Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bitching About Fantasy

Status Update: plentiful coffee, of an unrivaled darkness. This is coffee that stains your soul black as you drink it. Your first piss of the morning will smoke as it leaves your body because your bodily fluids have been alchemically transformed into acid, like the blood of something Sigourney Weaver would fight. If I could make it blacker, I would.

Nothing written yet; haven't really settled on any ideas. It's probably going to be something fairly short, of the flash variety, but who knows.

I've been torn fifty-fifty between writing some mainstream-ish fantasy, but with some subversive undermining of expectations, or maybe something involving cryonics. Yes, that's how my brain works. Don't judge me.

I'm going to get something out on the table right now: I hate mainstream fantasy. Haaaaaate it. It burns me, yes it does. It all seems to be the same thing over, and over, and over: white people with British accents traipsing about a half-baked fantasy version of King Arthur's Europe looking for the big whatsit that'll defeat the Evil-Foozle-What's-Making-Things-Suck. There will be a hastily-thought-out magic system and something like elves and dwarves. They will have Tolkien-style elf and dwarf cultures and their languages will be letter soup. Lots of letter soup in mainstream fantasy. "Tally-ho, Not-Aragorn! Where goest thou?!" "I'm off to the castle of Bl'ourg'ragh'ackt to find the Chalice of Blagh-blech."

It's the general laziness that gets me. It's not really a medieval world these books tend to be set in--it's a Medieval Times world. You always get the feeling that once the camera is off the characters, they pull out an iPad, switch on the lights and then surf Facebook. They never seem to have to deal with problems like finding fresh water, preserving food, getting sufficient lighting at night (it was DARK at night before the invention of power), communicating with neighbors, or what have you. The characters usually feel like modern people who have been teleported in from the future with selective amnesia and/or brain damage, rather than products of their environment. The cultures they live in seem like close analogues of modern stereotypes and not something that arises organically from a historical time-line or their geography.

You could pretty much turn it into a drinking game:

Take a shot when you see a...

-- Main character who rises from a lowly status to become a king. Bonus points if he has a weapon which lights on fire when he's about to be all righteous and bad-ass. Extra bonus points if he's a farmer or a blacksmith.
-- Main character's mentor who is a wizard.
-- Main character's sidekick who is a dodgy lowlife.
-- Two drinks if the enemies are Ice People From The North
-- A mountain range which references a spine or the word "doom".
-- Elves, fucking elves. Bonus points if they're called something transparently close: aelves, fae, sidhe or something like that.
-- Dwarves. Bonus points if they are Scottish.
-- Every time you see a wolf as a positive image. Bonus points if it's framed in such a way that it would make an awesome t-shirt.

There have been some excellent novels over the years to shake things up. I occasionally bash George R R Martin, but his books were a breath of fresh air. Court intrigue can be more interesting than thinly-disguised Tolkien pastiche?! Inconceivable! And I've read some newer authors that I thought were doing some interesting things with the genre. Alan Campbell brings back some interesting Moorcockian elements to the table. Roberto Calas takes a gritty/realistic historical perspective and then adds an amusing dash of zombies (you'd think it'd have been played out by the time I read this, but I was wrong). Brent Weeks' books have a great Thieves' World feel which takes me back to the 80's (in a good way). I'm forgetting quite a few, I think, but they are out there.

But we're definitely feeling the 90% rule here. Mainstream fantasy is where ideas go to get fat and die a wheezing asthmatic death. Other genres have a similar problem with lazy writing (q.v. modern fantasy vis a vis vampires and zombies), but for some reason it seems more galling in this case, probably because modern fantasy has been a thing for longer.

Generally speaking, if your fantasy story has any elements of what I've complained about above, you have to step back. It's okay to have elves. I'm fine with flat/generic cultures. No problem with macho dude characters who know how to hammer shit into cool weapons. Mountain range called "The Spine of Doom"? Bring it on! But in moderation. If your story has ALL of those elements, maybe you should mix things up a bit. Just sayin'.

So, my next story is either going to be that or about frozen heads or Prohibition or time-Nazis or whatever flash fiction idea seems shiny and new to me at the moment when I actually sit down and write the little beastie. I'm kind of in a random mood lately.

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