Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Three Levels of Operational Closure in Fantasy Literature

You can create a taxonomy of fantasy based on the operational closure of the setting. I'm writing this on my phone so I'll be brief.

Operational closure means how self-contained the setting is.

The first taxon is the thread that goes Tolkien-Eddings-Martin. Here, the setting is an entirely operationally closed one. It purports to be self-contained entirely, and moreover to abide by internally consistent metaphysics and tone. Its paradigm RPG setting is the Pathfinder one.

The second taxon is the thread that goes Vance-Wolfe-Harrison. The setting is physically operationally closed (it is self-contained in the sense that it is independent of any other reality) but not metaphysically so. It exists in counterpose or contradistinction or ironic juxtaposition to our own reality.

The third taxon is the thread that goes Machen-Ende-Holdstock. The setting is operationally open. It assumes the existence of another reality (our own) and the story is based upon the interactions between those two realities.

I am going to end this brief post by saying that as I get older I rank these three approaches in reverse order. The most difficult but important fantasy stories are I think in taxon three. The easiest but least important are in taxon one. This is in direct opposition to how I would have ranked the different approaches at age 18.


  1. I don't see why, as literature, a work that explicitly acknowledges reality and includes a version of it in the story should be more "important", or (as I assume you mean) have more to say, than a work that doesn't. Could you elaborate?

    1. Agreed, that's a big statement to make without any backup.

    2. I don't necessarily think there has to be a precisely formulated reason *why*. It's an observation really. The works in that category that I can think of feel weightier on the whole than those in the first category. Maybe something to do with works in the first category being too much about the setting, which is necessarily always less full than reality?

    3. Hmm I'd be out of my depth arguing this one as I haven't read some of the works you are referring to. Glad you put some explanation on it though as without that its purely personal opinion/preference. I for one love the depth of Tolkein's world building for instance and how it interacts with the characters, storyline and themes. This to me has its own weight. There is also an implicit juxtaposition of any fantasy world to our own. Sometimes putting the two together explicitly is simply jarring and unsubtle.

  2. I broadly agree. The "world-building" that seemed so captivating when I was a kid seems less impressive now - a much easier feat than anything convincingly mimetic. And very few have done world-building well: Tolkien, of course, but the only achievements in his league, I think, are Glorantha and Tekumel - neither of which are (primarily) literary settings. That's not to say that there aren't huge flaws in Tolkien's stuff either.

    I'd note that some of Wolfe's stuff is in taxon three. Peace, for one, and The Wizard-Knight seems closer to Ende than Vance. And quite a few of the short stories (A Cabin on the Coast, for example).

    Alan Garner strikes me as a quintessential taxon-three author - from his earliest children's books to his later, stranger grown-up ones. And he adds considerable heft to the three-two-one importance scheme.

    One point: might one argue that taxon-one writers are easier sources of game inspiration than those in the other taxons? Of course, *easier* needn't mean *better* - it might just mean *lazier*. M John Harrison's famous line about wondering how an orc regiment might organise itself seems to describe quite a lot of what GMs actually do.

    That said, a lot of the inspiration for D&D came from worlds that were operationally open (if at least somewhat pulpy): Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, for example.

  3. I don't think you can categorise works of fantasy so easily but I understand your observation. You might like JB Cabell's Jurgen if you haven't read it.

    I will also note that early writers of modern fantasy felt it was absolutely necessary to sketch a bridge between our world and the fantasy world, typically in a brief prologue that many now find offensive but I charming. For example, Eddison and Hodgson.

  4. Of course, the ghost story is part of the fantasy genre that is almost always in taxon three. And that, I think, is why ghost stories are the most affecting fantasy tales - they can make us shiver, or at least be reluctant to go downstairs after dark ...

  5. I'd say 'it ain't necessarily so', although it's an interesting taxonomy and you make a good point, in that worldbuilding and maps can be a cover for a lot of weaknesses. Just wondering, where would you categorise Joe Abercrombie (who eschewed 'map fantasy', at least in the First Law trilogy) and Michael Shea (whose Nifft the Lean stories take place in a fantasy world with at least two underworld planes, but where the overall shape of the world isn't spelled out)?