This rant is so personal it’s not funny. And it’s full of more wide-eyed burbling than bitchiness. Just a warning.
(When did the day come that I have to warn people for something not containing bitchiness?)
1) Inner settings.
I never did do a rant, which I meant to, on non-journey fantasies. I need to do that. But I think one reason that journeys happen so often in fantasy is that the author sets up a bunch of moderately well-defined locations she wants to take the protagonist(s) through, or a sketchy world, instead of one deep, complex, fire-on-fire location that can contain the whole story because it’s so well-painted.
I wanna see more of those. I wanna see fantasy come up with locations that have the solidity of adamant, or of Victorian novels. There is absolutely nothing preventing this except the preference for journeys.
Some settings that I’ve rarely seen used and want to see more of:
- Underwater fantasies. Since the sea is fucking dangerous, inhabitants would be more likely to live in tight, contained little colonies. And if they did journey, the scenery would at least be different from the norm.
- Underground fantasies. Read a few, but they were basically “this is what the underground world would look like to a surface-dweller” stories. There was almost no attempt made to show what it might be like for someone who actually had grown up underground; the writer just dumped in analogues of seasons and so on. My other reasons for wanting them are the same as for undersea fantasies.
- Fantasies contained entirely in a single house. There are plenty of fantasy books with mysterious houses, usually haunted, but the protagonists leave whenever they wish. I want to see a whole book that happens in one house.
- Ditto for above, but one village, without any mysterious strangers coming in to haul someone off on a prophesied journey.
- Imaginary worlds in the imaginary. Fantasy authors build their own worlds all the time. They seem to have great fun doing it. Why do they never come up with main characters who build their own imaginary worlds? The closest I’ve seen is crossover fantasy where the character who thinks it’s all make-believe finds out that the world she “imagined” in her childhood is real, and that doesn’t count. Give me a protagonist whose whole being recedes in a series of infinite images, each home to a creator who imagines another world, and in that world a creator who imagines another, and so on.
2) “Faerie from the inside.”
The reason I got hauled into fantasy in the first place was a love for sentient non-humans. I read the Narnia books because they had Talking Beasts. I got enthralled with Tolkien because he had non-humans who were important to the story, who had their own cultures (and languages! And poetry!), and who didn’t exist just to be props for the Men. I thought pretty much the whole of fantasy was like that, and that I wouldn’t object to reading more.
Then I read more fantasy, and got sadly disappointed. I hadn’t foreseen how often non-humans just are adjuncts, or walking morality plays, or both, for the humans in the story. Then there’s the business of telepathic animals, who are often the most transparent plot devices imaginable. And there are the fading elves. Why the fuck are they fading, huh? Tolkien at least had a reason! And the dragons, who seem threatening, but only until the major characters manage to kill one. And the dwarves, who are stereotypes, and the goblins and other generic evil guys, who don’t get any attention unless they’re fighting humans. Ugh, damn it.
I wanna see more fantasy novels told entirely from within a non-human culture, with no contact with humans at all, nada, zip, zilch. Or minimal contact, without the humans becoming the reason for the whole story.
Tolkien is not my favorite author, but he did something with The Silmarillion that I’ve read over and over again, because there’s so little of it out there. He himself recognized that it was fairly odd, since so many mythologies are anthropocentric. But his mythology is Elf-centric, and though there are a few fairly important human players, they become important by mingling their blood in Elvish families and allying with them, not taking over from them. Elves do grand things, and that includes creating grander things and more destruction than Men can conceive of.
I also adore Steven Brust’s Khaavren Romances for the same reason. They’re set among the Dragaerans, who are human-like, but a) usually around seven feet tall, b) in possession of far more strength, if less quickness, c) divided into seventeen Houses that determine their genetics and personality, d) living in an Empire that’s by far more powerful than the humans to the East, e) psychic, and f) in possession of lifespans of about 3000 years. To make the irony complete, they insist that they are human, and the characters we recognize as human are “Easterners.” And they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what humans think. It’s wonderful.
I want more tales of Faerie in its grandeur, of the land where the dwarves were a power, of dragons that don’t think of living with humans as the most important thing on the agenda. Almost every fantasy world with these races has a time when those races were powerful lurking in the distant past. It would be so easy, and so cool, to go back and write about them for once. And no cheating, either. No stories that actually focus on the plucky human hero who breaks his people free from the domination of those oh-so-evil and decadent non-humans. Let’s see what Faerie looks like from the inside.
