"Why don't you do what you dream?"
March 12, 2013 5:43 AM   Subscribe

A brief Tumblr rant about Fantasy: The great temptation, the fatal temptation, of adult fans of fantastic fiction is the temptation of Law. We want the contents of our imagination taxonomied and classified, ordered and indexed, subject to rules and regulations. Gaps exist to be filled. Mysteries exist to be solved. Legends are just timelines that haven’t been formalized yet. Fantastic fiction becomes a code to crack. [...] It’s like people really want to write a wiki, and have to come up with the pesky “moving, powerful, imaginative literature” stuff out of obligation. via
posted by cgc373 (97 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
All true. Like the author of the piece, I blame Tolkien. Enamored of the idea of creating a vast fantasy world and then writing books to provide windows into it, people forget that this is a fucking terrible way to write books. Because it puts the focus on the world, not the story within it, which usually leads to poorly constructed stories.

And man, who doesn't want to show off how nifty their special little world is? Sure, it makes the story sag and the book inflate, but isn't the nifty way that you created the Blowpipe Cleaners' Guild and its long history of pug-dog caramel-dipping worth a chapter? Ugh.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 6:12 AM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


Well, it puts it's finger on one of the reasons why I'm just not into the "serious" Tolkien... As opposed to The Hobbit, which I love despite any tinkering to make it fit in with that.

Lost and BSG though don't get a kicking because they ended on freeform flights of fancy involving magic... They get a kicking because the magic was used in a cheap and obvious handwave.

Which I guess implies a yearning for magic in stories that isn't as dull and codified as a D&D handbook but doesn't feel like the obvious hand of the author popping into frame to move things around.
posted by Artw at 6:17 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The funny thing about Tolkien is that, because he's fundamentally drawing on traditional folklore, applying law, as the article calls it, is the essence of what he's doing. Traditional folklore and mythology has few rules and pretty much every story is one version of many, but we apparently can't have that in modern fantasy.

Also, this reads a ton like a rant I went on college after having drunk too much truly terrible booze,* and he's as right now as I was then.

*99 Apples, really college Bulgaroktonos? Ugh, I hate you sometimes.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:19 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Writing magic that actually feels magical is incredibly hard, and most writers just can't do it. That's ok: generic fantasy can still be fun. But it's also why it's so nice to have Gene Wolfe.
posted by selfnoise at 6:20 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


There is no need to say the books I like are bad books. You (the author) can read books you like, and I will read books I like.
posted by rebent at 6:23 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, the second half of Neverending Story (the book) is the story of how a freewheeling attitude to absolute creative power turns Bastian into a monster. Maybe if he'd spent a bit more time on the philology of his new Fantasia he wouldn't have messed up so badly! (Tolkien's wishes would be like "I wish /l/ merged with /n/, except in clusters!")
posted by No-sword at 6:24 AM on March 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


This tickles me in all of the right ways, thanks for sharing it.


How do you feel when the Childlike Empress stares right at Bastian/you and pleads for you to call her name? Why don’t you do what you dream?

*chills*
posted by Theta States at 6:26 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fantastic fiction becomes a code to crack.

It's a subgenre of fantasy - it implies there is an order to the world that must be discovered and mastered. It's a metaphor for the process of learning. It's not a bad thing, and it does not result in stories that are better or worse than "free form" magic.

More, one style does not preclude the other - see Zelazny, Pratchett, etc.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:28 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Related.
posted by Artw at 6:28 AM on March 12, 2013


We want the contents of our imagination taxonomied and classified, ordered and indexed, subject to rules and regulations. Gaps exist to be filled. Mysteries exist to be solved. Legends are just timelines that haven’t been formalized yet. Fantastic fiction becomes a code to crack.

Fair comment, but careful with that 'we' stuff, Pard.

I've a friend whose Marvel fandom extends back to the earliest issues of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. (I came on board a bit later). Part of the fun was speculating about how all those cosmic forces might actually work, how various characters were able to fly, and winning No-Prizes for catching Stan Lee (or one of the artists) in an error or contradiction. (My favourite being a splash page in an early 1970s issue of FF wherein Mr. Fantastic inexplicably has threee hands and one foot).

Nothing drains the magic out of these worlds like the obsessive pursuit of definitive facts, figures, and comparisons. The ultimate realization of this approach is the -- regrettable official -- Marvel Encyclopedia and others of its ilk, which try to explain exactly how each super-power works and exactly how much power each one gives.

Does it make the stories more enjoyable to know that Volstagg weighs 1400 lbs or that Clint Barton is 6'3'' tall? (I can't believe I know these 'facts').

As one who gratefully poured over The Making of Star Trek years ago for tidbits about how all the Trek tech works (warp x^3 = Cy; except for Warp 3: oops!) and so on, this more mature bird is somewhat appalled at the obsession with pinning things down and cataloging that goes into modern fandom.

While we are pointing fingers at Tolkien and Tolkieana, don't forget about Gary Gygax et al. Dungeons and Dragons has been a premier SF & fantasy gateway drug for generations of fen.

With no counter-examples from E.E. Doc Smith, D.C comics, Doc Savage, Tom Swift, Captain Future, Conan, Weird Tales, Universal Horror, and all the other make-it-up-as-you-go-along fantasy worlds, a young person could get the impression from D&D that catalogs and taxonomies is what it's really all about.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:28 AM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


While I do agree that the write-D&D-manual-first, write-actual-story-second approach to SF/Fantasy literature is the wrong way to do it, I disagree with what I understand the thesis of this piece to be very strongly.

At the nuts & bolts level of storytelling, having a coherent picture of what makes your fantasy world tick is fundamental to not cheating your own stakes—and coherency does not rob a world of its imaginative potency.

For some works, the temptation to magically cheat your way out of a satisfying conflict resolution is too strong; the recent animated show Legend of Korra is particularly bad in this regard, and it was hardly in the service of magnified whimsy or greater imaginative power. It robbed itself of legitimate human conflict in the service of doing the cool magic/worldbuilding stuff it wanted to do.

By contrast, there was all kinds of wacky, one-off shit in The Neverending Story, but the basic rules of the universe as they applied to the stakes of the story were very straightforward (as I recall; it's been years) and there's no cheat in Bastian's ultimate triumph.

The principles of storytelling and causal logic are important no matter what the genre. Ignoring them in service of imaginative freedom will result in a reader/viewer's emotional disengagement from the work as they discover that nothing they've seen so far really matters, since it might well all be rendered moot by the next "imaginative" twist.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:29 AM on March 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


C.S. Lewis, I guess, is way more freeform. Except for the Jesusy bits.
posted by Artw at 6:29 AM on March 12, 2013


You know who performs this balancing act astonishingly well? Neil Gaiman.
posted by Artw at 6:34 AM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


And if there were too many Michael Endeësque (heh) books, we would probably be complaining about characters occupying worlds that change to suit them and lament that the characters are but torches that illuminate a world that is plunged into darkness as soon as they leave and so on.

Now that it’s possible, you can already start to see the worm turning, I’m afraid — in the vituperation directed at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s more fanciful or whimsical aspects

If by fanciful they mean Radagast's animal sledge or dwarfses falling down on crumbling wood supports (hello, Indiana Jones), allow me to disagree. The Hobbit gave enough screen time to the dwarves visiting Bilbo, but handled the scene peremptorily and after that, it did its best to remove the whimsical aspects of the book: Extraneous fight scenes against the trolls instead of cooking suggestions from the dark, the White Council and Elrond the Elf lord instead of silly elves with their songs, Bilbo fighting against orcs to validate himself in front of Thorin (he 'is' a burglar, not an assassin), a party of orcs hunting the group (when there were goblins in the book) etc. The primordial sin of the film is that its a LOTR prequel instead of a story about a hobbit with its hairy feetses and all.
posted by ersatz at 6:34 AM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm just doing my best to pretend it doesn't exist.
posted by Artw at 6:36 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


With no counter-examples from E.E. Doc Smith, D.C comics, Doc Savage, Tom Swift, Captain Future, Conan, Weird Tales, Universal Horror, and all the other make-it-up-as-you-go-along fantasy worlds, a young person could get the impression from D&D that catalogs and taxonomies is what it's really all about.

