Since the last post, I've had a bit of an opportunity to think about what it is I do or don't get out of any fantasy I've read. If I don't like most fantasy, then what's the common element in the fantasy that I do like?
For the record, I'm going to avoid getting into any heavy discussions about what actually constitutes 'fantasy', and point to this piece by Cheryl Morgan, where she makes the point that when people talk about a 'genre', they're really describing a set of familiar tropes, and that the quality of any particular text is dependent on the way an author chooses to make use of those particular narrative tools.
Within the context of this post, then, 'fantasy' is a very fuzzy-edged cloud that varies in content from person to person. It includes people like Robert Jordan or Tolkien, but also Jonathan Carroll and Ursula le Guin. For some people the cloud is more clearly delineated, for others it spills out into a disparate fog that swallows up all of science fiction and quite a bit of the supposedly mainstream. It all depends on where you stand and what you choose to see depending on your own inclinations.
Here's some 'fantasy' books I mentioned I liked: House of Leaves. This almost borderlines on Stephen King territory, albeit in the form of a wildly post-modern meta-text that heavily references other forms of media like video (a large part of the book is actually a transcript of what one character, whose input appears in the form of hugely extensive footnotes, starts out believing is a fictional documentary about a house that grows rooms without getting any bigger on the outside). It actually started out on the early internet as a series of disparate texts that had some people thinking it might all be real before seeing physical publication. If you liked Blair Witch, you're going to orgasm over this book.
I realised one thing I liked about it was the way the people in the documentary (the transcript of which we are reading) approached the house: with a very human desire to define and delineate - to understand what the house actually is, and to discover if there are physical limits to its growth. Like 19th Century explorers, they strike out into a strange new land with the goal of understanding it. Their approach is a product of the Enlightenment. Rather than reacting with superstitious fear, they seek to apply human knowledge and gain understanding. Whether they succeed or not isn't the point - what matters is their ultimate goal, to find a rational explanation for what they encounter.
Then there's 'City of the Iron Fish' by Simon Ings. This is like an anti-fantasy book - and here I'm drawing heavily from memory, because my one copy is currently residing in a cardboard box several thousand miles from my current location. The characters live in what they believe is a 'made' universe. The farther you get from the city, the more reality breaks down. It doesn't stop the hero trying to find out just what lies beyond the edge of his very limited universe. His behaviour is highly rational, but also very human. Rather than simply accepting his environment, he tries to understand it.
In Robert Holdstocks' 'Mythago Wood', a young man returns from the Second World War to find his father has disappeared into the supposedly haunted Ryhope Wood, having left behind extensive notes regarding his encounters with the entities there. He believes these mythological creatures are directly generated out of the collective subconscious of the human race and somehow given physical form by a means little understood, but that is never described nor regarded as 'magical'. As well as more typical mythological entities, the hero while exploring the wood encounters a First World War Tommy, who is himself part of an urban legend. Like his father, the hero attempts to understand the entities in rational terms.
I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomist a few years sgo since, as I've said to various people, it reads like the greatest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic comedy never made (read the first few chapters here, particularly the first several paragraphs, and tell me I'm wrong). This was a case where the sheer quality of the writing carried me past things I might have found my inner critic questioning, questions that often arise when I encounter 'secondary worlds'. Such as, where is this place? And why is nobody telling me where it is?
In a science fiction novel, when the characters encounter or find themselves in an unusual environment, they usually try and figure out where the hell it is, or what it is. Put it this way: if you read a book set inside a sub-light starship big enough to contain a civilisation who've forgotten they're on a journey, at some point you're going to expect somebody to want to dig a hole through the skin of the world and see what's on the other side. If an author chose to write a story in which the people inside that spaceship never once tried to figure out the actual parameters of their world, and just go on blindly existing and never asking the obvious questions, you'd feel more than a little cheated. That's essentially how I feel about a lot of fantasy.
Yet in The Physiognomist, as is the case with so many fantasy novels, there is no attempt made to understand or delineate the environment in which the narrative is set: this is what makes City of the Iron Fish so special, since the hero spends a good part of his time trying to figure out just where the hell he is - that's how I remember it, anyway - and this encapsulates the basic human drive to understand our place in the universe (although I stress this is no criticism, merely an observation regarding my own preferences and prejudices; The Physiognomist is a fine, fine novel that I got sent by Tor UK, when they republished it a while back. I highly recommend it).
This means, therefore, that if I'm going to buy a fantasy novel, I'm going to feel a bit underwhelmed if it involves a bunch of characters having some adventure without any reference to the nature of the environment in which they find themselves.
And now a repeat of the standard 'I'm a hypocrite' clause: I can read Jonathan Carroll without giving a damn how the hell any of the stuff in his books happens, at least partly because he's one of the finest writers in the English language - his 'Outside The Dog Museum' is still one of the best books I've ever read. I used to read a shitload of Jamie Delano's Hellblazer comics, and never had a problem - presumably because it was set in a world I nonetheless recognised in its more mundane elements. So why can I get into these, but not, say, Tolkien or Donaldson?
Partly, I think, it's the writing, and partly it's the sense of conciliatory escapism. This isn't to say science fiction can't be or isn't any more or less escapist than other literary forms, but even when it is it's almost always set in some variant of the world we know, no matter how far removed in time and space. When you read a full-on fantasy book, it's more of a complete retreat from any notion of consensual reality as we know it. And that's okay. Most of the people I've met who read that kind of dense, magical-kingdom fantasy tend to be pretty sharp people with demanding day-jobs for whom a fat fantasy novel is a terrific way for them to unwind.
But I need just a little bit more than that, and some of you people reading this blog have been kind enough to give me some really interesting suggestions. But for the moment I've pretty much settled on buying Lev Grossman's new book, The Magicians, even though it's largely set in a 'secondary world'.
Why? Well, partly because it's been getting terrific reviews, inside and outside of the genre press. Partly because I feel like reading something different for a change. But largely because I've read some online excerpts that show not only that the writing is terrific, but also that the hero is clearly a bit of a maths genius, and that the story strenuously avoids ticking any of the usual 'good vs bad' boxes.
I guess I'm hoping our boy genius will turn out to make some attempt at defining the parameters, the why of the magical world he finds himself in; the fact that what little of the narrative I've read so far appears to be heavy on the moral ambiguity just sweetens the cake. At least, that's what I'm hoping. So there you go.