3) More fantasies infused with the writer’s passion.
The reason I resonate with Tolkien’s world so well is that he created it so that the people speaking his languages would have someplace to live. And language is a passion of mine. So lots of little subtle things about his world, and details, and concerns, and the poetry and the singing, make sense to me, because I happen to share the writer’s passion.
I don’t know if I would resonate as strongly with a fantasy whose writer’s passion was economics, or wood-carving, or computer science. But I would love the chance to find out.
Note: By this, I don’t mean a fantasy where the author has done research. That’s admirable, and it’s often necessary even for authors who don’t believe they need it, so I applaud people who go out of the way to add realistic detail on, say, horse-breeding or jewel-carving. But that’s not the same as a passion that the writer loves so much she can’t imagine abandoning it, that eats her waking hours alive, that she’s going to work with to create the fantasy world down to the last and the smallest. I wanna read that one.
And no, I don’t believe, either, that the reason so many fantasy authors don’t do this is that their sole passion is writing. If so, fantasy would have far, far more novelist and poet and short story writer characters than it does.
Wow, neat segue!
4) More thought!
Given that so many science fiction novels have a theme of science, I’d almost expect fantasy, in obedience to the classic academic division of labor, to have a theme of the humanities. But they don’t. What too many of them have is an overused set of plot devices about fate and crowns and magical artifacts set in a generic pseudo-medieval or pseudo-Celtic world.
This is the reason I read so few fantasy medieval or Celtic fantasy books all the way through anymore. They hurt me, especially when fantasy has the potential to be the widest of the genres, doing so many things they can do and so many things they can’t.
Most of the common themes of fantasy are Tolkien rip-offs in one form or another. (If you don’t believe me, go back and read the fantasists who published before Tolkien, like Dunsany and Lovecraft and Cabell. It’s, um, eye-opening). And many of the writers don’t have a passion for language to equal Tolkien’s, so they can’t use the same themes in the same shining sense.
Let’s get some more variation in there, people! If fantasy authors really don’t want to touch science or math—though for those who do, go write me some books like point 5—there’s still history, psychology, philosophy, art, and many others to deal with. And when you start breaking down the arts, into painting and sculpture and literature and mosaic and song and so on, you’re never going to get enough time to write a novel about every one of them.
This is the place where research does come in handy, and where academic interest, as opposed to wild burning passion, can still produce good books. I’ve heard magic stated as fantasy’s baseline in the same way as science is SF’s. Well, why? You can write a book without magic or almost without it and still have it called fantasy, while it’s really hard to write an SF book without any science at all and do the same. (Hell, taking the SF out of its future setting can do the same thing; I’ve heard several arguments about whether Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, which takes place in the past and deals with the rise of credit, among other things, is SF or historical fiction). Magic is not what defines the genre. It’s just a convenient touchstone.
I’ve heard some people say that if other themes than magic and crowns and destiny are used, the word “fantasy” winds up becoming meaningless. I’m actually not going to worry about that until the genre manages to move out from under Tolkien’s shadow. And if such a complete transformation can be achieved, then there’ll be a new genre around to read. Cool.
5) I want to read about science and magic coexisting side by side.
“Hello, this is your friendly neighborhood fantasy author. And this is your friendly neighborhood fantasy world of, uh, Generica. Now, if you look to your left, you can see the smokestacks going up from the evil scientists’ homes. And, if you look to your right, you can see the dragons getting ready to fight back.”
I’m bored already!
In those fantasies, it’s not just the elves that are fading. It’s everybody fading, usually because Those Damn Humans just don’t know when to stop building technology. How dare they use their brains and assemble things out of the natural world? The world was so much better off in the non-existent time when everybody ate fruits and nuts, spoke the same language, and lived in a peaceful matriarchal society that worshipped the Earth Mother!
Peace is harder than war. It’s also less melodramatic and provides fewer opportunities for people to die in gory messes. And I wanna read about it.