He's got a point though. Even the modern day equivalents of those serials and pulps, Star Wars and Star Trek to name two, are wiki-ed and categorized and detailed. Star Wars is probably the one that suffers the most: who cares how the Force works? It's all magic in Tron pajamas anyway. The best thing Abrams did with Star Trek was rebel against thirty years of cannon and start fresh.
posted by bonehead at 6:37 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Without a doubt, the best line in the original Star Wars is when Moff Tarken mentions that the emperor has just dissolved the senate and that "the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever." We haven't met the emperor, and we have no clue about galactic politics beyond the fact that Leia's a princess who's involved in some sort of rebellion, and yet this line does so much to inform us about the incredible upheaval that's going on just in the background of our rather straightforward adventure yarn.

Contrast this with the prequels where every. single. detail is subjected to enough exposition to completely sink the narrative.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:37 AM on March 12, 2013 [24 favorites]


There is no need to say the books I like are bad books. You (the author) can read books you like, and I will read books I like.

This a thousand times. Sorry for Being Part of the Problem, apparently, but I (and, judging by the popularity of Tolkien and D&D) rather enjoy rigorously thought out magic systems and worlds that hang together coherently. Not everyone goes to fantasy for mysticism or the mysterious, anymore than everyone goes to "science fiction" for FTL, robots and lasers.

This is just one more guy ranting about how all those plebs who like Tolkien or Jordan or whatever are getting their filthy much all over his nice clean genre. It was old the last time, it isn't really any newer or more interesting this go-round, either.

You know who performs this balancing act astonishingly well? Neil Gaiman.

And good on him. But it is a big genre. Lots of space in here.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:39 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is no need to say the books I like are bad books. You (the author) can read books you like, and I will read books I like.

I'm not really sure how literary criticism can exist in a world where no one can critique in any negative way a book that someone might like.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:42 AM on March 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Give me the Gene Wolfe approach every time. Take the reader into an imagined world, and feed them the story as a succession of tiny, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory scraps. Let the reader piece together their own flawed understanding of where they are and what's going on. Never having the whole picture to work with is part of being human; we're all unreliable narrators and partial-understanders of our own lives, and stories that mirror that are, to me, much more compelling.
posted by pipeski at 6:43 AM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


This partially explains my impatience about the start of the third season of Game of Thrones while absolutely refusing to read the books. I like a good story, but have desire to slog through what has been described as filler.

the best line in the original Star Wars is when Moff Tarken mentions that the emperor has just dissolved the senate and that "the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever."

I love stuff like this, where world building has occurred to some extent, but it's mostly kept off screen and only touched on in a few stray comments or visuals.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:43 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actually selfnoise, Wolfe's work often exists in highly codified, self-consistent worlds. He just doesn't share most of it with you, and what he does share he cleverly presents. He has a couple of stories (like The Death of Koschei the Deathless) that open up this method, and Book of he New Sun has appendices to explain the world to you.

I think people hate Lost's ending because it didn't answer the subject of Lost, which is why things were the way they were on the island. It's goofy. In this case, codification was an implicit promise.

I think people hated BSG's ending because most nerds are instinctual colonial quislings, and hate the idea of being told that a technological culture has no right to exist just because it has spaceships and other cool shit. It's the most radically moral statement ever made in televised SF. In this case, codification wasn't on the table when it came to "supernatural" things, and the show fulfilled its promises about other mysteries (Earth, the cylons, etc.)

All in all, these represent different storytelling tactics. They can seem dissonant because of what the author promises, what the readers/audience members are willing to accept, and what is stated, left to decode, or left out.

Laying the problem at the feet of RPGs is kind of interesting, because I work in RPGs and occasionally electronic games, and the experience has left me 100% certain that RPG designers are more aware of the issues than the people at the helm of big intellectual properties. We agonize over adhering to our themes and keeping promises.

For example, Star Wars as a universe was basically pioneered by the tabletop RPG, and the early work used the feel of the movies as a thesis about what everything that follows should be about unless it played against type in a really clever way. The EU novels did not maintain that discipline. Timothy Zahn wanted to write soft military SF, so he did. And as a result, the Star Wars universe lacks cohesion.
posted by mobunited at 6:44 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


ake the reader into an imagined world, and feed them the story as a succession of tiny, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory scraps. Let the reader piece together their own flawed understanding of where they are and what's going on.

This is also, I guess, Lovecraft versus Derleth - Lovecraft created Stories with all these hints as to how they might hang together, Derleth took that a codified the crap out of them in a way that ultimatly lessened them.
posted by Artw at 6:47 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know who performs this balancing act astonishingly well? Neil Gaiman.

I especially like the parts where the protagonist is too dumb to notice mythic allusions Gaiman telegraphs to the reader, and then a character deep in the mythology lectures the hero for being an ignoramus, and you get to feel superior to the protagonist because of the knowledge you share with the special lecturing character!
posted by mobunited at 6:47 AM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think a lot of this stuff also comes up when the creator assumes the audience is interested in seeing the legwork needed to do something in the medium, instead of beside it. Reading A Dance With Dragons, where's a whole bunch of tedious chapters where characters talk about boats: hiring them, getting on them, and where important boats are going. There's chapters of the stuff! But we don't care about that. We care about where the characters are going. GRRM needed to figure out this boat stuff, but we don't need to see it.
posted by mobunited at 6:51 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


With no counter-examples from E.E. Doc Smith, D.C comics, Doc Savage

Coincidentally I recently purchased and have been slowly perusing Rick Lai's The Revised Complete Chronology of Bronze. I'm sympathetic to Collins' concern about over-formalization, of "Legends [being] just timelines that haven’t been formalized yet." Yet, in many of these fan-based expansions of literary worlds, such as the Doc Savage chronologies or Memory Alpha and Beta, I see the very impulse to honor "a story to be told and told and told" that Collins sets it in opposition to classification and systematization.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:51 AM on March 12, 2013


I think people hated BSG's ending because most nerds are instinctual colonial quislings, and hate the idea of being told that a technological culture has no right to exist just because it has spaceships and other cool shit. It's the most radically moral statement ever made in televised SF. In this case, codification wasn't on the table when it came to "supernatural" things, and the show fulfilled its promises about other mysteries (Earth, the cylons, etc.)

People hated BSG's ending because it was ridiculous and made no goddamn sense. The humans had already made peace with the Cylons, look how that turned out. 50,000 giving up every damn modern connivence (maybe keep antibiotics, eh?) to go teach semi-intelligent apes made no goddamn sense. God sending "angels" fuck with people in order to guide them made no damn sense. Would it have killed him to just send an audio/video message?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:51 AM on March 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


This essay seems to be confusing dry, exposition-laden writing with the actual work of building a coherent, internally-consisent world and magic system.

The problem with the later Star Wars movies, for instance, isn't that Lucas decided to sit down and figure out what was "really" going on with the Jedi, but that 1) his ideas were stupid and 2) he's a terrible writer. A superior storyteller would have taken the time to create a rigorous, nuanced and solid set of rules for the Jedi and their abilities....and then would have kept almost all of that information out of the script itself, implying it through the action on the screen and through indirect references in dialog, rather than forcing the viewer to sit through poorly-constructed exposi-lectures where the characters are used as mouthpieces for unnecessary detail.

A disciplined writer of fantasy does all of the work to build a solid foundation for their story, and then immediately obscures that work with the narrative itself. The reader is aware of that work in that they understand the stakes of the conflict, with a clear idea of why such-and-such new magical ability is important or why this-and-that ominous threat will be difficult to face. But the real nuts-and-bolts work of worldbuilding is mostly transparent -- you notice it through the absence of inconsistencies and dissonant revelations, not through the presence of long passages of "let me tell you about midi-chlorians."
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [28 favorites]


God sending "angels" fuck with people in order to guide them made no damn sense. Would it have killed him to just send an audio/video message?

