Friday, March 30, 2012

Is Fantasy. Is not Fantasy.

Win the Internets for a day if you can tell me which band is referenced by the title without Googling. They were easily one of the most innovative groups of the 90s.

So, allow me to prove myself wrong almost immediately by having something occur to me that is not fiction, but is actually about fiction (Is fiction. Is not fiction...), since fantasy and SF seem to be hot items in the entertainment world these days (All those of us who've been fans for decades can finally roll our eyes once again at mainstream America in that respect: Yes. It was always cool.) But there's a bit of seeming hypocrisy present in the fantasy end of the genre and that's what I wanted to touch on because it directly affects what I'm working on from a viability standpoint.

Clearly, the hottest fantasy series out there right now is George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, known to many by the title of the HBO series, named after the first book, A Game of Thrones.

One of the most frequent comments I see about both the TV series and the books (as the vast majority of viewers seem to have become readers, much to the joy of Martin's bank account (and quite deservedly so; it's a strange world in which we live when a person's months or years of work can be bought for less than the price of a fast food lunch, but that's another post...)) is that Game of Thrones is appealing to them because the "fantasy" elements are largely left in the background. With the exception of one appearance by the Others in the first episode and the appearance of dragons in the finale and a couple minor bits along the way (zombies, the presence of the Wall, etc.), Martin's story is far more medieval power struggle than fantasy epic. Of course, since he largely based the series on the Wars of the Roses and Venetian clan conflicts, that's perhaps to be expected. I have grave news for those viewers who still aren't readers in that the fantasy elements tend to ramp up a bit in the second book (and, presumably, in the second season of the TV series, which begins this Sunday.) You'll see alchemists creating a fascimile of Greek fire, more evidence of the Others, shapeshifting assassins, Wildling mammoths, and a huge dose of mysticism in the mysterious city of Qarth. And, of course, the continued presence of flying, fire-breathing lizards. Will that same audience continue to be sucked in by Martin's brilliant characters and simply accept the emergence of the sorcery half of the typical sword-and-sorcery combo?

One of the interesting aspects to that declaration of the enjoyment of "non-fantasy fantasy" is the demeaning comparison to The Lord of the Rings. The latter is presented as the "too much magic" fantasy which Martin supposedly successfully avoids. The interesting thing about that is, if you read Tolkien's books, there really isn't that much typical fantasy involved, once you get past the very presence of elves, dwarves, and orcs. Take out the One Ring and that's short people and skinny people fighting bestial people, which could be propaganda in any number of wars throughout human history.

(Did I just imply that the uruk-hai were the misunderstood victims of politics? Oh, yes, I did.) The movies tended to add fantastical elements that really weren't present in the books (there is no on-camera telekinetic duel between Gandalf and Saruman, for example) but LotR is still considered the byword for something that real people wouldn't admit to reading or liking if they wanted to be accepted by mainstream America (despite the movies somehow raking in billions and several Oscars; I'm not getting into it...)

But the books are quite different. Tolkien used to harp on a concept he called "lore" more than anything else. The rings didn't actually do anything overt. You couldn't haul off and shoot fireballs with them. They simply enabled people to do other things. The elves built the scintillating forest realm of Lothlórien on the strength of one of the three rings. Sauron built the Barad-dûr on the strength of a ring that seemingly did nothing more fantastic than turning the wearer invisible. Nice for David Copperfield, but hardly something that would turn him into ruler of the world. But the "lore" behind it was what was important. It was the theme of Tolkien's story; his disdain for the modern world and its machine-like impulses (most prevalent in the pursuit of war) when the truer, deeper, more elevated impulses were those embodied by not humans: mostly elves. It was a longing for a time that had never been when confronted by a time that he really didn't care for (having been a participant in WWI and with his son an active participant in WWII while he was writing The Lord of the Rings.) The sword-and-sorcery fantasy in Tolkien's work is actually far more conceptual than what would produce big explosions on screen. But his work is now often derided because it is the foundation of modern fantasy and Martin's work, possessed of far more adult-oriented themes than much of Tolkien's work (savage murder by other humans as opposed to monsters, sex, overt politics (as opposed to the subtle themes of Minas Tirith), etc.), is given credit for being that much more "real", walking precisely the path that Tolkien so derided for being what it was. Tolkien wanted to be fantasy and is now derided for it. Martin's story is fantasy and will become even more overtly so once the dragons start contesting the world with the walking ice men, but is hailed for it.

Bringing this all around to what I'm doing: the prologue that I posted the other day is set in a world that is unapologetically fantasy, but not Tolkien fantasy. Magic is a constant presence but so is the presence of what Martin's books are often lauded for. For example, the pseudo-main character is a contract killer who happens to be of the class of people known as magi: those who can invoke powers beyond their world and use that energy to do fantastic things. But murder is a constant presence. So is the (supposedly) past element of slave trading. And labor rights. And the exploitation of the poor by the rich. And drugs. And, yes, "lore" in more of the Tolkien vein (or at least my interpretation of it.) It will be, in essence, both Tolkien and Martin taken to the Nth degree in many ways (except no dwarves or elves, sorry.)

Does the darker atmosphere make it more viable in today's market or does the constant presence of sorcery and mage stuff make it less viable? Both? Neither? Will it cross the same audiences as Martin's work? Or get relegated to a niche because one element overwhelms the other? When you look at typical fantasy, like Terry Brooks' Shannara series, which is unarguably successful from a sales perspective, does that make it better than Roger Zelazny's brilliant and beautifully-written Lord of Light, which is barely remembered?

