Friday, August 3, 2007

Thoughts on Fantasy and Historical Fiction

I am finding it reasonably challenging to write long projects like Simon Peter. Yeah, I know, I know, who knew that writing a novel might be hard work? One of the biggest problems I face is getting tired of the situation and characters and start to think about different situations and characters. So bad is this that I largely have to avoid reading too many novels, especially in fields different than what I'm writing about, because it can completely destroy my will to write what I need to write -- but to some extent it happens anyway. This post is largely working out this idea that's been getting in Simon Peter's way so I can focus back on that without distractions for a while.

Tho' Simon Peter is definitely a historical fiction, and I am enjoying writing historical fiction, I still primarily regard myself as a science-fiction and fantasy writer, but I've been having a lot of conceptual problems with fantasy for a while, now. The root of the "problem" comes from the reality that most fantasy is, explicitly or not, basically Western Europe in the High Middle Ages with some "system of magic" and a number of monsters fairly crudely slapped on. The magic is generally not particularly well integrated into the social fabric of society, and I find it reasonably tedious (even as I have largely done it) that fantasy "societies" are inevitably some real human culture (or, more often, a pastiche or parody of it).

This creates what a friend of mine coined, to my knowledge, as the generic fantasy template. We all know it. The story takes place in a parody of a Anglo-French feudal monarchy, there are elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains, and guys in pointy hats know magic. Slight variants of the generic fantasy template rule fantasy with an iron fist.

For a while, now, my mind has been trying to pick out why this is the case. Some of it is enculturation, laziness and expectations. Most fantasy writers I know are, after all, members of what we loosely call Western civilization, so they're inclined to write about things with a Western motif, it's easier to write about Western motifs than to research outside of your culture or come up with something new, and . . . in the end most fantasy audiences expect it and want it.

The same goes with the poor integration of intelligent non-humans and magic into the setting, with some slight twists. For instance, in the GFT, elvish civilization is more advanced than human civilization in all ways -- technologically, magically and culturally. But no fantasy writer I know of writes about human civilization being an aspect of elvish colonization, even when humans actively ape elvish culture and civilization. (I've actually considered writing a fantasy novel where it would be largely about humans trying to free themselves of the thousands of years of elvish cultural imperialism and colonization as a kind of post-colonial fantasy novel and going all out. Y'know, the reason why people think that blond, blue-eyed people are more beautiful is due to their resemblance to elves, and the heroes are all "ugly" people because they're thick-bodied and with dark hair, skin and eyes, with the Aryan aristocracy emplaced by the elves keeping down the non-white humans, armed with elven weapons and such to do it.) But that doesn't happen, just as it never happens that people consider the justice behind, say, slaughtering goblins or orcs, or even the moral and legal issues of attacking a dragon.

Magic is equally poorly grafted on most of the time, without real social consequences. If you can magically heal someone, I mean, that's probably what you'd spend all your time doing, right? Or blessing fields or whatever. It is rarely integrated well into the setting.

(This is not universal, of course. Indeed, I wouldn't mind people giving me novels where all of this is false! I'm all down with people pointing me in the direction of cool books.)

So, I was thinking about how to settle these issues for myself, unique to myself as an artist. What I was tending towards was to write historical fiction with a fantasy element, with the magic and monsters being subtle enough that it might be objectively impossible to say "that was magic" . . . though I found myself then wondering why I wouldn't just write historical fiction. I wasn't sure that the distinction between historical fiction and historical fantasy would be interesting enough to make me write historical fantasy -- I might get too interested in the history.

But I was recently talking with a friend about fantasy role-playing games and what I disliked about a lot of gaming settings, and the same is roughly true of fantasy literature (even a lot of stuff that isn't the GFT). Specifically, we were talking about the Dungeons & Dragons setting of The Forgotten Realms. Forgotten Realms basically defines the generic fantasy template, really, and cranks it to 11. There are wickedly powerful wizards, awesomely powerful supernatural creatures, thousands of years of advanced non-human civilizations and loads of literally divine intervention, but human society managed to look superficially like northwestern Europe, and is the politically dominate force in the setting.

Part of what drives me batty about the setting is how it tries to ecologically justify things. A monster is never a freak of nature that exists, as they often did in mythology, for instance, on a remote island or as a single creature -- but there are whole species of them, with mating habits, society, culture. Which just worsens it all, because they're all these little independent things that have little bearing with each other, each considered in a weird vacuum!

