Monday, 21 January 2013

High Drama (part 1)

(This is not the next installment of the series I've promised on WEIRDos - I'm planning to run that on Thursdays/Fridays, but there won't be one this week because the new Second Realm episode is out this weekend. It's also not the blog I was promising yesterday about my cock-up with Smashwords, which will run on Thursday)

Instead, today, before the moment fades, I want to start on a topic I've been prompted towards by the final volume of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, a fantasy epic I've been a fan of for over a decade. The final volume came out a couple of weeks ago, and I'm finally reading it (it's very good - and don't worry about spoilers; I won't be discussing it in detail, and I haven't finished it yet so I can't spoil any of the really juicy stuff).

The Wheel of Time captures what I feel to be the essence of 'fantasy' as a genre, and thus forms a very good jumping-off point for an attempt to define the genre. You might be thinking that you know how fantasy is defined - after all, there are sections in the bookshops for it (actually, and I feel this is a point in my favour, most of the bookshops I've been in lump fantasy and sci-fi together) - but I want to pose the question in a slightly new way.

This is a video about design theory for video games, and to those of you not literate in games, it may be a little bit dense, but it provides the basics of a framework for genre definition that I think we need to bring into the SFF world in books (I don't mean, by the way, that I want to use their definition of fantasy - I think it works just fine for games, but isn't what 'fantasy' is truly about in literature).

Put simply, the video lays out a way of analysing genre which cuts things up in terms of core aesthetics rather than superficial ones (the superficial aesthetics in games being the mechanics). The core aesthetics of a piece of art (for some legitimate-but-broad definition of 'art') are the things that we go to that particular piece of art for rather than any other.

The presenter claims that outside of the video game world, where art within a medium is broken up by genre, the genres are defined by core aesthetics. This is certainly true, I think, for cinema (which makes sense, since it's the field which has made most effective use of the concept) - it's easy to see that romance, drama, horror and so on are fulfilling different emotional/psychological needs. Something similar is true for most forms of literary genre - after all, you can tell what a person goes to erotica or horror for pretty clearly, but the same is generally true of literary fiction, thrillers etc. etc.

But there's quite a difference between the way sci-fi and fantasy are handled in films and the way they're handled in books. By way of example, despite all involving fictitious science, Armageddon is a disaster movie, while The Matrix is an action film and The Day The Earth Stood Still essentially a kind of political thriller.

By contrast, consider my favourite science fiction novel, Dan Simmons' Hyperion (actually, my favourite is the second in the series, but never mind that). Hyperion contains, in order, a horror story, an erotic romance (though not a massively explicit one), a bizarre cross between a reflexive meditation on art and a psychological thriller, a family drama, a Hollywood-Chandleresque detective story, and an unmistakably literary character piece tale-within-a-tale.

All of them have elements of fictitious science, with characters undergoing relativistic time dilation effects, or visiting dozens of worlds, or travelling through vast galactic computer networks, or being hunted by sinister automata, but the underlying stories are of vastly different types.

So what makes them all science fiction? Well, in a lesser collection of stories, the answer would be 'space ships and laser guns' - there are certainly many works of sci-fi which are really just thrillers transposed into a spacey context. In the case of Hyperion, though, every one of those stories involves an element of fictional science whose effect on the characters could only be achieved by that means - one character, for example, is made immortal; another sees his lover only a handful of times, between relativistic journeys that mean she ages through a whole life-span while he stays young.

The key to defining sci-fi, then, is this link between scenario and characters - this is what links all of Hyperion's stories with the much more precisely scientific sci-fi of Arthur Clarke's Earthlight or  Greg Egan's Diaspora. We shouldn't fall into the trap of saying that everything set in space is sci-fi; Star Wars, for example, is just the monomyth in space, no different from the myth of Orpheus or, fundamentally, The Lord of the Rings. The space-ness of it doesn't add anything except visuals - superficial stuff.

So much for sci-fi, then. But this post is primarily about fantasy, and this raises a more difficult question. Think for a moment about cinema; is Bruce Almighty a fantasy film? What about Twilight or Evil Dead? Equivalent books could (and, indeed, do, at least in the case of Twilight) find their way into the fantasy section in a bookshop.

It might be tempting to say that fantasy is about worlds that are alternatives to our own, either in terms of being (like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia) worlds with a hidden magic element, or in terms of being secondary-world fantasies (like The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire). But I've already discussed the absurdity that that leads to.

I hope that so far, I've shown that there's a problem here worth talking about. To put it bluntly, I feel like most of the people in charge of genre branding for books use the following decision process: 'Does it have magic in it? Okay, it's fantasy.' (and yes, magical realism blah blah blah, I'll come back to the topic of magical realism later). Okay, we now have various labels like 'YA fantasy' and 'Dark fantasy', which I suppose are steps in the right direction, but you still see a big lumping-together of stuff on the fantasy shelves.

One last example: Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson is a fantasy version of Ocean's Eleven - it's a heist caper (which, in cinema, is a surprisingly clear-cut and distinctive genre, albeit a quite rare one), with all the particular kinds of character interplay and authorial sleight of hand that implies. And yet it sits on the shelf right next to his The Way of Kings, which is unabashedly a straightforward epic. Okay, author branding makes it good to keep all his books in one place, and most bookshops don't have a section for capers (though they'd normally end up in 'crime' alongside a bunch of books better described as 'thrillers'), but the two books are very different in feel and style.

So there's a problem here. I'm going to split at this point (ooo, cliff-hanger ending), and next week, I'll pick up the theme and offer my definition of fantasy as a genre (and then I'll get back to that WEIRD stuff).

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