“Fantasy”: A Useless Label

I had an interesting discussion with a friend today, and I figured I’d share the basic point of it.

Basically, I have a bugbear when people act like all the things we call “fantasy” are directly comparable. They are not. Saying that all things that use invented settings are similar is, at best, a useless classification. I could easily argue that ALL fiction takes place in an invented setting, because authors are themselves interpreters of the world they see, and the outward expressions of their observations are each unique inventions. If such an ambiguous thing is the defining feature for a set, it’s not a very useful defining feature.

There are many different kinds of stories that are lumped under the term “fantasy.” Some of them are genre stories that could happen in any setting, but because they tap all the fantasy genre boxes, they are called fantasy. Some have completely unique, invented worlds where the author has created a setting that is streamlined toward expressing deep emotional truths about the way they experience reality. Some are basically just normal drama stories, but they have a single werewolf so they’re suddenly “fantasy.”

And in this pile of things which we mark with the basically meaningless label of “fantasy” there is some high art. The most obvious of these is anything by Tolkien (whom I greatly admire/worship). You can argue whether or not your preferred piece of literature is high art if you so desire.

Now, I want to clarify some things. Almost every time I start talking about “high art” or “pop art” or the like, people start thinking that I’m making a value judgement. That is not the case. All art is created with purpose and is intended to be considered, understood, and possibly loved by its audience. The difference between “high art” and others is that with high art, the artwork is intentionally derived from and adds to an existing cultural heritage* and metanarrative.** There are loads of excellent art pieces that don’t do this. Pieces that are created to be experienced as is–to communicate on their own without the need for a deep understanding of the tradition that it sprang from. My personal favorite art pieces can do both at the same time.

So basically, what’s been bugging me is when people compare Tolkien to something like, let’s say, Terry Brooks’ Shannara . Tolkien obviously influenced the ideas in the Shannara stories, but they are created with a completely different purpose, and based on completely different literary traditions. Shannara is rooted more in thrillers and mystery novels than in the myths and fairy stories that inspired Tolkien. Shannara doesn’t make strides in exploring the literary sources from which it sprang. It just tells you the same ideas that existed before in an entertaining and amusing way. The art of Shannara isn’t the art of invention–it uses the inventions of other people. Its art is the art of story telling, the ability to display these ideas in such a way that people will happily spend their time considering them.

Shannara and Tolkien are not the same things. They were created for different reasons, and with different goals. A superficial similarity in that they both include dwarves, elves, and swords is insufficient to say that they are “the same kind of thing.” Comparisons can be made between them, but those comparisons must take into account these inherent differences, and acknowledge the fact that these are wildly different art pieces. The most fascinating thing about comparing them shouldn’t be their similarities, but that we see any similarity at all.

When we stop doing these meaningless groupings, we can start talking about things that actually ARE similar and actually start having some useful discussions. If nothing else, I’ll get better automated book and film recommendations on Amazon and Netflix.

 

* In much of art, “high art” is relegated to a SPECIFIC heritage and metanarrative that has been selected by boring rich people in order to mark themselves as separate from the “lower class” (aka poor people), but I won’t get into that here.

** That makes me wonder (and I’m very literally just pondering out loud now), what would a new story that explores and advances the tradition that Tolkien spent his life working on look like? I think it would have to experiment with and question the very core ideas of the tradition itself. It would have to experiment with the concept of “secondary worlds,” explore the relationship between mankind and divinity, and ask questions about things like magic and what that word really even means. To qualify as “high art,” these stories would need to intentionally address these ideas (and others, this is not an exhaustive list by any means), and attempt to add to the conversation. Simply repeating the arguments would not be enough.

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On the Reality of Fantasy

I was wandering around the internets when I came across this quote from Hayao Miyazaki (Golden Times, English translation from RocketNews24).

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life. If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.

This got me thinking, and the problem is more widespread than just anime. I get the feeling that in some ways, all fantasy media is headed in a direction that is more navel gazing, more insulated, and more distant from reality.

