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Monday, December 5, 2011

Genre Talk: Dreaming about Fantasy Part 1

Time to talk about fantasy.  Fantasy is my favorite genre, but one I hardly ever read because it seems to have so much horrible crap in it.  Maybe it's just because i love it so much, i'm more critical of it than other genres.  I dunno.  So what makes good fantasy?  I'll tell you, but the usual caveat that this is just one wannabe author's opinion still applies.

NUMBER ONE: The Fantastical

Much like my Genre Talk on horror, we're starting out with the obvious.  Ahhh, but don't brush it off so quick just because it seems so obvious.  This is the biggest stumbling block, and so often where bad fantasy fails.

A lot of writers and critics have said "There are no new ideas."  I disagree.  I don't think there are any new basic ideas.  By basic i mean the fundamentals of a story, the bare bones.  Like the story of Star Wars is the classic Hero's Journey (if you don't know what that is, you live in the age of Google.  Quit being lazy and go search) that has been told and retold thousands of times.    It will be told again for as long as there are people to read about it.  The new stuff comes in the details.  What makes this and other old stories unique?  What makes them fantastic?

So many (so very, very many) fantasy authors tread and retread the same details over and over, delivering the same results.  Go to a bookstore near you.  Go look in the fantasy/sci-fi aisle.  You're immediately going to see a bunch of covers featuring elves, dwarves, big muscle-dudes with claymores, and women in chain mail bikinis.  There will also be dragons.

That isn't fantasy.

Let me clarify: that is fantasy, but that's not all fantasy is.  So many people hear "fantasy" and immediately think of white-bearded wizards with crystal balls and bards and shit like that.  Fantasy is so much more than that.  Fantasy is whatever you can imagine.  It can be literally the craziest stuff you can think of.

Good fantasy is going to show me something I have never seen before.  I will be as dumbstruck as the characters on the page/screen because what I'm reading or watching is unique, new, and amazing to me.  I am fascinated.  It's kind of hard for me to be surprised or act shocked when I see a vampire or dragon for the hundredth time.  Yawn.

Now, a lot of this is execution.  Let's takea look at a very common and overused fantasy creature: the dragon.

The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik is fantasy/alternate history based around a simple but compelling concept: what if the Napoleonic wars had been fought with dragons?  Amazing!  I am already blown away. I've read alternate history before, but nothing like this.  Novik's dragons aren't terribly unique (some breathe fire, others don't, they can speak English or French or whatever), but what she does with them is.  She sets up whole military strategies and cultures around the dragons, altering familiar, and real, nations and their histories to adapt to the dragons.  How dragons are treated in Britain is drastically different than in China.  The core of the story is between the titular Temeraire and his captain, William Laurence.

It's not just straightforward "Napoleon is evil and must die."  Laurence has to navigate British society, his own changing attitudes of Dragons and treating them as more than just warmachines.  It's got a lot of layers to it and is really, quite brilliant.  Laurence changes very dynamically, and Temeraire is adorable with his reading appetite, curiosity, and slight naivete.  Novik's knowledge of history and how well she molds it around to fit dragons in is astounding.  I've never seen anything like it before or since.

Now, ugh, Eragon.  Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, is basically Star Wars by way of Lord of the Rings.  It's really astonishing how blatantly Paolini just copy-pasted the plot and key events of Star Wars into his own work.  That's another post though.  Eragon is all about the titular boy finding and then traveling and battling alongside his very own dragon, Saphira.  Saphira does nothing new.

Novik's dragons weren't particularly original either, but the world around them was.  Paolini's world of Alagaesia is the Chinese knock-off version of Middle Earth.  Saphira is the same wise, superior sounding drake that you've seen in numerous fantasies before.  She's inconsistent too.  When she performs a type of very advanced magic out of nowhere, a character just shrugs and basically says, "Dragons are mysterious," or something like that.  No.  What?  That's crap.   

Saphira is little else but a status symbol and a powerful weapon.  She makes Eragon stronger, lets him use magic more, and flies him around.  She has very little character (but then, this is true for all the characters in the story), and acts as little else but the impetus for the story.  If Eragon were the first fantasy story I had ever read, knowing nothing of fantasy, it would just be okay.  But anybody who is even remotely familiar with fantasy will get tired real quick of the cliche storm Paolini blows out.

So, you can do new things with old ideas.  But what about new ideas?  I'm going to talk about a pair of video games now, both in the same series: Morrowind and Oblivion.  They are the third and fourth, respectively, entries in the blockbuster Elder Scrolls series.  Morrowind was jaw-dropping amazing.  Oblivion was snore-inducing boring.  Here's why:

Morrowind showed me things i had never even dreamed of before.  Monstrous crab skeletons used as buildings, volcanic ash that mutated people into immortal tumor zombies, a skyscraper sized robot fueled by the heart of a dead god, a meteor frozen in time and turned into a prison for heretics, and a complicated civilization built on slaves, assassination, political maneuvering, and magic.  I still fondly remember that game and its rich, deep story of false gods, betrayal, spies, and reincarnation.

Oblivion is basically every medieval fantasy European cliche on parade.  Pine forests, rolling green hills, trolls, goblins, and a bad guy whose home consists entirely of spiky black towers and lava.  Friggin' BLEH.  The story amounted to this: stop the bad man from ruining cities.  That was it!  I'd seen everything in Oblivion a hundred times before.  Nothing was new, nothing was fantastic.  It was stale and old and busted and I was so disappointed.

So look, if you're going to write fantasy, please make it fantastic.  Whatever sub-genre you're writing in (urban fantasy, low fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy) make it stick out.  Do something new!  Show me something that is unique to you, that nobody else has done before.

All right, to wrap up, I'm gonna post a list of some of the more memorable things and ideas from various works of fantasy I've encountered over the years.

  • An archipelago where each island is an hour of the day (Abarat)
  • The Lord of Dreams inherits the keys to Hell, and holds interviews with various deities to see who gets them (The Sandman)
  • Basically all of The Twelve Kingdoms
  • An immortal demon that stalks battlefields looking to fight the strongest warriors (Berserk)
  • The Big Bad Wolf becomes the sheriff of a small, fairy-tale community in modern New York City (Fables
  • Machines powered by crystallized gods threaten to upset the balance of the world (Final Fantasy VI)
  • A forest with migrating trees (The Elder Scrolls)
  • An entire nation is woven and hidden in a carpet (Weaveworld)
There's tons more, but you get the idea.

Next time I'm gonna talk about Magic.

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