Monday, November 11, 2013

It Started with a Whimper...

Citizens of the Internet, I come to you with sad news. I’ve kept the truth to myself for too long, and it’s about time I stopped sheltering the world and let you in on what can only be described as a devastating event.

You won’t like what I have to tell you, so instead of wasting more time I’ll tell it to you straight.  

I don’t enjoy Epic Fantasy anymore.

 That’s me after admitting the truth.

I can tell from your cringing faces that you share my pain, so let me elaborate.

Part I: A Disclaimer

Now, before we get down to brass tacks, there are two things I should do: let you know what my actual feelings for Epic Fantasy are, and find out what the hell is a brass tack.

Oh, I see. My mom just called it her medicine.

Be sure you understand that I didn’t say Epic Fantasy is bad, irrelevant, or silly, just that I don’t enjoy it anymore. And that makes me sadder than remembering I once paid money to watch Batman & Robin, because there was a time when I really loved the genre. In trying to understand when I got to the point where epic fantasy unnerved me more than watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I’m not on acid, I came up with a number of possibilities.

Maybe it happened when Ned Stark and I started questioning the logic of not using the giant eagles in the war against Sauron.

Or maybe it happened after realizing that most of the genre is about putting together a group of goody-goodies, lovable rogues, elder mentors, and pitting them against the unwashed forces of evil.

   Hey, I wash every Saturday!

Or maybe it happened when I fell in love with history. More on that in a second.

Part II: Looking for Fantasy in All the Wrong Places

Whatever the actual reason was, it aggravated me that the staples of fantasy (larger-than-life characters embarking on a quest, ambitious settings, epic high stakes, etc.) kept drawing me to novels and RPGs that I couldn’t worship the way I had before.

As I turned twenty, I wanted nothing so badly as to go back to enjoying the fantasy of my childhood, but I couldn’t. The stress got to me, and for a long time I even stopped trying. 

That was also the time when I first got laid. Probably not a coincidence.

I never gave up entirely, though. I would check fan-made lists of the best fantasy novels and series in hopes that one of them would do the trick. If you’ve been down those roads, you probably know that the picks of the litter are George R.R. Martin, Steve Erikson, and Patrick Rothfuss.

I tried Erikson, but for every bit that intrigued me, there were three more bits that left me feeling like I was wading through week-old bread and bowls of watery soup to get to the main course--only to find that it consisted of broccoli and frosted carrots. Almost as rewarding as invading Russia in the winter.

Unless you’re a Mongol.

One day I’ll give it a try again, because I really want to know what gets people excited about the Malazan series. Maybe I’ll even enjoy it. In a world where Sylvester Stallone actually nabbed a nomination for Best Actor anything can happen.

When Erikson isn’t writing doorstoppers, he moonlights as Pete Townshend.

Rothfuss started off nicely enough, and then it dragged, and dragged, and dragged. It dragged with the hopelessness of a man hauling a dead whale off the beach all by himself. I don’t understand the appeal in the life story of a boy who sets off to stop the demons that killed his family but gets sidetracked by school and paying his tuition. Since thousands of people do, I’ll just accept this isn’t my cup of tea. 
That’s Rothfuss trying out for the lead role in a Stanley Kubrick biopic.

Martin, on the other hand, did grab my attention. For a long, long time. But don’t think I’m head over heels in love with A Song of Ice and Fire, either. It’s a love-hate relationship I’ll be discussing in the days to come. Suffice it to say that of all the authors who could have revived my interest in fantasy, Martin proved the most successful…though perhaps not in the way you are thinking.

Now, before you start sending me the equivalent of William Shatner’s body weight in letter bombs, allow me to clarify something. I respect all the authors I listed in the previous paragraph for the work they have done and continue to do.

Sure, there are over a thousand books, fliers, and backs of cereal boxes I would rather read than give Rothfuss another chance to cure my insomnia. Unlike the majority of the people on the Internet, however, I’m grown-up enough to realize that just because I don’t like something doesn’t automatically make it a miscarriage of nature on a par with disease, hunger, war, or the people who thought anybody would get Superman IV on Blu-Ray.
There’s still hope for that 6-disc Plan 9 from Outer Space Blu-Ray I’ve been praying for!

Part III: Why I Am Writing this Blog Instead of Doing Something Useful

But then, my friends, when everything seemed lost…then I discovered history. History, with its epic clashes of civilizations, its infinite cast of extraordinary figures, its plethora of richly endowed settings, and its depth of moral complexity.

Sauron’s got nothing on this guy.

How not to be awed at Mahmed II’s successful idea to haul 70 ships overland in order to complete his siege of Constantinople? How not to marvel at Charles XII of Sweden defending his house against wave after wave of Turkish soldiers with just a handful of men? How not to be dazzled by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, or the technological wonders of Harappan society? How not to be enthralled by the question of whether it was better to live in democratic but highly unstable Athens or in the autocratic but highly functional Persian Empire?   

Inevitably, I came to the same conclusion that C.S. Lewis arrived at decades ago: that if I couldn’t find the kind of fantasy I wanted to read, I needed to write it myself. That’s what I’ve been doing the last seven years. Studying history led me to realize what I wanted from the fantasy genre.

That’s me embracing my life-changing epiphany.

I want morally challenging fantasy. I need moral relativism, not the worn-down archetypes of heroism and villainy. I don’t want the comfort of escapism or shallowness, but the rush of having my cage rattled, of seeing high expectations and reality slugging it out…and picking up the pieces later.

I wanted, in short, to be confronted with the real world through the buffer of a fantasy world. I wanted to address perennial historical quandaries and human questions in a setting that would allow for the careful examinations that, sometimes, real history makes it hard for our sensibilities to explore.

That’s what Tolkien, much as I adore the man, can no longer give me. That’s what Martin gave me a glimpse of…before I realized he was playing it safe despite appearances to the contrary. It fell to me to take the next step.

Okay, I don’t want to turn my first post into the Communist Manifesto and preach how the world is going to be an unending haven of bliss and puppies so long as you guys listen to me and me alone (it should be obvious by now, anyway). Plus, I’m running out of captioned pictures.

I started this blog to explain myself with examples and theories. I intend to make rational observations that will specify what I mean to accomplish with my own writing in terms of execution and content, and what I find both admirable and defective in the works that have inspired/compelled me to start this project.
I’m convinced that I know what I’m doing. Now it’s my job to convince you.

(I mean, I’d better do it. I was unable to fund that $70,000,000 porn epic I've been dreaming of since I was 14, so now I’m stuck with this writing gig.)


  1. I'm glad to hear about you, my friend.

    I remember your speech in the spring 2007: "The key [to be a genius], is to merge fantasy and reality together..."

    Have you read Mika Waltari's books? He was a genius, who wrote historical novels.

    1. I'm glad to hear about you, as well. It's been too long, I must say. I hope everything is going well with you, I really do. I'm glad you remember speeches even I forgot I ever made, makes me happy. It's probably not the most original thought to say, but I guess someone had to get it out in the world.

      I have read The Egyptian and found it very delightful, truly the work of a genius, you are absolutely right. I should give it a try again, but given all the books I have to read, it['s not going to happen any time soon. Thanks for dropping by. Take care.