Okay, so the last article on Fantasy as a genre go sidetracked into a discussion about the varying degrees of ‘weird’ different fantasy works inhabit, but now we’re going to dig into the genre.
Remember when I was discussing the Superhero genre and how it was defined vs the general Speculative Fiction category? Fantasy is actually much, much harder to define than that. Sounds hard to believe, right? I mean, Sci-fi is the one with the space ships and fantasy is the one with the dragons, right?
No slick, not right. See, ‘Fantasy’ is a super genre with a lot of smaller genres in it, many of which aren’t too far removed from Sci-fi, Horror, or even Superhero. Many, perhaps most have no dragons and a lot of those have no magic at all. Some of them aren’t even set in an analog of medieval Europe if you can believe that.
But you’ll know fantasy when you see it, right?
Allow me to blow your mind.
Anne McCaffrey’s celebrated Dragonriders of Pern series is set in a world where humans ride fire-breathing dragons into battle against silver rain that kills wherever it touches. These riders bond with the dragons, communicating with them mentally, and the dragons can straight up teleport. The rest of the world hovers just above the standard medieval tech level and most of them live in what amount to really fancy caves while the dragonriders live in keeps.
Fantasy, right? There’s dragons, there’s magic. Fantasy.
Except there are a few out-of-genre instances. For one, the prologue of every book mentions a star system, orbits and a rogue planet. The silver rain is actually a spore falling to the planet from the tail of the rogue planet. Oh, and they have flamethrowers.
Then an anthology came out and not only is Pern in a solar system, but the people on it are the descendants of astronauts from Earth. Pern is actually ‘PERN’, a designation meaning Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible. And the dragons are actually genetically engineered from a native species that already had psychic powers.
Granted, it can be argued (and I certainly would argue) that as the more blatantly Sci-fi elements began to take over the setting (mostly under the pen of McCaffrey’s son, Todd), the quality started to suffer, but I would also argue that it wasn’t the presence of the Sci-fi stuff as much as the execution and the tonal shift that accompanied Todd’s larger creative role.
But even when you just take the earlier, more classical books, you come out with something that is, in all technical senses, a Science Fiction work that reads like a Fantasy.
This happens a lot more often than you think. See, Fantasy is broad. So broad in fact that it largely serves as a catchall for things that don’t fit into a only slightly less broad genre of Sci-fi, and serves as a sub-genre for all of the other spec-fic genres, which in turn serve as sub-genres for it.
For example, there is one of the enduring gems from DC Comics’ New 52 reboot (which has not remained as good as its opening salvo led me to hope) is Demon Knights, a comic in which a group of magic-based superheroes essentially take part in a Fantasy tale while still being superheroes. Yes, we have Superhero Fantasy and it is awesome. [Author’s Note: Between the writing of this post and the time of posting, DC canceled Demon Knights. Thanks, Didio.]
So awesome that (minor plug), Descendants #70 is going to be my own crack at this. Inspired by Uncanny X-men #143, CynQuest will be a fantasy take on The Descendants. It’s important I give you the heads-up on this. Trust me.
The blending of the Fantasy genre has gotten so widespread over the years that mini-genres seem to be spinning off all over the place.
Steampunk, which seems like it would normally be a specialized version of Sci-fi, tends to add in magic and monsters. Just picking the latest book I’ve been reading, Devon Monk’s Dead Iron has fair folk, werewolves, and a steampunk boogeyman (which might be the best idea for a monster in decades) on top of the cool steamtech, some of which is run by magic itself.
Fiddling with the balance of magic, tech, tech level, magic as tech, and other fantastic elements has created intermediate genres bridging Fantasy from Steampunk proper.
One, which I’ve talked about before, was coined by Phil and Kaja Foglio and is called Gaslamp Fantasy. Typically set in an alternate 19-20th century England, GF taps Gothic Horror and Steampunk like they were basic lands and uses them to create worlds of science-as-magic and monsters that are typically biologically explainable. Just as Steampunk shed a lot of the ‘punk’ sensibilities of cyberpunk, GF tends to shed even more of it than Steampunk.
The Foglios’ Girl Genius popularized the genre and its name, and while few works are pushing the genre b name yet, it still features in such books as Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books.
The mirror image of this is DungeonPunk. Where GF tends to be set in an alternate historical setting, DP puts its roots down in what starts out as a standard non-Earth medieval setting. Where GF draws from Gothic Horror and Steampunk, DP hot-swaps Gothic Horror for Heroic Fantasy while keeping the Steampunk. Except instead of deriving the steampunk style tech from science-as-magic, it uses magic-as-science to get there from the other direction, often supplementing some traditional science to showcase how magic is treated like any other physical force in the universe.
Perhaps appropriately, this genre, especially its aesthetic, was born in table-top gaming, specifically Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and the pretender to the throne, Pathfinder. The D&D setting, Eberron, created by Keith Baker contributed heavily to the shaping of this genre, especially a more Pulp Fiction sensibility than the punk elements. You might recognize this genre as the one I use to describe Rune Breaker.
