The wheel of fantasy

Riffing off of my Atlantic piece, fantasy author R. Scott Bakker writes:

According to common wisdom, genre fiction is culturally cyclical: It ebbs and flows in popularity as time alternately burns out various tropes and rejuvenates them. I’m just wondering if this has ever been the case with epic fantasy. It seems to me that it’s cache has continued to grow in lockstep with the economic clout of all us 70?s and 80?s D&D players.

Theories, anyone?

An answer and a question.

First the answer: I think the popularity of epic fantasy has certainly ebbed and flowed. I’d say the last decade was very good for epic fantasy, with the growing popularity of Martin’s books, and the rise of series like the Malazan books and Bakker’s excellent Prince of Nothing and Aspect Emperor novels. In the early 90’s I think epic fantasy had grown pretty stale. The coming of age of the D&D players and the rise of popular fantasy games like World of Warcraft may be keeping the genre fresh, or it may just be that a lot of good, relatively new authors have been published recently.

Now a question: Why isn’t Bakker’s latest, White Luck Warrior, available on Kindle?

Also: You can vote on the best sci-fi and fantasy titles over at NPR. If you’re the voting sort.

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18 thoughts on “The wheel of fantasy

  1. I would reckon that most of us who played D&D in the 70’s and 80’s had it frowned upon by the various authority figures in our lives.

    Those of us who managed to propagate are most likely to say something to the effect of “I’m going to let *MY* kids play D&D!”

    And so we buy the Harry Potter books, and the Dragonlance books, and the no you can’t have the Gor books until you’re older books, rather than all of us sneaking them in the middle of a pile of books from the library (10 books a week means grownups eventually stop looking!).

    The same number of folks are reading these books. It’s just that there are no more plain brown wrappers.

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    • “and the no you can’t have the Gor books until you’re older books”

      In my library, the Gor books were placed with all the other fantasy in the young adult sci-fi/fantasy section; there was true magic in that inappropriate placement.

      Anyways, I think Stephen King nailed post-Tolkien epic fantasy:

      “The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is no longer around to do it for them.”

      That’s certainly what Terry Brooks was trying to do, there is no doubt that it was what many early D&D players were after, and it always sold relatively well for publishers. And some of those fans grew tired of the same tropes and story trajectories. Some of them might have read Glen Cook, or discovered Peake, or imagined a fantasy story that incorporated Western archetypes. And eventually some of them were successful enough to diversify the field.

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  2. I wonder if the burgeoning video game industry might also have an impact? The stories, concepts and tropes that animate fantasy are powerful foundation concepts for a swath of creative games which draw normally non-fantasy people in with their game play and perhaps leave them primed to be more willing to give fantasy in general a shot?

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    • A thought just popped out of my head and I’m not sure it’s correct, but it’s worth throwing out there to see if it sticks.

      Most fantasy and science fiction literature can be translated into an interactive medium more effectively than a non-interactive medium.

      Discuss.

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      • Yes. Fantasy settings, people, and situations exist inside the author and readers heads respectively. The demands they make on interactive media are less stringent than the demands made of real scenarios that could be actually tested or compared against the interactive simulacra.

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        • Counterpoint:

          Once you move from textual communication between the author and the reader, you’re taking away some (all/most?) of the interpretive part of the relationship.

          My idea of what Beowulf looks like may or may not be like what a movie director thinks Beowulf ought to look like.

          But my idea of what orcs *interact* like is a different layer of abstraction, and might also be not what some programming lead thinks orcs ought to act like.

          Now, I may be able to gloss over the differences between what Beowulf looks like and what I think he ought to look like pretty easily, but the acting thing is different.

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    • “Fantasy” (and science fiction, for that matter) violence is generally, for whatever reason, much more acceptable than “Realistic” violence.

      A guy can get all hacky slashy with a sword against Orcs, Goblins, Trolls and it’s cool.

      Heck, talk about how the Death Star blew up an entire planet and we’re still good.

      Talk about a machine gun nest at Normandy? You’ve just made thousands of parental eyes squint.

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  3. The Japanese are light years ahead of us with their Anime. Story lines that are so fantastic they /needed/ the graphics to tell the story. Anime there really started to take off once they hit their “Asian contagion” era. Remember, they went through a huge recession over 2 decades ago and never really recovered. I remember reading someplace that movies did so well during the Depression because everyone wanted escapist fare to dissociate from their daily lives. Once life gets “better” there isn’t the time nor desire for such escapism.

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  4. I took a course on genre fiction in college, and Bakker’s point was the general thrust of the course. We looked specifically at the science fiction tale from Edgar Allen Poe to Neal Stephenson, Detective stories from Holmes to House, and finally the Western from the early newspaper stories to Unforgiven.

    I think fantasy as a mainstream genre has become rather boring, and I don’t have the institutional knowledge to enjoy some of the maniac works out there. But, someone will come along soon who can bridge that gap, and until then, I just won’t be partaking of any fantasy.

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