Disclaimer: I really enjoy a lot of modern fantasy. I read Brandon Sanderson all the time, and I play fantasy games almost constantly. Many current fantasy creators are extremely talented, and I tip my hat to their abilities. That doesn’t mean that the current state of the genre is above criticism, though.

My criticism is that modern fantasy fiction is being written for and by people who have a hard time with reality, and fantasy is their catharsis. This is shown in how these stories use fantastical elements to abstract away and simplify reality, or how the protagonists often have super powers (or super features) that make them “better” than the normies.

While part of the point of fantasy is to talk about reality using symbolic or abstract metaphors to simplify otherwise difficult ideas to express, I feel like many of the abstractions in modern fantasy simply blur reality rather than illuminate it. Rather than put an idea in a new light that makes it easier to see, these abstraction simply paint over the stuff that the creator doesn’t want to deal with. Are the realities of intergender relationships too hard? That’s fine, have your protagonist take three wives and have nobody care. Is it too inconvenient that in your medievalist setting that information spreads slowly? No big deal, just have a wizard make fantasy email. Are you stuck in a situation with no rational way to the conclusion you want? Better write a fantasy where your characters can become gods whenever you want.

The problem with this is that it makes stories boring in (at least) two ways.

The first is that when all conflicts are solved by godlike powers, there’s basically no stakes. The drama is completely gone. Even in stories where you KNOW the protagonist is going to succeed, even the satisfaction of finding out HOW they succeed is gone. In a better story, the slow revelation of new information, new aspects of the setting and characters creates an ongoing trail of discovery. In worse stories, the people who are “supposed” to succeed simply gain the ability to do so (or in some particularly stupid stories, had the ability from the beginning) for no rational reason.

The second problem is that it creates art that is meaningless. This is similar to the problem of coming up with “original” ideas. If an idea is completely original, completely disconnected from prior experience, then it’s going to be basically meaningless. This is because meaning only comes from connecting new experiences to previous ones. Likewise, if the creator uses fantasy to gloss over human experiences–either because they don’t understand them or find them too difficult–then that removes a connection between the creation and experience. It makes it harder for the fantasy creation to be meaningful.

This may, however, be simply a symptom of wider cultural trends than a problem specifically with fantasy. As humans amass into larger and larger groups, and streamline our lives with technology, by necessity we have to simplify the kinds of interactions we have. To do otherwise would be to live in an increasingly and unmanageably complex world that we are not equipped to handle. Abstraction is used to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps that’s all this boils down to then, the improper use of a necessary tool. Let’s leave it there for now, and I’ll let that thought simmer. Maybe I’ll make another post later.

Self Promotion

I’m finding more and more that the business of creativity is less about actually making good stuff, than it is about getting your stuff noticed. The best successes happen when your stuff is good AND gets noticed, but even moderately ok creations can become a person’s life if they have enough attention.

This is all just a preamble to what you know must be coming: please buy all my stuff (if you’ve seen Homestar Runner, this is the part where The Cheat Commandos theme song “buy all our play sets and toys!” should be going through your head).

I really would love to be able to be a creative full time. I’ll settle for someone who does it for the passion of it, and it isn’t a complete waste.

 

Complicated

Another day gathering wood. Alan’s back ached under the weight of the bundle he carried along the dusty forest track. This was just the first of several loads he would carry back today. It was tiring work, and so hot that he had removed his shirt and was now trudging along in only his braies, hose, and shoes.

The midday sun sprinkled down from above, casting shadows of many leaves upon the ground. Motes hung in air where the light made its way through the canopy. Birds sang all around, and the smell of plants and dirt filled Alan’s nostrils. Sweat covered his body, running down in little rills, and his body strained beneath the load.

It was an idyllic setting, but he had no time to appreciate it. The more fuel he hauled, the more excess he could sell. He needed new clothing, and he wanted to pay someone to help patch up his old roof. Every week he had one day to take a break from farming in order to gather fuel.

The stillness was broken by the sound men’s voices. It wouldn’t go well for him if he was found gathering firewood where he didn’t have a license. Alan picked up his pace; he didn’t fancy being whipped just for trying to earn a couple extra coins.

 

Awakening

Water was everywhere. Clouds overhead unleashed a deluge, and the dark, churning ocean mirrored them.

