I’m a little annoyed, truth be told. I’m annoyed because I feel as though some of the vision I have for Fantasy has started to come to pass. And that might sound a little strange – surely I should be happy that what I envisioned individually is appearing in print? Well, yes because it’s great to read and it needs to be written but no, because I wanted to be at the front of that movement. And I’ve been too slow, too lazy and too lax about it and because of this, it’s starting to get away from me and any chance of having an impact (an immediate one, anyway) on the genre is becoming less and less likely.
Let me explain.
For the past several years, there has been a slow but inevitable change in Fantasy and it’s quickly gaining momentum –I say past several years, but it’s actually been happening for a fair while longer, it’s just that in recent years it has become far more noticeable. Before I go into that, let me say a little about the aforementioned vision I had for fantasy – well, visions. I have always injected or tried to inject a certain realism in my fantastic literature, mostly characterised in dialogue, by people. And for some time now, as far as a particular work is concerned, Monster, I’ve been working on a certain notion that I came up with about five to six years ago.
It was essentially a reimagining of the Elf. See, I’d always found it strange that most portrayals of Elves (and, in all honesty, there aren’t that many – it just so happens that some of the bestselling, biggest books in Fantasy have featured them, thus leading some to the rather flawed notion that they are common) are of a utopian immortal race and it isn’t that harmony that I question but rather the notion that they would have a civilisation at all. It’s in part based on the concept that there is a utopia possible for us and I firmly believe this is false.
For if we accept that society as we know it is flawed to its core (as I certainly do) then we accept in turn that any attempt to build some lofty ideal, some perfect concept on a faulty cornerstone is doomed to failure – that construct would fall in on itself and collapse. Which is why any long lived race living in some fantastic city in a graceful utopia doesn’t seem right to me – no, I think any long lived race would discover that conceit quite easily and revert to a more simple, primal state that didn’t involve any of the issues we have today.
In short, my Elf would be savage, tribal, long-lived, yes but animalistic in the extreme. At one with nature. Not exactly the most original concept, but it’s the idea of realism and in particular of savagery and violence that interested me and has begun to bleed into fantasy and delightfully colour all therein. The (unfinished) book, Monster, focuses on one demonic creature in the last city on post-apocalyptic Earth – a bounty hunter in a city filled with monsters and mutants, psychics and witches, magic and alchemy sealed off by a Veil from the terrible gases and sorceries that ravage Earth still. It’s a potent mix and it’s about to go to fucking hell.
Now, my demonic bounty hunter, whose eloquent grace and skill has turned murder into an art form is in fact an elf. My kind of elf (well, mostly). The revelation of his birthright and the tragedy of his final redemption (totally giving my story away here, but whatever) was meant to ram home just how far Fantasy needed to run – in the other direction.
Of course, my own arrogance was in thinking that I was alone in thinking/dreaming these things, haha – I knew it would come about of its own accord but just not to the degree or volume that it has and I find now that at my current rate of writing, the story I am writing won’t come off quite as freshly as I’d hoped (even though I was deliberate in trying to retain certain traditional elements of classic fantasy in an unconventional context). Mind you, I shall write it one way or another. So, now that I’ve had my little boohoo, let’s discuss Fantasy as it stands now and Fantasy as it is perceived to be by the witless and incompetent (as I like to call them).
Perceptions and the New Wave:
The witless and the incompetent (as well as the innocently unaware, to be fair) perceive Fantasy to be this hoity-toity La-La land in which fairies and princes and princesses dance about in joyous abandon, with a dash of contrived conflict here – oh the Damsel is in distress but lo and behold, she is saved at the last moment! – and a bit of eloquent Shakespearean gobbledygook there – “My fair lady, I beseech you not to be frightened, be still thy beating heart, for my handsome personage now has thy exceedingly plump bosom in hand” kinda thing, bar the end.
