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...


  1. Write the book you want to read, don't worry about what book anyone else wants to read. The reason you do things like this, as I think I heard first from Ira Glass? is that you have killer taste. And the reason you get frustrated when you start to do something is because of that killer taste: you know your own work isn't up to par. Because no one's is at first, but you still have that killer taste...

    This is what I try to convince myself of every day: make it done, even if it takes years. What have you done over the last 3-5 years? Work 2-3 hours a day over the next 3-5 years and you can have something to look back at and feel proud of, whether or not anyone else likes it. That's never really been a good measure of value anyway, has it?

  2. Yeah. Like I said, I'm not really concerned about it. I'm going to write what I know because that's what I know. I can't really write to someone else's vision. I've just found it funny to continually read that reaction to Martin's work.

    Of course, 5 minutes after I posted this, I realized that I'd neglected the biggest-selling fantasy series of the past 20 years which is positively suffused in "traditional" fantasy tropes: Harry Potter. I suppose that blows a hole in my thesis, although some allowance has to be made for the fact that those are originally intended to be children's or young reader-type books.