He could have at least sent a magical lion!
posted by Artw at 6:54 AM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh geez I forgot to even engage with the most irritating part of this argument. From the piece:
I think anyone can take issue with the endings of Battlestar Galactica and Lost for any number of reasons — well, maybe more Lost than BSG — but to me the most dispiriting cause for outrage among the fandom was “Magic?!?! BOOOOOOOO!” As if either show had ever made a secret of its respective brand of mysticism; as if the unexplained was now somehow a synonym with the unexamined or unthoughtful or unworthy.
No, the complaints (or at least my complaints) in re: BSG-style mysticism have nothing to do with BOOO MAGIC and everything to do with narrative incoherency; e.g., none of the mystically-unexplainable stuff that happens in that show establishes any sort of rubric that the viewer can use in order to frame their expectations of what is possible in that universe. This stuff matters in story, and the fact is it's actually a pretty tricky balancing act to pull off—but as a creator of fantastic narrative, that is your fucking job.

It's not that mysticism in SF per se is bad; it's that when it's portrayed so lazily and hamfistedly as to entirely remove the characters' agency in the story, there's nothing left to care about. Who cares what happens when obviously nothing any of the characters do is going to matter, because Mysticism will ensure that things turn out a certain way no matter what.

There may be something of a cultural bias here—I'm not terribly interested in stories involving anything smacking of Discovering A Destiny or Finding God's Plan, because such stories have no resonance in my own life. I don't have a destiny, and I don't believe I'm part of God's Plan. I'm responsible for my own shit, and even in the Crystal Jungles of Kal-Trov IV, wherein resides the Mindweed Undying, I need my characters to be responsible for their shit, too.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:54 AM on March 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


God sending "angels" fuck with people in order to guide them made no damn sense. Would it have killed him to just send an audio/video message?

Hmm, maybe this dissatisfaction is also why there is a New Testament.
posted by Winnemac at 6:56 AM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


People hated BSG's ending because it was ridiculous and made no goddamn sense. The humans had already made peace with the Cylons, look how that turned out. 50,000 giving up every damn modern connivence (maybe keep antibiotics, eh?) to go teach semi-intelligent apes made no goddamn sense.

You're making my point for me by immediately having the techno-panic, even though the protagonists never give up the technology they have, or ever talk about not using anti-biotics! It's not in there! But overwhelming cultural bias seems to insert this idea simply because Cool People With Spaceships don't decide to take over the world. And that unstoppable, mental content-revising drive to assume these things is *exactly* what I'm talking about.
posted by mobunited at 6:57 AM on March 12, 2013


There is no need to say the books I like are bad books. You (the author) can read books you like, and I will read books I like.

No, there is no need to tell you that the books you read are bad. You can read and enjoy whatever you like. But to say that there is no need to say that some stories are bad (for whatever value of "bad"), is really to say that there is no need to talk about stories at all, to say that silent, individual contemplation should be sufficient. That's a fine distinction, I know, about a topic that seems especially fraught in fandom, but a distinction still worth making, I think.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


It is interesting: what is it about the most mythological of genres that so attracts the scientific mind?

Because the impulse to categorise is scientific: it's taxonomy. Reduce the thing to its parts and see how they connect. Group the similar and exclude the dissimilar. Test the hypothosis: could the skin of Mr. Fantastic contain a nuclear explosion? If I flayed a strip of Orc skin and carried it with me in my bag of holding, could I use Sting as a flashlight whenever I wanted? What are the logical consequences of this mystical fact?

Whereas magic itself works as poetry does, by metaphor, allusion, archetype: if human will could be pure worked upon the world, then all out thoughts and feelings would take their bodies, our symbols become real: The word made flesh. Cleansed by blood and fire. The wind is the voice of the trees, and waves the fist of the ocean. With this ring I bind thee for all time. A snip of your hair in a waxen doll and you are mine to play with forever.

The best magic only almost makes sense, true to the heart, never fully fathomable to the head.
posted by Diablevert at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Hmm, maybe this dissatisfaction is also why there is a New Testament.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" - strong central character, though possibly a bit of a Mary Sue, overcomes adversity (is nailed to wood and made dead), great mythic themes, kind of ill defines and at times overpowered magic system and talk about Deus Ex Machina...
posted by Artw at 7:02 AM on March 12, 2013


none of the mystically-unexplainable stuff that happens in that show establishes any sort of rubric that the viewer can use in order to frame their expectations of what is possible in that universe

This is an interesting idea to me, because is strikes me as a very modern idea that a story should clearly establish what is possible. To the extent that modern fantasy is an extension of folklore and mythology, those genres don't really do this at all, except to the extent that you (usually) know that anything that has happened in the story is "possible." The story establishes the rules, not the other way around. What is "possible" for a god within any polytheistic mythology framework, the answer usually isn't "everything" but beyond that I'm not sure that most traditional mythologies answer that question at all, except to the extent that the stories themselves depict the gods doing or not doing certain things.

Modern fantasy often, but not always, establishes rules that basically resemble modern science only for a world where those rules are different. There's a good reason for this, modern people probably demand more science-like explanations for the world than the ancients or medievals who told the stories that fantasy often draws on, but it's also not the only way to tell a story.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:05 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think creating a "taxonomy" is necessarily a sign of a bad work or an inhibition to great work. The difference is that it can be much easier creating one than creating a strong story unto itself. It's a fine escapism to build the foundations and not have to worry about the house or hall to build upon those foundations.

It really just boils down to the creator.
posted by Atreides at 7:16 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


All true. Like the author of the piece, I blame Tolkien.

I think that the author misunderstands Tolkien, and misunderstands history if he thinks that Tolkien was doing it. Hint, timelines are not history. Genealogies are not history. History is the complex and ambiguous process of constructing plausible explanations for past events by triangulating among different and often contradictory sources of evidence. Tolkien was quite explicit about the fact that he was writing folklore, literature, and mythology as transcribed by a set of dubious authors (Bilbo and Frodo mostly) who brought their own color to the text. Tolkien may have gotten a great many things wrong, but the important distinction between myth and history isn't one of them.

(Not that very least because if you try making sense of Middle Earth without the character-centric narratives, it all falls to pieces.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:33 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


The story establishes the rules, not the other way around.

I don't see BSG or any modern story as much different than folklore, in this respect. Would Rumplestiltskin be as powerful a story if it ends, not with the princess finding out his name, but just ordering him to be killed?

The story of BSG established the rules, and then in many fans eyes violated those rules, just as it would be a violation of the rules of folktales for the princess to solve all her problems by straight up murdering the trickster imp.
posted by muddgirl at 7:37 AM on March 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


But overwhelming cultural bias seems to insert this idea simply because Cool People With Spaceships don't decide to take over the world.

No, the idea inserts itself because characters are shown walking off with nothing more than a goddamn knapsack after announcing they're sending all their ships into the sun, after hugging the Cylons and saying "Ok, we're cool, right?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:38 AM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


In my book, the best magic in fantasy is by Diana Wynne Jones. Magic in her stories is weird, often unimpressive, doesn't make a lot of sense, is certainly never explained, and seems to happen mostly by accident. And nobody goes around shooting lightning bolts out of their hands.
posted by sonmi at 7:45 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, the idea inserts itself because characters are shown walking off with nothing more than a goddamn knapsack after announcing they're sending all their ships into the sun, after hugging the Cylons and saying "Ok, we're cool, right?"

Ah, so your objection is to the props.
posted by mobunited at 7:46 AM on March 12, 2013


I especially like the parts where the protagonist is too dumb to notice mythic allusions Gaiman telegraphs to the reader, and then a character deep in the mythology lectures the hero for being an ignoramus, and you get to feel superior to the protagonist because of the knowledge you share with the special lecturing character!

