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On Fantasy

April 6, 2016

So, I've written a fantasy novel. It wasn't a direction I anticipated on going in, but I'm pretty pleased with the results.

 

I read quite a bit of fantasy as a teenager, but drifted away from the genre as I grew into adulthood. I still picked up George R R Martin's novels when they came out. And I'd occasionally read a Robin Hobb (who remains to this day one of my favourite authors). But I think I'd become saturated.

 

The problem was this.

 

Quite often (at least in the late 90s) fantasy was falling into two extremes. Either an author threw as much originality at their work as they could, and thus developed something that had its fascinating moments, but which overall read incoherently; by the time I hit my late teens I wanted depth, and character, and an engaging plot. Or the author fell back on a few tried and tested tropes, perhaps tweaked a few things here and there, and instead delivered a novel that had depth, and character, and plot - but little wonder. And, in a sense, I could find all those things in the literature section - so what was the point hanging around in fantasy?

 

I should say that things have broadened a lot in the past decade. Recently, I've been picking up fantasy novels again, and there's some good stuff out there that manages to be both original and thought-provoking. Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August immediately springs to mind. As does Scarlett Thomas' The End of Mr Y. And there were novels published back in the 90s and early 00s that did the same - although, with the exception of writers like Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde, they mainly seemed to be appear in the Young Adult section: J K Rowling, Philip Pullman, etc. But even today there's still a lot of fantasy that relies on very conservative tropes. I’m sorry, but I am not going to pick up a novel about an assassin. I don't have much time for stories whose main character is a warrior or soldier either - because, seriously, is war the only subject for epic fantasy? (Not that you can't do a good war story in the fantasy genre - look at Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment; but there’s a world of difference between a novel that interrogates the subject of war, and a novel that just celebrates men and women with big swords going around killing people). I am also bored of magic. For me there’s no such thing as an original magic system. No matter how clever the magic system is, the fact that you’ve fallen back on magic as a platform for your plot is still a cliché.

 

Now some people find comfort in these tropes, and that’s fine. But they’re not for me. I want to read about people I can relate too, and I can’t relate to anybody who either goes around killing people, or who can make fireballs come out of their hands..

 

So perhaps I should explain what does excite me.

 

My favourite all time fantasy author never wrote a novel. But Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories are both intellectually stimulating and weirdly original. I was fascinated by labyrinths and infinity long before I stumbled across him, so my love at first sight was perhaps inevitable. But the ideas he came up with pulled my brain in new directions, even after numerous re-reads. The story that I like best is probably Blue Tigers, where the narrator goes in search of the eponymous blue tigers, and instead discovers a handful of pebbles that defy the laws of mathematics. It’s this process of taking the mundane and making it alien that first got my interested in fantasy. And it’s this process that I try to imitate in my own work. I’m not going to pretend that my work is hugely original, but I hope that, like Borges and other more recent writers, I’m going in a slightly different direction to the main flow. And that, for me, is what fantasy should be all about: taking the infinite canvas that it offers, and using it to say something bright, and colourful, and new.

 

By the way, here are some random examples of fantasy ideas that get me excited:

  • The lamp-post in Narnia (even more brilliant in the films when you realise that, of course, the gas hisses; ruined a little by the fact that Lewis later came back and explained why it was there).

  • The aforementioned ‘blue tigers’.

  • Philip Pullman’s whole idea of ‘dust’. (A perfect lesson in what you have to do to the ‘magic system’ idea in order to make it genuinely original).

  • Steven Moffat’s Weeping Angels (at least in their original, predatory form – again, it’s an example of taking something mundane and making it alien).

  • Pretty much every single word written by Jasper Fforde (especially ‘jurisfiction’. By the way, Fforde’s work also contains the best postmodern joke ever, and what is possibly my favourite joke ever – it’s the one about the Cheshire Cat’s new, updated name).

  • Talking trains? Sorry, I was a bit obsessed by the Rev. W Awdry’s Railway Series as a kid.

  • The Wall in Garth Nix’s Sabriel, with its separate climates, seasons, and time zones on either side.

  • Tom Siddel’s Gunnerkrigg Court. An academy (and research complex) that is so much better than Hogwarts because it’s still so mysterious. (How was it built? What’s its purpose? Where is everybody).

  • The whole idea of the Blink in Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs (basically, when the Gods died, all their works vanished with them, with weird and catastrophic results).

  • The strange, lost cities in Robin Hobb’s The Farseer, which come alive again with ghosts whenever you touch the stone walls (again slightly ruined when she comes back and elaborates on them several books later).

  • Neil Gaiman’s whole idea in Neverwhere that the London Tube station names actually describe what is going on under the city.

  • Karen Walker Thompson’s The Age of Miracles, where the spin of the earth is slowing down for reasons that nobody understands – and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The confusion and upheaval this phenomenon causes thus becomes the perfect metaphor for a child navigating their way towards adulthood.

  • Many other ideas that for the moment escape my memory.

 

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