During the course of the conversation about fantasy settings, I opined that I'd much prefer that monsters be freaks of nature one-shots -- and given the structure of D&D where there are literally hundreds of different monsters and scant reason to reuse most of them, this isn't even a problem -- or having a small number of them living in some remote location than try to justify a global ecology and economy and political structure as poorly as Forgotten Realms does it, constantly drawing my attention to how very stupid the setting is on whole.

So, I started to think about a setting where the world doesn't have the same base presumptions of our own world. What came to my mind was a game my wife ran for a while set in the Dreamlands (the one invented by H.P. Lovecraft). In the Dreamlands, you never worried about how things "really were". Why was there an ancient city in the jungle? Because ancient cities in jungles are . . . dreamy. You don't have to even try to follow the logic present in the material world. The Dreamlands follows dream logic.

Which got my mind working about a setting where, well,the operating principle wasn't what the various laws of physics might decide would happen, because there aren't any objective physical laws, but the universe would reward people for creating interesting narratives in the same way that our universe rewards people who tease out "the way things work".

So, a merchant who tried to prosaically find the wind and wave to create a reliable trade route would fail, or come back with paltry pickings, but the person who sailed off to explore the strange worlds beyond the edge of the ocean would come back laden down with loot. The same would be true of everything. An architect would try to make every building a statement because, well, that's more interesting than identical, prosaic buildings -- the universe would find that less interesting than a unique structure built of great passion.

And then I imagined that there would be ancient and alien narratives still hanging around. That the narratives of the protagonists -- which would be largely human narratives because I am a human -- might act in opposition to these alien narratives that are much older and, potentially, of greater significance than what humans think is interesting.

I acknowledge that there is a metafiction element to this. What determines "what should happen" is literally my thoughts about what constitutes "interesting" to the audience, that the narrative logic is an artificial construct of interesting determined by my private interpretation of modern American culture. I'm feeling terribly modern, hehe. I'm also thinking that . . . this has been coming for a while, artistically speaking. In some ways, I'm creating a justification to write like superhero comic book writers -- where "what would really happen" almost always comes in a distance second to "what is interesting to happen".

I've also been realizing that part of the function of human consciousness will create a narrative out of any facts that are presented. Consider conspiracy theory. A conspiratologist will take statements (many of them not facts, even) that are logically unrelated to each other and create a narrative out of them. Thus the innumerable bizarre theories concerning the assassination of John Kennedy, or even the American public's initial acceptance of the administration's narrative that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" even over the objections of the UN arms inspectors that were in the best position to know. Statements were presented in proximity to each other and people's minds just created a narrative. Meaning is something humans insert into a narrative. So, by presenting a number of statements in proximity to each other, I hope to create a compelling fantasy narrative despite the proposed narrative making no real sense at all.

So, when I'm done with Simon Peter, I suspect I'll be writing a couple of proof of concept stories to see how it works out.


divabeq said...

The last bit, in particular, about creating a narrative with facts presented... there is already a tacit understanding that we do this *visually*... presented with an incomplete image, we will visually connect what's there to create a picture. Like a series of dots, put together in the right configuration resolves into a picture of a rabbit or a car or whatever.

It would be interesting to see a study done on this phenomenon on a narrative level. Something akin to confirmation bias, but almost in reverse.

Lord Trafalgar Rock Pigeon said...

The root of the "problem" comes from the reality that most fantasy is

And as you say Christianity is fantasy, then therefore it is reality.

Which rational people know anyway. :)

Ian Appleby said...

Chris, where do you stand on Terry Pratchett? Yes, I know Discworld started out as a parody of the swords-and-sorcery milieu you decry, but I think the series has matured into a very perceptive mirror of our own society - just like much other good sci-fi/fantasy - as well as a deconstruction of the ecological worries you describe.

The other reason for mentioning him is his explicit invocation of the narrative imperative, which effectively demands that a story should conform to the reader's expectations (this still allows for a great deal of permutation and subversion of these expectations...) In this sense, then, it is not only the reader who is creating meaning, but also this narrative imperative.

I suspect he is only partially tongue-in-cheek about this...

jmb said...

Interesting post, however I'm too pragmatic to read fantasy, although all my family does so it is everywhere in our house.