That's the weirdest description of American Gods I've ever read. Maybe it's just that I came to American Gods immediately after Good Omens, but I read Gaiman's style in that novel as very dry comedy. Lots and lots and lots of funny scenes, tied to a central conceit simultaneously broad enough that it could go unexpected places and general enough that you could understand the allusions without it turning into one of these codified experiences. I still think it's one of the best flat-out stories I've ever read – when I want a good yarn, it's one of my go-to escape modules.

As for this guy's critique of rules-based fantasy stories:

Okay, I get why he might find this frustrating or whatever, but as a child I wanted literally the exact opposite of this. Two feet away from me is an old, battered copy of Die, Vecna, Die!, the 2nd-ed D&D manual that takes you to Tovag Baragu, the Demiplane of Dread, and finally Sigil. Next to it is The Complete Paladin's Handbook and 3rd-ed's Stronghold Builder's Guidebook. I don't have physical copies any of the main D&D textbooks with me, because for reference my iPad will suffice, but these were the books I'd delve into as a kid, exploring not their stories, but the potential for stories which they created.

For me, this world-building is at the heart of all good fantasy. If you're not building a world, you're doing magical realism, surrealism, fairy-tale. All these things are well and good, but where fairy-tale becomes fantasy for me is when the various characters and fanciful elements take root, rules start building up around them – this person can cast these sorts of spells but not these sorts of spells – and suddenly a world exists that a reader gets to go through in his mind. I recently re-read Ella Enchanted, a YA novel which I still feel I can lose myself in. I've read Tamora Pierce novels more probably than I've read anybody else's, not because she's a brilliant storyteller – early on, she wasn't – but because watching her detail her worlds bit by bit gives me a serious joy. For me, some of the best parts of fantasy are the parts involving, not the fantastic flashy stuff, but the mundanity of a new world being created, bit by bit, for me to dwell in.

I remember that when I was younger and read two-thirds of LOTR, part of what turned me off to its style was how quickly it seemed to jump from place to place: I was accustomed to stories that spent a long time in individual areas, and LOTR jumped too quickly from one place to the next for my tastes. This is probably the opposite reason of everybody else on the planet who didn't finish LOTR – I feel that if the book series had been three times longer, I'd have been more interested in it. (Also, are there any Tolkien works that deal more with elaborate Middle Earthian detail? That might be a lot of fun to read.)

Greek mythology, Egyptian mythology, Norse mythology. My girlfriend's studying for the GREs and talking to me about the Iliad, and it is so hard for me to stay focused on the Iliad as a literary work rather than as a piece of a larger and more wonderful tapestry. Achilles? No, let's start with Eris and the Apple of Dischord, let's talk about Agamemnon's family tree, let's go all the way back to before Zeus and the other gods were born, let's talk about primordial being. With respect to Homer and Euripides, the right way to appreciate ancient Greek literature is not to study the stories. It's to study the tapestry which binds them all together.

So with respect to this author, for whom fantasy is a thin veneer, I'm going to continue searching for series like David B. Coe's Winds of the Forelands, in which the story evolves across a rich, detailed fantasy landscape. I want fantasy mixed with intrigue, politics, comedy (or tragedy) of errors, various sorts of fantasy bigotry. I want Tamora Pierce novels where every incidental character has a spin-off series of their own. I want D&D libraries detailing worlds where I could explore, worlds where I know every swamp, every cave, every kingdom, every dimension, to a level of detail that a game like Skyrim is an embarrassingly cheap recreation of.

The universe as I know it is such a rich, beautiful place, which is why next to those D&D books I have a series of four heady books on architecture and the science of patterns, one large book on the birth of mathematics, a thick book-type-thing compiled by a master designer. I have photos of America taken from the air that analyzes its patterns and how they change. I have a cookbook from an eccentric chef for whom throwing ingredients together seems a matter of half-chance, and whose take on taste is a fascinating thing of its own. I have novel after novel, some of which are rich fantasy stories, but others of which are fiction stories whose worlds are no less detailed for their pretense of taking place here. Junot Diaz. Haruki Murakami. Mark Z Danielewski. Helen De Witt. Borges. Bellow.

The human mind works in patterns. Hell, the world works in patterns, on a deep, deep level. And fantasy, more than any other kind of literature, embraces those patterns. Embraces deep architecture, rich realities, worlds which never stop growing stranger as you keep delving deep into them.

Fantasy is what taught me to find the world beautiful, and it's what made me want to write, and the richnesses of its worlds, not the twists of its stories, are what did this to me. There is one thing more valuable, to me, than a story, and it is: stories.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:48 AM on March 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


On preview: Diana Wynne Jones is one of the best writers of ever. Her novel Fire and Hemlock is probably still my favorite comfort read ever, and gets at the beauties of life and fantasy far more eloquently than I just did. It's the kind of fantasy that can take dozens of pages to describe the absurdities of life as a schoolkid, or a handful even just to expound upon the miraculous sound that comes out of a string quartet, four voices dancing around each other to create something incredible, a little world of its own. There was a writer who understood the deeper connections between things.

She's also impressively good at mixing in critiques of our society through her writing. Dark Lord of Derkholm is a fantasy-trope-subversion novel which is very anti-capitalism at its heart, specifically anti-exploitation, and its follow-up, Year of the Griffin, is an attack on schools which are so determined to turn out "productive workers" for such an environment that they forget to teach students how to be inquisitive and curious about their field of study. Reading it made me a rebellious asshole middle school child, and if you don't think it's awesome that a fantasy book about griffins and dwarves could convince a young kid to go punk, you are looking for something way different in fantasy than I am.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:55 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


So here's the thing: Fantasy fiction is a big tent. Heck, if we expand the term to speculative or imaginative fiction, the tent gets bigger yet because all the SF fans can come in too. I think there's more people crowding in every year; the tent is no longer on the outskirts of the party, it is where the party is right now. And I think if you're a fan of any of this stuff, it's a time to celebrate.

Because inside that tent is a veritable smorgasbord of treats and treasures to satisfy appetites both subtle and gross. You can have high or low fantasy; hard or soft SF; you can have it grim or have it heroic; you can have space opera or military SF; you can mix and match to your hearts content if your tastes run that way. And you can have all of it that you can stomach.

What is bugging me about it is the fact that we now seem to be getting a series of prescriptive articles about what is wrong with various forms and movements within the genre; instead of looking at how each piece might be moving the whole forward, we have a variety of prescriptivists telling us how it should be and what's wrong with that group over there. We're standing around in the tent sniping at each other as opposed to celebrating this amazing time.

Why don’t you do what you dream?

Why don't you do what you dream, and let me tend my own dreams? My dreams are not yours; perhaps if we both explore our own dreams and do something with them, we both will create new things that are worthwhile and move forward that which we love. Offer support and constructive criticism to help the other person bring that dream into reality, not to tell them they are doing it wrong.
posted by never used baby shoes at 8:00 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I disagree. If there are *no* rules or regulations to the magic or the world, then everything runs the risk of turning into Deus Ex Machina, and that's no challenge to the story's characters and thus not much fun for the reader. For some stories that's fine, but if anyone needs to overcome anything, then there have to be rules for how those things are overcome, otherwise it will just feel like a cheap handwave.

I like how it's formulated in Sanderson's First Law of Magic: "Sanderson's First Law of Magics: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic." He goes on to theorize about "hard" vs "soft" magic and the different expectations that the two different systems set up for the reader. For ex:
I would argue that Tolkien himself is on this side of the continuum. In his books, you rarely understand the capabilities of Wizards and their ilk. You, instead, spend your time identifying with the hobbits, who feel that they've been thrown into something much larger, and more dangerous, than themselves. By holding back laws and rules of magic, Tolkien makes us feel that this world is fast, and that there are unimaginable powers surging and moving beyond our sight.

However, there is something you have to understand about writing on this side of the continuum. The really good writers of soft magic systems very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books. Magic creates problems, then people solve those problems on their own without much magic. (George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Fire and Ice" uses this paradigm quite effectively.)

