Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Problem with Fantasy

When I was growing up, I read only fantasy and science fiction, and science fiction was really more in the way of filler, to be consumed when fantasy wasn't available. It's not that I didn't like science fiction, it's just that my mind was shaped to fit Lord of the Rings by my obsessive readings of the same, and so I looked always for more of that sort of thing. The world is of course full of LotR knock offs and imitators, so I had no trouble finding them. In some sense, every writer of fantasy works in the building that Tolkien made. And that, I would say, is the greatest issue with fantasy.

Quick quiz: someone says they're reading a fantasy novel, but doesn't tell you anything else. What do you think about? Heroes going on a quest or fighting some evil, right? And what else? Kings and kingdoms, swords and horses, nobles in castles, grim forests and high snowy mountains. And all of that would be more right than wrong, because typically English-language fantasy exists in a very particular place: 14th century Northern Europe.

This is not exclusively or only true, mind you. There are writers like Guy Gavriel Kay who work with other settings (after starting as a Tolkien chronicler, no less). But most "innovative" fantasy involves twists and quirks on the 14CNE (14th Century Northern Europe) setting rather than something different. And the world is full of other inspirational options, from the very similar to the rather different.

Here's just a few very similar inspirations: Dark Ages Northern Europe with a rougher and more primitive feel; Medieval Space, sophisticated and complicated, warmer and sunnier; Medieval Russia, isolated and rural, superstitious and vast.

More distinct inspirations: Imperial China, scholarly and traditional, confident of superiority, rich with custom and with a viewpoint strikingly different; Medieval Japan, a nearly wild society with effete gentlemen and hidden ladies, derivative of other cultures but bizarrely innovative, poetic and beset by ghosts and demons; classical India, hierarchical and worldly, rich and innovative, absorbing other cultures.

And notions far-fetched from the 14CNE perspective: sub Saharan Africa, with tribes and chieftans, rituals and spirituality; pre-Columbian America, with so very many options, but an almost complete lack of the familiar domesticated animals and metalworks that help to define 14CNE; Tibet, a barely livable landscape of warring priests and demons haunted mountains, violent and vibrantly alive on the edge of survivability.

Taking any of those and building your fantasy setting from it would give you a notably different and much more unique starting point. Imagine, if you will, the Lord of the Rings taking place in pre-Columbian Central America; or Song of Ice and Fire in a world based off Fuedal Japan instead of Fuedal Europe; or Boneshaker set during the Taipeng Rebellion in China instead of the American Civil War. (Not that there's anything wrong with their current settings for any of them, mind you.)

The world's a big place. And while fantasy doesn't always (or even often) take occur in the world we know, there's no reason for it to stick so close to home as it does.


  1. The problem with writing in new locations and timeframes is that the reader is not as familiar. The 14th century western Europe has a common narrative thread for most readers, so as an author, you can make allusions to a shared vision and focus more on character arc and storyline.

    My recent novel, The Travelers' Club and The Ghost Ship takes place in 1880, mostly in Morocco, but also England, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Algeria, the Sahara and the Canary Islands. As an author, not only do I have to research a lot more, but I also have to paint a picture of places that are unknown.

    If I decribe a castle with banners and a drawbridge, most readers already have a visual of that in their imagination. If I decribe a riad or a wadi? You have to slow down your character arcs and storyline to explain much more.

    I agree more authors should do so, but it is a lot of extra work and that is why few do it. The best in my experience was Dune by Frank Herbert, where he creates a whole new world, political system and genre of his own.

  2. I would dis-agree with the concept that location is really as important for setting the story as is the characters interaction with the location. Especially in today's world. Yes if we would like to stick to the basic run of the middle fantasy stories then we are left with the constant re-writing of the same old dragon and wizards fantasy novels. Yes you can go all out and invest countless months into researching a location so as to provide a very full and vibrant environment that your readers could get lost in.
    But in the end when they are past the scenery and they want to taste the story they will see it as nothing more than an off-shoot of Lord of the Rings, Dragon Lance and in a very sad way the Harry Potter series.
    Do not get me wrong as I think those stories are beautifully written and they provided me with hours of fun in reading them. In fact I still enjoy picking up the Dragon Lance series and reading it to relax.
    What I wanted to do in my book Amber Light Memories was to give the readers a new view. Yes my book series will end up covering the world. But I want to spark the imagination of the reader where they can look out of their window and say hey this could be happening here.
    I found as I told my story that the use of common day places with no significant connection to the country and or famous place connected better.
    I mean if I wanted to reader to know it was Japan and only right from the start I could have thrown in famous places, but then what more than being a name drop could the reader gain from it.
    In the end I would credit any writer that can finish a book. But I would be more willing to pick up a writer that spends more time turning their own world into a place that readers from any part of the world can connect with rather than trying to re-package the same story into a new wrapper.

  3. I think that the setting matters a good amount, and its worth it to take the time to establish it. I know that people can fill in their own blanks of "castle with towers and drawbridge" and you need just those few words to allow for a massive amount of unvoiced description. But I feel its worth it to provide the description of something different, to make a setting that's a little (or a lot) different. And I think that setting will shape and change your fiction. It might be that it will in fact still turn out to be the same old dragon and wizard fantasy with a little tinsel and spangles draped over it, but it might turn out rather more different, at least in feel. And in any case I think it's well worth the effort to try.

  4. I agree with everything you have said here. Indeed it is one of the reasons I went out and wrote my fantasy novel. I ended up following all the tropes however, only because I have good reason that will be revealed in the last half of book 2. Book 3 will really shale it up, and hopefully make my point about how we need to change the kind of stories we tell if we are to grow as a society.