June 7th, 2006

Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy

Ten things I hate in a book, belatedly continued after medical interruptions:

9. ‘Worlds’ built of cardboard and papier-mâché.
This is not precisely the same thing emmaco complained about in her list:

1. Books that include much of the content of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland without being ironic.

I fear the rot goes much deeper than that. Of course the bookshops are cluttered with interchangeable products set in indistinguishable Fantasylands. But even when fantasy writers make an apparently honest effort to come up with original settings for their tales, the results often betray a disturbing imaginative penury. Ursula K. LeGuin had the right of the matter when she said, in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’:

The general assumption is that, if there are dragons or hippogriffs in a book, or if it takes place in a vaguely Keltic or Near Eastern medieval setting, or if magic is done in it, then it’s a fantasy. This is a mistake.

. . . [A] writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything.

But having the right is not the same as being right. Her definition of fantasy would exclude nine-tenths of the books with FANTASY in small lettering on the spines. Such a categorization is every bit as unhelpful as the attempts by John Grant and others to define fantasy in a way that excludes The Lord of the Rings. It is an exercise in locking the barn door when not only the horse but the very walls have gone.

We cannot now hope to exclude the cookie-cutter Fantasyland books from the category called ‘fantasy’. But I will make so bold as to call them failed fantasy, in rather the same sense that the Argonautica could be called a failed epic, or The Phantom Menace a failed Star Wars prequel. The word novel has been defined as ‘a book-length work of fiction that has something wrong with it’, and in every art form failures far outnumber successes. There is no shame and little harm in having written a failed fantasy; but that does not place the failed work beyond the reach of criticism. LeGuin in ‘Poughkeepsie’ again:

When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of. And if he is a real violinist, he knows it too. In art, “good enough” is not good enough.

Of course, some violinists and some writers fall shorter than others. Some of those whose books are labelled ‘fantasy’ seem genuinely to believe that Fantasyland is ‘good enough’, and make no attempt to move beyond its trite conventions and faded scenery. Others don’t even bother with that. They not only strip down their settings to the bare minimum, so that their characters seem to live in a vacuum, but praise themselves for doing so and heap scorn on the idiots who actually put effort into their settings. This is from a talk Terry Goodkind gave in 2000:

The books I write are first of all novels, not fantasy, and that is deliberate; I’m really writing books about human beings. I believe that it’s invalid and unethical to write fantasy for fantasy’s sake, because fantasy for fantasy’s sake is non-objective. If you have no human themes or values, then you have no life as a base value. Fantasy for fantasy’s sake is therefore pointless.

At the other end of the spectrum from my writing are a kind of book that, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “world-building”—and I don’t mean to disparage pure world building books for what they are: entertainment. I don’t consider them valid novels.

. . . . . . . . . . .

World-building to me is no better than holding up the drug dealer as an ideal because it is holding up as a normative value a world in which humans do not exercise volition, but instead is a history lesson of when this person was born 300 years ago and had 12 daughters with unpronounceable names who had offspring who went on to have this and that convoluted history, which may be entertaining, but is not a novel.

The contempt could scarcely be more obvious. And yet, at that time, Goodkind by his own admission had never read The Lord of the Rings. He considered it a ‘world-building book’ rather than a ‘novel’. (The ‘history lesson’ sneer is a clear hit at all the detailed back-stories inspired by the Appendices of LOTR; a fortiori at the original, whether he was aware of it or not.)

But if The Lord of the Rings is about anything, it is about humans exercising volition. It is about power and renunciation, death and the desire for immortality, and coping with irreversible change. Those are ‘human themes or values’, or the word human has lost all meaning. According to Goodkind this cannot be so, because his particular brand of reductionism will not allow a book to accomplish more than one thing. He does pay lip-service to the idea of a range or continuum between ‘pure novels’ and ‘pure world-building’, but in fact he never speaks about anything but these two extremes, always heaping scorn upon the latter. If a book contains world-building, then it must leave something else out. That is like saying that a house with more than two bedrooms cannot have a kitchen. Houses are not all of a size, and neither are books. Tolkien’s epic is roomy enough for both. Goodkind’s books are also roomy, or at least they take up a great deal of space, but he fails to fit in more than the sketchiest strokes of setting.

The effect of this is very curious. I once saw a student production of Richard III, done without props, backdrops, or even costumes: not so much as swords for the fight scenes. (The cast wore monochrome tights of various hues, and consquently looked like a ballet class.) Nothing remained but the actors themselves, standing in various poses on a plain black stage and reciting speeches from Shakespeare. Now, this made for a cheap production, a considerable virtue in the circumstances, and after all it was never billed as a professional performance.

Goodkind’s books, however, are billed as professional work, indeed very highly touted by his publisher; and a book laden with scenery and descriptions of action is just as cheap to produce as one with nothing but dialogue. But Wizard’s First Rule gave me just the same sense of talking heads in a void. Sometimes, as in the torture scenes, the action was described vividly enough to give me a clear picture of the character’s entire body, and sometimes Goodkind’s auctorial lantern shed enough light to illuminate a whole room; but not often.

The book contains a map, but it is hardly necessary, as there are really only three places of any consequence: the Westlands, the Midlands, and D’Hara. These countries are separated by nearly impenetrable magical barriers, and have evolved widely divergent cultures from a common origin in the time since the barriers went up. From this one would suppose that the barriers are aeons or at least centuries old. Not so: there are people not yet past middle age who remember when they were built. The world’s history before that is an absolute blank. Nobody seems to have any memory or record of anything going back as much as a hundred years.

