What do you do when a tiger comes to stay? Domesticate it. If that doesn’t work, chop it up into digestible chunks. Such, at least, is becoming the prevailing wisdom in marketing books.
Fantasy is a vast forest packed with beasts both great and small bloodily competing. But a vista so wide is terrifying. The taxonomic reflex takes over. We begin listing, categorising, subdividing and pruning until our forest is a neat garden we can roam in without fear of getting lost or being surprised by something unexplained – or worse – unlabelled. The urge to compartmentalise every aspect of our genre is, perhaps, a symptom of that modern affliction: science-envy. Since specialisation is de riguer in “proper jobs”, the thinking goes that it ought to be the same for writing. The all-conquering systemisers are on the march. Apollo is in; Dionysus is definitely out.
In some fields, systematic thinking is essential; in other environments – like the university Humanities department –it is, to use the taxonomists’ jargon, a serious categorical mistake. While it is obviously useful for a genre historian to separate the SF of the 1950s’ into Cosy Catastrophes, Technocratic Dystopias and so on, is it really useful to label a totally new work (for example) YA? Does this rush to judge help, or does it limit? Does the reader or writer benefit from being so corralled? Or does this just make life easier for booksellers? I don’t pose this to criticise booksellers or publishers, only to ask whether the frantic atomisation into smaller and smaller sub-genres – the prevailing way of marketing Fantasy today – is working.
We’re blessed to work in a genre so wide that it can include almost anything: why fight that? Don’t Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the great myths really belong on the same shelf? Fantasy’s Balkanisation is an aspect of a larger but equally depressing trend that has shadowed one more positive. Beginning as a plucky ghetto industry, Fantasy was subtly transformed over the last decade, as it started to outsell SF. Now that we’re mainstream, there is less shrill self-defensiveness at conventions. Asimov be praised for that. But it has not been replaced by mature self-assurance, rather by an equally unappealing triumphalism. The self-congratulation ignores the possibility that we’ve lost something in the transition.
Look back on the great SF works of the 1960s and you’ll find a paranoid, rebellious streak a light-year wide. The writing of that era burned brightly because that was how those writers lived. Frank Herbert obviously prefers Dune when it’s a desert; John Brunner makes Malthus sound like a giddy optimist; Heinlein makes the Unabomber sound moderate; and those twin towers of Fantasy – Tolkien and Peake – in quite another way are similarly anti-orthodoxy. In The Lord of the Rings, all mills are Satanic while Gormenghast insists on both the impossibility of escaping tradition and the moral obligation to try anyway. This dissident streak isn’t that surprising. Great artists have always been most comfortable in the border countries where ideas are shifting, cross-breeding, being strengthened by contrary views. Although that iconoclasm is what first attracts most readers of Weird Fiction (let’s call it what it is), the era of ornery outsiders is gone. You can’t be anti-establishment when you are the establishment. Revolutionaries, as a rule, don’t have a mortgage. We must look forward to five volume epics with wizards worrying about getting tenure, high cholesterol and low house prices.
Oh ye Eldritch Gods, what is to be done?
As always in times of crises, the films of Michael Mann offer not only consolation but guidance. Fantasy writers, to quote the redoubtable Vincent Hanna, need to hold onto their angst. Do not go gently into that sub-genre. And Fantasy readers, you need learn to love the tiger again. Next time you visit your local book megastore, don’t go directly to the shelf you always do. Stop and pick a book from one you’ve always avoided. What’s the worst that could happen? And before you leave, do some rearranging when no one’s looking. Slip a Paranormal Romance into the Steampunk shelf. There are no guarantees in this world but they may not explode on contact.
If they catch you, say a tiger put you up to it.
Aidan Harte 2012
Aidan is also attending Octocon, the national Irish festival of Science Fiction, held in Dublin on the 13th and 14th October, where he will be chatting on a couple of panels. If you’d like to go and support him, both panels take place on Saturday 13th October in Room 2:
1pm Realistic relationships in SF & F
3pm Creating Alternative Histories
Let us know if you’re planning on heading over on Twitter @jofletcherbooks, or by leaving a comment below.