varkat (varkat) wrote,
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Ten Epic Fantasy Themes We Don't See Enough by N.K. Jemisin



N.K. Jemison's debut fantasy trilogy "combines the politics of George R. R. Martin with the magic of Neil Gaiman. The trilogy will open with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in Fall 2009." The description is taken from Orbit's announcement of the deal, so don't just take my word for it! She's here today to talk about:

TEN EPIC FANTASY THEMES WE DON'T SEE ENOUGH

So here I am, a brand-new novelist whose book (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, epic New Weird romantic hard fantasy forthcoming from Orbit Books in Fall 2009, yes this will be on the quiz) isn't even out yet, and Lucienne asks me to write something for Epic Fantasy Week.

And I think, "Yikes! Who the heck is going to care what I have to say as a writer, when they can't even see my work and decide whether I know what I'm talking about?" So I decided to tackle this from the perspective of a reader.

Which is completely apropos, because I'm a voracious reader. I became a writer largely because my favorite authors weren't putting out often enough to keep me entertained. How's that for motivation: stark, simple greed! But I've had a bigger problem over the years, which is that my favorite genre -- fantasy -- tends to cover the same themes and tropes a just little too often. Don't get me wrong, I've got no problem with good solid stick-to-your-ribs comfort fiction. But every so often (OK, very often in my case), a girl craves something a little different.

So here are the ten things I crave most in my own fantasy reading. Some of these I've incorporated into my own novels, naturally, and some are being explored by other writers, but once again I'm speaking from a position of greed: I want more!


10. True Ensemble Casts.

OK, so an elf, a dwarf, a man, and a halfling walk into a bar --

Novel plot? Bad joke? Hard to say, considering that most four-person-team fantasies are really just thinly-veiled Dungeons and Dragons sessions put down on paper. I don't honestly mind this kind of fantasy; it is comfort fiction, after all. But let's talk about the whole quartet for a moment. Epic fantasies are supposed to be epic, right? Casts of thousands, plots that range from world-shaking to universe-shaping, mortal peril around every corner, all that? In reality, victory in such grand sagas is usually a team effort. Why is this not more often the case in fiction?

It seems to me that a lot of fantasies focus too much on a single character. Oh, sure, the secondary characters get to do important things, like surf down a staircase on the back of a shield while making impossibly accurate shots with a bow and arrow (all right, so I'm a fan of Peter Jackson's LotR, you caught me). But do we ever come to understand these characters' motivations? Do we hear about the loved ones they've left at home, their hobbies, their fears? Do their deaths -- because they often die -- mean anything except to motivate the protagonist?

This seems to be a problem for American fantasy authors in particular, and it probably stems from our love of rugged individualism. Which is all well and good, but at some point this rugged individualism begins to defy logic and the rules of good storytelling. There's a lot of entertainment value in seeing people working together for the good of the team, too.

I'll send a shout-out here to Lynn Flewelling, whose Nightrunner series is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It could so easily have become Seregil And His Amazing Friends. Instead a key point of the series has been the growth of a character who started out secondary -- Alec -- into a protagonist of equal stature and full partnership. Other characters get plenty of time in the spotlight too. But since Ms. Flewelling's just not cranking this stuff out fast enough for my tastes, let's see if we can get some more authors out there doing this.


9. Settings Other Than "McAncient McEurope".

I don't actually mind epic fantasies set in ancient Rome, medieval England, the Renaissance, or created analogues thereof. I've read some good ones, as I'm sure you all have. But really now, is that all there is? Human history is so rich and varied. Why are 90% of the epic fantasies out there concentrated on a single landmass? Why are so many clustered around a handful of eras in that landmass' history? Let's see some epics set in the Mayan or Malian Empires, or fictional versions thereof. Or Europe, but in the 1920s instead of the medieval era; let's see some elven flappers! We're beginning to see a few more epic fantasies set in ancient China and Japan, and a smidge of Eastern Europe, but not nearly enough.

And why is the MacGuffin of Power never in any place really remote, like Antarctica or Australia?


8. Beta Males and Alpha Females.

Here I'm going to pull some language from the new kid on the block: the paranormal romance genre. That genre has put a name to something that's abounded in epic fantasy since the days of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: the alpha male. These are the classic fantasy-novel heroes: stalwart, implacable when facing evil, act-first-think-later kinds of guys. Women want them, men envy them, children want to be them. Epic fantasies have actually done a pretty decent job of bringing in beta males: insecure, reluctant guys who would rather stay at home and read a book than go slay a dragon. Unfortunately, epic fantasy tends to force these guys into the alpha male role as a form of character development. I guess that makes sense; the Armies of Light aren't likely to risk their lives for some self-effacing geek. But the unfortunate result of this is that nearly all male protagonists in epic fantasy, whether they start out as such or not, end up as alpha males.

