Fantasy’s Apocalyptic Turn

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[To our regular readers. This post falls largely in “the Universe, and Everything” aspect of Concurring Opinions’ topic mix. It is going on summer, and I thought that you might enjoy a review of some fiction in case you get to the beach. Plus, I’m tired of packing]

Hi, my name is Dave, and I read epic fantasy books. In my defense, other other corporate law professors do it too. But it is still sort of hard to be a public fan of a genre that produces badly written tripe on a regular basis, serialized over multiple volumes in an apparent attempt to squeeze every last cent out of the fan base, recycling old themes over the course of many new “worlds”, which is sometimes just plain embarrassing to buy in a store. It’s no help that the “literary” writers in the genre are pretentious and extremely difficult to read. If I wanted dialog without attribution, I’d read A Frolic of His Own. At least it is about law.

Still, I consume a fair bit of this stuff over the course of the year. And I’ve noticed that authors in recent years have taken a real turn for the darker shades of grey. On the whole, this is a good thing. Adult themes mean better writing, which legitimizes my reading. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is the best and most popular example of the trend. Martin’s method is to drive the story forward through the eyes of multiple protagonists. The novelty (for fantasy, that is) is that he regularly kills off these starring characters. There is pretty graphic sex and violence. He also refuses to make any character totally good or totally evil; almost every member of the cast is tarnished. The magic in the series is mostly an afterthought to character development and politics.


In retrospect, however, Martin’s series has started to feel like a medieval version of Tintin compared to his competitors. Recent series by Steven Erickson, R. Scott Baker and J. Gregory Keyes have ratcheted up the levels of gore, violence, cultural immersion, sex, and strategy to levels that were largely unimaginable in earlier works. These authors may be part of an emerging “hard fantasy” movement that corresponds loosely to the “hard sci-fi” movement. The premises of hard fantasy seem to be: internal consistency in the use of magic; deep research into the cultures the book introduces; realism in mundane aspects of living (an army requires food); and an acceptance that societies usually evolve.

These are nice concepts, but they’ve produced very difficult and grim works. Erickson’s series (seven books completed out of ten) is astonishingly complex and rich. It is also unrelentingly dark – involving tens of thousands of deaths – usually each book – and morbid dialogue that starts as chilling but ends up leaving me feel rather jaded. His most recent book is the first fantasy book in a long, long time that I simply couldn’t get through. Notably, its flaws are distinct from that of the last series I put down. (i.e., Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, an unhealthy combination of high fantasy with Ayn Rand, with emphasis on her sadomasochism.) No, Erickson’s books are just exhausting. Go ahead, read this description of the universe he created, and tell me that you would look forward to keeping all that in your head after a long day grading exams.

And then we come to Baker’s Warrior Prophet Books. There are three to date, of an expected six. They are not for the faint of heart. Baker’s bio sets up the problem nicely:

In 1986 he left the countryside to attend the University of Western Ontario, where he graduated top of his class in English Language and Literature. After completing a two-year MA in Theory and Criticism, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. In the winter of 2000, he moved back to London, Ontario, to complete his dissertation, which is entitled Truth and Context. He lives there still with his fiancee (and partner of twelve years), Sharron, and their cat, Scully.

Given this introduction, it isn’t surprising that hundreds of pages in the books are given over to instruction in moral philosophy (disguised as a magical system). The philosophy teacher’s humiliation over the course of the series by his student makes you wonder about the relationship between Baker and his adviser at Vandy. (In that light, consider that the learner, Anasürimbor Kellhus, is a Jesus figure who is eventually worshiped by a holy Crusade. Gosh, Scott, was that dissertation that much of a cross to bear?) Like Erickson, Baker is drawn to huge battles where tens of thousands of largely faceless folks die. I’ll admit, it is gripping stuff, and there are scenes that are both visually astounding and glorious. In that way, at its best, it calls Tolkein to mind. And, like Tolkein, there are too many names stuffed on each page that are not essential to the story. I get it, the author has done research, and he wants us to know about it. But isn’t that what literary executors are for?

