I have long been (and shall always be, i suspect) a person who bitches that way too much fantasy fiction falls short of where it should be in terms of literature. Everyone is (or should be) familiar with what’s now known as Sturgeon’s Law — Ninety percent of science fiction is crap; but then again, ninety percent of everything is crap. However, what concerns me more is the larger part of the remaining ten percent in fantasy and speculative fiction that avoids being crap, but at the same time, hovers too comfortably at that 90th percentile with no inclination to push forward and up.
Fantasy and speculative fiction can be anything. Fantasy and speculative fiction can be all things. And so it seems an easy intellectual stretch to embrace the idea that F&SF can be literature. However, because F&SF can be anything, can be all things, such fiction too often seems to fall back on the sense of wonder that is its stock in trade, at the expense of what William Faulkner famously called the human heart in conflict with itself — the experiential core of what it is that defines literature and story.
Here’s a quick exercise that might prove enlightening (or at least amusing). Read the following introduction (600 words or so) from a fantasy novel and see if and how it grabs you. This is from a well-known book, but i suspect that a lot of people aren’t familiar with it. If you are, please read it anyway. Then check back at the end for a bit of discussion.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Knights on horse went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the king’s army marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the foot soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes of spellfire. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.
Sometimes in the dark we heard the foot soldiers marching under the window and great ballistae rumbling past pulled by trumpeting aurochs. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with barrels of alchemists’ fire on each side of their pack-saddles and grey wains that carried men, and other wains with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic. There were trebuchets too that passed in the day drawn by mastodons, the long arms covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the great beasts. To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river. There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the aurochs churned mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their cloaks; their swords and bows were wet and under their cloaks the two leather quivers on the front of the belts, grey leather cases heavy with the sheaths of clutches of thin, long broadhead arrows, bulged forward under the cloaks so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.
There were small grey chariots that passed going very fast; usually there was a captain at the guard with the drover and marshals and ensigns in the back. They splashed more mud than the greatest wains even and if one of the ensigns in the back was very small and sitting between two marshals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his helm and his narrow back, and if the chariot went especially fast it was probably the duke. He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.
At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the grey plague. But it was checked by the healers and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the king’s army.
If you did, in fact, recognize the above passage, you presumably did so by recognizing that it’s not from a fantasy novel at all. It’s the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, considered one of the finest realist novels of the 20th century. In order to turn it into a faux-fantasy snippet, i added/changed a grand total of sixty-three words. That’s all. Sixty-three words are what separate the Italian front in 1916 from Westeros or Andor or Rhovanion or Faerûn or any other completely mythical realm of the imagination.
Now, i’m not saying that Farewell to Arms would have been better as a fantasy novel than it is in its original form. But i think this bit of fakery makes a damn fine opening for a hypothetical fantasy novel — one that subtly and slowly begins to shape the world of the story even as it creates a tension and a rhythm with the language that threads through the imagery and our nascent understanding of the first-person narrator like a slowly tightening noose.
And here’s my problem. I think there are precious few fantasy and speculative fiction authors willing to open a novel with that passage — even though the vast majority of them are capable of it. The best fantasy writers can go toe to toe with Hemingway in terms of the richness of their description, the focus of their language, the subtle tension they weave into every line. However, most of them don’t. Most of them pull back. Most of them — even the best of them, and even though they don’t do it all the time — fall back on tropes and trickery because the established conventions of fantasy and speculative fiction let them do so.
And that’s a crime in my view, because a genre that can be anything should be everything.
When I was younger, i read a lot of fantasy and speculative fiction. As is the case for many adolescent males of my generation, fantasy and SF became my chosen canon as a reader because the sense of wonder and possibility that i felt was seriously lacking in the real world could be found in Tolkien and Ellison and Niven and Dick and Herbert in spades. (That’s a failing on my part, obviously. There was plenty of wonder and possibility in the real world and its literature at the time; i just wasn’t in a place psychologically or spiritually where i could seek it out, but that’s another story.) But all the time i read fantasy and SF, whenever i ran into one of those annoying people who would dismiss the genres (or all genre writing) with abject contempt, i would respond “Some people read fantasy and speculative fiction instead of literature; i read it as literature.”
It was true then. It’s still true now. But now more so than then, every once in a while, i can feel the sense of something falling short. Too much of the time, i can feel the Hemingway missing.
My still-favorite books of both fantasy and SF — the books that stand the test of time, the books that resonate with social and cultural meaning alongside the sense of wonder that is the genres’ greatest gift — are as good as anything ever produced under the rubric of mainstream literary fiction. I read fantasy and speculative fiction as literature. And drawing from the strength of what i’ve read, drawing from the intellectual and emotional foundations they laid out for me long ago, my goal as a writer is to write fantasy and speculative fiction as literature.
I’ll let you know how it turns out.