Which, I need not mention, is more the part and parcel of fairytales and children’s stories. As well as this, there’s a certain condescension and dismissal of Fantasy which really, really, pisses me off. For more modern examples of scorn, people (jerks) might often say something like, “Oh, so you like stuff like Harry Potter, with wands that people wave around and shit, hurr hurr, you must like, think you’re a wizard or something! (cue moronic laughter)”
That is the most basic, witless kind of perception out there. The more advanced but as yet still misguided perception goes something along the lines of this: “Yeah, I know about Fantasy. It’s all about elves and dwarves and shit – which is cool, or whatever – but it’s all the same, you know? Prophesied One vs. Evil Lord.” (as a side note, this increasing mainstream acceptance of fantasy by those who once scorned the genre is quite amusing, especially the assumption that using the words ‘cool’, ‘shit’ and ‘whatever’ somehow remove the inherent geekyness attributed to the reading of such materials – but more on my astute observations of life and the modernisation of fantasy later).
But it’s all the same, you know? No, I don’t fucking know. Why is that? Because you’re a moron.
Now, to address both and any other assorted misunderstandings about the genre: Fantasy is a multitudinous genre with an infinite number and variety of stories and contrary to the belief that it’s more exotic elements are meaningless or irrelevant to the human condition and indeed, society today — it is in the most removed and fantastic of places that the most surprising and wonderful humanity can be found.
Fantasy essentially acts as a magnifying glass for a lot of the emotions we cannot express or do not experience, to the extent that we’d like – the two major examples of which are Love/Romance and Anger/Homicidal-I’ma-fucking-gut-you-rage – which is to say, for example, one man falling in love with a woman, only to have her taken away by one thing or another and his fight against an unjust system isn’t quite the same as one man climbing a mountain, finding a dragon and punching it in the ovaries, then climbing down the other side to wade through a bloody field of zombies to exact his righteous fucking vengeance.
Now, I could go on about the ways in which we can find ourselves in fantasy, in how the most extreme examples of pain and loss and love and happiness are evidenced within and how the genre as a whole reflects society, but I won’t because a) this points out a certain flaw imagined in old fantasy that I want to address and b) I couldn’t care less about the literati’s.
The flaw: one-dimensional emotion. I mentioned above, the Love/Anger mix (usually, I might add, it’s with one of these uppermost, the object of love needing to be attained or regained and anger –or angst for the young adult versions—being predominant). Certain repeated storylines are mostly about the destruction of the protagonists home and his consequent quest for vengeance against the Big Bad Wolf — in itself, not a bad thing but at some point fantasy became stuck as a landscape of morals (mostly Christian/Western in nature) that replicated certain biblical tropes – dark, satanic overlord figure, pure hero with virginal love—and so what happened was that fantasy lost, if it ever had at that time, character realism.
Because any hero or even a teen, would absolutely be fucking around in a middle-ages style setting and any hero, whose world has been crushed by some evil figure for no apparent reason, wouldn’t stay his blade or hold true to some idealistic nonsense, he’d cut the fucker’s balls off when he found him and that’d be the end of it. Or he’d lose all faith in humanity and hang himself. Who knows?
Now I know what you’re saying – you’re not covering any new ground here, just harping on about the old. Yes, that’s the point – perceptions. See, the funny thing is that even well versed fantasists believe the above, to an extent and help reinforce these concepts for the uninitiated. (This blog, barring a few lines here and there, is a deliberate case in point.) Take, for example, Limyaael. At least, I think that’s her name.
Someone pointed her out to me about a week or so ago and I read one or two articles on her blog before I became so annoyed I had to stop. Why? Because this apparently well read fantasist did nothing but bitch about clichéd crap that is mostly true for every genre. Bad writing is bad writing, no matter the topic and attributing it to Fantasy as a genre is idiotic.
Not once did I see her talk about, not at any length, the greatest examples of fantastic fiction. The majority of her blogs are outdated. Massively so. They are useful only as catalogues of clichés. The funny thing about these clichés is that they are few in number but so often talked about, in relation to a few key examples usually, that they come to brand the entirety of Fantasy with the same brush. This is true of fantasy races as well.
As a brief example of how true this is, I will say this: I haven’t read a book containing an Elf or a Dwarf in years. And to give you some context – in the past decade, there hasn’t been a week that has gone by when I didn’t have a fantasy book in hand. The last book I read containing Elves featured them as a more technologically advanced race, not magical, that merged with sentient fighter jets (referred to as Dragons). In actual fact, it was a short story if I remember right.
