Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ditching the magic

Though there are honourable exceptions, in general, fantasy is the genre for which I have the least patience. Well, the exceptions would be T.H. White's Once and Future King series - which, as books intended primarily for children, were largely absolved of any burden of plausibility, and which were brilliantly witty reimaginings of familiar ancient folklore. I don't know of anyone else who's come close to pulling that off, and I don't think anyone should try. Well, I imagine The Princess Bride would be in the same category, but I only know Rob Reiner's fabulous film version of the William Goldman novel.

It's principally the magic that pisses me off in fantasy books. I don't see any charm in it, and as soon as magical elements are introduced, my suspension of disbelief collapses. It's an affectation that brings the contrivances of the plot rather too obtrusively to the reader's attention, and so severs engagement with the story. Once you've got talking cats and flying broomsticks and whatnot, the realism evaporates - and I just don't care about the characters any more. (I have dipped into George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, which seems to be mercifully magic-free; but it's self-indulgently overlong, completely unwieldy - and not very well written.)

And it's such a lazy plot device. I find the existence of magic actually tends to dissipate tension, because you know that in a story with magic in it, some new and unsuspected thing can always be invented to get the protagonists out of any difficulty. Hero comes to unfordable river. It would be more interesting to have him turn back in despair to search for another route, or to risk his life attempting to swim across. In fantasy, it's more likely that a friendly naiad he helped earlier will suddenly appear to part the waters for him. Yawn.

But I think magic is just the most egregious aspect of a more general weakness with the fantasy genre: the obsession with making everything up, with creating an entire world out of the imagination, strains not only the reader's credulity but his attention span. It just gets overwhelming, it becomes impossible to keep track of everything - and so, for me, it becomes tiresome and unengaging. 

Many people - the writers and fans of the genre - seem convinced that this world-making is somehow 'clever'. It isn't. It's a cop-out, an easy route. It's far more demanding - and far more satisfying - to create a compelling story grounded in our actual experience of the world. And when we do that, our focus is intently on the story and the characters, not on the background; with fantasy, I fear, establishing the infrastructure of the story becomes such a dominant concern that characterization tends to take a backseat (Tolkien is terrible at it). 

I also find this plethora of background detail bothersomely distracting. With a real world setting, we don't need to be given much - or ANY - background detail, because we already know what that detail is going to be (I loathe extended description, particularly of locale). I am also - compulsive nitpicker that I am - continually bothered by questions of plausibility (and I don't think I'm alone in this; we are all nitpickers to some extent): with a fantasy setting, we are constantly pausing to ponder "But wait! How does that work, in relation to...? And if that, then what about this...?" We don't have this problem with the real world, because we know everything in the real world works. It is difficult - just about impossible - to create from scratch an entire universe that is completely plausible and self-consistent. And it is a fool's errand to attempt it.


I have occasionally pondered addressing my dissatisfactions with the fantasy genre (and perhaps persuading myself that I am mistaken!) by attempting to write something in this style myself. I have decided that if I did so (unlikely!), there would be a minimum of 'world-making', and no magical elements at all (not even any wondrous creatures). The world would be recognisably like our own, a kind of alternate Earth whose history and technology closely paralleled our own, but whose differences might throw some satiric light on the real world. It would also be something of a satire on the fantasy genre, with typical conventions and expectations constantly confounded, and supposed magic invariably debunked by rational humanism, exposed as superstition and delusion.

I began playing with these ideas in some detail nearly a year ago. My principal fascination was with the idea of The Quest - and I wondered how many different stories I could create with that theme. Since it seems to be de rigueur with fantasy that the stories should be MASSIVE, often spilling over into long - perhaps open-ended - series, I came up with an outline for a cycle of stories about a family who become known as The Questers, one of whom, every few generations, is pressured into undertaking some hazardous mission on behalf of his country.

My initial idea was to recast the story archetype of the Dragon-Slayer. It occurred to me that a plausible origin for a dragon myth might be a large, dangerous, elusive, reptilian creature that began killing people near a lake. Sounds a bit like a crocodile, yes? Well, it does to us, because we know what a crocodile is. For people who have never heard of or imagined such a thing, it would be utterly terrifying. People who have no concept of a large amphibian that could hide in the water might naturally suppose that this elusive predator must be able to fly. (The major challenge with telling a story like this is to tread that line between the protagonists' continuing incomprehension and the reader's dawning awareness of what is probably going on.) But how would a giant crocodile reach northern climes? Well, we don't need to know in detail. We can imagine that perhaps someone on a merchant ship might have brought a baby one back as a pet; and that then, escaping into the wild, with no competition for food, it would grow to enormous size; and only in old age, when it had become slow and cranky, might it turn to attacking humans. So, the concept was that one man - and subsequently all his male descendants - became cursed with the mantle of 'hero' through happening to be the one to find and kill this maneating beast. 

But that wasn't enough of a Quest. A Quest requires a journey, and the seeking of some hidden knowledge or object... and, perhaps, the discovery of some deeper truth, quite different from that which you were hoping to find. The second phase of this opening story thus became the hero's desire to understand what this beast had been and where it had come from, and to seek to ensure that his community would never be troubled by its like again. His enquiries reveal - perhaps through the merchant who originally brought the beast north? - that the home of these dragons is in a land far to the south. Naively imagining - in the way of these primitive legends - that there is perhaps only one family of these beasts, one Ur-Mother who begets them all, he sets off in search of these monsters' homeland. And the revelation he eventually attains is that these creatures in their native habitat are, of course, far too numerous to kill; but also, not all that dangerous; and, above all, not monstrous or magical, but just another type of common natural animal that had simply been unknown to his people.

I toyed with several other possible quest ideas, where an apparently magical scenario would be found to have a rational explanation: a 'theft of the sky' by dark clouds found to be smoke from a massive fire (perhaps caused by a Tunguska-like meteorite strike), a legendary healing talisman in fact just a rare medicinal herb, and so on.

But I wanted an overarching story, to give some continuity over a projected very long series of books (I was getting interested in a 'generations' story that would chart the social and technological development of my invented world from - in real world terms - the Dark Ages to the 19th century). And so, I hit upon the Key to All Knowledge as my ultimate Quest Object. This legendary item, again originally conceived of by the protagonists as being an object of magical power, is in fact found to be a real key - the key to a hidden underground vault housing a massive library, the accumulated knowledge of a (recently) vanished civilization, somewhat like the Roman Empire. But, as the aged gatekeeper who reveals this treasure to our Quester cryptically tells us, this is but a false key, The Key That Is Not The Key. The True Key lies elsewhere. The problem with this great trove of ancient wisdom is that the language it is written in has been lost in the sudden destruction of the civilization which created the library. The True Key will be a surviving native speaker, or a Rosetta Stone-like parallel translation with a known language that may enable scholars to start deciphering what is written in these tens of thousands of books.

Alas, it will take over a 1,000 years before such a translation key is found. By which time, the majority of the books have faded or crumbled. And most of those that yet survive are found to be bawdy verse. But dozens of Questers have had lots of spiffing incidental adventures while seeking The Key all those years!

What do you think? Would I be able to sell this concept to a publisher??

[This all came to me - well, the Lost Library storyline - in a dream. A very detailed dream, too. It was at a time when I had been thinking about the mechanics of this story quite a bit. And I was suffering from a winter cold that was deranging my sleep, making me a little feverish. Odd, the sources of our inspiration, eh?]

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