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Monday, March 12, 2012

Genre Talk: Dreaming About Fantasy Part 3

While this is in no way specific to fantasy, it is a major part of damn near every fantasy story.  I'm speaking of course, about 


The quest is by no means specific to fantasy, but it is found there more often than in other genres.  I'm using the term "Quest" instead of something like mission or journey because quest sounds more appropriate, and because it has its routes in medieval romance where a knight goes out to pursue something (a lady, a dragon, etc).  It also involves travel, and fantasy stories usually love to go exploring.  But that's another entry.

So let's look at a couple types of quests.  First up is a classic: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  In it, the Pevensie siblings find a magic wardrobe that transports them to Narnia, a big fantasyland that's seen better days.  Once there, they journey across ice-covered wastes to the camp of Aslan, to do battle with the evil White Queen.

Now, the quest portion is set off pretty quickly: Get to Aslan and once there, help defeat the Queen.  The most famous of Lewis's classic Narnia books is very straightforward, partially because it's for children, and partially because it's a very simple example of what I'll call the "Vanilla Quest": go here, do this, go home.  It's also notable for that last bit: "go home."  Not all quests have that, but most do.  Going home is sometimes just important to the quest as leaving home is.  But for vanilla quests, the outcome and goal are known straight out of the gate.  Stories like Lord of the Rings (destroy this ring) by Tolkien and Sword of Shannara (get this sword and slay that dude) by Brooks are also good examples.

Which brings me to the next example: China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.  Now, this is not a classic quest.  In fact, the whole of it takes place in the confines of a single city (and briefly, Hell), but the characters crawl all over that city, and it's more fleshed out and alive than entire worlds other authors have written.  The quest involves one fat scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin, and a varied cast of others trying to save the city from soul-sucking monsters called slake-moths.  It's actually quite a bit more involved than that, and really very brilliant, but I'm abbreviating here.

The quest in Perdido is what I'll call the "Uncovered Quest": things are not clear from the beginning, and it isn't until much later that the true goal is discovered.  Isaac doesn't start off knowing about the monsters in his city: he's a scientist who wants nothing more than to work on his theories and shag his insectile girlfriend.  The quest is born out of necessity and to save his own ass.  And in the end, not everybody can go home again.  home is gone.  Other stories that feature indistinct goals at first are Imajica (journey of self-discovery becomes something waaaay bigger) by Clive Barker and one of my favorite games ever, Chrono Trigger (quest to save a princess becomes a mission to save all of time and space).

Now, there's lots of types of different quests based on scale (save the princess vs. save all of reality) and other things, but these are the two basic types I've always sorted everything into.  Neither is strictly better or worse than the other, it just depends on how they're executed.

That's it for this very short entry.  

Next up is Exploration.


1 comment:

  1. BOY I'm sorry I didn't get wind of your blog sooner - I have clearly been missing out!

    Back in my larval stage, Chrono Trigger was one of the stories that I took apart to figure out how really kick-ass fantasy works (along with a couple of Discworld books and the Rose of the Prophet trilogy, I think.) I believe you have nailed it exactly: heaps of 16-bit nostalgia aside, one of the HUGE reasons that Chrono Trigger still stands out to me is that you don't start as the Chosen One - you aren't anyone special at all! - and you aren't kicked out of your village or forced to watch as it burns to the ground, and there is no Evil Empire machinating in the background. And maybe in part *because* so many of these standard RPG tropes are just kicked to the curb, it is genuinely exciting to see the story unfold, from small needs and consequences to progressively bigger ones - aren't you something like halfway through the game before you even get the full picture? Maybe there's something to be said too for the non-linear shape of it - you aren't going around hitting each of seven kingdoms or dungeons in turn, there's no giant long journey from the hamlets of Hither to the fabled ruins of Thither and Yon - as you said with the Mieville book, it's bouncing around from one point to another and back again; no extensive travelogue needed.

    Regardless - stellar post, sir, and spot on. I'll definitely be checking out Perdido Street Station while I wait for your next one.