Sunday 27 September 2015

Fantasy: What's new?

Modern fantasy has increasingly taken the war between good and evil away from elves and orcs, staging it instead within an individual's skull.

I am often asked by bloggers to offer words of 'wisdom' on the direction in which fantasy is heading. I refuse the question, like a horse before a ten-foot fence. I'm not a student of the genre - I read too few books to have a decent sample of what's going on. I'm not even sure that fantasy is heading in any discernible direction. It's more like a forest fire, advancing on many fronts, accelerating along some avenues only to burn out, sparks flying ahead to start new infernos in separate areas.

Any claim in this area can immediately be shot down with a barrage of counter-examples. The success of one type of fantasy doesn't mean that another is not still being written, not still being read.

However, my statement at the head of this piece seems to me to be broadly true. There seems to me to be an increasingly sophisticated approach to the ever-present goodies vs baddies theme. That certainly doesn't mean that you can't find books that did exactly this twenty or fifty years ago, or that you can't find a popular book published last month that pits the golden hero against the born-bad race. But on the other hand, it seems to me with my limited perspective to be one of the few generalizations you can make about the direction that the genre has been headed in and may well continue to head in. A generalization sharing the weaknesses inherent in generalizations (he generalized).


  1. Yes, this is spot on. I can see several interrelated reasons for this -- no doubt there are more, but a few seem particularly relevant to me.

    On one level, fantasy has always had the capacity to externalise the internal, literalise the figurative, concretise the abstract. But people these days are increasingly aware of how often society wrongly projects evil onto "others", which (at least for some readers) makes fantasy in this style rather more difficult to relate to. Increasingly, I think, externalised evil fails to ring true to the modern reader, whereas inner moral conflict provides the kind of grounding that can anchor other, more fantastical elements.

    On another level, there seems to be a clear move away from the often simplistic morality of traditional fantasy to a more complex (and, I would say, more realistic) approach to morality. In this regard, fantasy is probably just catching up to where a lot of other literature has been for some time.

    On yet another level, there's the rise of grimdark, which is clearly related to all this. There's plenty one could say on this point (and I tried to say some of it a while ago in a post about existential fantasy), but in short I think this is fantasy grappling with the loss of meaning that seems to pervade the modern world.

    And from yet another perspective, all of these levels are really just different angles on the same thing -- a bit like the blind men doing their best to puzzle out the elephant.

  2. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Mark Lawrence knows...

  3. I agree, people want their fantasy novels still grounded in reality, the day of pure heroes who never waver in their goodness is dying.

    The setting of a story and the plot can be as crazy as the authors imagination will allow but the characters must be realistic. Without this it is hard for the reader to identify with them or even care. Plus characters that have the single motive of good or evil are simplistic, predictable and therefore boring. There will be no suspense created when the hero always does the right thing without compromise.

    All characters have both evil and good within them, the balance between the two is what's key and determines their actions. Besides, "conflict" is the key to interesting stories and what better than inner conflict!