There is a reason that Gandalf doesn't just fly Frodo to Mount Doom with magic, then let him drop the ring in. Narratively, that just doesn't work with the magic system. We don't know what it can do, and so if the reader uses it to solve a lot of problems, then the tension in the novel ends up feeling weak. The magic undermines the plot instead enhancing it.
posted by aperturescientist at 8:01 AM on March 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


So, according to this author, the ending of BSG is excused by the claim that it's actually "mysticism" (rather than narrative incoherence), and apparently to some readers here Wolfe's New Sun books pass for "magical" too (rather than puzzle-boxes built around a painstakingly rationalist worldview). Are we entirely sure that magic and mysticism are not just fancy words for not making sense here?

A sense of wonder comes much too cheap if you allow it as a substitute for coherence of narrative, theme, or imagined world. Which substitution may be what the post is about, but I'm not understanding why the author is on the pro- rather than anti- side. Sure sounds like he should go read some Todorov stat, though.
posted by RogerB at 8:05 AM on March 12, 2013


If you're not building a world, you're doing magical realism, surrealism, fairy-tale.

And all of these have been the style for great fantasy stories.

With respect to Homer and Euripides, the right way to appreciate ancient Greek literature is not to study the stories.

Then you think Tolkien was wrong in arguing that it's the stories and what they say that matter, and not the heartless and soulless vivisection of them as windows to the culture and language of their authors? Tolkien would probably argue that we should read Homer for Homer, and Proclus for for Proclus. It's really weird to me how people will invoke the least interesting aspects of Tolkien for support of their claims about what fantasy should be and ignore what Tolkien actually said about the creation and interpretation of fantastic fiction.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:13 AM on March 12, 2013


The only thing this thread has convinced me of is the correctness of my conviction that Gene Wolfe is The Best.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:28 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, according to this author, the ending of BSG is excused by the claim that it's actually "mysticism" (rather than narrative incoherence),

This is an interesting charge because to my mind, it pretty much hinges on genre motifs. BSG has a miracle working intelligence that can be identified as "God," that, as per standard theistic traditions, changes the rules to the extent that characters can make free moral choices, because of the importance of free will in the Western tradition of theology. But that's bad because There Are Spaceships and That Means Science Only.

Middle-Earth is *exactly the same.* Eru Illuvatar doesn't tell anyone what to do, but is an active participant in the world, framing it so that characters achieve moral victory. Eru arranges for Bilbo to get the One Ring. Sam prays to an archangel, and they hand out with another angelic figure who gets to arbitrarily come back. And that's good because It's Fantasy.
posted by mobunited at 8:39 AM on March 12, 2013


China Miéville has put it better (sorry for the Citebite-powered link, but I couldn't find another way to forward to that particular part; here's the original). And, contrary to the author of that text, he understands that Tokienesque fantasy is only a gear in the much bigger machine.
posted by khonostrov at 8:42 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


China Miéville has put it better

Ha!
[M. John Harrison] has a lovely phrase in the opening of Pastel City where he says, “There were some seventeen notable empires in the later ages of man. None of them concern us here.” And I love that. . . . That to me is sort of like the most elegant and funny moment of world creation in speculative fiction in the last thirty years. “None of them concern us here.” That could be the slogan of the epistemologically rigorous world creator.
Thanks for that, Khonostrov.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Eru arranges for Bilbo to get the One Ring.

This is a nonstandard interpretation, is it not? My understanding is that the Ring decided it was time to hit the road since Gollum wasn't taking it anywhere and it was time to reunite with Sauron.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:53 AM on March 12, 2013


This is an interesting charge because to my mind, it pretty much hinges on genre motifs. BSG has a miracle working intelligence that can be identified as "God," that, as per standard theistic traditions, changes the rules to the extent that characters can make free moral choices, because of the importance of free will in the Western tradition of theology. But that's bad because There Are Spaceships and That Means Science Only.

I don't think this is true - fans accepted the Hand of God (or claims that seemingly-strange events were the Hand of God) throughout the whole series. Why would they only object to the last episode on this ground?

I tend to take fan objections at face value - it has nothing to do with There's No Place for God in Science, and everything to do with the fact that the specific Deus ex Machinas in the last season didn't work narratively.
posted by muddgirl at 8:56 AM on March 12, 2013


Ah, so your objection is to the props.

No, the plot and statements of the characters. Not sure where you're getting "props" from.

This is an interesting charge because to my mind, it pretty much hinges on genre motifs. BSG has a miracle working intelligence that can be identified as "God," that, as per standard theistic traditions, changes the rules to the extent that characters can make free moral choices, because of the importance of free will in the Western tradition of theology. But that's bad because There Are Spaceships and That Means Science Only.

It's bad because the God lacks any sort of higher morality and behaves like a child torturing flies. In that sort of story, it's not surprising that spaceships with on and off switches would be more appreciated and welcomed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:56 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is exactly why, as a teenager, I really wanted to write fantasy, but I never ever ever wanted to read it. World-building is engrossing, and you can do it for years on end, all in your own mind. Crafting a story is harder, especially if you want someone else to read it.

On occasion, I actually enjoy seeing teeny tiny holes in the world-building process, as long as they don't mess with the overall story or serve as deus ex machina. They're like the vestigial tailbones in the story's evolution.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:03 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, the plot and statements of the characters. Not sure where you're getting "props" from.

I'm getting it from the fact that nobody says anything to support your assertion that they throw away all the technology. When pressed for this, you talked about backpacks, not any part of the story, because nobody in the story talks about rejecting technology. Thus: props.

It's bad because the God lacks any sort of higher morality and behaves like a child torturing flies. In that sort of story, it's not surprising that spaceships with on and off switches would be more appreciated and welcomed.

This is no different than The Lord of the Rings. I suspect you are merely inclined to cut Eru Illuvatar a little slack because of the swords and chainmail. Eru could have intervened in all sorts of nicer ways that would leave Frodo with ten fingers. He didn't. This is a longstanding tradition in stories about divine intervention. If you tolerate it in one context and not in another, ask yourself some serious questions about why.
posted by mobunited at 9:03 AM on March 12, 2013


On another tack, my father was obsessed with the 'characters' in the booths in the background on Cheers. Who were they? What were they talking about?

Perhaps someone with a VCR, Microsoft Excel, and no job could go through all the episodes, identify each unique 'actor', systematically name them and create their background stories, write audible lines for them to have been speaking, and build a Cheers Concordance or Wiki to store the data in for posterity.

You know, to create a more fully realized CheersWorld.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:04 AM on March 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


I don't think this is true - fans accepted the Hand of God (or claims that seemingly-strange events were the Hand of God) throughout the whole series. Why would they only object to the last episode on this ground?


I provided an answer early, and you won't like it. The vast majority of SF fans are products of colonial triumphalism and reflexively dislike anything that undercuts its assumptions. The protagonists in BSG experienced cycles of civilization as an exploitative power, and decided to disperse instead of reproducing it. This is a direct challenge to the West's moral premise, that even if bad things happened, there's a nobility to civilization even through brutal exploitation. BSG sez nope!
posted by mobunited at 9:07 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that the Ring decided it was time to hit the road since Gollum wasn't taking it anywhere and it was time to reunite with Sauron.

"There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master....So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ringmaker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought." -Gandalf, Chapter 2, The Fellowship of the Ring.
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:09 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


CheersWorld

This has "Jason Morningstar RPG" written all over it.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:12 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


. The vast majority of SF fans are products of colonial triumphalism and reflexively dislike anything that undercuts its assumptions.

Well, sure. I don't see what this has to do with the claim that BSG fans reject the ending Because God.

and decided to disperse instead of reproducing it.

...and they failed, as demonstrated by the fact that we're still stuck in the Cycle at the end of BSG. Their rejection wasn't any more effective than any other tactic used to break the cycle in the series.
posted by muddgirl at 9:12 AM on March 12, 2013


I would argue that Tolkien himself is on this side of the continuum. In his books, you rarely understand the capabilities of Wizards and their ilk. You, instead, spend your time identifying with the hobbits, who feel that they've been thrown into something much larger, and more dangerous, than themselves. By holding back laws and rules of magic, Tolkien makes us feel that this world is fast, and that there are unimaginable powers surging and moving beyond our sight.

