dislogue

Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 07, 2003

Realistic Fantasy?

It sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but then so does "magical realism." The latter is very much into the grit and grime of day to day life, but with a blurred edge where reality crosses past wishful thinking into fantasy. The impossible is not in magical realism.

In modern fantasy fiction there is a sort of equal and opposite move. Classical fantasy tended towards a sort of antiseptic alternate reality. There was some dirt, and blood, but it was not matched with its commensurate burden of dirtiness and pain. Evil was archetypical, not a byproduct of stupid stubbornness beyond reason. Beauty, both descriptive and of action, was pure, not grimed with mixed motivation and unanswerable questions of which act was more, or less, "right." These are, of course, generalities.

But there seems to be a shift in progress, or maybe done. Sometime in the 1990's science fiction started running a bit dry. Swords and sorcery was stale on the whole. Then bigger, in many senses, fantasy books began appearing on the shelves. There was already an appetite for long sequences in fantasy. Tolkein's works are an example dating back to the mid-20th century. But this move wasn't to long "books," as we might call these epic series extending out past five or more 500-page works. These long epics probably stemmed from reader feedback begging, "more, more." (The science fiction and fantasy "genre" has long had an excellent feedback channel in "fandom.")

No, the move to which I refer is one from moral simplicity to complexity equal to that in the best mainstream fiction. Fantasy became serious. I mean serious in the sense that it seeks to ask unanswerable questions in a sophisticated and provocative manner. Science fiction has long explored these questions and thus it was the more "serious" (as those who have not read much science fiction may be shocked to hear) of the paired genres in the "science fiction and fantasy" category on the bookshelf.

One common thread pointed out by Paul Howard is that of the other. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye remains the first book of this sort I think of, but Orson Scott Card's Ender series perhaps deals with the question more in depth, and certainly at greater length. As I mentioned below, Janny Wurts's long series also engages these questions, among others. More on this in the future.

Another trend is away from "grit and violence light" to a sort of realistic treatment that would do the writers of 19th century realism proud. Wurts has her share. Her characters endure terrible pain and privation, and it seems they barely heal from the last wound, or recover from the last bout of extreme cold, when they encounter something as bad or worse. When George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, and J.V. Jones, are set beside her, I wonder if fantasy writing hasn't been usurped by a cult of sado-masochists. (All that leather and chainmail at conventions may be influencing my thinking here...) These are ruthless writers. They routinely spend whole books engendering a deep love in their readers for characters that endure a great amount, and then finally allow the "one more bout" to kill them. A reader simply cannot tell from the early going what character will or will not survive the ending of the epic.

Martin leads this class. Not only does he ruthlessly burn, behead, or pincushion with arrows characters that appear for whole books to be essential, he turns antagonists into sympathetic characters through a long and painful process of growth and change. There are moments when I hated him so much for what he did to some of his children that I nearly threw the book against the wall. But I couldn't stop reading even while my throat slammed shut like a drawbridge. I missed the sunrise more than once, and not because I was asleep. His fourth book of the series (A Song of Ice and Fire) is out in hardback now and I'm not sure I'll be able to wait for the paperback edition.

Martin's series is based on whole royal, or at least noble, families. Some are predominately sympathetic; some are not. But within each family there tends to be someone sympathetic, or, at least, someone that becomes more and more sympathetic over time. Each family also tends to have its black sheep. Some die, some change. So far no family has entirely died out, but that possibility exists. The hatreds, which in some cases predate the first book, are deepening and widening and becoming intricately complicated.

Most of the other writers I mentioned do have clear protagonists and antagonists, though it isn't always clear which is which. These are huge epics and many characters draw our attention. Wurts, for example, appears committed to Arithon and Lysaer (through five books), but no one around them is immune from sudden, or slow and excruciating, death (except, maybe, the "Fellowship" of near immortal mages). Some of those "secondary," supporting characters feel just as important as the primary ones, at least for a long time. And I can't even say for certain that the two apparent protagonists will survive the end. I haven't read the sixth book (yet), and I'm not sure there won't be more books either.

If you got the impression I think Martin is the best of the crop, I must be communicating well. He's the best writer of the batch, so far. That said, I'm not sure he's the most interesting from a literary angle. In rereading Wurts I'm finding a lot of provocation to thought. Martin is so involving it's hard to get enough distance from the immediate (and long-term) concerns of his characters.

I spend a lot of time comparing these writers to Steven Brust. I think he's Martin's equal as a writer, but his sort of story is very different. He's far more interested in manners and mannered prose. His writings are acutely self-conscious in a wry, ironic way that keeps me smiling. Brust is an excellent storyteller, but he's equally interested in the question of how stories are told. Thus, while all the others listed above use third-person, omniscient (or near omniscient) and reliable narrators, Brust prefers first person narrators who are not unquestionably reliable. Brust's books have personality in a way the others do not. The books themselves, rather than the characters, have a personality since the narrator has his own voice, whether or not he actually serves as a character in the "story" of the book.

While Brust isn't of the sado-masochist's school of fantasy, isn't as messily realistic, his books make their own bid to be taken more seriously than the typical fantasy of the mid to late 20th century. With a few exceptions (Tolkein, most notably) fantasy is ignored in literary circles. Even more so than science fiction has been. If this trend towards realistic fantasy continues, fantasy will have to be taken more seriously.

Posted by dan at August 7, 2003 06:49 PM
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