Wednesday 31 December 2014

Off-The-Shelf Fantasy Worlds

Having just finished Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, a Christmas present, I can see why it's such a divisive novel. It's a sharply told story, with lots of interesting challenges and characters. It has a smartest-guy-in-room protagonist who skates just on the right side of insufferable. It has, dare I say, a well-thought-out magic system that puts sorcery side by side with science.

But, but, but. The world in this novel - cramped, generic, no great vistas of space or time. If there is a fault of American fantasy authors, at least those who do not do their research like Wolfe and Martin or drink deep of the weird well like Vance and Clark Ashton Smith, it's that they have no sense of the strangeness of history. Their worlds (for example, Donaldson, Eddings, Jordan, Gary Gygax when he turned his pen to fiction, and now Rothfuss) tend to default to a kind of off-the-shelf pre-industrial idyll.

Although sometimes compared to the cod-archaism of a Renaissance faire, the better comparison of these fantasylands - aptly for the young age of the American republic - is to a nineteenth century sans gunpowder or steam. No feudal ties, ancien regime, or dead hand of the past burden these republican minds in a nominal monarchy. The sparse areas recall the Wild West, complete with the ever-present taverns and bartenders; farmed areas populated by sturdy Midwestern yeomen; cities as Dickensian hives of colorful crooks, pompous officials, and kindly benefactors; Rothfuss' University not too far away, either, from the Tom Brown's School Days playbook more famously cribbed by J. K. Rowling.  Chattel slavery stays away from fantasyland, perhaps a wish that by going back to mock-Europe and eliminating black and red people from the narrative, one can also wish away that ugly resonance of American history. (Credit must go to Orson Scott Card for confronting the mythology and history of the American frontier head-on in his Seventh Son series.)

In other regards the generic fantasyland shies away even from the strangeness of the nineteenth century and before. Yes, the trend has been to write that era's dialogue in the stilted literary language it left behind (David Milch's Deadwood, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain) but I'm talking about more intangible things. The rules on affectionate relations between the sexes, and within the sexes, were different. Honor and reputation counted for more. But the generic American fantasy writer tries to buy our sympathy by making the main characters "just like us" - or better - in personal and sexual mores.

Now British makers of fantasy worlds grow up in cities and countryside filled with ancient ruins, partitioned by ancient boundaries, ditches, roads and hedges. If anything, their sins of laziness are to view history too much from the modern eye, either gussied up in the twee accents of folklore or vulgarized in the manner of the "Horrible Histories" children's books into a panorama of gross-outs and sadism.

It's hard enough to find good psychological historical fiction - novels that present characters who are sympathetic but also believably alien, like Aubrey and Maturin, Patrick O'Brien's archetypal Tory-Whig duo from the age of fighting sail. But to construct a fantasy that comes with its own psychology -- the casual cruelties of Gene Wolfe under a sun that may go out any moment, for example, or the low-tech future African witchcraft of Nnedi Okorafor - that is what I would most see as worthwhile to read. Anything out there?


  1. You might want to give Star's Reach by John Michael Greer a shot. It's an odd duck on its own, being set in the future, but a future that has become deindustrialized without an apocalyptic event. It reads as somewhere between fantasy and science fiction, and is a quest for a rather interesting McGuffin.

    I haven't read it yet, but Mark Rosefelder's In the Land of Babblers is set in his very interesting and deeply thought-out setting of Verduria.

  2. If by Eddison you mean E.R. Eddison the author of the Worm Ouroboros, he was English not American.

    1. Given the context, my guess is that he meant Eddings.

    2. Fie on me, faoladh is correct! Post edited.

  3. Some other suggestions:

    I don't know how you feel about graphic novels, but Unicorn Jelly and its follow-ups Pastel Defender Heliotrope and To Save Her are excellent philosophical fantasy/science fiction. They can be read online or purchased as print books (though …Heliotrope is extremely expensive due to being both long and in color).

    Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier wrote a novel based on Jean "Moebius" Giraud's "Arzach" stories. It's not terrible (it's fairly readable, actually), and the novel is illustrated by Moebius, so it's worth getting for that at the very least.

    Tanith Lee's "Tales from the Flat Earth" are remarkable, and she has a couple of new volumes that are supposed to come out any time now (though it's already behind schedule, as the company that is to do so was re-releasing the first five volumes first and they are only up to the fourth, where their schedule was originally supposed to have the new volumes out by now).

    1. I can do graphic novels, thanks for the tip.

      Those T. Lee novels fall into the group of "things I read when I was 14 and engaged with in a 14 year old way and so need to go back and check out again."

  4. So google decided to eat my comment. I'm not going to put as much effort into it this time. Anyway, here are seven books that you might enjoy:

    1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. 5 parts historical romance, 3 parts literary fiction, 1 part fantasy. Great characters whose vastly different worldviews are factored into their motivations, actions, and internal dialog.

    2. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. In a far-off future where Hindu metaphysic and mythology are made real using mind-uploading technology, one man is using Buddhist teachings to try to start a rebellion.

    3. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. A fantasy retelling of political intrigue in Tang Dynasty China. Kay is a phenomenal character writer, and these characters have deeply different motivations than most because of their social situations. The climax of the book is a bunch of court officers reciting poetry to each other. This book is awesome.

    4. 1491 by Charles Mann. A non-fiction book that looks at the Americas before their western "discovery", Mann does a wonderful job of presenting various Native Americans as they saw themselves, not filtered through our western conceptions of hunter-gatherers and savages. One of the more gameable books I've ever read, and some day I will write a fantasy retelling of the true story of Tsquantum (aka Squanto).

    5. Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Cholderlos de Laclos. Petty political and sexual intrigue in 18th century Paris. Wonderfully realized characters, motivated by emotions that are eminently understandable to a modern audience, work in a very different social structure in order to communicate and pull off their elaborate and delightfully evil plans.

    6. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Presents a vivid, human story told in feudal England. Presents the motivations of lords, priests, merchants, peasants, and outlaws. Awful things happen, but they're not presented as "ok because those things just happened back then". If you want a well-realized story told in a feudal world that isn't gussied up and made easy for a modern audience, this is it.

    7. The Painted Man series by Peter V. Brett. So these novels are really problematic and Brett is not a very good character writer, but he gets an honourable mention for at least making an effort, and at times even succeeding in building a very alien world.