So, here’s a bit of ancient history – couple of years ago, a charming ex-cage fighter (no, really, he is) called Marc Aplin asked me to contribute an article to an anthology his website, Fantasy Faction, were putting out. Having met Marc previously and been charmed, I was happy to oblige. So I fired up my current set of gripes about the genre, banged out a rant, sanded it down to something a little less raw, a little more considered, and sent it right over.
The Fantasy Faction Anthology duly came out to much acclaim, sold exclusively from the FF website, and seems to have done rather well. And as of this month, you can now get the very same volume for Kindle. And since the Kindle preview includes the entire text of my article, there seems no harm in reproducing it here for your delectation, along with a mild nudge in the direction of buying the anthology if you haven’t already – it’s stuffed full of contributions from fantasy genre luminaries, and me, and some gutsy absolute beginners besides; it is the work of true enthusiasts at every level and you owe it to yourselves to take a look.
Meantime – enjoy:
In the end, we’re conjurors.
Magicians of stage or street, depending, perhaps, on how venerable and well-appointed the furniture of our act turns out to be. Mr Tolkien, now – he’s an old-school stage gent, with his intricately painted hardwood cabinets and baroque mirrors bought at great cost from Venice; snow white doves, a beautiful assistant or two, Toledo blades that glimmer in the low theatre lights; velvet curtains, cape and top hat, the whole nine yards. Mr Harrison, on the other hand, is pure street, and wouldn’t give you a thank-you for all those trappings. With him it’s all out of a box on the cobbles at his feet. It’s the flick of a wrist and the flicker of an eye, grubby cards and pigeons exploding from his sleeves, flames out of nowhere, and there! – look! – his head is gone!
Whether you prefer the former arena or the latter, thrills there are to be had, and stunning displays of craft. But still – in the end, we’re just conjurors. We’re here to make you believe in another country, one that has no existence outside our heads; to make you weep and dread for characters that are not real. We’re here to sell you strictly ephemeral shit, magic you know has no basis in reality, and yet, and yet……..
If the trick is good, for the duration of our act, you find yourself caught up in it all. The house lights go down, the crowd gathers in the street, and wonder settles across us all like fairy dust. This is what we came to see, this is what we’ve paid to feel; this is the ticket we bought and the contract we’ve made in buying it.
So what’s with that carping voice at the back? The voice bitching that it must be a trick cabinet, because it’s simply not possible for a person to be spirited invisibly from one side of the stage to the other. The rubbernecker at the edge of the crowd, shouting that it’s a different card he tore up, he swapped them when you weren’t looking, because no-one can magically stick sixteen pieces of shredded pasteboard back together again and make them whole.
Shit, pal – we all know that. Shut the fuck up, why don’t you, and let the rest of us enjoy the act.
Conjuring a convincing fiction requires a good deal of work and stagecraft – some are better at it than others (and some, let’s be honest, are truly awful). But it also requires the engagement of the audience on agreed terms. We ask you to suspend your disbelief, so that we may entertain you. Without that pact, it doesn’t matter how polished the performance, how flawless the execution – the act is going to fail for you. The bargain is implicit, but it’s there nonetheless. We all know magic isn’t real – but it takes a real miss-the-point yahoo to barge into a magician’s act and start stating the fact in a loud, declamatory voice.
And yet, there are those who not only do exactly that, but who also seem to derive a perverse delight from it – a species of audience member for whom the whole point is not to enjoy the act, but to beat it somehow. An encroaching mindset that’s in real danger of spoiling all the fun.
Like we needed any more of that.
It’s not enough that those outside the genre generally look on with a kind of avuncular contempt – dragons, demons, magic, I just can’t take that stuff seriously (but I’ll believe in a detective who deals with a grisly new headline-grabbing serial killer every year of his career, year in, year out; I’ll believe in a murdered girl who goes to heaven and watches her grieving family from the afterlife; I’ll believe in a Scottish nobleman put up to murder the rightful king by three witches – yeah, that all feels pretty realistic). Yeah, yeah – old news. But worse than that, it now seems we also have to contend, within the fantasy field, with a kind of OCD border patrol. The spec fic blogosphere resounds with nit-picking complaints about unrealistic portrayals of pseudo-medieval societies, and twitchy concerns about whether a fiction even is fantasy or whether it’s really some illicit SF sneaking over the border there (and, conversely, whether some rogue fantasy novel has unjustly made off with a prize reserved for pureblood SF).