I don’t mean to make this all sound so grim. Indeed, these latest hard fantasy forays are significantly better than most of what came before, and most of what’s on the shelves at the moment. (But see these recent interesting series ). It’s just that when you stack these books together, the project of reading fantasy stops looking like escapism and starts to look more like social commentary. Apocalypse is a omnipresent in modern hard fantasy. This apocolyptic theme differs from previous works’ emphasis on prophecied end times in that there is often no one hero who will save the day and in that hard fantasy seems to relish a close examination of the social consequences of the loss of order. The authors seem to want their worlds to go down the tubes. (Down this path, the relationship between high fantasy and the enormously popular end-times premillennial fiction is something worth thinking about.)

It is tempting to attribute this turn to current events, and especially the war on terror. Both Baker and Erickson portray disastrous, bloody, campaigns by forces of “our guys” in a desert, against hordes of enemies who appear to have little concern for the value of life. But I think that it is driven by deeper market forces. Fantasy, after all, is one of the few growth areas for modern fiction. The resulting glut in titles has driven authors – particularly those who a few years ago would never had dreamed of writing these kinds of stories – to try to differentiate themselves. One obvious niche to be filled is hard-fantasy, just as hard-sci-fi supplemented Asimov decades ago. But that leaves unanswered the question of why fantasy books are surging while the rest of fiction is not. When Rowling’s Deathly Hallows drops in July, bookstore managers everywhere will start counting their year-end bonuses. Why?

Finally, it is worth briefly thinking about the relationship between epic fantasy and law. Although the legal aspects of fantasy role playing games are now well-marked out, there has been little work (outside of the Potterverse) on how fantasy authors imagine legal rules’ role in society. If epic fantasy is read largely by adolescent boys, this missing attention makes a great deal of sense. You don’t see law review articles about Maxim. But, if fantasy, or hard fantasy, has become a literature for the rest of the population, it is worth thinking about the complete and total absence of civil law in these books, and the light touch of criminal law more generally. Is it impossible to imagine lawsuits and magic coexisting in the same society?

Well, that is about all on this topic from me. Are you folks reading any decent fantasy these days?

Image Source: Paolo Uccello, via Wikipedia.

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10 Responses

  1. Belle Lettre says:

    You are such a nerd. But then again, so am I.

    I don’t read much epic fantasy to be honest. I don’t even read sci fi, which I prefer to watch on TV with special effects (Star Trek TNG, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica). But lots of my English grad student buddies, people I generally respect usually high falutin’ literary tastes love science fiction fantasy as beach reads. I’m intending to take up their suggestions this summer if I make it to the beach in between conferences.

    The general consensus is that you can’t go wrong with the Victorianist trained sci fi author (and lit professor at the University of London) Adam Roberts: http://adamroberts.com . Start with Salt, then On, then Stone.

    Or Octavia Butler, who unfortunately died last year. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octavia_Butler

    Kindred is a sci fi exploration of slavery, supposed to be very good, as are the Parable of the Sower series.

    They’re both highly rated as readable, intelligent, and well-written sci fi fantasy.

    Anyway, that’s what I’m reading this summer. Although Jim Chen gave me some historical fantasy for Christmas, “Freedom and Necessity” by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, and I’ve still yet to read that.

  2. Amber says:

    Thanks for this post. I get a lot of flack from my boyfriend (also a lawyer) about reading “books with dragons on the cover,” but as you point out many of the recent fantasy series are more than just escapism. Thanks for the comprehensive recs; I’m a big China Mieville fan, who is explicitly the anti-Tolkien.

  3. G says:

    After reading GRRM, I just can’t go back to anything else. I’ve delayed reading the Erickson novels because they are so large in scope and would probably require much of my time and focus to enjoy properly. I’ve also heard Glen Cook’s The Black Company is very good, and will be reading that in the future as well (among the other authors you’ve mentioned).

    It’s good to know that fantasy is moving in the “right” direction and that there are others with similar tastes.