The change I want to see here is simple: let the betas stay beta. Let's see more stories told from the PoV of the hero's accountant, or shoeshine boy, and don't make them king at the end. I fell in love with Mary Renault's depiction of Alexander the Great -- as framed by Bagoas, his pleasure slave, in The Persian Boy. Of course, beta males don't always have to act as sidekicks or shadows for alphas; they can be great themselves. Stephen R. Donaldson does an excellent job of this with his Thomas Covenant chronicles, focusing on a hero who's not only reluctant, but downright contemptible and questionably sane. This freshens an otherwise typical get-the-MacGuffin/fight-the-dark-lord fantasy framework.

By the same token, I'm pleased to see that in the past few years there's been an explosion of alpha females in fantasy. For far too long we've been burdened with female characters who existed solely as an object for the male protagonist to fight over, yearn for, avenge, etc. These women, however "feisty" or "spirited", were inherently beta because they lacked agency. Now in urban fantasy and paranormal romance we see a preponderance of female protagonists who are truly alphas: their personalities vary, but their choices matter for their own sake, not for their impact on the male hero.

But despite their popularity in these newer subgenres, women like this have only recently begun to penetrate epic fantasy. This progress has been largely thanks to pioneer authors like Tanith Lee and Ursula LeGuin, and more recently Karen Miller and Jacqueline Carey. So let's see some more!

7. Fantasy Without Magic
.

In 1987, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners showed us all how it could be done: epic fantasy without magic. Instead of magic, she dazzled readers with an intricate alternate-world society of rogues and morally ambiguous protagonists, political schemes as deadly as (and often culminating in) duels, and a hero whose skill with a sword was nearly magical. This book ushered in a golden age of epic fantasies which shunned the use of magic in favor of dazzling socioeconomic complexity, characterization, the magic of ideas, and...

Oh, wait. It didn't.

Well, why the heck didn't it? OK, there's been some progress in this direction too. Much of steampunk replaces magic with gadgetry and gosh-wow worldbuilding in a way that feels very fantasyesque, and some of the New Weird fantasists use magic only as a garnish, not a main course. But darn it, I want more.

6. Cross the Streams!


Pop quiz: what do FTL, life on other planets, and human-level artificial intelligence have in common?

Answer 1: they're staples of science fiction.

Answer 2: they're total fantasy.

They don't exist. They may never exist. These concepts might make a passing nod to theoretical physics or computer science, but in every other way they are real only in the excited imaginations of science geeks like me. For all intents and purposes, these things might as well be magic -- as many science fiction fans themselves are quick to point out.

Know what that means to me as a fantasy writer? Yeah, that's right. More for me.

Why should science fiction writers be the only ones who get to play with the shiny metal stuff? Or for that matter, the gory scary stuff? Combos of epic fantasy and SF or horror have been standard operating procedure for other media and genres for years: the Star Wars films, the Final Fantasy video games, Stephen King's Dark Tower oeuvre. Yet I rarely if ever see epic fantasy fiction incorporate the tropes of these other media. It's a shame, because when it's done right -- C.S. Friedman's "Coldfire" trilogy, for example -- it often makes standard fantasy subject matter feel very fresh. Another recent example is China Mieville, whose Bas Lag stories feature the ReMade (magically-created cyborgs or chimeras), aliens, and vampires.

We need more of this, I think. I want to see wizard astronauts. I want the Evil Overlord to be a Martian. I want to see spaceships powered by elves running on treadmills in the engine room --

Hmm. Maybe not that.

But the rest of it -- bring it on!


5. Acknowledgement of Ugliness.


A few years back Cecilia Dart-Thornton introduced The Ill-Made Mute, a rare female protagonist who was not pretty, and who got to have a love interest anyway. This isn't the kind of ugliness I mean, but in some ways it exemplifies a general problem in fantasy: the oversimplification and "prettification" of real life.

This happens on the macro scale as well as the micro. How many epic fantasy novels are centered around putting a deposed or anointed monarch on the throne as absolute ruler of all she surveys? In reality, most absolute monarchs were tyrants, perfectly willing to sacrifice their people in wars or poverty in order to increase their own wealth or power. They were inbred, emotionally and psychologically warped, more often than not puppets controlled by a quiet oligarchy. Destined kingships sound great in theory -- and in much of epic fantasy -- but the reality is far uglier.

This is not to say that I want to read a bunch of depressing novels about scullery-boys gaining a throne only to find themselves saddled with a hemophiliac wife, patricidal kids, and a hawkish advisory council that throws him under the bus when they lose a war. But I'm also tired of reading about good and noble kings who never have to deal with the reality of politics. I'm also tired of reading about feudalistic societies where the serfs are happy and well-fed and utterly loyal to their noble overlords. Good grief. That's a fairy tale, not epic fantasy.

