Provocative title, right? I have been doing a lot of thinking about the fantasy genre, its roots, responsibilities, and why I have been increasingly disappointed with what it has to offer in recent years. I am not claiming to have access to any universal truths here, these are just my observations based on spending way too much time reading and writing fantasy.
What Fantasy Is
Fantasy, as well as all genre fiction, is in its infancy compared to the venerable craft of novel writing or to the eternal poem. Though there were writers of note producing fantasy and speculative fiction before Tolkien — Howard, Burroughs, Lovecraft — it is without doubt that Tolkien was responsible for solidifying the genre and sparking the imaginations of thousands of future fantasy writers. All fantasists owe a debt to Tolkien both for his unique vision of the world and his beautiful and masterfully crafted novels. You’ll be hard pressed to find a fantasy novel that doesn’t deal with Tolkienesque themes of good and evil, loss of innocence, and the corrupting influence of technology, or one that doesn’t contain at least one sweeping, verbose description of travel or the countryside.
Fantasy covers everything from grand doorstopper epics to pulpy teen vampire novels, but the thing that unites it all is the existence of magic or heavy influence from the supernatural — obviously, this leaves a lot of room for overlap with horror and science fiction (causing some people to lump them all together into speculative fiction), but fantasy is a bit like ‘obscenity’ in that famous Supreme Court case — you know it when you see it. Despite the fact that it shares a shelf with sci-fi/horror, there are some distinct and troubling distinctions.
What Fantasy Is Not
Even though fantasy is frequently lumped in with science fiction, there are — in my mind — some notable differences, and they can help illustrate what it is I am frustrated with about fantasy. Science fiction also doesn’t have any sort of rigorous definition, and can loosely be thought of as the same sort of fiction as fantasy with technology standing in for magic. That being said, science fiction authors have taken it upon themselves over the past century to use the medium to ask difficult questions, explore the ramifications of technology on society, and to help raise awareness of present and future issues. Whether it is Orwell writing about totalitarianism, William Gibson coining the phrase ‘cyberspace’, or Phillip K. Dick dealing with drug use, consciousness, and morality, science fiction has a robust history of trying to tell stories that matter.
Not that I am advocating tedious moralizing — we don’t need any more Animal Farms or Anthems, no matter how science fiction might lend itself to them. I am just saying that fiction is a powerful tool for social change, awareness, and exploration of ideas. Science fiction authors have shouldered this mantle gladly. Fantasy authors have not.
Where Fantasy Fails its Readers
In our consumption driven world, all media is in danger of succumbing to lazy tropes and patterns — people are always going to gravitate toward the safe sell. But, in my opinion, no genre is more unwilling to take risks or break from traditional molds than fantasy. Yes, there are notable exceptions — Mieville, LeGuinn, and Hobb come to mind — but the biggest names in fantasy, your Sandersons, your Goodkinds, your Butchers, are either unwilling or unable to innovate in meaningful ways. They build awesome, vastly complex worlds with deeply involved magic systems, but continue to have social structures that look very much like Medieval European nobility. These books might have completely unique fantasy creatures, wildly unique characters, and cultural norms that are meant to appear strange and foreign to us, but this is all cosmetic — the core social structures and functions remain familiar. Worst of all is that their books, while well written and engaging, tend to feed upon each other, creating a culture of sameness filled with in-jokes and pandering. I think that this may be in part due to the unprecedented access that fans now have to their authors through social media, but it could be simple market forces or a lack of pressure to be imaginative or develop new ideas.
Living Up to the Promise of Fantasy
I will concede that when compared to science fiction, which has less of an entrenched canon, it is somewhat more challenging to break from the tropes of fantasy — sacred cows like powerful, obvious magic, the bildungsroman, mentor figures, quests, supreme evil, that sort of thing — but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. As much as science fiction can be a lens to understand the present through a fantastic future, fantasy could be a tool for understanding the present through a fantastic, fictional past.
Vast swathes of human experience remain unexplored by fantasy — not just cultures that are grossly underrepresented, like indigenous societies of all stripes, African kingdoms, and non-fetishized Asian empires, but also civilizational and societal structures that are rare in history, but could be explored beautifully in speculative fiction. Many fantasy books contain purely female societies or organizations, but few genuinely explore true matriarchies. Why do we have thousands of fantasy novels with knights and kings but so few that feature societies run like merchant republics, the Polish Sejm, tribal confederacies, grand Chinese-style bureaucracies, or any number of other pre-modern, non-western governmental structures? These are just examples that have actually occurred in history that could be tapped to create more engaging, livelier, and more meaningful fantasy — it doesn’t even cover invented or purely theoretical ideas about culture or society.
I suspect that some of this has to do with gross inadequacies in historical education, but I am unwilling to give fantasy authors — or fantasy readers, who are largely responsible for the state of the industry — a free pass. I am aware that there are examples of writers who continue to break the mold, but it is clear that the field as a whole is dominated by the same uninspired shlock. It is time that the genre took its legacy seriously and started capitalizing on the potential that there is in fantasy for creating truly powerful, meaningful literature.