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Trash Fantasy

We’ve all seen the shelves in the bookshops groaning under the weight of yet another fantasy blockbuster in umpteen volumes. The books are enormously fat and as the series progresses they have a tendency to get fatter. I think I initially noticed the phenomenon in 1977 when Stephen Donaldson published his first trilogy about Thomas Covenant. My immediate reaction on reading it was that if I crossed out two thirds of the words on every page of each book, I’d end up with only one much more tightly written and much more enjoyable book. I immediately applied for a job as Donaldson’s copy editor, but nothing ever came of it and he continued to commit trilogies. Shame, really.

The kinds of stories I’m talking about usually take place in an idealised pseudo-medieval world. Often there is a fairly rigid aristocracy and lords, ladies, princes and princesses abound. Feudalism appears to be an accepted way of life (and everybody knows their place). There is much swordplay. Sometimes there are dragons.

The plot generally involves some convoluted quest or other at the end of which a Kingdom will be saved (or destroyed), and the hero / heroine will take his / her rightful place in the aristocratic hierarchy either by virtue of their virtue (i.e. proving themselves right by winning the game of life) or by virtue of having been born into the aristocracy anyway and therefore the rewards are theirs by right of birth. In the latter case the viewpoint character may well have spent the whole interminable story reacting against an unhappy, low-born childhood. Only at the end will it be revealed that their parents / guardians weren’t their REAL parents / guardians. Some crisis forced their family to give them away or sell them and they have grown up in ignorance of their real background. Fantasyland families are invariably dysfunctional.

Anyway – by the end of the third volume all of this nonsense is resolved, there may well be a marriage, and the protagonists live happily ever after. Or at least until Volume 1 of the next series begins whereupon it all happens again.

Melanie Rawn is a fairly typical writer in this genre – she has several interconnected series on the go which all involve squabbles between members of the families of the ruling classes in a perfectly standard fantasyscape. Mercedes Lackey also has an interminable pot on the boil with her Valdemar stories. One of Valdemar trilogies (there are several) concerns an empath called Talia who must learn how to perform magic while at the same time trying to cope with a bratty princess to whom she has been assigned as a counsellor. It is all standard stuff that could have been written by many other people (and often has been).

However the archetypal series of this kind is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time which has now reached volume umpty um with no end yet in sight. Indeed there are persistent rumours that Jordan has said that he will not bring the series to an end at all; that he will spin it out and keep writing it as long as people keep buying the books. I suspect that this may well turn out to be the case, particularly since Jordan has now completely mastered the difficult art of writing a hugely fat book in which absolutely nothing of any significance happens at all. The story arc that will (may) terminate at some undetermined time in the future was set up in volume 1 and has not yet progressed in any measurable way towards a resolution.

I suspect that there is more than a little cynical market manipulation going on here. If you have a few outstanding bills to pay, all you have to do is sit down and pound out another epic. The structure is all quite routine and you don’t need to involve the thinking part of your brain at all. And as for revising the first draft! Don’t be silly. The hurried production line environment and the lack of revision and copy editing is the real reason behind the multitude of infelicities that creep into the prose of these things. Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman are particularly prone to leaving the average sentence torn and bloody on the ground as they play havoc with the rules of syntax and grammar.

And why, oh why do these things always seem to be set in mock-medieval Europe? Writers as diverse as Jonathan Carroll, Thorne Smith, Stephen King, and Alan Garner have proved again and again that superb fantasies can be set in modern surroundings. Charles de Lint writes wonderful urban magic realism which has been described as fantasy for those people who don’t like fantasy. Diana Wynne Jones has almost single handedly rescued British fantasy from the dreadful grip of pseudo-Tolkienism. But despite all of this, the trash fantasists seem to be irretrievably locked into their formulaic feudalism.

Actually, the explanation isn’t hard to find. The standardised background for these kinds of fantasy is largely a nineteenth century invention. William Morris was its prime practitioner. You could argue that he was merely extending and copying the work of earlier writers such as Ariosto and Cervantes but I’m not sure that argument holds water since those earlier authors were writing about semi-contemporary times and experiences (albeit somewhat idealised). Morris was quite definitely and deliberately looking backwards and positing a pseudo-historical setting for his stories. Later writers such as Henry Rider Haggard (to an extent) and E. R. Eddison reworked Morris’ material in their own inimitable fashion. Then Tolkien, of course, gave the genre that he inherited a final spit and a polish, and the rules for what we might call traditional fantasy were completely set in concrete. Woe betide the writer that ignored them!