  4. Seth R. says:

    I’ll cop to reading a lot of the books you linked to while I was in high school (and picking a few of them up again in later years out of nostalgia). I was an avid fantasy reader. But yeah, Weis/Hickman, Eddings, et al just haven’t stood the test of time.

    I don’t really do fantasy anymore. I tried to pick up Song of Ice and Fire a couple months ago. But you’re right: the sex and brutality are definitely there. After a while, I just didn’t feel like wallowing in human filth over a genre I suddenly realized I didn’t care about anymore. I didn’t even get through the first book.

    I’ve been going for historical non-fiction mostly. But I still wish I could find a good piece of fantasy writing that didn’t make me feel like pond scum after reading it. You’re summary of current literary trends is not exactly encouraging.

  5. Roger says:

    Children of Hurin is the first fantasy book I’ve bought in a while. I am deep into A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the only ongoing current fantasy series I can stand and I think that has to do with the fact that it’s not so much fantasy as medieval in tone. I gave up on Robert Jordan halfway through book six. I do have some Gene Wolfe I plan on reading, but right now I’m working through an Honor Harrington novel and I do have plans to get back to Glen Cook’s Black Company stories.

    I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my youth, and while I still have a fondness for it, I’m much more choosy about what I read (ie, GRRM), and my tastes have moved toward other genres and non-fiction.

  6. Dave Hoffman says:

    A contrary example. It’s a very bad book, in a pretty terrible series, but for some reason I read it tonight: Exile’s Honor, by Lackey. There is a tort lawsuit resolved by a factfinder using a “truth spell.”

  7. BDG says:

    Comparing Wolfe to Gaddis is a cheap shot. I think you should try again, if you gave up quickly…he’ll offer you all the dense character development and moral complexity you want, without having to resort to the kinds of over-the-top shock of some others you mention (although _The Wizard_ gets pretty bleak).

    A fairer criticism is that his politics are pretty objectionable, from the perspective of the left-of-center law professor. But he generally doesn’t hit you over the head with them.

  8. dave hoffman says:

    I’ve tried Wolfe many times (although I haven’t tried the Wizard). I just can’t get past the first 100 pages in any of his books. I recognize there is meat there, and that he is doing complicated and interesting things with the narration, but it (for me) is just a bit fit with the subject matter. For what it is worth, I wasn’t aware of his politics, whatever they may be.

  9. Very nice article!

    You may want to try “The Knight” part of the Wizard Knight (two books). It’s a very approachable Wolfe.

    Also, try his short stories–they’re all very good. It’s when he approaches novel-length that the singularity usually starts to fold–for good, if you like that kind of stuff, or ill, if you don’t.

    I like Gene Wolfe, but have a difficult time chewing through his novels. But his short stories–and The Knight–I devour happily.

  10. TJ Erickson says:

    For the guy who is looking for “a good piece of fantasy writing that didn’t make me feel like pond scum after reading” I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. The language and writing is arresting, and she leaves you feeling better about people than a lot of what is on the shelves these days. I read a lot, both in genre and out, and I have created a list of very few writers that I think are truly at the top of the game.

    Charles de Lint and Patricia McKillip are both amazing stylists, Guy Gavriel Kay might be the best fantasist of the 90’s(I am aware that his Fionavar novels read like Tok-clones, but he’d just finished the work he did on the Silmarilion, so I give him a pass. His work deserves it.) , and Bujold as mentioned above is truly superb. Each has flaws of course, but they are all truly gifted writers as well.

    Among the grittier versions of the genre, I like “hard fantasy” as a description, I have recently read, and very much enjoyed James Clemen’s Shadowfall.

    I think that I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the genre right now, as there are some amazing younger writers out there. I recently read a first novel by a guy named Jay Lake, called Mainspring, that was inventive, and fascinating, and far superior to much that has been written in the last 30 years. The late 80’s and early 90’s will I think in the long run, be viewed as the low water points for fantasy. Right now if you want brainless tok-clones, they are out there, but there is also a lot of intelligent and insightful writing written in genre. -TJ