She was wet. Her hair clung to her face, and water lapped around her ankles. She lay on something solid, and her hands felt gritty.

Her boat strained against the storm. The single sail had broken loose and was fluttering in the wind. She managed to grab hold of a ragged length of rope, a part of the sail’s broken rigging, and wrapped it around her arm. She steadied herself against the mast as she struggled to bring the sail back under control.

Hot oppressive sunlight beat down on her, and as she flexed her aching muscles, she felt her tight and stinging skin. She heard the sound of small waves lapping against a shore, wind blowing across the sea, and shore birds calling to each other. The smell of briny water filled each breath.

She was thrown to the deck as the boat lurched up toward her. The horrible sound of wood creaking, twisting, and breaking reverberated through her body. Waves crashed over the deck, and the boat stayed beneath them. The waves swept her from the deck, spinning her down into the water. Her feet scrambled beneath her, and she kicked off the rocky reef that her boat had struck. She bobbed to the surface and took a breath before another wave buried her again. 

She licked her lips. They were completely dried out and the skin was starting to crack. Her eyelids flickered open and squinted into the bright evening sun. She tried to sit up, but only succeeded in raising her head slightly. She was lying on a beach she had never seen before, the wreckage of her ship washed up all around her. Groaning, she rolled onto her belly, and pushed herself up. Slowly, she shifted into a kneeling position and tried to stand. Her legs wouldn’t hold her, and she fell back onto the sand, panting. She closed her eyes and lay still.

She awoke to the sounds of someone moving nearby. She blinked her eyes open and found  a young man with long blonde hair and a simple green tunic over a white shirt looking down at her. He sighed with relief and smiled at her when he saw her eyes open.

“What a relief!” he said, “I thought you’d never wake up!”

Sunset

The wind was blowing hard over head, but down between the shoulders of two ridges, he was protected. He followed the bottom of the ravine, and dark, harshly broken boulders spread out around him. Broken shale crunched and skittered beneath his feet. The quickly fading light of the late evening sun did little to illuminate the dusty red landscape.

He crested over the highest point in the canyon and looked down into the valley. The word valley may be overly ambitious, he thought dryly, as the space below was really just a small, relatively flat area between three mountains. One rose directly to his left, its peaks reaching to incompressible heights, and another, smaller one was further off to his right. Straight ahead, disappearing into the haze, lay the last.

He squinted, straining to see what lay in that haze. A walled city, barely perceivable from this distance, was built up against the foot of the far mountain, and, just beyond that, lay the dark fortress. Just as he managed to pick it out from the dimness, a light turned on in one of its many towers. That was followed by another, and then many more. A floating constellation against the darkening mountain.

“Well,” he sighed, “there it is. The last place any sane person would ever want to be.”

Luckily for him, sanity was not a quality he had been cultivating lately.

Rain

Dark clouds roiled overhead and drenched a grim tower, its walls slick and glistening from rainwater. It stood on a precipice, overlooking a mountain pass, a stoic sentinel for the land that lay beyond. It was here that the last remaining defenders had come, and they gathered on the round topped turret to keep watch. Some stood looking outward, crouching beside the crenellations, others rested with their backs against the stone fortifications. Rain water ran down their weathered, cragged faces, and they cast furtive glances at the sky and each other, looking for an answer to the question they all feared to ask.

Their pennant banner fluttered in the wind, snapping back and forth. Lightning raced across the sky and illuminated the valley beyond. Each time the lightning glowed, the watching guards would strain their eyes for any hint of movement. The seconds stretched into minutes, and the rain played a plinking little tune on their helmets. One of the men shifted his weight to lean upon his spear, and its wooden shaft thudded softly against the stone.

“There,” one of them said, pointing out into the valley. The others crowded over and leaned out for a better view.

The next lightning strike illuminated it, closer than they could have feared. The dragon had come, its scaled wings beating the storm winds into submission. The guards scattered, some shivering with fright, some glowering with a feral determination, all taking cover behind the tower’s fortifications. They gripped their spears tightly and awaited their judgement as death descended.