Similarly, we never are told much about how Darken Rahl came to power in D’Hara. In a way, this is a refreshing change from the Dark Lord who was Imprisoned in the Mountain by G’grizzwoz the Moonbat in the Eleventh Age of Bapfnir, and emerged after five Cycles of the Moon of Gormwit, etc., etc. Bogus detail is worse than none at all. But it does not inspire confidence when none of the older characters seem able to remember events from their own youth. We are all a product of our culture as much as of our genes, and it is a truism that characters in fiction are best realized when you can see how they interact with their habitat and history. But Goodkind’s characters have a blank page for a habitat, and very nearly no history at all.

One step above no world-building, of course, is the terminally lazy kind. The Belgariad and its interminable rehashes make a fine example. Over here we have Merrie England Sendaria, and there are our stock Romans Tolnedrans, and up yonder are the Vikings Alorns, all portrayed with the careful realism of, say, a Benny Hill skit. The Tough Guide says nearly all that there is to say about these stock cultures, the Vestigial Empire and the Anglo-Saxon Cossacks and so forth; but Eddings goes the template one better, because every one of his characters conforms perfectly to its ethnic stereotype. Every Arend is fearsomely brave and blitheringly stupid, every Tolnedran is a money-hungry schemer, every Grolim is . . . well, a psychopathic serial killer. Subtle, that. Couple that with plots generated by tracing a path through every country on the map, and you have a recipe for highly commercial fantasy product which requires virtually no imagination at all.

Some authors are very industrious indeed in designing their settings, but their efforts are wasted because they pile detail on detail without ever thinking much about the fundamental assumptions underlying the whole work. One finds quite a lot of this in gaming tie-ins. Ed Greenwood’s ‘Forgotten Realms’, even ignoring the material contributed by other hands, is an enormous feat of world-building, far larger in scope and detail than Tolkien’s, and ought to be a masterpiece of its kind. But it falls short, because it is not based on any coherent vision of what a world could be like, but on the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.

The cultures of the Realms are a mishmash of colourful mediaeval, pseudo-mediaeval, ancient and Renaissance detail, systematically altered in the interest of modern political correctness. There are, for instance, no defined gender roles, virtually everyone is literate, and slavery is practised only by races and nations that are Evil with a capital E. This is revisionism with a vengeance, and the effect is made still odder by the casual racism that squats in the midst of it like — no, an elephant in the living-room is too commonplace — like a basilisk in a shopping mall. Greenwood gives us the titles and trappings of feudalism without the attitude of feudal loyalty, the intrigues of a Renaissance city-state without the economic constraints that made city-states viable, the impedimenta of ancient empires without the indifferent cruelty of ancient imperialism. It does not hang together. It is hardly intended to.

Now, as a setting for a game, this hardly matters. D&D was originally as artificial as chess: ill-assorted groups of ‘adventurers’, patterned vaguely after the Fellowship of the Ring, wandering through improbably spacious underground complexes excavated for no clear reason, practising aggravated assault and grand larceny on an omnium gatherum of exotic monsters. Any attempt at ‘realism’ is an advance on this in a way, and in another way it only shows up the silliness of the original conceit. The Palace of Versailles was built round a royal hunting-lodge, and takes much of its asymmetry and structural inconsequence from that. Well, D&D is like a palace built round one of those astoundingly tacky hot-dog stands in the shape of a giant hot dog. It is a brilliant testimony to the skill of the architects, but less creditable to their judgement.

Unfortunately, the bookshops are crowded with Forgotten Realms tie-ins, Dragonlance books, and other subliterary properties taking after these; and still more with fantasies not overtly related to D&D worlds, but in which one is never out of earshot of the rattle of polyhedral dice. A good many of the more ridiculous entries in the Tough Guide can only be explained genetically. The treatment of horses in stock fantasy, for instance, makes no sense whatever in its own right. But when you reflect on the battalions of fantasy writers whose entire knowledge of equitation derives from the overland movement tables in gaming rulebooks, you can easily see how it came about. And doubtless there are still younger writers who slavishly imitate the absurd conventions derived from role-playing games, just as there are writers (Goodkind is one) who imitate the obvious and showy bits of Tolkien without ever having read his works.

Lowest of all are the chimaerical creations of the reckless genre-crossers: the punk street elves, the samurai vampires, the Orcs in mirrorshades, who had their brief vogue in the 1990s, and have mercifully failed to take over the whole ecology of Faërie. Suffice it to say that you cannot come up with a Good Idea for a fantasy story just by pulling two stock elements out of your hat and somehow gluing them together. Brian Aldiss says that his best ideas come from the intersection of two ideas, which he calls ‘the exotic’ and ‘the familiar’. Stephen R. Donaldson reports the same phenomenon; so can I, for what that may be worth. But if you cross and re-cross exotic specimens without ever going back to the familiar for fresh genetic material, the resulting hybrid will almost always be sterile. It may not even survive being decanted from the test tube. Fantasy works by juxtaposing the strange and the familiar, so causing us to look at the familiar with fresh eyes. A landscape composed entirely of the bizarre is not fantasy but dada.

I should pause to mention some of the many honourable exceptions. Guy Gavriel Kay does brilliant work with well-researched and well-drawn analogues of historical settings. Susanna Clarke has mined a rich vein of her own ore, part English folklore, part Regency novel. China Mieville and his fellow-travellers have built strange Victorian Gothic structures that owe little to the gingerbread castles of commercial fantasy, though I don’t care for the relentless nihilism that informs most of their work. And there have always been those like Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, Lloyd Alexander, and Evangeline Walton, who went back to the myths and legends of many cultures and produced their own strikingly original variations on those themes.

Tolkien used to talk of putting real people and historical events into the Pot of Story until they became part of the Soup. Easily nine tenths of the fantasy books on the shelves are of no possible interest to me, because a slight glance through them reveals that nothing has been added to the Pot except the leftovers of yesterday’s meal. The Soup has become a factory product: Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy. All we need now is Andy Warhol to do the cover art.