Fantasy’s Apocalyptic Turn
posted by Dave Hoffman
[To our regular readers. This post falls largely in "the Universe, and Everything” aspect of Concurring Opinions' topic mix. It is going on summer, and I thought that you might enjoy a review of some fiction in case you get to the beach. Plus, I’m tired of packing]
Hi, my name is Dave, and I read epic fantasy books. In my defense, other other corporate law professors do it too. But it is still sort of hard to be a public fan of a genre that produces badly written tripe on a regular basis, serialized over multiple volumes in an apparent attempt to squeeze every last cent out of the fan base, recycling old themes over the course of many new “worlds”, which is sometimes just plain embarrassing to buy in a store. It’s no help that the “literary” writers in the genre are pretentious and extremely difficult to read. If I wanted dialog without attribution, I’d read A Frolic of His Own. At least it is about law.
Still, I consume a fair bit of this stuff over the course of the year. And I’ve noticed that authors in recent years have taken a real turn for the darker shades of grey. On the whole, this is a good thing. Adult themes mean better writing, which legitimizes my reading. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is the best and most popular example of the trend. Martin’s method is to drive the story forward through the eyes of multiple protagonists. The novelty (for fantasy, that is) is that he regularly kills off these starring characters. There is pretty graphic sex and violence. He also refuses to make any character totally good or totally evil; almost every member of the cast is tarnished. The magic in the series is mostly an afterthought to character development and politics.
In retrospect, however, Martin’s series has started to feel like a medieval version of Tintin compared to his competitors. Recent series by Steven Erickson, R. Scott Baker and J. Gregory Keyes have ratcheted up the levels of gore, violence, cultural immersion, sex, and strategy to levels that were largely unimaginable in earlier works. These authors may be part of an emerging “hard fantasy” movement that corresponds loosely to the “hard sci-fi” movement. The premises of hard fantasy seem to be: internal consistency in the use of magic; deep research into the cultures the book introduces; realism in mundane aspects of living (an army requires food); and an acceptance that societies usually evolve.
These are nice concepts, but they’ve produced very difficult and grim works. Erickson’s series (seven books completed out of ten) is astonishingly complex and rich. It is also unrelentingly dark – involving tens of thousands of deaths – usually each book – and morbid dialogue that starts as chilling but ends up leaving me feel rather jaded. His most recent book is the first fantasy book in a long, long time that I simply couldn’t get through. Notably, its flaws are distinct from that of the last series I put down. (i.e., Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, an unhealthy combination of high fantasy with Ayn Rand, with emphasis on her sadomasochism.) No, Erickson’s books are just exhausting. Go ahead, read this description of the universe he created, and tell me that you would look forward to keeping all that in your head after a long day grading exams.
And then we come to Baker’s Warrior Prophet Books. There are three to date, of an expected six. They are not for the faint of heart. Baker’s bio sets up the problem nicely:
In 1986 he left the countryside to attend the University of Western Ontario, where he graduated top of his class in English Language and Literature. After completing a two-year MA in Theory and Criticism, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. In the winter of 2000, he moved back to London, Ontario, to complete his dissertation, which is entitled Truth and Context. He lives there still with his fiancee (and partner of twelve years), Sharron, and their cat, Scully.
Given this introduction, it isn’t surprising that hundreds of pages in the books are given over to instruction in moral philosophy (disguised as a magical system). The philosophy teacher’s humiliation over the course of the series by his student makes you wonder about the relationship between Baker and his adviser at Vandy. (In that light, consider that the learner, Anasürimbor Kellhus, is a Jesus figure who is eventually worshiped by a holy Crusade. Gosh, Scott, was that dissertation that much of a cross to bear?) Like Erickson, Baker is drawn to huge battles where tens of thousands of largely faceless folks die. I’ll admit, it is gripping stuff, and there are scenes that are both visually astounding and glorious. In that way, at its best, it calls Tolkein to mind. And, like Tolkein, there are too many names stuffed on each page that are not essential to the story. I get it, the author has done research, and he wants us to know about it. But isn’t that what literary executors are for?
I don’t mean to make this all sound so grim. Indeed, these latest hard fantasy forays are significantly better than most of what came before, and most of what’s on the shelves at the moment. (But see these recent interesting series ). It’s just that when you stack these books together, the project of reading fantasy stops looking like escapism and starts to look more like social commentary. Apocalypse is a omnipresent in modern hard fantasy. This apocolyptic theme differs from previous works’ emphasis on prophecied end times in that there is often no one hero who will save the day and in that hard fantasy seems to relish a close examination of the social consequences of the loss of order. The authors seem to want their worlds to go down the tubes. (Down this path, the relationship between high fantasy and the enormously popular end-times premillennial fiction is something worth thinking about.)
It is tempting to attribute this turn to current events, and especially the war on terror. Both Baker and Erickson portray disastrous, bloody, campaigns by forces of “our guys” in a desert, against hordes of enemies who appear to have little concern for the value of life. But I think that it is driven by deeper market forces. Fantasy, after all, is one of the few growth areas for modern fiction. The resulting glut in titles has driven authors – particularly those who a few years ago would never had dreamed of writing these kinds of stories – to try to differentiate themselves. One obvious niche to be filled is hard-fantasy, just as hard-sci-fi supplemented Asimov decades ago. But that leaves unanswered the question of why fantasy books are surging while the rest of fiction is not. When Rowling’s Deathly Hallows drops in July, bookstore managers everywhere will start counting their year-end bonuses. Why?
Finally, it is worth briefly thinking about the relationship between epic fantasy and law. Although the legal aspects of fantasy role playing games are now well-marked out, there has been little work (outside of the Potterverse) on how fantasy authors imagine legal rules’ role in society. If epic fantasy is read largely by adolescent boys, this missing attention makes a great deal of sense. You don’t see law review articles about Maxim. But, if fantasy, or hard fantasy, has become a literature for the rest of the population, it is worth thinking about the complete and total absence of civil law in these books, and the light touch of criminal law more generally. Is it impossible to imagine lawsuits and magic coexisting in the same society?
Well, that is about all on this topic from me. Are you folks reading any decent fantasy these days?
Image Source: Paolo Uccello, via Wikipedia.