Now historical fiction is my favourite genre, but a writer who has combined the two very successfully for me to read is Guy Gavriel Kaye, a Canadian writer.

Why don't you write two books at the same time? Then you might come back renewed to the first after time spent with the second.

Mirtika said...

Is most fantasy still a Medievalish thing?

I dunno. There's been Renaisance and Regency fantasy. And right now, contemporary urban fantasy has a big selection for readers: Dresden Files novels, Nightside novels, the vampire and werewolf proliferations, Neil Gaiman, John C. Wright's Chronicles of Chaos trilogy, Orson Scott Card's contemp fantasy, even Harry Potter, the most successful one is not strictly speaking "medievalish" but contemporary with some ancient flavors. Female-audience-oriented urban fantasies (with a heavy dose of romantic co- or sub-plot has aficionados in the SF world, too. My fave fantasist in my younger years--Ellison--didn't do feudal/medieval. Ray Bradbury's fantasies tended to be Americana of the 20th century.

I would quibble with the "most" categorization a tad there. :)

I would say that fantasy involves quite a bit more than just the same old same old these days.


Chris Bradley said...


I want to jump out and say that my problem isn't with the people who write v. traditional fantasy novels. Maybe I gave the wrong impression, but my struggles as a writer have nothing to do with the way other people write. I like a number of traditional fantasy novels. I say this all the time to folks when talking about art and I'm dead serious: execution is everything. A good writer can overcome any conceptual limitations or categories -- if a person has a good story to tell and it happens to be a traditional fantasy story, I encourage them to tell it as they see fit. My issues are my own, I am not fulfilled by writing traditional fantasy.

So, for instance, I think Terry Pratchett is amongst the greatest writers in the English language of the past 100 years. I'd kill to have his sense of humor and wit. ;)

Chris Bradley said...


I'm familiar with Kay, and I like him. The model of historical fantasy I was thinking of was actually Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. If you've ever read the unabridged version, there's serious speculation that the Count is a vampire or other supernatural being -- and he does seem to have unusual powers. Is it magic or not? That was the model of historical fantasy running around in my mind.

And it takes pretty much all my attention and energy to write one novel, hehe. Right now, I couldn't imagine writing two of them at the same time. I wouldn't know what was going on in either one, alas.

Chris Bradley said...


I had actually, in my mind, not put dark urban fantasy in the "fantasy" category, which was a wrong of me, hehe. So, obviously, other people are trying to break out of the generic fantasy template box, too. I hate it when I miss something so obvious! But, for my own part, I have no desire to write modern dark fantasy -- tho' I love writing horror, which is obviously a related genre. I even have some ideas for what I want to do when I write horror, though not an actual PLOT or whatever. ;)

Still, I think my idea is pretty solid. I could argue that most of those other types of fantasy do what I don't want to do -- in dark urban fantasy, f'rex, they go to considerable lengths to have things make some sort of physical sense. (Ray Bradbury, bless him, didn't, really, but . . . I love Ray Bradbury. There is probably no writer I am as jealous of his talents as Ray.) I don't think this is bad, just my thoughts take me in a different direction.

Thanks for commenting!

Steven said...

I agree that most fantasy recycles a lot of the same ideas, and there are many bad fantasy novels available to read. Many times, the magical elements are way over the top. I prefer uses of magic, if used at all, to be more subtle and even believable. I think George R.R. Martin does the best job of this, creating fictional worlds that at least come across believable in their own way, with interspersions of magic here and there. I'm a big fan of historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell is one of the best I have read in this genre.

Siberia said...

Y'know, I was thinking exactly that the other day, writer wannabe that I am. My grip was with science fiction that usually involves humanoid aliens or aliens that bear some semblance to human civilization (thankfully, there is Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem, one of my favorites).

And those tend to be either locked in some curious human-like feudal past, something the same level of evolution as humans, or incredibly superior. But not unhumanlike. Where is the creativity, people?!

Then there's fantasy, much of it made of Tolkien look-alikes. I like the way Tolkien wrote, but I more often than not get easily bored with his stories. Maybe because the same theme has been waxed so often.

I sometimes have this silly idea of writing a contemporary storyline (no great wars or system breakdown, just some story) that is just curiously set in a parallel universe. Maybe a short story, if it's not novel-worthy, but something.