Suddenly, categorisation is king. Historical fantasy, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy – reading for pleasure is out, obsessive list-making and category sorting, a sort of myopic possessive taxonomy, is in. Instead of discussing the actual quality of a novel, we settle for arguing about what kind of book it is; what other books it’s like; how it compares to something else we’ve already read, filed for cross-reference, made safe. A critical appreciation of a piece of fiction becomes a discussion about which box to put it in. Never mind how good it is (or isn’t) – where on the shelf does it belong?
At the same time, inside each pinned and catalogued sub-form, another form of obsessive possession kicks in – the quest to beat the book. The urge to resist the magic on offer, to not be wowed, to stay in charge. The hell with enjoying this ride – let’s own it, let’s beat it, let’s assert some control here. Let’s test-bed and find the faults. Look, he used the word “gunwale”, but it’s a pre-gunpowder society! Look, this is a pseudo-Islamic culture, but that girl doesn’t have a social network of female acquaintances the way Islamic women do! Look, they’ve got modern weapons technology, but they still fight with swords!
It’s not realistic!
Of course it’s not fucking realistic. It’s fantasy (or the finely tempered alloy of fantasy we are pleased to call science fiction). Let go, why don’t you.
Back when I first started reading in genre, more years ago than I really care to count up, I don’t recall there being any of these OCD boundary issues or myopic detail critique. What I do recall, though, with perfect clarity, is sitting on the rocks above a Scottish beach, aged about eleven or twelve, reading – devouring would probably be a better word – Michael Moorcock’s The Jewel in the Skull. Coming, as I had, directly from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I was blown away by the contrast. Compared with what had gone before, this stuff tasted dark and spicy and gooooood. That was all I cared about. I was in.
First in a swashbuckling quartet called The High History of the Runestaff, The Jewel in the Skull is classic sword and sorcery. It features a hero swordsman called Dorian von Hawkmoon with a black gemstone embedded in his skull, put there by the sorcerer-scientists of the brutal island empire Granbretan. The jewel is a kind of webcam, transmitting video footage of all Hawkmoon sees back to Granbretan, and can also be used to inflict great pain or even death if Hawkmoon disobeys his masters in any way. It cannot, however, transmit sound, and this enables –
Well, how ridiculous!
I mean – technology that advanced. How could they possibly fail to run a sound feed?
Funny how, back then, no-one reading fantasy worried about that sort of thing.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the armies of Granbretan, with their flame lances and ornithopters and all manner of weird, baroque weaponry, and how their battles of conquest are still being fought blade to blade by armies of men on foot and horseback.
No-one ever seemed to have any trouble with any of that either. No-one scurried around wondering if this was fantasy fiction or science fiction or science fantasy or…..
Of course there is, in any case, a certain amount of hand-waving in the Hawkmoon books to cover these incongruities – we are in a far future, the world is full of the ruins of previous advanced civilisations, the technology is more scavenged than invented, so forth –
Yeah, that. Good enough. I’m in. Turn the page.
In fact, you could also argue that outmoded tactics and mass slaughter with the advent of new weapons technology is a dynamic with a long and honourable tradition in the real world – cannon against cavalry in Crimea, machine guns against mass charges on the Somme, Blitzkreig in –
Oh, stop. Who cares? I’m reading here. Just turn the page, would you.
This is the salient point that the OCD mindset fails to grasp. It doesn’t matter how realistic a piece of fiction ends up, it matters how convincing it is. And those two concepts are not the same. Of course, realism can be a useful aid to conviction, but that misses the larger point. It misses the magic.
Convincing fiction is a trick, it’s sleight of hand. The real power to convince in any fiction lies with the writing itself, not the minutely detailed map or the info-dump back-up that screams I’ve done my medieval historical research, me. The conviction is in the pulse of the narrative, in the way the characters unfold, the way a line of dialogue comes across, the way a scene is lit with telling prose. It’s the evocation of the slightest things, the drip of a beer-keg tap in an empty tavern at dawn, the rasp of three day’s stubble on the fingers of a worn yellow leather gauntlet, the dusty furnace glare of the sun going down in fury on a desert city skyline. That’s the magic, that’s the trick that conjures the willing suspension of disbelief. And it can be deployed in any context at all, at whatever level of realism the author feels like using.