It is illogical to think and statistically impossible (given the massive number of volumes published) for any one race to be portrayed as exactly the same over and over again. For the record, I’ve come across metal dragons, water dragons, space dragons, dragons-as-dumb-animals, dragons-as-mystical-creatures-predating Man, dragons-as-creators-of-the-universe, dragons-that-can-become-men, a dragon as the manifestation of sentient rogue electric current in a Victorian household, and so on and so forth in perpetuity. In cities. And not. Ruled by an individual. And by a government. This goes for all races. (Incidentally, Conrad, if you want a fantasy series featuring Satyrs, of whom the MC is one, check out Kate Forsyth)
Now, I’m still somewhat on Perception but I’m getting closer to the New Wave, never fear! There’s a reason Fantasy was so…genteel, once upon a very distant time and that is because society was once quite genteel and high, with the “thee’s and the thou’s” and so Fantasy while still having its steel, covered it in velvet, so to speak.
Fantasy will always reflect society at large in a more fundamental way than any other genre; this is why it can constantly reinvent itself.
In this most recent decade, in the wake of the most violent, broadcast and easily accessible wars, terror attacks, heightened panic, confusion, financial and existential uncertainty – in the general gloom of the modern era, Fantasy is quite as easily dark, cynical and savage. To compare it to something modern, well it’s as though Fantasy was once seen as Boxing is now. And the modern version is the UFC.
Or even more mainstream – remember the old Batman movies? Compare them to the Dark Knight. Yeah. That’s the difference.
The New Wave:
I will begin by stating that I utterly reject any notion that the above misconceptions about Fantasy and the nature of their stories, as regards certain clichés, in any way represented the genre in its entirety at any point in the history of the written word. And so when I label certain recurring themes or trends of late as the ‘New Wave’ you are in no way to take this to mean that those clichés were ever all that there was to the genre or that what is presented as ‘new’ has never occurred before. Only now has it become so popular and prevalent do I feel comfortable labelling it as a movement.
I’m going to talk about the first time I noticed a clear delineation between new and old. This isn’t the first time it appeared in print, but rather the first time I came across it and it was in the form ofThe Prince of Nothing series by Scott. R. Bakker; The Darkness That Comes Before, Bk. 1 – what made this series stand apart was the distinct and utter lack of morals. It was about a sorcerer investigating a recent series of crimes in which the victims had their faces cut off (or were faceless, I can’t remember which).
A sorcerer who was fucking an ageing prostitute that he was in love with (but who didn’t quite return those feelings, she thought he was sweet, but she still made him pay if you catch the drift. And if you don’t, as he didn’t, there was no mistaking it when he overheard her refusal to take a certain veteran’s money because he was such a good lay – a blow to the heart and the ego, all at once).
Now, I wasn’t just interested in the religious parallels (the redemptive whore and the Prophet out of legend who leads the Empire on a Holy War into the desert against the savages; a Prophet who, I might add was able to read faces so well he could trace every thought that framed an expression and could trace that thought backwards in infinitum until he gained a complete and utter understanding of who you were, what you were going to say next and from that, how to manipulate you) – but the amoral characters, their cynicism and, most importantly, the violence, made this stand far above the rest of fantasy as I saw it at the time.
In particular, one scene in which the protagonist is captured by a rival School of Sorcery (there are five and ‘school’ here refers to a collective thought/interpretation of sorcery, not the educational kind we attend) and tortured to try and reveal the secrets of his School’s particular brand.
By happy coincidence (and great plotting) he managed to break free. In some other fantasies I’d read, the hero would just crawl away, happy to be free, determined to live. But this character had been broken in some fundamental fashion and he couldn’t care less: he went absolutely berserk and showed them the sorcery they so wished to see, destroying the majority with savage ease. It was superb. A great payoff.
His relationship with the prostitute, or lack thereof even, his reasoning and character flaws, the casual violence and rape; the unique sorcery systems employed; the wonderful exploitation of religion as a tool by which to control the masses and the mix of science and magic made this great and further, the realism, the darkness and helplessness of the characters…this is all signature New Wave stuff. Now, all those things have been apparent in various fantasy works before, to an extent, yes but what is standout about this is:
Corruption As Human Error
Corrupt human characters who are corrupt for their sake and their sake alone as a product of a flawed society based on greed and murder – which is to say, not as the result of some mystical notion of Evil, or in opposition to an equally mystical notion of Good or as part of a curse, etc – people as people for people’s sake to a degree not seen before. This is the essential difference as I see it. The deeper this philosophy is embedded, the more realistic characters come across, the more logical their actions.