I'm not particularly concerned about the sales or audience questions at this point, since my story is largely unwritten and, thus, can't be sold even if people wanted to buy it. It's just another of those theoretical questions that invade my brain and cause me to wonder about people's identity crises vis-a-vis their choice of media. Is it OK to be a prototypical "jock" and like fantasy? Or only Game of Thrones-type fantasy? Do those labels even apply anymore? I'm a diehard Michigan football fan who understands the 4-3 under (that's a defense) better than most football fans I've ever met. But I have a closet full of board games, the majority of which could typically be described as "geeky" (Descent, et al) because of their themes and styles. Does that make me the ideal "modern fantasy" consumer? Good thing I know several other people like me, I guess...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Doings lately

So, I've not been posting recently as there hasn't been much to say that someone else isn't already saying better. And I've been working on something else which is taking up the attention and energy that was occasionally pointed here. A sample follows. I'm not sure how many people read the blog or would be interested in this kind of thing but, there it is.

The arcing discharge from the diamond-shaped chamber at the top of the Spire, known as the Malwirra, flashed again. The light placed the path of his life in stark relief, literally and figuratively, as it briefly showed the way through the usual gloom of the North, while Faluk sprinted across the canvas walkway. The faint hope flitted through his mind that this was one of the swaths that had had ropes recently replaced or at least inspected. This being one of the less-appointed neighborhoods on the Lower Span, the normal noises of cooking, drinking, shouting, and general human life swirled around his ears as he raced past various dwellings and businesses, some anchored to the Lower with wood and steel, and others free-swinging. He couldn't hear any sound of organized pursuit, but the Watchers never really made much noise...

He grabbed a loose line and swung out over the Pit, descending as quickly as his burning palms would allow. He kept his eyes on the walkway he'd just left and those immediately above it. Was that a depression from a foot? Someone running? The discharge came again, leaving hazy, purple shapes in his eyes as he swung back in toward the city, landing on a rope-supported wooden platform. He dove for a rope ladder descending through a ragged square cut in the wood, its edges worn smooth by generations of hands and feet. The ladder was fixed at both ends, making travel much easier as he headed for another broad canvas walkway below him. Dropping the last few feet, he wheeled and stopped with a gasp before colliding with the figure in front of him.

The Watcher stood there, implacable in its skin-tight grey covering that ever so vaguely resembled fur, and its almost featureless bone-white mask. The masks were the trademark of the Watchers, lacking holes for eyes, mouth, or nose but with the depressions for eyes and a ridge for a nose of some kind present, as a simulacrum of human features. Faluk stopped to wonder if it was intentional that they looked subhuman or if it was true. He inhaled quickly as he tried to focus his thoughts. Was it making him confused already, without even touching him? All of the stories and lies he'd heard about them came flooding back to him.  Its head swung from side to side like a hunting dog as it began to step forward, surely examining the escape angles, what weapons Faluk might have concealed, surveying. Watching. Surely it was doing that reasonable thing, he thought. Or was it scenting him?

Faluk staggered back toward the ladder, eyes darting to both sides, mostly looking for possibilities below his position, but also for possible aid. Where were they?!, he thought. It's not like I expect them to reveal themselves completely but something-! Anything! His eyes fixed on the slowly advancing Watcher as it flicked a wrist and produced a two-foot, translucent rod from nowhere. At the end of the rod was a silvery ball that exuded intermittent ghostly emanations, like the mist from the swamps at the southern end of the Jun Wastes. Faluk found himself peering into them, seeing if he could make out the faces of former victims that legend had it appeared as images from these weapons. He straightened himself and looked into the featureless face.

"You don't want me, you know?" He tried to chuckle and ended up coughing, but used the movement to try to conceal his right hand reaching into his simple, linen belt. "The truth goes further than you know. I'm just a pawn." He huffed out a laugh. "Watchers! You don't even know what you're seeing-!" His beginning tirade was cut off in a gasp of pain as the rod shot out and the silver ball just grazed his right shoulder. Immediately, the entire arm was wracked with pain, followed by total numbness. He recoiled and staggered toward the edge of the platform. The Watcher stabbed forward again with the rod but Faluk pitched himself over the side.

He fell through some casual netting and a couple clotheslines, a skirt and breeches beginning their long, slow fall to the Pit. Flailing out with his usable arm, he grabbed a support stanchion beneath what looked like a locksmith's business. His hand found a mounting spike and gripped it and he swung into the mounting post that supported the structure, wrenching his left shoulder and knocking the wind from his lungs with the impact. He hung there for a few seconds, again listening to the surrounding sounds of the city, wondering about pursuit. He wasn't quite sure where he was at this point, but knew he had traveled a fair distance. He hauled on the spike, straining to bring himself up to the level of the support bar before his strength gave out. His right arm was still useless, but he could at least hurl that part of his body over the diagonally-mounted beam and gain some respite for a moment. He hung there across the stanchion, wheezing, and reached with his left hand into his belt and withdrew the pouch.

Holding it aloft, he studied its simple, black leather and casual guild stamp. The drug, he thought. The drug was the key. If more people knew about it, everything would begin to change. As he sat there staring at the bag, a Watcher descended without a sound to another stanchion in front of him, mere feet away.

Faluk grimaced and shook his head, his black, scraggly hair already moving in the constant updraft around the exterior of the Spire. The Watcher crouched there, pain rod at the ready, seemingly waiting. Faluk spit at the mask, briefly surprised that he could even summon up either the energy or the spittle, at the same moment as the rod darted forward and struck his throat. His thoughts vanished in a flash of white light and the Watcher lunged forward to grab the pouch as it fell from Faluk's open hand.

Just past the reach of the Watcher's grip, the pouch fell into the blackness, any trace of its passing swallowed by night and sound. The Watcher stared after it as two more of its kind swung beneath the locksmith's shop. The white masks turned to each other briefly and then dispersed back up into the reaches of the Spire. Faluk's body swayed slightly in the wind, lit once more by the Malwirra's constant energy.