. Roger Zelazny is one author I can read again and again – and for my hypothetical shortlist, I'll cheat and count his Amber chronicles as one book, now that they've been published that way. Maybe 'The Time-Traveler's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger is one that made an impact, though that book's about as mainstream as fantasy can get. I make sure I get my hands on all of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books as they come out; his Bookworld is one of the more inventive settings I've seen for a while. They're funny as hell, too.

    I think that good fantasy is at least as difficult to write as good literary fiction – or even, that authors should have to prove mastery of literary fiction before they can 'graduate' to fantasy. A reference from TV, rather than literature: one of the strengths of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that it was essentially a show about fairly day to day problems – about being the new kid in school; about worrying if your girlfriend was really in love with you; about growing up, and realising you have to get a job and pay the bills and whatnot. And, by the by, it also had lots of demons and vampires. I even took the time to listen to one of the DVD commentaries – the series creator, Joss Whedon, said that he'd basically wanted to write, 'Party of Five, but with bazookas'.

    (Sidebar: I've lately been trying to push 'Buffy' as a name for my soon-to-be-born daughter, but I don't think my girlfriend's going to go for it. Not even as a middle name.)

    Doctor Who comes up from time to time on this blog; this is an excellent example of writers (sci-fi here, and television rather than literature) paying close attention to the tenets of great storytelling. I know less about Who than about Buffy, but it seems it's structured around a series of important moments – often scary, unsettling moments. Statues in a cave that move every time you stop looking at them. Realising that somebody is dead, even though you can still hear his voice. That kind of thing. The series is set up to skim over all the niggly, irrelevant stuff. Technical problem? Sonic screwdriver. Need important documents? Psychic credit card thingy. Those are the kind of details that would really bog down a series such as, say, Star Trek: Enterprise (have you ever seen 'diabolical' villains have so many meetings? It was like Ally McBeal, with silly rubber faces. No wonder it nearly killed the franchise...).

    I seem to be veering off topic. So, fantasy literature. In summary: hard to do well.

    1. I would expand your "It's tricky to write good fantasy..." with "...that everyone will agree is good fantasy." Virtually impossible would probably be nearer the truth.

      I read fantasy throughout my teens and into my twenties. I stopped reading fantasy not because I became bored with it or it became bad, but because I discovered SF. I started reading SF because of Babylon 5. Some people think it's the best SF TV show ever, while others think it badly written, poorly acted and unoriginal. In reality, it was all those things at one time or another, but how we personally judge something often depends more on which aspects we latch on to than objective analysis of the whole.

      It's interesting that you mention sonic screwdriver and psychic paper in Doctor Who, because I've heard plenty of people use those things as direct examples of lazy scripting and plot design. They are just a different version of Star Trek's technobable, and can be just as easily over-used.

      There's personal distastes to oversome, too. I remember Andy Kershaw on Desert Island Discs saying he didn't want the complete works of Shakespeare (he didn't say it was elitest, but I got a sense of inverted snobbery), and I have a friend who won't have anything to do with Dickens because he can't stand all the silly names.

      Beyond that all that, if someone hates fantasy or SF as a matter of principle, it doesn't matter how good something is - it's obviously stupid, infantile rubbish that only pathetic anoraks read.

      (Sorry, rather rambling thoughts there.)

    2. My immediate thought is that Kershaw must be an idiot. Oh wait, he's a DJ...

    3. I liked Babylon 5. I never got my hands on many of the DVDs, but the few commentaries I listened to - recorded a good decade after the shows were broadcast - are some of the best I've heard.

      Highlight 1: Michael J Straczinski complains about all the corporate influence he had to endure while making the show (I always hated the character of Lt Kepler; I told the actor he'd be coming back for season 3, but then we threw in a special effect in the editing to make it clear he was really, really dead).

      Highlight 2: the lead actors laugh at the kooky alien makeup, and the poor saps who had to wear it, while lamenting the passing of their glory days (CLAUDIA CHRISTIAN: 'I don't think I could fit into that uniform any more'. JERRY DOYLE: 'I don't think I could fit through that door any more'.).

  10. That's very much the way I see it, Paul. In fact, I'd probably extend the discussion beyond F/SF to genre fiction as a whole. The only genre books I've been interested enough to read through to the end in the last five years are Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell and a couple of Dorothy L Sayers's. Your mention of Zelazny, though, makes me think I should dig out some of his. Lord of Light was a huge favourite of mine in my college days, and I even co-designed a boardgame version. But I digress.

    Buffy is one of my favourite... I was about to write "TV shows", but one of my favourite anythings. There, the fantasy serves to create a heightened reality of the hopes and fears of a bunch of teenagers. Doctor Who tries to do the same (overtly so, when RTD was writing it), and has some good episodes, and even the bad episodes are curate's eggs. But it's never going to measure up to Buffy. One of the snags is that we've all been teenagers, so Buffy's experience is immediately universal and relatable. Another snag is that the BBC don't have any writer/showrunner to match Joss Whedon at his best.

    Interesting that we're talking here about movies and TV. I don't mind fantasy and SF in those media, and in games too; it's just in literature that I don't find it works. Or maybe that's because really great literature is so far beyond genre writing. Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of science fiction is crap, and that's being generous.

    My other pet hate about fantasy is what Blake Snyder called "double mumbo jumbo". That's where aliens fight goblins - unless the goblins turn out to be another extraterrestrial species, of course. When Martin McKenna and I talked about doing the Frankenstein's Legions game, occasionally mentioned on this blog, almost the first thing we agreed was: no vampires, werewolves, or mummies. It wasn't going to be a Universal grab-bag. The best fantasy is always based on one core idea elaborated well.

    Writing Frankenstein, I gained a new respect for the original novel because because it isn't handled the way an SF author would do it today. It's another Buffy-like example of fantasy as heightened reality, with Victor dredging up a monster from the id that he then can't get rid of. The entire story is really an inner journey through the divided self.

    Now, on to important matters. If your girlfriend won't accept Buffy, how about Willow?

  11. 'Double mumbo jumbo?' Maybe that's why, even though Alien and Predator were both excellent movies, Alien Vs Predator was an utter turkey (and, dear God, don't get me started on the Alien/Predator hybrid in Alien Vs Predator: Requiem).

    Willow did come up in one of the baby name conversations, but it was vetoed as well. I also suggested the names of many of the girls from Zelazny's Amber chronicles: Flora, Fiona, Dara - though not Dierdre or Llewella, just out of personal preference.

  12. There's always Drusilla..?

    Wrt double mumbo jumbo, I remember when Dr Who did Daleks v Cybernen a few years back. I was chatting with Martin McKenna and a friend of ours said, "It's such an obvious idea, I can't think why they never did it before!" Martin said dryly, "Yes, well that'll be why, then."

  13. This may not be relevant but I hate RTD's cybermen. They march like they are girls skipping along the road and have flared trousers. In fact I hate almost everything RTD did apart from the episode Midnight.

    More generally in fantasy and sci fi what puts me off are stupid fancy gibberish names. I suppose they are trying to sound other worldly but they just have me rolling my eyes. Why don't they just give normal names to people and places.

    What would be good is if I could think of any of the stupid names that have annoyed me in the past but I can't, all I have to go on are my memories of irritation.

  14. Be glad that your mind has blanked them out! And yes, I agree about the cybermen. Nothing will ever beat The Tomb of the Cybermen for creepy sf horror imo.