I’m often bothered by the fact that fantasy is a term for a whole genre. Sci-fi applies, too. These two terms have basically the same issue, so I won’t quibble over science fantasy or any other gradient of speculative content.
When you pick up a mystery novel, you can expect there to be clues to put together and a bad guy to catch, probably with a good dose of suspense involved. If the book is a thriller, it’s similar to a mystery but with more action and peril. These genre terms not only describe the general plot of the story, but suggest the mood and the type of content the reader can expect. If you dislike tough guy characters, chase scenes and life-or-death tension, you quickly learn that the typical thriller novel doesn’t appeal to you.
Fantasy, on the other hand? That classification is given to any story with a speculative element. The typical fantasy novel has a spiritual, mystical vibe and some sort of magical force beyond our understanding. Unlike science fiction, fantasy doesn’t need to explain itself (or imply that it can explain itself). But that’s about all we can demand of the fantasy label. No guarantees on how much magic there’ll be — never mind what the characters will be doing, thinking, feeling or fighting.
So how weird is it that we can say a book is “a fantasy novel” and act like that describes anything? If Book A is a tender love story between a medieval princess and a werewombat, and Book B is a thrill-a-minute saga of competitive dragon-racing in a steampunky version of the 1980’s, those books could easily end up on a bookstore shelf right beside each other. Because they both have fantastic elements — and that apparently overrides all the other story elements.
Sure, some people think fantasy should be kept strictly separate from non-fantasy. We’ve all heard of snobby literary critics who seem to hate using their imaginations. But does the fantasy designation really trump everything else about a story? Its pacing, its themes, its soul? Sometimes the fantasty elements are only there to evoke a certain flavour of drama, or to pose a philosophical question.
I think about this every time I need to describe my writing or write a synopsis. Because of Lord of the Rings and other iconic quest stories, fantasy is often considered synonymous with adventure, sword fights and evil wizards who must be stopped. J. R. R. Tolkien is well respected for his intricate constructions of language and culture, but Frodo’s heroic journey with the One Ring is the part of the story most people remember. Most of our familiar fantasy stories are hero’s journeys with high stakes. My stories of Aligare, on the other hand, are less showy. They’re about character growth and existential questions, and the nature of being a person. If you open Remedy up hoping that it’s an action-adventure quest to find a plague cure, then, well, yeah. You might be disappointed.
But grouping books exclusively by content doesn’t work, either. I’ve heard of people sifting through the Adventure section to find Conan the Barbarian books, back before sci-fi/fantasy books were deemed worthy of their own section(s) in bookstores. It must have taken a lot of browsing to find the sword-and-sorcery stories among the more contemporary works. Saying that adventure trumps fantasy isn’t a more accurate way to classify content, and it’s not any more fair to the variety of books out there.
I think the tag system is the best way to go about it. Label every book with a bunch of descriptors, then let the reader decide how specific they want to be. If one reader wants a highly political, action-adventure fantasy with dragon-riders, they can search for books that have all (or most) of those tags. If another reader just likes dragons and is open to all other factors, they can search for “dragons” and see what shows up. It works no matter which story elements you consider most important.
Tagging works very well when you’re trying to filter an electronic environment, but it’s problematic for paper novels. Those still need to sit on shelves in some order, any order: it’s an unfortunate consequence of having a three-dimensional physical form within space and time. This is why searching through a million ebooks can be much easier than searching through a thousand hardbacks on shelves.
But there’s nothing to say that we can’t use an electronic tag database to look up a book in a bookstore. It’d be a bit jarring at first to remove the big genre signs from bookstores, but bookstore employees could show you how to search a database in the same way librarians teach people to use the Dewey Decimal System. I think it would be great if more booksellers took on the approach of tagging paper books, regardless of whether the storefront is physical or virtual. It would definitely help people navigate the ever-increasing selection of books out there. It might even help SF/F stories become truly accepted as meaningful literature, when fantasy isn’t treated like a one-quest-fits-all classification.
Although, tagging does raise the question of how specific we should be. Should each book have five defining tags, or fifty? If a griffon is offhandedly mentioned on page 167, should griffon be tagged? Will we all have to agree on a spelling variation: “griffon”, “griffin”, or “gryphon”? There’ll always be room for debate in a field as broad as fiction. Organization might be a fantasy in itself.
- SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please (damiengwalter.com)
- How science helps fantasy (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Scars: fictional meaning vs. real mundanity (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
This post originally appeared on my Blogger account. So you might find it familiar!
There’s a unit of measurement called the smoot. You might find it while telling Google Earth which units to give distances in. The smoot sits in a pull-down menu along with more familiar measures like miles and kilometers — which is interesting because what the heck is a smoot? (Other than a reason to bicker with your autocorrect software. No, TextEdit, I don’t mean “smote”.)