I think the rules of magic in Tolkien's world are quite simple and implicitly explained over the course of multiple conflicts. Faith in "machine" (Ring, palantir, Orthanc) will destroy you. Faith in good (The Light of the West) will save you. Pretty much everything else is elaboration on this theme. Sam's courage and leap of faith as ringbearer is as powerful and mythic an act as Gandalf defeating the Balrog.

Overall, I'd much rather read about magical conflicts rather than magical systems. If I can't figure out what your novel is ultimately about by the time I get to the last chapter, I'm going to be a bit frustrated. This ties in directly to another failing I find common in the genre, writing for the sequel. The result is often a badly structured work that goes nowhere and does little.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:14 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the most frustrating fantasy book/series I've read in recent years is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. Napoleonic Wars with dragons should have been straight up my alley, but instead I found the series frustrating as it became increasingly clear that the author didn't think about what a world with intelligent giant lizards would look like. You can get away with "Everything is just like it was, except for ___X___" for one book, but after several, the center just does not hold. You end up with a setting that feels like it has been frozen in amber until the main characters came along and shook things up what with their fancy ideas and all.

Contrast this to At the Queen's Command by Michael Stackpole which is essentially the American Revolution with magic/dragons. In that series, you get a world that feels like it is based in ours, but diverged at some point previous to the start of the story. The characters feel like they are part of the setting, like they grew up in it, rather than being strange visitors who took one look around and said, "Wait, this doesn't make any sense... If we have ___X___, then shouldn't Y and Z be different?"

Call it the Lost Requirement, but I need to have a sense that the author has put some thought into the setting, that there are rules and logic that might not yet be apparent to me, but are still there nonetheless. Even in a world of magic and fantasy, I need some consistency.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:25 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, sure. I don't see what this has to do with the claim that BSG fans reject the ending Because God.

BSG's signs were basically the Modernity Toolkit, with amazing machines and systems controlled by heroic technicians and managers. Baltar is the enemy because he's only pretending to be a Campbellian Competent Man, when he is in fact a secret sympathizer for anti-civilization's forces. On one hand you sympathize for the Cylons, but they're crazy theists pursuing an anti-rationalist agenda that threatens the order of things imposed by a technopoly.

Spirituality outside of this system not only clashes with this collection of signs, but threatens them. BSG is especially insidious about this, because spirituality comes from former machines (Cylons), scientists (Baltar) and technopoly heroes (Starbuck).

This is what made it a really smart show, but not one liable to leave fans feeling good about it.

...and they failed, as demonstrated by the fact that we're still stuck in the Cycle at the end of BSG. Their rejection wasn't any more effective than any other tactic used to break the cycle in the series.

It depends. Angelic Six and Baltar seem pretty upbeat about us getting it right. Plus, we got thousands of years where we were not conquered and enslaved by aliens, which is pretty good.
posted by mobunited at 9:27 AM on March 12, 2013


I'm getting it from the fact that nobody says anything to support your assertion that they throw away all the technology. When pressed for this, you talked about backpacks, not any part of the story, because nobody in the story talks about rejecting technology. Thus: props.

Well, other than Apollo interrupting the planning of a new city to say "No, no city. Not this time". He's asked what he has in mind.

Cut him and Admiral Adama, walking and talking by themselves.

Apollo: This time, we break the cycle. We leave it all behind and start over.
Admiral: You're talking about leaving it all behind, starting off with nothing but the clothes on our back and a few provisions.

They talk a bit more about primitive humans and Apollo says "we can give them the best part of ourselves, all the good stuff. Not the bad stuff, not hte ships, equipment, technology, the weapons. Our brains have always raced ahead of our hearts. Let's start anew."

Later, everyone seemingly agrees with this and they left Sam commit suicide into the sun, while the metal Cylons decide everything is fine now.

This is no different than The Lord of the Rings.

Never did get far with it, not a big fan of fantasy.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:27 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is a longstanding tradition in stories about divine intervention. If you tolerate it in one context and not in another, ask yourself some serious questions about why.

Having never watched it, I can't comment on BSG, but narratively, I suggest that the degree of tolerance an audience has for a dramatic deus ex machina or divine intervention has everything to do with the degree to which the author(s) cues the audience to accept such a premise as a possibility. It's true that an audience cued to regard a narrative in positivistic terms is less likely to accept a "divine intervention" as a satisfying mechanism of plot than one cued to approach a narrative in more fantastic or surrealistic ways.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:30 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, while I want reassurance that the author has done the work of worldbuilding, they don't need to drop all that 411 straight on my braindome at the first chance they get. I trust that Joe Abercrombie has a plan for the ongoing feud between the Magi - he rolls out details and snippits in each book he publishes. I know that the hero of a Tim Powers story may have no clue as to what's going on at the start, but by the end we will both have a firm grasp on things and if I reread the book, I'd find the logic consistent.

I've been mucking around with a fantasy story myself of late and have spent a lot of time thinking about the setting and how magic works in it. It's fun to do and the temptation to share that is pretty strong. This urge has shaped the direction of the story and gone a long ways towards the development of the Flashman-like main character, a sentient dagger who thinks it's really the one behind the ascension of the Stereotypical Awesome Hero/Emperor in a bygone golden age. By limiting the narration to what the dagger knows/thinks it knows, I keep myself from getting distracted by how the House of Del Neumar made its money - the dagger doesn't know or care, it just remembers that the old Duke was a prick. Likewise, since the dagger is a braggart and a name dropper, I get to indulge my desire to ramble.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:40 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem is that for every Gene Wolfe who hides and obscures and prevaricates in order to create a sense of mystery and magic, there are a thousand writers who keep the curtain closed because they haven't got anything interesting or satisfying behind it.

Wolfe may be cheating, but he always gives you the sense that there really is something out there (or in there, or under there) to be known, that the mystery could be solved if only you could see one more clue.

The worst example of this is something like Lost, where once you realize that the writers have nothing definite in mind, that it's just a string of random weirdness with nothing behind it all, it loses all interest. The reason everyone hated Battlestar Galactica's ending is that what we feared was true: the writers had been lying to us for years. The Cylons did not actually have a plan.
posted by straight at 9:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree with Narrative Priorities. Poor exposition, not detailed worlds, presents the real problem. Pale Fire, for instance, creates as detailed a world as you could want. It doesn't tell you everything about that world, though, and it implies much more than it says outright. You have to solve most of its mysteries for yourself. Some of them are irresoluble, or so difficult as to be such for anyone but the writer. The reality the novel creates warps in your peripheral vision. Even the supposedly normal world of Professor John Shade cracks under sufficient pressure. Artful exposition creates much of this effect.

What straight says about Gene Wolfe exemplifies my idea of good exposition: "He always gives you the sense that there really is something out there (or in there, or under there) to be known, that the mystery could be solved if only you could see one more clue."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:58 AM on March 12, 2013


Middle-Earth is *exactly the same.* Eru Illuvatar doesn't tell anyone what to do, but is an active participant in the world, framing it so that characters achieve moral victory. Eru arranges for Bilbo to get the One Ring. Sam prays to an archangel, and they hand out with another angelic figure who gets to arbitrarily come back. And that's good because It's Fantasy.

I'm not sure I agree he's an active participant. Eru sits back while the Ainur sing for him and then (presumably) watches as the stories of Silmarillion unfold. He intervenes exactly once flooding parts of the world (a parallel to the story of the cataclysm) and then doesn't appear again. When men set off on an expedition against the Valar, the reader already knows the expedition ain't coming back. It's more dramatic that Eru does them in after the Valar refuse to play ball, but the result is mostly the same. It's interesting to note that the phial of Galadriel may inspire people to call Elbereth (presumably that's who you mean as an archangel?) in Sindarin even if they just spoke Westron.