All it takes is the writing chops.
That’s why Steph Swainston can get away with a medieval context in which her hero wears a T-shirt, reads the daily paper and makes jokes about football scores. Writing chops – the dazzling magic of the performance. It’s how China Mieville gets away with women who are human female from the neck down but have an entire beetle body for a head. How Lauren Beukes and Philip Pullman sell you their respective takes on soul-bonded animal familiars. It’s why you can read Moorcock’s The Jewel in The Skull and not worry about all that conveniently archaic technology and the plot-helpful gaps in what it can do.
But you have to go with it. You have to let go.
If you’re going to sit there nit-picking about cavalry tactics in the presence of laser weapon technology, or how this or that medieval society was actually, you know, a lot less sexist than’s being portrayed in its analogue here, or where do these creatures actually come from, well – why bother? Why read fantasy at all? Go out and pick up some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – beautifully-observed realist story-telling that never once asks you to suspend any disbelief beyond the initial fact that you’re reading a piece of fiction, and sometimes – Jumping Monkey Hill comes to mind – not even that much. Or try some severely starched historical novel that enforces a strict veracity of milieu and action, something like Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander perhaps. Or you could play really safe and just stick to non-fiction altogether. Try biography, or popular science.
But if you’re sat there reading fantasy, trying to pigeon-hole and cross-reference, worrying about realism left, right and centre, then you’ve missed the point.
Fantasy – newsflash! – is not realistic, and nor is it amenable to constraint. Fantasy uses realism as its bitch. Fantasy is the flash/bang of light and smoke and mirrors, the swift, bright moment of magic at the heart of the trick. Fantasy takes from realism just enough to season the fictional mix, to give the story a necessary complexity of flavour, but the dish it serves up is spiced way beyond real. And that’s the way we like it, or we wouldn’t be eating in this particular restaurant. You don’t read Kelly Link’s The Faery Handbag or M. John Harrison’s The East because you’re seeking accurate portrayals of East European emigre life (though both stories will, like good poetry, offer you the fleeting savour of such a life). You don’t read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station because it accurately portrays the street-level horrors of Victorian-era industrialisation (though the echoes of that horror are clearly borrowed in). And you don’t read Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword because you want to know in detail what ninth century Danelaw England looked like (though Anderson renders both period and place with an unsentimental realist’s touch).
Good fantasy can, in fact, and often does echo real world concerns, sometimes far more powerfully than a strictly realist mode would allow. But it does so on its own terms. Those fleeting, stabbing insights into the emigre condition in The Faery Handbag and The East can ride in on the wings of metaphor made actual, ignoring any inconvenient need for specific detail and the limits it would impose. Something uniquely and universally human can be said. But none of it comes at any cost to the other, more spiced and mind-warping dynamics of the story. Similarly, there’s an implicit political critique buried in both Perdido Street Station and Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, but that’s where it stays – implicit. Meantime, explicit, here for your delectation are monsters, heroes and magic; the frisson of the uncanny; the shock of the flat-out cannot-be.
Fantasy storms in where other genres fear to tread, breaks the back of realism over its knee and renders the business of sensible parameters beside the point. In so doing, it gives you a feast of wonder like no other. Look! – a whole village hidden inside a handbag; a formal embassy of Hell in the heart of the city; baroque iron artillery that spews cauterising rays of fire; immortal amoral elves and a demonic broken sword. Jeff Vandermeer’s terrifying Stasi-esque mushroom men, Tim Powers’ hemogoblins. Steven Erikson’s T’lan Imass, Steph Swainston’s Tine. Dragons and dark lords, vampires and shape-shifters, cities and realms found on no real-world map (and – see Thomas Pynchon’s V for further reference – all the more alluring for their absence). Fantasy gives us creatures from the darkest reaches of the imagination, scenes of mythic power, dreams and nightmares made flesh. Things that could not possibly happen in the real world – but which you will believe in for the duration of the act, because the writing is strong enough to make you believe.
That’s the trip, that’s the ride.
(and for fuck’s sake, let go!).