Monday, 23 January 2012

I Got Some Lovely Fantasies

Because I've spent a lot of time on story-games recently, let's throw some love to the Big Purple. An interesting thread came up entitled The older I get, the less I want fantasy (in which the poster feels that his liking for the fantasy genre has declined with age, and he now prefers historical or modern-era gaming).

This struck a bit of a chord with me, though my feelings aren't quite the same as him. For me, what I can definitely say is that fantasy fiction has lost its lustre as I've got older. From the age of 11 or so, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, to the age of about 25, I read absolute shit-tons of fantasy novels. (And most of it was shit.) You name the series, I'd probably read at least one volume and probably the lot.

Nowadays, I barely read any, and to be frank, while the Fantasy & SF section is the first one I go to when I go to a bookshop, whenever I pick up a new fantasy book and flick through to see what it's like, it usually makes me cringe. Boring, samey writing; banal dialogue; by-the-numbers plots; awful unimaginative world-building dressed up as "unique" settings; inside-front-cover maps covered with place names like 'Franconia' and 'L'k'xhklhaj'... It's a veritable hell-on-earth of literary bollocks, only a step removed from Mills & Boon, and without the compensating factor of sex (unless it's GRRM, who only writes The Most Stupid Sex Scenes EverTM anyway).

There are nowadays only a handful of fantasy authors who I can really stand to read: Tolkien, Dunsany, Howard, M. John Harrison, China Mieville, Wolfe, Vance, and, okay, GRRM, because I have to finish off that bloody series if it kills me. The rest of the genre can go hang, quite frankly.

But this is why, I think, I'm still very much into fantasy gaming: a function of finding modern fantasy literature so soul-destroyingly awful that I can't bear to read it is that I have to get my imaginative kicks elsewhere.

Moreover, I'd say that if what you're interested in is expanding your mind, imagining weird shit, dreaming up half-crazed nonsense, escaping somewhat humdrum reality, and many of the other things that fantasy lit is supposed to do, I'd argue that fantasy gaming does it much better. Your imagination is constrained far less if you and your friends are the ones coming up with the entire thing - if you are not letting some third-rate author do your imagining for you - so why have cotton when you can have silk?

In fact, maybe that's what my rule of thumb for fantasy literature is: from now on I'll look at the blurb on the back of the book, and if the whole thing sounds like I could imagine something better in a session of D&D, the author isn't trying hard enough and the book gets binned. If I can't imagine something better in a session of D&D, it's worth a try.


  1. Is that an inclusive list? No Leiber? Peake? TH White? ER Burroughs?

    I don't think that the vast majority of fantasy being such dreck is the fault of the genre per se, just its popularity. A lot more terrible authors must set their sights on fantasy than, say, social commentary.

  2. Leiber yes. Peake I can take or leave. White I like, but I don't really count it as "fantasy" per se... ER Burroughs is fun, but let's face it, pretty awful. I like the John Carter books, but mostly because they have sentimental value.

  3. I'm forced to largely agree. So much fantasy is just extruded product these days meant to be exactly like that other book your read that you liked. I do like R. Scott Bakker and GRRM for more "traditional" fantasies that wind up having some thought-provoking differences (particularly Bakker). Mostly, though it's stuff of the genre-blending "New Weird": Mieville, VanderMeer, Jay Lake, Felix Gilman, etc.

  4. Fantasy fans get the books the deserve.

    The authors worked out in the 80s that the recipe for a (relatively) easy and prosperous life was to write a bloated form of 'serial fantasy': one story split over several tomes of Tolkienian bulk but written with Moorcockian speed (and, one might add, a Moorcockian disregard for quality control). And the fandom lapped this crap up.

    I'm not going to name names, but we all know the guilty parties. Heck, the fantasy 'house style' is so recognizable Dianna Wynn Jones could write a parody guidebook to their (largely interchangeable) worlds.

    With fantasy authors saying less than their predecessors it's really no surprise that we decide the emperor has no clothes and go do our own thing.

    IMO fantasy works best in short stories (ditto for scifi, and horror for that matter). JLBorges, Asimov, REH, KAS, even Clive Barker: their best stories are their short stories. Problem is that - like good poetry - good short stories stripped down to their essentials, and that discipline is hard.

  5. I agree. I tend to shy away from fantasy genre books, unless they sound very different or are from an author I like. I also avoid series, since there is only so much time in the world and so many books to read. Most of my reading is a mix of history books (a recent love) and people like Chuck Palahiuk (love his books); although I have rediscovered Tolkien recently and have got lots of such books to read.

  6. I know I got a lot more selective in my 30's, for both fantasy and SF. In part this comes from knowing most "epic" fantasy is just the art of putting dull people in a predictably exciting setting.