Since the trash fantasists are far more concerned with superficialities (look and feel) that they are with art they seem to find these surface features far more compelling than they really ought to be and so they stick to them religiously.

In the hands of a master such as Tolkien, that is perfectly fine. The surface features really do fit well with the story. Middle-Earth was a lived in landscape and the characters felt as if they belonged there. Indeed, Tolkien went out of his way to make it feel real, even going so far as to plot the phases of the moon in relation to the time elapsed in his story and thus make sure that the night time scenes weren’t inconsistent with each other. The devil is in the details and Tolkien was a very devil for the details as the posthumous books edited by his son make abundantly clear.

But you haven’t got time for this when you have to write a three volume epic by next Tuesday. When you write with a rubber stamp, banging out the first nonsense that pops into your brain, inconsistencies creep in.

In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Diana Wynne Jones lampoons these kinds of stories unmercifully. She highlights all the clichés that so many of them exhibit and points out the logical consequences of so many of their built in assumptions. For example:

The ecology of Fantasyland is in a bad way. It is full of empty niches.To start with there are few or no bacteria. We can see this by the way refuse and other pieces of squalor lie about in heaps which fail to rot down. To add to this there are few or no insects (except for fleas, some localised bees, numerous silk worms somewhere in the fanatic caliphates and clouds of mosquitoes in the marshes). Both these empty niches mean that crops will be poor……So there is no means of improving the soil or of pollination, or of seed spreading. Constant magical irradiation seems to have destroyed it all. It seems to have destroyed also any large wild predator mammals and most ruminants. This is a pity. These larger animals would ordinarily do their part by spreading dung and carrying seeds in their coats. In their absence we should not be surprised that so many trees have become mobile: they have to move about in order to find more fertile ground and shed their seeds in it……

If you read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and follow it immediately with one of these appalling novels you will wince as you realise just how accurate her depiction of these cliché-ridden monstrosities really is.

Indeed so often the books are so formulaic that reading them requires all the brain power and attention span of a gnat. A very small, intellectually handicapped gnat. And yet, books of this type remain hugely popular and continue to sell in large numbers. Lots of gnats out there seem to love them – indeed I know gnats who read almost nothing else except these kinds of books.

Why? Just what is it about the trash fantasies that makes them sell so well when they have few, if any, discernible virtues at all? I’m glad you asked. I’ve got some theories about it…

Back in (I think) 1962, the first ever episode of Coronation Street was broadcast. It proved to be an enormously popular series and is still going strong today without having come to any overall conclusion or resolution. In essence it is completely open ended. In any individual episode, nothing much of any significance happens. The characters live their ordinary lives and we eavesdrop on them. People come, people go, some live and some die. It is all quite mundane and repetitive, not to say clichéd. Are you starting to see the parallels to the works of Robert Jordan and his ilk?

The multi-decker fantasy novel is a soap opera with swords and magic and it appeals to its readership for exactly the same reasons that a successful soap appeals to its viewing audience. That audience craves familiarity, doesn’t like novelty, prefers predictability and won’t tolerate any messing with the basic formula. About five years ago a new producer was appointed to oversee Coronation Street. He made quite a lot of changes to try and broaden the appeal of the programme. One and all the fans united against his changes and he was forced to tone them down. Ruts have a great attraction - it is very comfortable inside them.

There’s also the escapism factor to take into account. And I must confess I have quite a lot of sympathy with this one. Real life is complex and a little frightening. It is getting more complex almost by the minute as computer technology is used to control more and more aspects of our daily lives. Furthermore, governments are starting to interest themselves far more than they used to in the minutiae of our lives. Those self same computers will now allow the government to collect and process this information relatively easily. Previously they would have needed far too many clerks with far too many quill pens and it simply wouldn’t have been cost effective.

Consequently we are now mired in bureaucratic procedures that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The complexity and the information overload involved in simply living from day to day puts considerable pressure on all of us. Fantasy novels provide an escape from all that (and we all need to escape from our lives at times). The kind of novels I’ve been discussing are particularly well suited to this. They do have a message for their readers. And that message (albeit a lie) is that life is simple, and that the problems we face are easily solved; mainly by hitting them hard with a sharp sword – well it IS a solution of sorts. There is a great psychological comfort in those thoughts. We all crave simplicity. To that extent it is a coping mechanism.