Take away the possibility of open conflict, and suddenly a world with both magic and science in it is much more interesting. How do they interact? How do people choose which one to use in certain situations? How does theory advance in both disciplines? What kinds of creatures might owe their existence to both? How far might they have gone, and can you push it farther? (While I’ve read several “science fantasies” that had dragons and elves existing alongside skyscrapers and racecars, I’ve yet to see one where unicorns and cyborgs run side by side. There seems to be an unwritten law that if computers advance too far, then you can’t have unicorns anymore).
This might also create a hybrid genre, or change the book from a pure fantasy, or, gasp, require that the author learn something about math and science. My answers to those “objections” in order are: Cool!, Cool!, and Good, that might help destroy the stereotype that the only people who read and enjoy fantasy are dippy teenagers not literate enough to read science fiction.
6) Causal universes.
No, not ones that the gods slapped together when they were drunk. That’s casual. I’m talking about causal, ones where the things that happen are the consequence and result of things that happened before them, rather than the gods interfering to prevent disaster every 1.3 seconds or 400 years.
Causal universes are rare. I think Kay and Martin have made them, but I can’t think of any other examples. There are a number of reasons I want more of them:
- Moralistic universes lessen the suspension of disbelief and almost guarantee that the people who follow some pre-determined ideal of “good” will win. That’s stupid as well as boring. Why would anyone choose to be evil in that kind of universe, knowing how it would turn out? Insane villains are overused, and so is the kind of logic that states pompously that people will willingly sell their souls to the Devil out of sheer spite at good people and God.
- It would get rid of coincidences and deus ex machina, which need to be prevented from being born more often.
- It would get rid of destiny. Ha-ha, bye-bye!
- It might present a fantasy world in which actual evolution took place. I can’t think of one. And it’s not fair that SF is the only genre that gets to play with that idea. I wanna play, too!
- It might force some fantasy authors to learn how to frickin’ plot.
7) Fantasy worlds with lessons presented through their world’s frame of reference.
Notice that I didn’t say themes or messages, I said “lessons.” There’s almost always a scene in a fantasy novel where the characters stop and babble pop psychology at each other, or insist that a character learn a certain thing, or where the protagonist comes to an epiphany that just happens to be phrased in the same way that someone might come to a realization on a psychoanalyst’s couch
I hate them.
The greatest challenge and wonder and difficulty in building a fantasy world is to create a new place. There are all kinds of influences creeping in unnoticed, of course, and there are places where the author will make deliberate choices—for example, to have trees in that world. But influences that depend on a very modern way of thinking, with the characters touching on concepts that could not have come into being because that world doesn’t have the proper philosophical history to have produced them, need to be shot on sight.
Build up the world’s own philosophy. Then, once you have it, infuse it into everything. A fantasy novel where there’s some “lesson” about what happens when people try to live in a utopian society is absurdly self-conscious. Do we go around thinking all the time about every thought we have, or every piece of the society we live in? Of course not. There are plenty of things that we never guess at until something random brings them to our attention. Build a fantasy world that has its own set of these.
I wanna learn to think in different ways.
8) Academic fantasy.
I’ll keep this one short. I’m an academic, so I want academic fantasies.
Two examples will suffice:
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will not appeal to everybody. I loved it because it builds up an academic history of magic. There are arguments about folklore and the “science” of magic and its practitioners and what was really possible. It reaches out to other places in the culture, even though you might not be able to see everything that it touches. Very nice.
As for the second, when a fantasy world is developed enough to produce something like this essay with all its casual references to ancient poets, living poets, styles of painting, nationalists, and interactions between real, breathing people, then I’ll know it’s complete.
In a way, this is a variation on the passionate fantasies and the fantasies with alternate themes. But academic fantasies are particularly good examples of worldbuilding, because (at their best) academics get curious and reach out and touch so many other things, aware and unaware, since their knowledge bases tug everything else in. A fantasy world with enough culture to support something like that has got to be something special.
This is the way that I get stuck with so many story ideas, by the by. Something’s not there. I want it to be there. I ransack shelves looking for books like these. I don’t find enough of them, so I think I have to make them.
And yep, if everyone followed these prescriptions, fantasy would be a pretty boring genre. But then someone would come along and change it again, into something else, and then it would change into something else yet again. And I think that’s wonderful. Because it’s living things that change.