I think the rules of magic in Tolkien's world are quite simple and implicitly explained over the course of multiple conflicts. Faith in "machine" (Ring, palantir, Orthanc) will destroy you. Faith in good (The Light of the West) will save you. Pretty much everything else is elaboration on this theme. Sam's courage and leap of faith as ringbearer is as powerful and mythic an act as Gandalf defeating the Balrog.


More or less, yes. The "machine" in this case is bad due to its uses (in contrast with the "dark satanic mills" of Saruman in the denouement): the rings* and the palantir are corrupted by Sauron and Orthanc is useful until Saruman tries to fight fire with fire. I agree that Sam as a ringbearer and his devotion to a simple garden are thematically among the most important parts of the story.
posted by ersatz at 10:05 AM on March 12, 2013


To make my point more explicit, the problem is not consistent world building and the solution is not to eschew consistent world building. The problem is knowing is knowing what to show and what to hide to create that sense of magic and mystery.

If you don't figure out all the rules and details, you have to at least fool your readers into thinking you did. (But now I think I'm just repeating what Narrative Priorities said.)
posted by straight at 10:06 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Roger Zelazny says in one of his short story collections that, as a writing exercise, he would often write a scene or two of his characters which he would not include in the final version of the story. He would sometimes refer to that scene, sometimes not, but he would use that exercise as a way of better understanding his characters, and how they worked in the world.

One example he mentions was the titular character of Call Me Conrad going to the birthday party of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of a friend. Conrad is a very rough-and-tumble guy, a figure of greek myth even. It's mentioned in passing in the text of the novella, but never brought up again. Zelazny wrote that scene for himself, to see how this not-quite-a-god (sorry, bit of a spoiler there) would behave in a situation like that.

An interesting way to do this sort of thing indirectly, I've always thought. Wolfe too will often have entire narratives built for his characters of which we only see the slightest portion, and then, only the parts they want us to hear. Severian is a text-book unreliable narrator, for example. These shadow play, hinted narratives offer depth to the writing, like overpainting does in renaissance painting. I think that's what the blog piece is trying to get at.
posted by bonehead at 10:25 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I agree with those of you who have said there is room for everything in the fantasy genre. Absolutely! But ...

I will admit I am getting frickin' *tired* of the vast preponderence, in current fantasy writing, of books that lay out the rules rules rules of their "magic system". I get tired of it in the same way that I get tired of heteronormativity in the same genre. Getting tired of heteronormativity doesn't mean I think everyone in every book should be gay, but it sure does mean I perk up and take notice when a book breaks free of the boy-meets-girl pack.

Rules rules rules can be done well or poorly, and so can "vague and mysterious". Brandon Sanderson has been mentioned, and the Mistborn books are a great example of rules rules rules done well because the *characters* figuring out the rules is an important central plot point. The reader gets to find out along with them, and doesn't feel lectured to because learning the rules is integrated into being part of the story. However, I could also pull you out a dozen or so books from my read-in-the-recent-past pile that all have the scene, "OK, newbie, here's how magic works. There are three spheres of power that govern all blah de blah blah blah blah blah."

Similarly, vague and mysterious can be done well or poorly. How exactly does the White Witch make it always winter and never Christmas in Narnia? I cannot imagine remotely caring. She does, it is established, we move on. Great! On the other hand, yes, extreme vagueness can be little more than an excuse for an author to put in a Deus Ex Machina ending (... which, honestly, is a quality I would *also* attribute to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

Many good authors tread the boundary in a variety of interesting ways. Tolkien created an astonishingly elaborate world, but I never got the feeling he was all that interested in defining what Gandalf was doing beyond "wizard magic". There are a couple of rules about the Rings, but even they're left pretty darn mysterious. Patricia McKillip writes handily in both forms, writing both worlds with very specific rules, and worlds where Stuff Happens because that's how Stuff Happens.

But the point is, for me at least, it isn't that there are Rules. It's that sometimes I want a break from Rules. Sometimes I don't care about your damn Rules, because the last 13 books I read sounded just like yours because they also had Rules. I'm not arguing for one over the other, I'm arguing for more variety, and right now I think the genre really is heavily tilted one way.
posted by kyrademon at 10:40 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I like how J.K. Rowling dealt with this in the Harry Potter universe. Everything's written from Harry's perspective, and there's a school, so like kyrademon's Mistborn example the learning of the rules is part and parcel of the narrative. Even so, a lot of the world is left a mystery - because Harry isn't in a position to actually know why, say, Hermione was in Gryffindor despite being a close match for Ravenclaw, or what's going on with Muggles and Muggle-borns. There are portions where it does get into Department of Backstory, but that seems to be more about historical context - the "what happened" rather than the "why".

Then there's Pottermore, and the charity books, which are all about world-building. The background story to the characters and the wizarding world is explained. Some of it is still ambiguous - largely because not all the pieces have been revealed yet - and there's space to make your own connections. The wizarding world was my main draw to the HP series and I'm glad Pottermore is there to provide much more information.
posted by divabat at 10:45 AM on March 12, 2013


Would this conversation be happening if Tolkein hadn't put the appendices in the Lord of the Rings? If Christopher and Guy Kay hadn't organized and published his legendarium?
posted by bonehead at 10:49 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love a fantasy novel with good worldbuilding, but I'm not big on fantasy novels where the worldbuilding takes precidence over the story, which I guess puts me in agreement with some of the people here, except that I like my fantasy to make sense.

I'll suspend my disbelief for a lot of magic, but a lot of fantasy worlds fall apart for other reasons when you pull on the strings: the pure evil races of Middle Earth and the fact that none of the kingdoms seem to make a lot of sense economically, etc, everything Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality point out: it's not enough to make me stop enjoying a novel, but these things bother me once they're pointed out or I notice them. Tight worldbuilding does help avoid this, but when you have to explain everything so as to avoid this, it's not really worth it. (This is why I love appendixes and extended universe stuff. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them? I eat that shit up.)

Good worldbuilding glitters, it draws the attention of the reader and it dresses up the characters, adds to their plot. Rachel Hartman's recent novel Seraphina is a novel like this, where the characters, in all their lovability and humor and fun pull you around a world that has obviously been well-constructed in advance of the actual storytelling, and it makes the alleys and the palace and the bit characters sparkle with an essence of life that's missing in places where bit characters are just that. Lyra's Oxford from the His Dark Materials trilogy feels like this, so does Hogwarts, so does Metamor City: each is a world that is fascinating enough that, though you love the characters and want to follow them on their own path, you also are curious enough about the world to want to follow it down its dark and twisting alleyways and meet the curious folk who live there.

The thing is, it's possible to do compelling worldbuilding without a story at all. Seven Skies is fascinating enough that you can read it cover to cover, glossing over the rules of the RPG set in its world. As a teenager I think I read through the Manual of the Planes at least 3 times. Bits of Shadowrun and World of Darkness feel like this too.

Anyway, the reason people were dissatisfied with the endings of BSG and LOST is that they felt like deus ex machina (or, you know, flagrantly were, in the case of BSG). People go into a certain genre of television expecting situations to be resolved by the conventions of the genre, and when you resolve things with magic without doing a good job of preparing the audience for magic first, you end up with a dissatisfied audience. I really figured this out when I read a paranormal thriller without knowing it was a paranormal thriller first; when it turned out to be ghosts or whatever behind all of it I was disappointed because I was expecting them to figure it out, Scooby Doo style.

You can write stories like the Kushiel's Legacy series (or, hell, even Harry Potter), where stuff is solved by Big, Sometimes Divine Magic, as long as the characters really have earned that kind of Big Magic. But when the Big Magic seems to come out of nowhere, and you have a story that felt like a sci-fi story with some Weird Components in it, and it turns out that a major character was actually a ghost or an angel or something for the last dozen or more episodes, and you're expected to grok this, and the existence of angels, based on supernatural stuff that's discussed earlier but that seemed to be left up to the reader, Nation-style, whether it was true, you're gonna confuse and piss off your audience, because you thwarted their expectations in a way that felt cheap.
posted by NoraReed at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Perhaps someone with a VCR, Microsoft Excel, and no job could go through all the episodes, identify each unique 'actor', systematically name them and create their background stories, write audible lines for them to have been speaking, and build a Cheers Concordance or Wiki to store the data in for posterity.

