Reflections on philosophy and culture

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why fantasy (justifiably) gets a bad rap

Earlier today, M. John Harrison (to my mind, one of the finest living writers), posted an entry in his blog that for my money encapsulates everything that's wrong with lazy fantasy fiction.  It's a short entry, so I'll quote it in its entirety:

I'm not against worldbuilding on the grounds that it impedes narrative. Nothing I’ve said has anything to do with worldbuilding vs narrative. Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies in that context, it isn’t deftness or economy of line. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

Harrison has never been prone to these vices, and he's surely not alone in this: China Mieville, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Mervyn Peake are other fine examples.  But these vices are so rampant in fantasy that outsiders often think that every fantasy narrative is an affair that sacrifices everything else that's interesting in literature for the empty joy of re-assembling the same old lego pieces (elves, dwarves, magical items, dark lords, etc.) in superficially new ways.

I loathe this sort of fantasy.  The most recent example I encountered was Steven Erikson's series Malazan, Book of the Fallen - one of those seemingly endless fantasy series that writers have been churning out in the wake of Robert Jordan.  It's been touted by fantasy fans as one of the finest series ever written.  Its setting is a prime example of a secondary world that is "over-engineered & under-designed."  

When you begin the first book you're first of all flooded with names: of people, cities, empires, armies, and the like.  Now, for lovers of fantastic fiction, this can be part of the joy of the narrative.  Being thrown into an unfamiliar setting can be like being parachuted into a foreign land of which one knows nothing.  At first you feel alienated and confused.  But slowly, as time passes you pick up the knack of how the lifeworld around you works.  You experience the joy of discovering ways of life that are different from your own in ways you never quite realized ways of life could be.  You consider yourself and the world around you from the point of view of someone for whom they are foreign and unfamiliar.    You inhabit and find value in conceptions of the world that you neither have nor can completely comprehend.

Reading a Malazan book and other fantasy novels of the same sort is an experience of a very different kind: like being dragged to a party your friends have talked up to you, but that turns out to be incredibly tedious.  You go to a place that is superficially new, and meet people that are superficially unfamiliar, but quickly you realize that this is possibly the most boring situation you've ever been in.  In Erikson's kind of fantasy, nothing challenges you, nothing stimulates your imagination.  Instead, it's...exactly what the skeptics think all fantasy is: just an excuse to numb your brain and escape the world.

Dismissing fantasy on the basis of reading books like these is like dismissing Mexican food on the basis of eating Taco Bell.  Unfortunately, while most people know that Taco Bell is Mexican food's trashy cousin, most people don't know that lazy fantasy isn't all the fantasy there is.... 

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