Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : #11 - Feb 2005

Fantasy of Modern Times

Recently for a Phoenix meeting, I ran a discussion on "Fantasy of modern times". I started this off with a short presentation. Following is the set of notes I used for that presentation.

The thing is, I donít really know much about the fine detail of the subject area - but as a group we almost certainly do, so in this initial presentation I want to try to trigger something which I hope will draw on the collected expertise of the group and stimulate discussion.

The title of the talk is "Fantasy of Modern Times". Iím aware that there is an ambiguity here - I could either be talking about fantasy set in our current modern world, or fantasy written in modern times. In the spirit of the precision which surrounds fantasy - Iím going to do both and neither but mainly the former.

First a working definition of Fantasy. Magic. If it has magic spells, creatures, lands or whatever then its fantasy. If there is no magic then it isnít fantasy. It's not perfect and you will be able to find exceptions - the biggest and most obvious being the Horror genre which Iíll return to later. BUT we should most certainly not concern ourselves with the fringes. Using this definition gets us around the "but all fiction is fantasy" twitter that we hear every time definitions are asked for - perhaps I could just use the publishers label definition (if a publisher says its fantasy then it is).. Lets leave it at that - its not the topic of this discussion.

Also a point about the fact that we are looking to create categories here. This is not pigeon-holing. We are not creating fixed librarians categories. The idea is to create a vocabulary. It gives us a way of talking about fantasy. This means that we donít care particularly if there are instances of books which donít fit in - as long as the vocab is applicable in most cases then we have achieved our aim.

Also, just an aside but ... "Modern fantasy". This was the original title for the talk that I came up with, but my researches show that this term has a meaning in academia. Those people who consider fantasy a fit subject for study use the term "modern fantasy" to refer to everything that we normally associate with the genre. If it would appear on the fantasy shelves of a bookstore then its Modern Fantasy. Probably all fantasy written since the late 19th century qualifies. That brings me to my first question:

  --If all the fantasy we read is "modern fantasy" then what is ancient fantasy?

The time that fantasy is set in can be divided into a number of ages. These don't necessarily correspond to historical ages, they are really technological ages
   ∑    "Medieval" (or before) - note the caveat that it isnít really medieval at all
   ∑    After the divide
   ∑    Today
   ∑    The future

The divide - the industrial revolution. Its clear that the thing which binds the "medieval" writers is that they are set before the advent of widespread mechanisation and industrialisation generally. This whole set of areas after the divide is the time period Iím interested for our discussion in - not just now but any time after the industrial revolution.

  --What is the driver for an author to write in these periods? What are the attractions (or non attractions of each)? Related to the question - why do so many write pre-industrial?

  --Who are the key authors in these more modern areas?

That is from a writers perspective. One key answer of course is that they cater to what the readers want. Its not the only answer, but it does mean that the related question has to be asked.

  --What are the attractions for readers in these various categories?

Juvenile fantasy - when I get to look at examples I think I see that there is a disproportionate number of authors who write targeted at today. This could be the Harry Potter effect but that all there is too it.

  --Why do juvenile themed books tend to be more targeted at the modern era.

I mentioned earlier that the bands I have given represent technology division. The reason is obvious - if you just base it on time and periods in Earth history then you make it hard to deal with all the fantasy set in unearthly realms. Lots, perhaps the majority, of fantasy is not set on earth but on some other mythical places. You can perceive a continuum - from earth as we know it (but with magic in it), to not earth but like earth through to not earth and not really like earth. I do know that there does exist a fourth option earth, but not as we know it - look at the works of Sean Stewart as an example. As a simple approximation, it works - in fact we will simplify it even more - put a line through to divide recognisably like the real earth vs places not as we know things.

We now need to modify the question above to add this distinction in. Not only different times but also different degrees of earth like nature.

Finally, one other factor to consider when looking at these questions is the crossover story. CS Lewis starts at now (well "now" for him) and ends up way over here. Itís a common theme - Stephen Donaldson would be another example.

  --How does temporal dislocation factor into the decision about what era to set a fantasy (what patterns) - and why those patterns?

I mentioned the closely related genre of Horror before - it works the other way around compared to fantasy - everything is here and now. This is probably because writers and audiences want to make the impact more personal - the "it could happen to you" factor works best if you set it in the times and places of your audience.

Finally, the big question. I think there is a message here about fantasy in general. The answer to the following question is pretty obvious, but what I want to talk about is why.

  --What does this tell us about fantasy as a genre - why is this answer so obvious?