According to Wikipedia, a smoot is equivalent to 5 feet, 7 inches or 1.7 metres. Which is the height of Mr. Oliver R. Smoot, a graduate of Masschusetts Institute of Technology. He and his fraternity buddies invented the unit of measurement as part of a prank. Over 50 years later, their painted smoot markings on Harvard Bridge are still used as points of reference by locals.
When Google offers measurements in smoots, it’s not really for practical purposes. It’s an obscure joke. The smoot was never intended to be taken seriously and people seem to find the whole thing amusing. Could that be that why this measurement endured far longer than most frat stunts?
Maybe it’s like how the foot has endured as a unit of measurement. Using a man’s foot as a unit of measure must have been practical in ancient times, but it’s a bit silly to hold things against the nearest adult man’s feet nowadays. Why are feet an acceptable form of measurement while smoots are a weird joke? Neither of them are more absurd than using a metre, which is defined as 1) one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, or 2) the distance light travels through a vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second. How the heck am I supposed to measure a piece of string against THAT?
But then again, it’s not like I could have Mr. Smoot follow me around in case I need to measure things. I doubt it’s possible for a standard of measurement to be immediately practical and relevant in all situations. We’re better off picking some arbitrary length, making metresticks/yardsticks to measure with, and calling it a day.
For my Aligare world, I have the characters measure short distances in “knuckles”, which is the distance between two of a person’s knuckles.
It’s about 1 inch/2.5 cm. Hand width is similar between korvi and aemets. Ferrin have small paw-hands so for the sake of clarity, they use the span of three knuckle bones, not two. Everyone knows that a knuckle is a very rough measurement, so they’ll specify whether this knuckle of mint stems is generous or skimpy.
Other measurement units are the “hank”, the average height of a cotton plant (about 5 feet/1.5 metres). And a “stone’s throw” which is, well, anywhere between 2 metres and 20. Without a government or a monarchy to impose specifics, everything is taken with a grain of salt. Or five grains. Sometimes.
Units of measurement exist so that people have some constants to relate to. Humans have a lot of ways to measure, I’m guessing because we’re an awfully competitive and curious bunch — but any sentient being needs a way to talk about length and distance, even if those units aren’t precise. Each unit has its intended audience, and we can convert measures to fill in the gaps. As the smoot proves, a unit of measure doesn’t need to be universal to be useful; that’s the long and short of it.
- Scars: fictional meaning vs. real mundanity (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- How lifespan affects the fantasy viewpoint (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Unusual objects and their measurements (ask.metafilter.com)
Scars have a way of seeming significant. Especially in fiction, where pointing out a character’s scars can imply a lot about them — that they’ve been crushingly defeated at some point, or that they live a dangerous life.
But the funny thing is that humans can get scars without doing anything dramatic at all. I burn myself at work on a fairly regular basis and, really, nothing interesting happens to cause it. I just pick up a plate and have a hot ramekin slide into my knuckle, or maybe I’m sprinkling cheese on pasta and I accidentally touch the heat lamp. Ordinary job hazards for a food service worker to get a little brown scar from. It’s not like I’m fighting anything or rescuing anyone (unless you consider waitressing a fight against hunger, or a rescue of restaurant patrons from low blood sugar).
And yet, scars are notable when a fictional character has them. Maybe it’s from because of the simple fact that scars indicate action. You don’t usually get a scar from sitting on the couch, after all: scars come about because the bearer was doing something or involved in something. There’s always a story there, even if it’s a relatively mundane story like falling out of a tree as a kid, or trying to cut vegetables for dinner. If the scar came from a medical procedure, then something bad happened that required a doctor and stitches. That scar might not make a grand statement about the person’s lifestyle — but it still has something to say.
Humans have mixed reactions to scars. We instinctively think of clear, unblemished skin as a sign of health, so scars are often considered unappealing. Fictional villains might have an ugly scar to indicate that they’re an unsavoury person. However, if scars are cast in the right light, they can can be an indication of a brave, strong warrior who can endure pain. Definitely an appealing trait in a hero or a mate.
In Remedy, I knew Peregrine would have some scars. For one thing, he’s spent his life mining with a hammer and chisel. Korvi have a tougher, more leathery skin than humans, but it would still be strange if Peregrine had never gotten a mark on him after 80 years of such physical work. He was also bitten by a basilisk at some point, while travelling alone. But he takes stuff like that about as seriously as I take burning myself at work:
Peregrine may have stumbled upon the occasional basilisk, but those beasts turned cowardly as soon as a fellow spat some smoke; a second tooth puncture scar on his leg wouldn’t be the end of him. The Skyfield plains held no trouble Peregrine couldn’t handle alone – oh, this was true and he knew it.
-Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 17
Peregrine’s scars aren’t there to be remarkable; they’re there as evidence of a life with an ordinary amount of hardship in it. In fact, I sometimes forget they’re there, just like Peregrine surely does.
When a scar triggers both positive and negative reactions in our minds, it’s easy fuel for our imaginations. That means that it’s easy for fiction to blow scars out of proportion and assume that they’re always a big deal. I can’t think of many characters who have minor-point-of-interest scars. And hey, why should real people have a monopoly on that? I think fictional characters should trip once in a while and need a few stitches, just like the rest of us.
- Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- I’m Embracing My Scars (nomorebandages.wordpress.com)
- Aligare wildlife: the pandora (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
As a kid, I went to a lot of summer-camp-type programs. Not all of them were actually camps in the woods: some were just arts and crafts projects hosted by the local college. But all of these programs were meant to ensure that only children like myself didn’t spend the whole summer in a lightless basement playing video games.
One of these college-hosted programs had me in a classroom with about 20 other kids. We were given a challenge: using an allotted supply of tape, paper, drinking straws and paper clips, make a construct that would allow a light bulb to survive an 8-foot drop. It was a standby activity that got kids thinking and building for an hour.
While fiddling with the paper and straws, my assigned group didn’t seem to have any good ideas springing forth. Or any ideas at all, really. So I threw out, “Hey, what if we wrap the paper around the lightbulb base like this? So it makes a cone, and the open end of the cone acts like landing gear.” Everyone agreed, in the blasé but curious way of kids who don’t know what to do. I basically led the exercise and my lightbulb construct ended up looking like a prototype lunar lander. The paper cone bristled with drinking straws — so the cone wouldn’t fall over, you see.
The other groups of kids made the simple models frequently seen in this exercise: crumpled balls of padding encasing the lightbulb, or landing pads to be put on the floor under the bare, falling bulb. Most of the day’s constructs successfully protected the light bulb. A few failed and were followed by broken glass cleanup. My lunar lander performed perfectly, landing on its open cone end with a quiet click and holding the light bulb se.
Afterward, the program leaders stood in front of the chalkboard and graded each construct. We got scores out of 20 points in several impressive-sounding categories. This was a farce, of course — it’s not like a casual summer program is going to give a child a failing grade in arts and crafts. At the time, I was just waiting excitedly to see if my clearly awesome construct would get the best score. Getting the highest score would mean that I won, right? Or at least that I was good at doing assigned things in a cool way.
In the category of Creativity, most of the other kids got score of 16 or 17. Drawing a design on your crumpled ball of paper was enough to get a score or 19 or 20 and be called very creative. So when a program leader arrived at my lunar lander and held his chalk near the Creative category, he hesitated. His face scrunched up with thought, and he hemmed and hawed something about how he had never seen a design anything like what my group did. Reluctantly, he wrote “21/20”.
And somehow, that was the most disappointing grade my teacher’s-pet self had ever received. 21 out of 20? What the heck was this noise? If actual innovation broke the grading parameters, then the grade was meaningless. I could sense that even though I just wanted to be the smartest kid in the room. The program leaders had watered down the term “creative” until it meant little more than “I acknowledge that you made something”.
Nowadays, I think of that experience when I’m reading reviews of mainstream fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a clichéd story about a destined farmboy, but I wince when I see those types of stories called “creative”. Like there’s something exceptional about redoing a well-worn trope. Sure, it’s creative in the strict sense that magical quests don’t happen in our real world and there aren’t any dragons in our skies. But if we call a hero youth with a sword “creative”, what will we do when a project comes along that shatters all our expectations? Give it 21 out of 20? Or 500 out of 20, because that’s about as meaningful?
I think it’s important to say what we mean, and keep our expectations high. Book grading is never anything but subjective, I know. People who are dazzled by the special farmboy probably just haven’t read much fantasy, so to them, it seems like a truly creative spin on an adventure quest story. But I expect a “creative” story to break rules or try something really out there, not just put a bit of window dressing on something familiar. Personally, I write about bird-dragons on peaceful quests for personal truth and I often feel like I’m not reaching high enough. There are new models to try, if we’re willing to wander away from the more obvious choices. And they might just work exceptionally well.
Our modern mainstream media shows a strong preference for safe ideas. Things that have been done before and can be doodled on to make them look new. Just look at all the franchise reboots and sequels available for us to read and watch. Creativity is something I don’t think we can get enough of: we should be building strange constructs whenever possible, just to see if they work. And as a consumer of ideas, I’ll always be expecting 20/20 creativity to surprise me.