I have also heard it claimed that fantasy allows us to cope with the real world in a more positive manner - not by escaping from it, but by putting us into strange situations where the rules are seemingly arbitrary. This is frightening in and of itself. It is a useful analogy with real life, and the lesson that these difficulties CAN be overcome can then be applied with more confidence to the complexities of reality. It is a good defence - however you can’t apply it to the trash fantasies because they are all so similar, so predictable in every way that the situations they depict are not strange (that’s part of the appeal of a soap opera) and so that lesson simply cannot be learned from them.

Of all the many varieties of fiction that exist, fantasy is probably the most unrealistic, dealing as it does with things that simply can’t happen. SF (as opposed to fantasy) mostly deals merely with extremely unlikely things and is therefore more "realistic" (though I think we must insist on the inverted commas there). A corollary of such intense unrealism is that the writer needs to work extra hard to make the audience accept the situations that arise during the story. One reason why the trash fantasies fail to work for me is that none of the writers seem prepared to make that extra effort. They just go through the motions, largely without thinking (production line mentalities again).

It doesn’t have to be this way of course. Function and form do not necessarily always have to lead to the same destination and it is possible (with a bit of effort) to rise very successfully above these criticisms. There are some never ending fantasy series that have considerable merit - even Robert Jordan’s seeming refusal to bring the thing to a conclusion turns out not to be an original thought!

Take, for example, Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Superficially they have a lot in common with the trash fantasies. Some of the problems the characters face are very simple and are solved with swordplay. But Leiber had the genius to understand that extra layers were required to raise the stories above the norm, to make them stand out in the crowd. The trash fantasies tend towards the black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, there is right and wrong. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories don’t take that position at all. Leiber injects a delightful amount of moral ambiguity into his stories. Often you simply can’t tell who are the heroes and who are the villains! This veneer of verisimilitude is a sugar-coated pill that makes it easier to swallow the usual silly fantasy trappings. It adds a pleasing complexity and helps to round out the characters, to bring them more alive. The stories remain an unfailing pleasure to read and re-read as a result.

Michael Moorcock has also written a seemingly open ended series of stories about Elric, the decadent, amoral albino Prince of Melniboné. They are more than a little repetitive and I find some them quite weak. But they do have elements of originality that again lift them head and shoulders above the competition. There is the sub text of the battles between Chaos and Law (I think Moorcock was one of the first writers to articulate this explicitly though it is hinted at in many other works), and there is the delightful conceit of the multiverse and the whole mythology of the Eternal Champion. Again all these aspects flesh out the banalities that occupy the foreground giving the stories great subtleties and depths. Like all the best icebergs, nine tenths is hidden beneath the surface of the water.

Tolkien himself epitomises the cliché. The Lord of the Rings is enormously fat, was originally published in three volumes, is set in a pseudo-medieval world, is morally extremely simple (not to say simple minded) in that the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and many problems are solved with violence. But again there are depths that overcome the caricatures. The background mythology is probably the most completely realised and completely thought out mythology in the whole of the genre. The linguistic invention that was the original force that drove Tolkien to compose the epic is a strong and solid underpinning. And Tolkien was not blind to the black and white picture he was drawing and he did introduce shades of grey where he could. Both Boromir and Saruman, for example, have crises of conscience and can be regarded as both heroes and villains. Even Aragorn has his tempers, his moments of weakness. And the climactic scenes on Mount Doom depend for their effect on the weakness of both spirit and flesh that Frodo fails to overcome (thus giving Gollum the chance to be an authentic, though somewhat ambiguous hero).

I think we can deduce from these examples that the form itself is certainly not flawed. It is perfectly possible to work within the framework, to accept the superficialities and transcend them. Regrettably the trash fantasists tend not to bother. Why bother to exert yourself when you’ve got a captive audience of gnats? Just pump out the same old stuff every time. The gnats won’t mind.

Perhaps we can actually get rid of the authors completely. Given that the stories are so extremely formulaic perhaps we can reduce them to a simple algorithm and program a computer to write them for us at the push of a button. Dave Langford (one of the co-editors of both the SF and the Fantasy Encyclopaedias) mis-spent much of his youth attempting to persuade a university computer to write stories in the style of H. P. Lovecraft. By all accounts, the computer eventually became really quite good at it. Perhaps it is time to resurrect the program and add a few more writing styles. Or maybe that has already been done…

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