Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Speculative Fiction: Placing the Fantasy Genre in Context by ThornesQuest/Gale

Welcome to Day One of JanNo’s Write Here, Right Now 09!

So, you’ve decided to spend the month working on a fantasy novel.

According to AnnaLovesTacos’ poll, 56% of you say fantasy is your preferred genre, one you’ve written in many times before. Taking on a fantasy novel probably feels a bit like putting on your favourite pair of very faded jeans, or those banged-up runners that fit your feet exactly, or that nubbly fleece jacket that is just right on a cool day.

For the remaining 44% of you, fantasy may not feel so comfy. Will you be able to figure out a workable magic system? What’s all this world-building that people go on about? Where do you stand on the whole medieval versus non-medieval debate? How will you avoid an unintentional re-write of LoTR, Narnia or Twilight? These and other questions may have been keeping you up at night ever since you enthusiastically responded to Tia’s invitation to try a fantasy novel in February.

I can’t answer those questions. Only you can. There are pep talks coming in the next few days which will aim to specifically tackle some of those questions, and they will likely be of great help to you. This pep talk is not one of them.

What I’d like to do in this first pep talk is to put the genre of fantasy in context; that is, talk about how fantasy fits into the whole big picture of fiction writing.

If we take a few steps back, “fantasy” fits into a broader category known as “Speculative Fiction”. What is Speculative Fiction?

Well, perhaps to answer that, we might consider what is not Speculative Fiction. Non-Speculative Fiction includes everything that proposes to be “realistic”: this includes literary fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery, adventure-thriller, etc. – anything which might reasonably happen in our world as it is today. Readers of Non-Speculative Fiction are entitled to expect the fiction to reflect real life as accurately as possible. Such readers are likely to rise up in high dudgeon at the first whiff of anything remotely magical or paranormal and yell, “Hey! That would never happen!” The stories are fictional, but the world in which those fictional stories play out is the same world that the reader finds outside his or her door.

Speculative Fiction is quite the opposite, of course. When writing Speculative Fiction, the author sets aside a few (or many) of the truths that normally govern our world – the rules of physics, the historical facts, the cultural and sociological realities – and invents some new ones. This is done selectively, of course: the reader still needs most elements to feel familiar. Maybe houses are heated by fire places fueled by magical pellets, but the nature of fire will remain the same; a person would still burn their hand if they stuck it in the fire.

Speculative Fiction is quite a broad category, for it includes Science Fiction as well as Fantasy. In Fantasy, the author sets aside the “truth” that magic doesn’t really exist and says, in effect, “Well, what if it did?” Out of that “what if …” question rise all the sub-genres of Fantasy: Classic, High, Steam-Punk, Urban, Paranormal, Goth/Horror, and so on. In Science Fiction, the author sets aside the “truth” of the way scientific development has occurred thus far and says, “Well, what if X were possible after all?” (where X is FTL flight, transporter technology, intelligent life on other planets, etc.). Out of that “what if …” question rises Science Fiction, including everything from rollicking good space operas like Star Wars to “hard” science fiction like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

But what is the point of all this speculation? Are authors and readers of Speculative Fiction just immature people who don’t want to be reminded of the realities of life? Couldn’t authors of Speculative Fiction make a better contribution to the literary world if they would just hunker down, do their research and engage in this world rather than inventing whole new worlds?

Personally, I don’t think so. The beauty of asking “what if …” is that it invites the reader to take a step back and look at life from a different perspective. The setting may be quite exotic, and the characters and creatures equally so, but there can be a new view of our own world and culture that emerges in the midst of it all.

I was world-building for my Thorne’s Quest series in 2004, and it seemed that the whole world was on the brink of war; it was on everyone’s mind. I needed to develop five radically different cultures, and so, without consciously knowing I was doing so at first, I asked myself “what if each culture developed different gender politics in response to the need to provide warriors for a war that had lasted 600 years?” This resulted in one culture ending up as religious fundamentalists who were very “protective” of women and also practised polygamy as a way to deal with the fact that so many men were being killed in the war. Another culture practised complete equality between the sexes, on the assumption that everyone was needed to fight the war, both men and women; the only time that women were protected was when they were pregnant. Another culture, more on the periphery of the war, was fiercely matrilineal and denied the role of the man in conception; they were an amalgamation of an actual African tribe and all the fiercest feminists I’d ever met. And so on with the remaining nations in the series. On the one hand, I set out just to create some unusual and memorable cultures. On the other hand, I found myself making some statements about the various negative effects that constant war has on a people’s development, statements that I don’t think I could have made nearly as clearly if I had kept my story firmly grounded in the real world of 2004.

Having said that, I would suggest that you not worry too much about making a Statement in your novel. Approach fantasy writing as an interesting romp through a wondrous, magic-filled world quite unlike our own. Populate your novel with unlikely characters, strange critters and unexpected cultures. Spin a plot that resonates deeply with you. If you do those things, you will probably find that you’ve created a lens. It may be hidden among the magic and all those alien cultures, critters and characters, but it’ll be there. Hold that lens up and it will give your readers a new view of our own world. All because you started by asking “what if …”

Well, it’s time to wrap up this pep talk. You have a novel to write, and so do I. But before I go, I’d like to share one final tidbit with you.

I was a teenager in 1971 when John Lennon’s song Imagine was first released. In recent separate polls in the U.K., Canada and Australia, it was voted the most popular song ever recorded, and it’s now the official song of Amnesty International. But in 1971, a lot of people were shocked. “He’s saying there’s no heaven!” they cried. “He’s saying there’s no religion! Ban it! Ban it!” Of course he wasn’t saying those things at all: he was just inviting his listeners to imagine. He was inviting them to speculate about what the world would be like if some elements of our current reality, which we think are unavoidable, were set aside. Here’s a link: John Lennon sings Imagine.

I hope you have a grand time speculating this month!

Further Reading: Sara Douglass’ essay, The Modern Epic Romance.