I get the sense that you're Having A Go here but I'm gonna be honest I would read the shit out of that wiki.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:36 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Roger Zelazny says in one of his short story collections that, as a writing exercise, he would often write a scene or two of his characters which he would not include in the final version of the story.

Gene Wolfe has a piece called "These Are the Jokes" (collected in Castle of Days) in which he has a dozen of the major and minor characters from the Book of the New Sun each tell a joke. Most of them are alien in a very convincing way; you don't find them funny but you can almost see why that character would.
posted by straight at 11:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I thought Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy did an excellent job of world building . . . to me it seemed to be a nice antidote to Tolkien-style fantasy, which I am not a terrible fan of.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:57 AM on March 12, 2013


could go through all the episodes, identify each unique 'actor', systematically name them and create their background stories, write audible lines for them to have been speaking

A TV show. A TV show about people who go to Cheers once in a while, sit in one of the booths (maybe they have a favorite, or maybe they sit in a different booth each time), and do the things they do, while occasionally wondering what's up with those people at the bar and why they seem to spend every night there.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:02 PM on March 12, 2013


The "machine" in this case is bad due to its uses (in contrast with the "dark satanic mills" of Saruman in the denouement): the rings* and the palantir are corrupted by Sauron and Orthanc is useful until Saruman tries to fight fire with fire.

I think that's interpreting "machine" a bit too literally. It's not the use of the object that's important in Tolkien's parables, but faith in it. Characters depend on machine due to a loss of faith in the West/goodness.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:03 PM on March 12, 2013


A TV show. A TV show about people who go to Cheers once in a while, sit in one of the booths (maybe they have a favorite, or maybe they sit in a different booth each time), and do the things they do, while occasionally wondering what's up with those people at the bar and why they seem to spend every night there.

Oo! Or a spinoff about one of the characters moving to the Western lands! And since we're talking about fantasy, maybe he could have a doppelganger brother, and some kind of fantastic ability to sway his fellow-citizens with his magic voice. And a psychic sidekick? That would rule. Kind of Tolkienesque, but I think it could work.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:24 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I provided an answer early, and you won't like it. The vast majority of SF fans are products of colonial triumphalism and reflexively dislike anything that undercuts its assumptions.

This might be an interesting conversation to have if the story which led up to the ending had made any goddamn sense, but it did not. The ending of BSG didn't piss me off because of its "message", but because it proved for once and all that the writers had never had any idea where they were going and that I'd been wasting my time trying to follow them. You can't just retcon all the main characters into cylons and then pretend like all the stuff that happened in the preceding seasons still makes any sense, much less pile on even more of the convoluted mysticism that made the plot hard to follow and pretend that this somehow settles things.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:56 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


A TV show. A TV show about people who go to Cheers once in a while, sit in one of the booths (maybe they have a favorite, or maybe they sit in a different booth each time), and do the things they do, while occasionally wondering what's up with those people at the bar and why they seem to spend every night there.

I always thought it would be really awesome to have a Damage Control TV series, set in the Marvel universe (I guess the movie-verse would work best), in which we follow the lives of these cleanup specialists and the really big explodey stuff is almost entirely relegated to the background. Maybe sometimes, during an otherwise unexceptional conversation, we see something that looks like a plane flying overhead and after a moment we realize it's Iron Man. Or the crew gets sent out to clean up a site where Thor fought the Hulk but we only ever see it as a YouTube video on their phones.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:59 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Herodios: "Perhaps someone with a VCR, Microsoft Excel, and no job could go through all the episodes, identify each unique 'actor', systematically name them and create their background stories, write audible lines for them to have been speaking, and build a Cheers Concordance or Wiki to store the data in for posterity. "

How would this diminish Cheers as a sitcom? Sure, I'm not interested in that, but if you are, great. Must we appreciate the show in identical fashion?
posted by Chrysostom at 1:07 PM on March 12, 2013


The ending of BSG didn't piss me off because of its "message", but because it proved for once and all that the writers had never had any idea where they were going

For me this was when I watched the little documentary they put out before the end of the series (I think; I didn't watch it as it originally aired) that revealed the writers decided who the "final five" were going to be just before they actually wrote and filmed it. Talk about No Plan.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:17 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know, to create a more fully realized CheersWorld.

Or to create World of CheersCraft. Which I sort of want to see.
posted by JHarris at 1:41 PM on March 12, 2013


Vance's Dying Earth series does a great job of balancing the magic as a system (it was the basis for DnD magic, after all) versus magic as mythology elements having the world slowly shrinking and crumbling as the sun fades. Even the most powerful and learned have no systematic understanding of what they do and are pretty happy to remain decadent and lazy for the most part. The reader is left with a mix of wonder at his worldbuilding and melancholy that so much knowledge and wisdom have been lost and humanity's days are numbered.
posted by fraxil at 2:08 PM on March 12, 2013


I think that's interpreting "machine" a bit too literally. It's not the use of the object that's important in Tolkien's parables, but faith in it. Characters depend on machine due to a loss of faith in the West/goodness.

The way in which artifacts are used depends on the characters' faith, so I think we arrive at the same conclusion.
posted by ersatz at 2:38 PM on March 12, 2013


For me this was when I watched the little documentary they put out before the end of the series (I think; I didn't watch it as it originally aired) that revealed the writers decided who the "final five" were going to be just before they actually wrote and filmed it. Talk about No Plan.

BUT THEY SAID. THEY SAID THAT THEY HAD A PLAN. EVERY EPISODE. FOR YEARS.

GRAAAAAAAAAAAR.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:25 PM on March 12, 2013


BUT THEY SAID. THEY SAID THAT THEY HAD A PLAN. EVERY EPISODE. FOR YEARS.

That was literally just a gimmick to entice eyeballs.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:29 PM on March 12, 2013


One of the things I appreciated about Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo is that it refrained from the usual secondary world mode of, "Look! Isn't this weird!? I've smeerped the rabbit, taught you to use an entirely new set of titles and pronouns, and used three glottal stops on the first page!"

Instead, you're introduced to characters that seem entirely ordinary: a man in search of his estranged wife, her parents moving back to their hometown in their retirement, and an unmarried younger sister. The alternate history infodump comes about Chapter 10, at which point the break between contemporary and second-world fantasy is made clear.

I like works that create cognitive estrangement on the first page as well. But many of the ways of building it in second-world fantasy have been abused so frequently that they no longer do so.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:32 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always thought it would be really awesome to have a Damage Control TV series, set in the Marvel universe (I guess the movie-verse would work best), in which we follow the lives of these cleanup specialists and the really big explodey stuff is almost entirely relegated to the background.

Sounds like Joss Wheadon's SHIELD TV series might be our best shot at getting something like that:

That intrigued me, this world around the superhero community. It’s the people whose shop windows get blown up when the Destroyer shows up. It’s the more intimate stories that belong on television that we can really tap into the visual style and ethos, and even some of the mythology, of the Marvel movies.

posted by straight at 5:54 PM on March 12, 2013


THEY SAID THAT THEY HAD A PLAN. EVERY EPISODE. FOR YEARS.

I noticed they dropped that from the opening after the first season.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:49 PM on March 12, 2013


That was literally just a gimmick to entice eyeballs.


Yes. Yes it was.
posted by Artw at 6:58 PM on March 12, 2013


where's a whole bunch of tedious chapters where characters talk about boats: hiring them, getting on them, and where important boats are going. There's chapters of the stuff! But we don't care about that.

Those were my favorite bits. I like those kinds of details, almost as much as when any fantasy author bothers to remember that horses aren't furry motorcycles and cannot go for hours at a gallop without coming over all dead.
posted by winna at 8:53 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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