Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Perils of Public Statements and Why Natasha Pulley is the Bravest SF/F Fan I've Ever Read

The Guardian is one of the few newspapers that truly takes Science Fiction and Fantasy literature seriously on a regular basis. They frequently have reviews of new releases, cover the latest kerfuffle in fandom, and run a number of opinion columns discussing the genres. As a fan, it's nice to find a place in the mainstream media where I can see one of my obsessions treated without a hint of irony.

This isn't to say that The Guardian doesn't wander into Clickbaitlandia from time to time. I took one of their regular writers, Damien Walter, to task for asking if we were "in a post-Sci Fi era." Damien was kind enough to take my discussion seriously, which made for one of my own personal blogging highlights. One does not often imagine that people who have deadlines to meet, and who are halfway across the globe, have time to respond to one's little island of ideas.

About a week or so ago, Damien wrote a piece lamenting the tyranny of mega-novel series in epic fantasy fiction. As a fan of the Fantasy genre, who is tired of being expected to read 10,000 pages over the span of 20 years in order to get a complete tale told within an author's mythopoeic construction, I was glad to see someone I respect shared my views. I miss the compact and deep shorter novels of days past. Long gone are the days of Elric of Melnibone, we now live in the era of The Wheel of Time. I think that today's readers are poorer for that experience, but there are those who disagree with Damien's view. Among them is an aspiring author named Natasha Pulley.

Natasha Pulley argues in her own piece at The Guardian that, "High fantasy...hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters. Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don't tell, and these details take even longer to convey." Her argument is that the modern genre of Epic Fantasy requires the massive amounts of elaboration that so many modern Fantasy novels indulge in as a condition of additig literary value and verisimilitude. In Pulley's analysis, many of the best Fantasy stories are very simple tales at there core and it is the addition of world-building and subtle portrayals of character interaction that make these stories truly worthwhile.

There is more to her argument, to be sure and you should read her piece in its entirety, but it is one that I could not disagree with more. I think that the kind of "subtlety" of interpersonal interactions that makes up much of the verbiage of many a modern tale are flaws in writing and not virtues.

Before I elaborate on my reasons, I want to take a moment to repeat something I wrote in the headline of this post. Natasha Pulley may be the bravest SF/F fan I've ever read. I write this because she has written column that takes up a somewhat controversial opinion during a time when fandom won't hesitate to demonstrate to you exactly how wrong you are, and often not in the nicest of terms. The reason I am writing this post is less because I disagree with Pulley and think she is in need of "correction," rather it's because of the ire she raised among my Facebook friends. I have an odd collection of "friends" on Facebook who run the gamut from "not at all interested in SF/F" to editors in the field, and many of them were outraged by Pulley's piece. One of the nicer critiques was that it seemed that The Guardian had recently become a cesspool of nothing but click bait articles.

I, myself, even tweeted out a brief "you clearly haven't read x..." tweet in response to Pulley's article. I wasn't insulting in tone or language, but I think I was a bit dismissive. Pulley's response was perfect, "I'll add that to my reading list." Not only is she brave, but she clearly cast a Stoneskin spell upon herself after writing the piece. The rage on my feed, and Pulley's own polite response to my snark, are why I'm writing this post.

I'll begin my critique of Pulley's piece by using a trick she uses in her own article. In order to demonstrate how simple, almost simplistic, Epic Fantasy tales can be, she reduces a couple to their barest skeleton. Her choices are Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. I'll go a step more modern, into a series that is "windier" (pun totally intended) than Rowling at her most "we are camping for 300 pages," and pick Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind.

Name of the Wind  : Homeless youth goes to college and acquires student loan debt.

Spoiler alert. That's pretty much all that happens in that book and it takes a long time to get there. Readers are led through sidebar after sidebar of other short stories along the way, but that's the crux of the book. Oh...and it's very enjoyable because it's well written. A part of how well it is written is in the little short stories that take place throughout the book. In fact, the sidebars contain far more world-building than the wordy narrative. Some of the best world-building in Rothfuss' book are the product of "off-hand" comments made by characters in the book. By off-hand, I mean off-hand to the characters, they are very intentional by the author.

This brings me to my main point. While Pulley is correct in stating that the on page development of deep friendships or interactions between characters can be page consuming, she is wrong about world-building. The problem, and blessing, of modern Fantasy is that it gives us entire conversations. This makes for very believable characters, but neither moves the story along nor gives the reader a sense of the world.

The best world-building is seen in shorter fiction, not in longer. It is, as Pulley rightfully acknowledges, extremely difficult to write short fiction let alone short Fantasy fiction. That's one of the reasons, much to Susan Palwick's disappointment I imagine, that I have not published any fiction to date. It's hard to be creative. But as difficult as short fiction is to write, it is where the best writing occurs.

Robert E Howard's first Conan tale, which I examined at this blog some time ago, is rich with world-building. Sometimes Howard achieves world-building through heuristic shortcuts where certain nations are "inspired" by our own history. He's not alone in this though as Robert Jordan borrowed from Dune, King Arthur, Tolkien, and a host of other sources for his Wheel of Time series. One would imagine that with all of the world-building shortcuts Jordan used, he wouldn't need so many books to tell his tale.

Fritz Lieber's classic tales of Nehwon are all short fiction, usually novellas, that give a strong sense of place in a very small number of words.

Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga is brilliant for its world-building and yet the world gets no "bigger" the more books you read. The world is real from moment one, even if you don't get the heuristic shortcuts Moorcock is using.

Garth Nix's tales of Hereward and Mr. Fitz take place in a fully imagined environment and never have they wandered into even the novel in length.

H.P. Lovecraft build complex mythologies within the short form.

C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith is one of the most realized characters in all of fiction, and his tales are a collection of shorter stories.

Barsoom is fully realized in "Under the Moons of Mars." Yes, that's a novel, but it isn't a massive mega-novel series. Even as a series, the full of Barsoom lore pales before a single volume of Rothfuss in mass.

Averoigne is as real a place as any other, but Clark Ashton Smith did not need 12 volumes to immerse us there.

The depth of a setting can be shared with arcane and subtle references that inspire the imagination. One need not have a fully articulated mythology akin to the Silmarillion fully referenced within a tale to give that tale depth. I'm not saying that having a fully written Silmarillion isn't helpful to an author who wants to be able to share subtle references with readers, it probably is. Instead, I'm saying that all readers need are subtle references to fill in the blanks. Gary Gygax's Appendix N is filled with tales of wonder far shorter, and more inspirational, than much of what is published today.

Leave gaps for the readers to fill. Let our imaginations live in the spaces between.

It is a tragedy that Fantasy has wandered too often away from praise of shorter fiction, short stories, novels, and novellas. They are still printed, but they lack the commercial success of their mega-tyrants. Given how much easier it is to translate a shorter tale to other media, other fandoms are ill-served by this tyranny.

I've shared only a few of my favorite shorter tales of Fantasy. What are some of yours?

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