The aforementioned Dead Iron falls into another, older sub-genre created by Fantasy plowing into its literary neighbors like Theia blundering into Earth for some moon-creating lovin’. This genre is known as Weird West (technically it is also Cattle Punk. Yes, there is a ‘punk’ for everything.). Weird West is where fantastic elements are introduced in proper proportion to Western tropes to create a world where cowboys and gunslingers square off against fantastic monsters (but usually zombies because people can’t stop beating that dead horse).
So why am I going over all of these other genres in an article about Fantasy?
Well it’s because, as a super-genre, Fantasy isn’t the same kind of animal as Superhero was in the series where I broke that down. Fantasy isn’t so much a definition as a flavor, and even then, it is almost as much about what a story isn’t as what it is.
Is your story spec-fic? Does it not fall under Sci-fi, Horror Alternate History or Superhero?
Then it’s probably Fantasy.
Does your work fall under Sci-fi, Horror, Alternate History of Superhero? Does it include supernatural elements that can’t be explained even by speculative science?
Then it’s probably still Fantasy.
I’m not trying to get philosophical on this point, I’m just pointing out how broad the super-genre is. You almost have to jump down to sub-genres to find any definition. And boy howdy, do they differ a lot, even within themselves.
Low Fantasy usually has very little to no supernatural stuff and a vague ‘past’ setting that might put it into Alternate History… if we could be sure they were on Earth. Epic Fantasy can go either way with the supernatural as long as you’re on not-Earth. But if you add supernatural elements to Earth and you get the twins Historical Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (fantasy never happens in rural areas. As someone who live rurally, I understand. If I had magic, I wouldn’t hang around here either).
So it’s the supernatural elements, right?
Well what about Sci-fi’s love of psychic powers? Or Horror’s obsession with extra-dimensional beasties? Oh hey, and what about mythology and supernatural religious literature?
Even TVTropes throws in the towel on defining Fantasy. Here’s what they wrote on the Fantasy page there:
“Fantasy: it’s stuff with magic in it, not counting Psychic Powers, Magic from Technology, anything meant to frighten, classy literature, or anything strongly religious, unless the psychic powers coexist with other forms of magic, or are stretched to the point where they are some other form in all but name, or the technology behind the magic is Magitek or the story is dominated by fantasy tropes, or — and where did that clean-cut definition go?”
My god. The site dedicated to dissecting and analyzing all media down to their base components finds itself unable to catalog what exactly fiction is! This could be the end, folks! Cats and dogs living together, diet soda with a pleasing taste, Batman smiling!
Wait. Don’t Panic.
It isn’t as terrifying as you might think. In fact, it might be a good thing.
First of all, genres themselves are just artificial constructs used to categorize works. Yes, they’re useful both for the sake of discussion and for audiences trying to decide what kinds of stories they might like. In a daunting world of millions of stories across all media (and the internet is resurrecting lost media like radio drama), people need that sort of rough guide.
But the truth is, with the rise of the internet and tons of opportunity for people go get their book, movie, comic, or play out there, we are also slowly but surely forming new ways to expose one another to formerly niche works. Surfing groups and tags on Goodreads alone can easily put the exact kinds of books you’re after in reach, for example.
We’re also still in the middle of the Age of the Geek; where the kind of genre-blending and experimental weird is more accepted than ever. Remember that Gaslamp Fantasy was popularized by a webcomic that heavily played up that it was a story about mad science; this sort of thing is exactly what a lot of people had been waiting for and would not have seen the light of day back in the times when the editors at big publishing companies held the reigns on what genres meant and discouraged playing with them unless you were a big name.
Okay, so that explains why it isn’t so bad, but how does that make the indescribability of Fantasy a good thing?
Simple: the fact that Fantasy (and really, all Speculative Fiction) has spread out so far and the boundaries have broken down so much means that more people are doing interesting things in this realm. Are they going to be good things? Well, I’ve already covered why ‘creative’ isn’t always ‘good’ in an earlier article. But no doubt some of them are good, and some in the future will be good.
And that’s all we can ask. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law; 99% of everything is terrible. We have to learn to accept that for every Blade, the vampire sub-sub-genre will generate ninety-nine works of quality rated Twilight or lower. And so it goes for Fantasy. It giveth with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, but in exchange, we must endure Eragon, Dungeons and Dragons (the movie), and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief (also the movie). For every The Way of Kings, we are forced to put up with The Sword of Truth, Ghost Ocean, and books about Elminster.
Just remember that the good ones are worth it, yeah?
Linkara has reviewed hundreds of terrible comics. This one is about him reviewing his favorite. It is awesome.
What this means for writers is that we’re free. We don’t have to linger in worry over whether or not we’re keeping to genre conventions, especially when it comes to Fantasy. This genre is a cool swimming pool on a summer’s day, it’s free-swim and you got there early. You can explore and play with all the bits and bobs to your heart’s content—hell, you can come up with your own genre.
What’s funny is, I started this article with the intention of breaking things down just like I did with the Superhero articles. All of this came as a revelation to me, but it does seem to explain why I like writing in it.
Next week is going to be a more comic book oriented post wherein I issue a proposal to the major comic companies that would help them foster new talent as well as allow good stories with less than stellar immediate sales find their footing. Until then, my friends.
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To keep up with Vaal’s thoughts and his writing, follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni, or the hashtags #TheDescendants and #RuneBreaker. You can also check out his ebooks offering at his author page on Amazon.