This is an all fantasy topics post. Okay I want to make one general comparison between fantasy and sci-fi, but only to illustrate something about fantasy more effectively. We could call this post “exploring themes of fantasy writing.”
So I’m not a fantasy writer. Other than writing a fan piece involving hobbits in high school because I was so desperate to find more Tolkien (I can still recite the mortal and elfin ancestry of Elrond from rote- Galadriel is Elrond’s Fourth cousin once removed). Other than that I just don’t have much of a writing background in it. But boy do I have reading background. I’ve plied through every one of Rob Howard’s Conan novels and their degenerate imitators. I read the full oeuvre of Tolkien and that work’s really, really degenerate imitators. Those stacks and stacks of franchised TSR, D&D based, 250-325 page paperbacks that got nine shelves in the back of the local mall Walden Books? Yeah. Nearly every single one. Thank the bump in the night that I turned sixteen and inherited an old truck. And as a squid as my witness I’m even thankful that I was afraid of being judged by my college friends and forced myself to read a big ol’ hunk of the western canon so I could hold my own in those erudite conversations that we would have over a case of Falls City beer. I never stopped reading science fiction during all that. Let’s be honest, science fiction has a certain intellectual credibility that fantasy lacks. The sci-fi pantheon has a few dozen members with many a great achievement under their belts (yeah, Arthur C. Clarke, that’s that guy to presaged the geosynchronous satellite and discovered a vast sunken Mughal treasure in the shark infested waters off the ghost of Bengal). Fantasy has Tolkien.
Okay so Tolkien did write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Those are nothing to sneeze at. He also wrote the definition for Walrus when he worked for the OED in his youth (he later returned for a one word definition assignment for the word Hobbit, which is kind of sweet). Other than that, fantasy has many masters, but few legends. Enter George R. Martin.
George R. Martin, from my point of view, is the greatest fantasist to ever write. Yes, he is better than Tolkien. His writing is better than Tolkien. His mythos is more compelling than Tolkien’s. Why? Because the story is not driven by magic, there are no elves walking around and nobody is safe. Martin’s is the first fantasy writer to write real world fantasy. A character in his world sees a guy shoot fire out his butt that character is going to freak out just like you or me. Well, me anyway- I don’t know what your life is like.
So enough of that. Martin brought me back around to Fantasy, or at least his fantasy, and now that we have established that here is how a certain world view of fantasy assumes that the trees you have in your landscaping are degenerates.
Strong Time: Strong time is a given in 99% of all fantasy writing. It is also a given in 99% of world religion- wait… sorry, I was already talking about fantasy so we’re good (editor’s note: that other 1% of religion is referring to the one true religion… go ahead, guess which one). Strong Time is best illustrated by the Greeks. They divided up time into five ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, Iron. How this makes any sense is one of those transubstantiation type mysteries, but needless to say in the first, the Golden Age, men lived with, and were in most ways like, the gods. Tolkien uses a similar schemata. In nearly every work of fantasy
their are direct or veiled references to a time when power and craft were nearer at hand. The greatest battles, the most terrifying spells, the most wondrous devices always have their roots in a time that is dim in memory and rich in myth. The garden of Eden is followed by generations of men that are enumerated as living for hundreds of years. A priest in the temple reading the scrolls of generations must have looked at these ages and wondered what kind of age was it, where people wrestled angels and the world was drowned by god. Fantasy, like mythology, assumes a greater era that we live in the shadow of. It is a theme and very, very often, it is a plot device. In Lovecraft, the Strong Time was a nightmare era of human beings as cattle for cosmic horrors and infinite might. In Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of (you ran out of) Time, humanity existed as harmonious masters of all creation until hubris arranges a nice dinner date with nemesis. Everything is better in the Strong Time. Everything that remains is a shadow of its former versions. The trees are smaller and weaker. The heroes are just barely up to the task of fighting those weak-ass skinks we dare call dragons. One little book, or ring, or rod, or sword finds its way from Strong Time to present day and all shit hits the fan: ask Frodo, or Arthur, or that really effeminate prince guy from Krull.
This is where I want to draw a basic (and very general) distinction with most (but not all) science fiction. Much of science fiction envisions a sort of Inverse
Strong Time. Put more simply, “Have to believe it’s getting better, getting better all the time.” Science fiction, especially golden age stuff, really has envisioned a future where humanity has improved its mastery of the physical environment. It looked towards a near constant building of technical and social complexity. And we should say “complexity,” because the moral valuations of the inevitable growth of humanity and its technology were seldom ever clear in sci-fi writing after the bomb. I could explore this more, but I promised I wouldn’t. There are exceptions- post apocalyptic jazz and a what not, but back to fantasy.
Where was I? Oh, yeah- skinny jeans. Man am I glad that didn’t come back around until I had retired from bathing and non-elastic clothing.
And fantasy. Where does this leave us? What are the implications for a writer of fantasy? While discussing this post with a friend of mine he brought up the point of, “what the hell does it matter?” Good point and luckily one that I am happy to ignore because of the Epcot picture. I don’t think as a convention that it need necessarily needs to be abandoned. In the realm of fantasy the ability to create atmosphere is so important, more important than in science fiction, because you are starting from a place that is outside the realm of even the remotely possible. The galactic federation- far fetched but who can say? The Faerie king that lives in your closet which doubles as a doorway to Shangfalla- ain’t ever going to happen. You are not giving the reader even the bait of the possible, so you got to make up for it with damn fine writing.
A lot of sci-fi readers are really just hypothetical gaget geeks. They’re one step removed from the collector of all the latest shock molded offering from Apple (that step is usually money). Fantasy won’t let you speculate beyond the boundaries of its own sub-creation and is often telling a story with no assumed history for the reader to fill in the blanks with. For these reasons and many others, the writer of many forms of fantasy has to be softer, more subtle and generally more literary and astute than any other genre fiction writer.
So Strong Time in a nutshell. The term “Strong Time” does not belong to me I picked it up from a lecture by Dr. Thomas Van on Central American culture. I have never forgotten it. I also reached to far for a handout that day and fell out of my desk at the feet of a girl I was trying to impress. I’ve never forgotten that either.
I Want to thank Jason Stoddard again for the fine interview. I noticed that he was interviewed again by SF Signal very shortly after that. So to the wonderful people at SF Signal I will say only:
Do you guys need to hire anybody? Cause, like, I’m available.
That is the Science of Fiction!
Next up: I am going to try to force and old friend to talk about her work….and she ain’t gonna want to do that! ‘-‘ you know who you are.