Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?

More Bankers, Fewer Peasants

A great development in recent fantasy is the inclusion of banks and bankers. I can’t remember encountering a bank in a fantasy novel before, say, 2005. (Anyone want to jump on this and prove me wrong?) Now they’re all over the place. Joe Abercrombie has Valint and Balk, George R. R. Martin, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and Daniel Abraham, in The Dragon’s Path, the Medean Bank, which is crucial to a lot of the action.

This proliferation of banks is a great reminder of how attenuated the available cast of fantasy characters can become. We have the peasants prodding patiently at the mud, knights who have swords with names, disgraced knights, disgraced knights pretending to be peasants, noble knights who are not actually disgraced but need to pretend to be peasants for some plot consideration or other, merchants, tavern keepers, inn keepers, beleaguered farmers, rich farmers, whores, courtesans, various sorts of nobility, barbarians (in hordes or singly), prelates, priests, and monks (often disreputable or alcoholic), and craftspeople responsible for an array of commodities such as baskets and horseshoes. Pretty similar, actually, to the list of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That’s about it.

I understand, of course, that the idiom of most epic fantasy is pre-industrial, that the proliferation of vocations and avocations available those of us in the modern first world does not exist in that setting: there are no psychic hotline specialists, or app developers, or zumba instructors, or creators of new deodorant scents. Frequent famine, limitations on long-distance trade, inadequate markets and economic systems, as well as the brutal effects of war tended to limit options.

That said, we writers of fantasy sometimes take a limited set of options and whittle it down even further. I’m forever sticking merchants or beggars into my text before reminding myself that there are other options. Lots of other options. In the ancient and medieval west we would have found painters, illuminators of manuscripts, architects, composers, cartographers, engineers, midwives, translators, shipwrights, and tutors. If we venture from benighted Europe and head east of the Himalayas for our models, we find an even richer diversity upon which to draw. There were more types of craftsmen in Tang China because there were more types of craft: makers of porcelain or keepers of silkworms. Pressers of paper. Builders of clocks. There were astronomers and doctors and creators of all manner of cosmetics.

Clearly we, as readers of fantasy, might not find the same fascination with a grower of silkworms that we would with an invincible barbarian warrior. Violence sells, sex sells, politics sells, but the engineer devoted to constructing that armillary sphere? Maybe not so much. As for the peasants? Well, there were a shitload of them.

Nonetheless, I’m encouraged when I consider the true array of options available, and delighted every time I come across that unexpected yet utterly appropriate character: a judge, a glazier, or, yes, a banker. I wonder what professions, fields, or lifestyles I’ve left out? Anyone with thoughts on writers who are particularly effective in pushing past the boundaries of stock fantasy types?

The Little Fat One; Free Indirect Style in Fantasy

The choice of point-of-view is one of the first and most fundamental that a writer faces, and one of the most common choices I see in fantasy today is some form of third person limited. This isn’t, of course, the only way to do things, but it has grown so prevalent that I think it’s worth taking a quick look at some of the opportunities and dangers.

First, some definitions. James Wood, in his excellent book How Fiction Works lays out the groundwork:

“So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking or speaking […] this is called ‘free indirect style.’

“Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself – between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.”

Woods provides an invented example of free indirect style:“He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?” Then he explains, “The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character’s own words.”

We can find this sort of thing all over the place in fantasy. An Arya chapter, for instance, in Martin’s Game of Thrones:

“Sansa got to sit with [Prince Joffrey] at the feast. Arya had to sit with the little fat one. Naturally.”

Clearly, both the phrase “little fat one” and that single word, “naturally,” are Arya’s words. Martin cedes his narrative prerogative to his character, allowing a child’s imprecision – “little fat one” – to replace his own keen eye in order to develop the voice, and thereby the mind of his POV character.

There are, however, some technical difficulties when writing in free indirect style, perhaps chief among them, the inability to convey facts or matters beyond the ken of the POV character. If Martin, for instance, wanted to narrate a battle scene in an Arya chapter, one in which he hoped to explore tactics and strategy, he would find himself at an impasse: either he ruptures the consistency of Arya’s voice in order to include the necessary military terminology and observations, or he sacrifices the precision of his description to keep her language woven through his own.

It’s possible to flex the boundaries, of course. As Woods points out, the omniscient voice of the author is never entirely obliterated. If it were, we’d be in the realm of first person rather than third person. When Bran (again in Martin’s novel), seven years old, observes his father “peel” off his gloves, we suspect the verb belongs to Martin rather than his character. This, however, is a minor departure from Bran’s voice.

What happens when the writer needs to do something more drastic?

I came across a skillful passage recently in Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path. He was in a bit of a bind, evidently wanting to open his chapter with a wide-ranging overview of the role of coffee shops in the world. Unfortunately for him, his POV character (for this particular chapter) is a naïve young woman with limited experience of the world. Ergo, she doesn’t have either the experience or even, perhaps, the idiom necessary to be a plausible vehicle for the description he needs to convey. He begins the chapter as follows:

“Coffee houses had always had a place in the business of business. In the cold ports of Stollbourne and Rukkyupal, merchants and sea captains hunched over the tiled tables and warmed mittened hands with steaming cups as they watched the winter sun set at midday. Beside the wide, moonlit waters of the Miwaji, the nomadic Southling pods sipped cups of something hardly thinner than mud…”

I found myself calling, “Bullshit!” by the middle of the second sentence. Cithrin hasn’t been to any of these places. She doesn’t know the Miwaji from a bucket of piss. The fabric of her narrative voice seemed badly twisted, but then, at the start of the second paragraph, Abraham turns it on its head: “Or at least that was the way Magister Imaniel had told it. Cithrin had never been outside Vanai.”

This is a wonderful little narrative moment. Suddenly we find ourselves two layers deep, overhearing the voice of a young girl who is herself remembering the voice of her much more experience mentor. It is psychologically plausible, and Abraham has created the narrative distance necessary to give the reader a sweeping overview of his invented world, an opportunity that Cithrin’s voice alone did not afford him.

When you start looking out for them, there are all sorts of problems and clever solutions presented by point of view choices. I’d love to hear from others about similar successes, or experience wrestling with the same sort of problems.