Ad Lib Column: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of Empire in Black and Gold (Canada, USA, Europe) is our guest columnist this time around. His fantasy debut is garnering quite a few positive reviews, and I'm hoping that I'll get the opportunity to read it later this fall.

To learn more about the author and his work, check out, where you'll also find Tchaikovsky's blog.

In the coming weeks, guest columnists will include Patrick Rothfuss, who will be writing a piece on fan mail, and Lilith Saintcrow, who will offer her thoughts on those who believe that urban fantasy is low-brow crap. Stay tuned for more!;-)

Old Dog New Tricks

This is something of a nervous venture, being FNG(1) in the genre. It's slightly odd being handed someone else's soapbox and asked to rant about something. To get the auto-trumpetry over with: Empire in Black and Gold, book 1 of Shadows of the Apt, the brand spanking new trilogy (2), further and better particulars see with my blessings. Share and enjoy.

So: pontification on fantasy fiction no. 43.

Fantasy, as a genre, comes in for more than its fair share of hammering from people who believe in "literature". I could go on about the origins of narrative fiction (3), or about the artificiality of genre divisions (4) and I have done, at length. Most of the criticism comes from people who seem to feel rather threatened that grown up people are still writing about dragons and elves. It offends them. Many of them are so sensitive about it that the aforementioned elves and dragons can offend them despite the fact that they've never so much as picked up a fantasy novel since they read half of Lord of the Rings when they were thirteen (5). Other criticisms single out features of the genre to slate without ever actually saying why they're a bad thing: "oh there are always loads of books in the series," "oh they're always so long." And with the latter criticism they neatly damn Tolstoy and Victor Hugo, to name but two.

Some of the criticisms cut a little deeper, though. There is a fair case to be made that a proportion of this generation's fantasy is basically last generation's elves and dragons, reheated and served tepid. The same dark lords, cheeky rogues, reluctantly-destined warriors and wise old wizards are resurrected again and again to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then do exactly the same in the sequel (6) This, then, is pole A of fantasy.

Pole B is where the fiction is so speculative that the read is really very hard work indeed. Note, this is not a negative criticism, per se. The writers mining at that cliff face are generally the very best, the most skilled and daring. The difficulty can be that it's hard to clear those kinds of heights from a standing start. Exempla Gratia: probably my all-time favourite author is Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun is an awe-inspiring classic. I first read The Shadow of the Torturer at age sixteen and gave up on it because very little of it made sense to me (9). It was far too long before I ventured back to Urth, and found out what I had been missing.

Between these poles there is, well, the whole genre, from the gravity-well of the Tolkienarium all the way up to the rarified heights of absurdity, and most people from outside the genre who lay into fantasy do so because rehashed Tolkien-lite is all they see.

Sitting there with Mervyn Peake in one hand and Gene Wolfe in the other, though, it's easy to miss the main point of why those books, however rarified, are enjoyable. At their core, they're down to earth, close to home, dealing with issues that mean something to the reader, presenting characters that connect, and working with age-old themes and plots. Because, in-genre snobbery aside, there's actually nothing wrong with dragons. Or wizards. (10) Or (and this admission is drawn from me with a winch using glass-coated wire) elves, in and of themselves. Even cheeky rogues are not deserving of being consigned to the pits on first principles. It's what you do with it that counts. Fantasy from either end of the spectrum will deal with the same human absolutes, because that's what all human writing deals with. I'm not an exponent of the "there are only (insert number here) plots in the world" theory, because to get down to the kind of number they insert you have to reduce the plots to the ridiculous (11), but still: love, war, death, vengeance, loss, family, growing up, horror and wonder, these are the things that fiction is made of. A plot that touched on nothing common to human experience would find few readers. The execution is what makes the difference between dream and dross.

And this is the crunch. Let's say you want to write a book about kingdoms and knights and all that jazz. Well it can go two ways. One way leads to something resembling MGM-does-King-Arthur, with added Prince Valiant, and all those literary-minded scoffers get to scoff one more time, and they'd be right, let's face it. The other way, when you throw in a great deal more thought and a dash of Kings and Queens of England, gives us A Song of Ice and Fire. Similarly you can have your evil treasure-hoarding dragons, or your frilly hippy-bearing tame dragons or whatsoever old hat of a dragon you care to name, or you can read Naomi Novik and see that dragons are still a commodity in the fantasy market so long as you don't debase the currency with all that has gone before. And what Scott Lynch does with cheeky rogues... (12)

Speculative fiction is fiction sans frontières, and this means that you can go as far as you like from the standard clichés, and it's good, or you can take a staple fantasy ingredient, and step sideways into a parallel dimension, and it can also be good. It's all a matter of finding ground untrodden, seeing where the maps end and going ten miles beyond the borders (13).

(1) For those not aware of the delightful acronym, the last two letters stand for New Guy.
(2) Trilogy with its modern meaning of "a series of more than three books, and probably at least nine"
(3) Myths, speculative storytelling, the romances, fantasy all -
(4) Magical realism anyone? The sub-genre that is basically po-faced fantasy dressed in a suit. See above link.
(5) It's a bit like peanut allergies. "May contain elves" or "was produced at a printers where books about elves are also made".
(6) There was a saying, about the old sci-fi, that it was "by robots, for robots and about robots" (7). For fantasy, I suppose, insert "hobbits" (8)
(7) At the height of the splurge of anthropomorphic animal fantasy stories, this was recoined with "rabbits" instead of "robots".
(8) Although frankly anything that involves inserting hobbits anywhere is probably not the best idea.
(9) Also, a friend had been passing the whole torturer thing off as his own idea in a gaming campaign at the time, and my outrage at the plagiarism inexplicably contaminated the book.
(10) Or, dare I say, empires?
(11) There is only one plot in the world. It's the one where that guy/girl does that thing. John Hodgman sends it all up nicely in Areas of My Expertise in which he states that all known plots boil down to either man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. himself or man vs. cyborgs.
(12) This is not intended to be libellous in any way. Just a special note to Mr Lynch's lawyers.
(13) And if the maps say "here be dragons", at least have the grace to discover a new breed of them.

2 commentaires:

Matt Keeley said...

Good piece.

I'll be honest - learning that you're a fellow Wolfe fan makes it much more likely I'll read your book. Read his new book yet?

Mimouille said...

Very nice piece...I'm also a fellow Wolfe fan, but still don't understand Peake...your "ranting" will nonetheless encourage me to read your book...I would have anyways, because I buy books based solely on the cover art...