That's one of the reasons I like Marie Brennan's Midnight Never Come, which is set in the twin courts of Queen Elizabeth and the faerie queen Invidiana. Both monarchs are scary -- egomaniacs with hair-trigger tempers. The members of their courts constantly walk on eggshells, and their loyalty is nothing more than intelligent self-interest. Everyone's in debt up to their eyeballs -- including the queen -- and no one has any delusions about justice or honor being the guiding principle of the state.

It's rich, grown-up stuff -- the kind of stuff I eat up. And I'm still hungry.

4. Scientific Rigor
.

I argued for this in another blog post recently, but I'll reiterate the basic point here: even fantasy needs to conform to the scientific basics. Far too many magical nonhuman species are badly-designed from an evolutionary and sociological standpoint, all looking, acting, and talking the same. Far too many fantasy heroes defy physics in ways that aren't magical, simply sloppy. For example, a guy in heavy armor riding on a horse bred for speed is probably going to kill that horse, because it's going to be small and not all that strong. Yet epic fantasy is full of warriors riding into battle on swift steeds. And while magic need not conform to natural law -- I'm perfectly OK with a wizard generating a thunderbolt out of nowhere, never mind conservation of energy -- there are limits to my willingness to suspend disbelief. If that wizard is standing in a pool of water, I'm going to laugh.


3. Human Societies with Realistic Complexity.

I've alluded to this in other points, but this part bears reiterating, I think. I want to see a realistic depiction of humanity. Just as much of epic fantasy tends to oversimplify the politics, science, and magic of fantasy worlds, sociocultural makeup has also been flattened. I can understand the temptation to do this. At most points in its history, ancient Scotland consisted of at least four different ethnic groups speaking three different languages and arranged in four or five social strata -- but who wants to worry about all that when you'd rather just write about cool Highlanders in kilts? Thing is, I think stories which acknowledge the realistic complexity of human societies are more interesting. How much cooler would that Highlander be if he could speak ten languages and had a Japanese sword?

(I'm such a geek.)

And let's just point right at the elephant in the room, here: diversity. Not just racial, though too often people assume that's all the term "diversity" covers. Real human societies contain old people, fat people, illiterate people, poor people, disabled people, and a thousand other forms of humanity. Real human societies trade with other human societies, and some of what gets traded is genetic material. Medieval Europe was actually pretty diverse along racial/cultural lines: not only were there the various cultures of Europe, but also present were traders from China via the Silk Road, Arabs and North Africans (when there wasn't a Crusade going on), Jewish craftsmen, etc. Epic fantasies set in medieval Europe should, IMO, incorporate all of this.

I think epic fantasy writers just need to remember this: regardles of what world/era your story is based on, 50% of the population will be female, not all the females will be beautiful ladies, not all the gentlemen will be interested in ladies, and some of the kids will probably be brown-skinned with curly hair.


2. Life After "Ever After".

OK, I grew up on fairy tales like most of you. And as a kid I loved them; they reassured me that the world was good or at least fixable, right and wrong were clear and simple, and finding a prince would solve all my problems.

Of course this doesn't satisfy me now. Yet still I see epic fantasy after epic fantasy that culminates with the same simplistic moral closure, and ends right when things should be getting really interesting. This is not to say that I want to see doorstopper novels dragging on interminably with epilogues and other unnecessary-to-the-plot bits. Those work occasionally -- Tolkien's "The Scouring of the Shire" at the end of the Lord of the Rings is a great example -- but few writers have his skill or keen understanding of when and how a coda should be added.

What I would rather see is stories which start where fairy tales leave off. Let's see a fantasy world recovering from a genocidal war like the one in LotR. How much more interesting would it be for a hero to go on a quest for a MacGuffin of Power... after another more celebrated hero has already attempted it and died trying? Or what if that more famous hero succeeded, but his MacGuffin is a fake, and no one believes Our Nobody when he inadvertently stumbles upon the real one? Better still, what if the famous hero knows his MacGuffin is bogus, but he doesn't want to give up fame and fortune, so he becomes a villain hunting down Our Nobody?

I've seen a few novels tackle this territory well, including Brian Sanderson's Mistborn books. But there should be more.


1. More, Well, Fantasy.


I may get boos and hisses for this one. But I'm marking it as number 1 because it's the thing I yearn to see most in epic fantasy: stories which discard the trappings of familiar cultures/myths. I want to see more authors just make stuff up. You would think this would be easy for us fantasistas, but it isn't; I think there's a certain amount of fear out there that audiences only want to see the tried and true. Or maybe it's not fear, but jadedness -- I've heard many a fellow writer trot out that old chestnut about there only being so many original stories, of which all others are merely variations on a theme. This may very well be true. But even if it is, is that any reason to quit trying?

Fantasy, even the elegant forms of epic fantasy, is fantasy; at its core, there's no single shape or tradition that it must adhere to. The sky's the limit (and since I'm suggesting that fantasy can and should go into space, even that shouldn't hold us back). So let's hear it for more originality! Then I'll have more fun stuff to read.
Tags: epic fantasy week, n.k. jemisin, writing
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