    > I have to finish off that bloody series if it kills me

    As of early last year I would have said the same thing. Now, it can go hang on the vine, and take up company with Schubert's Eighth.

  7. Trey: I've never read this Bakker character, but I've heard about him. What's thought-provoking about it?

    Chris: William Gibson's best stuff is his short stories, it has to be said.

    Simon Forster: History books rule.

    Roger the GS: I take it you didn't like the new one then. I thought it was a partial return to form after "What Everybody in Westeros Did on Their Summer Holidays", or "A Feast for Crows" as I believe it was called. But somebody needs to take a big red pen to his next volume and reduce it by at least 40%.

  8. When I saw the title of your post, what really fired me up was the possibility of a FRPG adventure or campaign whose aesthetic takes more from Stephen Malkmus than from any fantasy author. It takes some work to imagine, but my group would have a ball with it.

  9. Like the other posters, I agree. Read a lot of "fantasy" as an adolescent,and now cannot be bothered with it. And its odd how, while I loved Moorcock then, I find much of his work pretty well unreadable these days.

    Moorcock himself said something recently, along the lines of "I am a bad author with big ideas." Pretty accurate self diagnosis.

    One exception which I came across over the last year was "The Terror" by Dan Simmons. Despite going on for too long, it effectively blends a historical event (the Franklin expedition to the Canadian artic in the 1840s) with a horror/fantasy element. I imagine that some other readers of this blog might enjoy it.

  10. Anonymous: So someone got the reference! You could certainly use Pink India and The Hook off that first album for inspiration.

    Anonymous II: Not sure if you're the same "anonymous". Anyway, I've read some Simmons before and found his books hard to get into. That was the SF stuff though. I might give The Terror a go, as it had universally good reviews.

  11. I've only found one book written outside the list of authors you've mentioned that meets my standards. It's a one-off by John Barnes, otherwise a sci-fi novelist, called "One for the Morning Glory." It's closer to a fairy tale than to Tolkien, and that's what makes it work. Clearly Barnes understands the language and heart of fairy tales, so it kills me that he's never written anything like this again. I'm guessing he had a kid and wrote it for him or her. I don't know how to convince anyone that the book is good, but it does belong in the short list.

  12. I read fantasy as a break from science fiction, or biography. I rotate between the genres because I have a wide variety of interests and it keeps me excited to read something "new". I do agree with some of the comments that fantasy sometimes falls into a predictable plot recipe. It's hard making a choice sometimes at the bookstore; the mass similarity of covers and descriptions leaves me blurry.

    I just finished Simmons' "The Terror". About halfway through I thought it really got good. The mix of story and historical fact worked well. By the end, I really appreciated the length, which some have complained about. It helped me empathize with those sailors trapped for years in that icy hell.

    I will never NOT read fantasy. I think it's been done so much though, that authors sometimes "borrow" ideas without possibly meaning to. Fantasy seems to be a genre that when it's bad, it's REALLY bad.

    Anyone have any "new" fantasy favorites out there?

  13. @noisms - Aspects of the setting, mostly. A messiah who is a asocial master of manipulation who may be insane--but who may be the world's only hope. A syncretic monotheism at odds with the polytheistic cults it was derived from--and both religions appear to be true (i.e. god is not of one mind). The use of magic brings damnation (apparently) due to an intrinsic property of the universe, so that the villians (who wish to escape that fate) have imminently understandable and logical goals. That's just a few things.

  14. To be honest, I don't read a lot of "traditional" fantasy. When I see an author return to the same old Tolkienised patch of medieval Europe, it's an immediate turn-off. What exactly is gained by setting the story there? It seems almost arbitrary, like they're only doing it because that's what others have done before them. Science fiction authors don't all set their work in Heinlein's back yard. Isn't the purpose of a fantasy setting exactly the same as the purpose of a science fiction one - to highlight and examine the author's ideas?

    This is why I haven't read GRRM, for example. If someone feels I don't know what I'm talking about or I'm just being a snob, I'm open to persuasion.

  15. I have to say, out of all the creations floating around in the OSR, your Yoon-Suin strikes me as the most, well, literary of them all, especially now that you've started the Laxmi Guptra Dahl blog. I absolutely adore this world, it makes me utterly green with envy. I know you've made cracks about GMs as frustrated novelists, but have you ever considered trying to turn Yoon-Suin into one?

  16. John: No, I agree. I like GRRM despite his (many) flaws, because aside from anything else you just don't read stuff as intricately plotted as his anywhere. The plots really are an astonishing feat of imagination in themselves.

    Marcus: Well, thank you very much. It's kind of you to say. I won't deny there's a frustrated novelist in me. But I freely admit I'm both lazy and busy. When I get home from work I'm too tempted to do other things than write. So I never do. (It also doesn't help that my work involves a lot of writing.)