More superficial examples exist in language. “Fuck this and fuck that and fuck no, are you kidding me?” Such language is becoming more common, which I don’t particularly mind, as long as it’s consistent with the story which isn’t always the case. This in turn is part of the rise of the Anti-Hero. This fucker is everywhere now and while I love the Anti-Hero (when done well) he’s quickly becoming, as well as those features I mentioned, a staple.
An example of this is The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. This book is about a 40 something, fat (self-proclaimed) ‘faggot’ veteran of a great war against the ‘Lizard’s some years before and it’s essentially about the legend built around his prowess and the startling lack of anything heroic about him. Sounds pretty cool, right? Yeah well, it quickly becomes nothing but excessive fuck this and fuck that and yeah I’m a faggot, so what – to the point where the entire exercise just comes off as the author being a fucktard, jumping up and down and saying,
“Look at me! Look at me! Look how modern and realistic I am!” – for no point. It was that superficial. So even this most current blend of fantasy has some flaws, no doubt.
My last case-in-point is going to be about The Wheel of Time. This series is often used as an example of cliché fantasy and I’m going to talk about how wrong that is. This series began in 1990 and is still going today. To summarise a 12,000 page plot as quickly as possible:
Everyone’s life is a thread in the Pattern, which turns upon the Wheel of Time. In a time of high technology and magic an experiment gone wrong burns a hole in the Pattern allowing the Dark One a small access point through which to physically affect the world (something he couldn’t do before). Corruption seeps into the world. An eventual war breaks out between, well, everyone – the champion of light, Lews Therin (a male Aes Sedai –a witch, basically) tries to destroy the Dark One but manages only to cage him. In a last retaliatory move, the Dark One taints the male source of Power, sending ever empowered male insane and causing 100 years of madness. The actual story itself starts some millennia later with Lews Therin’s prophesied rebirth.
That’s right – Prophesied One vs. Dark One – that old bag of peanuts. The MC – Rand, even grows up on a farm with an adopted father. His mother was even of royal blood (though she gave up her title and culture and fled to live in the Wastes, taking up with the tribes there). Probably one of the most cliché plots you’ve heard of, right? The interesting thing about this is the mechanics of it. Because when you consider that basic plot line, farm boy takes on evil to save the world — no one ever deals with the how of it.
Which is to say, in worse examples, the hero goes looking for some magical amulet and saves the world. But think about it for a second. If you had to ready the world for the Last Battle what would you do?
This young man (he’s about 20 and, incidentally, the male source of Power is still tainted so he lives knowing he’s going to go gradually insane) when told of his destiny realises that he has to conquer the world, has to bind every nation to him in order to defeat the Dark One at the Last Battle. Because naturally, proclaiming yourself the Prophesied One (or Dragon Reborn in this case) isn’t just magically going to make everyone bow to you.
No, it made him the target of every political and magical power in the world – both good and bad and with every attack, every attempted manipulation, he gets more paranoid, more closed off, crazier and crazier (he believes himself possessed by Lews Therin) as he uses the tribal armies his mother took up with to conquer the world. Step by step. Leaving friends by the way side. Essentially, even the most cliché of plots can be interesting if plotted and characterised well, if – most of all – it comes off as Realistic. One thing you won’t doubt throughout that series is the journey the protagonist is on and just how fucked up it’s making him.
I wish I could give you a more in-depth example but this is getting far too long and it’s 5AM now so I’m kinda tired. My basic point is that a) cliché concepts get taken and redone and it can be done incredibly well and b) do-away with your notions of fantasy.
Because. You. Don’t. Know. Shit. About. It.
Get rid of your preconceptions. Throw them right out the fucking door. This is already getting too long so I can’t use as many examples as I want to – but certain amazing books I’m going to ramble about (like the Prince of Nothing series) will hopefully give you a sense of fantasy as I see it. Because I read the good stuff. And I’ve read the bad stuff. I don’t just read fantasy, I pretty much study it (one day I will write a thesis on it) and that’s not just because I love it but because I fully intend to dominate it one day. 🙂