Whether drawn from faiths in the real world or completely constructed by an author, divinities of all sorts are a useful way to explain the source of a character’s power. The ways in which these characters are positioned in relation to their presiding deity allows for different kinds of conflicts. In novels like R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy war the gods are distant and must be channeled through a person in order to operate in the real world. This model stands in opposition to that of series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books where the power is innate to the character and cannot be revoked even if they should displease their patron (or in the case of the Percy Jackson books, their parent). The world and relationships enabled by these systems have very different feels and both Kuang and Riordan are able to use them to great effect.Read More »
There is no wiki for Jo Walton’s Among Others and even if there was it probably would not be particularly helpful. This is because unlike many other, more well-known fantasy stories, the magic the novel is not something that can be codified for fans to pour over the technicalities of. Instead Among Others is built around an informal magic system that the reader experiences only through Mori, the first-person narrator. Walton is very successful in moving focus away from the minutia of magic systems that are often at the heart of fantasy novels towards the ways in which Mori’s magic integrates with the real world. This is a novel that is successful in its world building choices but that also runs the risk of disappointing readers who expect to find a complex system to engage with.Read More »
I get asked about what I read fairly often and usually by people who encounter my reading habits in the context of higher education. This is unsurprising given that my reading strategy very intentionally is designed to give me an edge in a classroom, but I always have mixed feelings about suggesting that others read the way I do. That isn’t to say I don’t think people should read, its more so that I read with very particular goals in mind and for people with different goals or resources my way of organizing my reading would not be the best use of their time. I spend a great deal of my free time reading with the primary goal being breadth of knowledge. I want to know as much as I can across a wide range of subjects which pays off for me in an academic setting. I can walk into most arts and humanities classes and be able to discuss ideas intelligently not only by drawing on facts from things I have read but by making connections across diverse subjects. This is the motivation behind how I read, and I find it very rewarding, but this is a successful strategy because of the environment I inhabit and the amount of time I spend reading. All of this to say that I don’t think everyone should read like this, but for those with similar goals, I think my reading strategy is effective (also I’m pretty sure some people like to hear about it because they think it’s a little bit nuts).Read More »
In many ways society has moved beyond the traditional Western stories, largely because most people have a much more rounded view of history that does not allow for straight forward narratives about heroic cowboys on some empty American frontier. An understanding of the colonial process and the long term impacts of how the United States formed makes purely celebratory westerns seem somewhat naïve if not disrespectful to the experiences of indigenous peoples so these kinds of stories do not enjoy the same kind of wide spread popularity they used to enjoy. However, in recent years there have been several successful novels that return to the western genre with new goals. Books like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (interestingly both written by Canadians) lean heavily on exploring the flaws in the traditional western albeit in very different ways. The Sisters Brothers is dark comedy bordering on satire which plays up the archetypes of the western to make their absurdity obvious to the reader. In contrast, the heroes of McGrath’s fantasy western fit more closely to the cowboy hero but undermines traditional westerns by taking place in a world that includes the suffering and oppression that was erased in older westerns. These new westerns reflect new understandings of history and show how beloved genres can be brought into the current day.Read More »
No one is surprised when the advanced AI turns on its creators. At this point in the history of speculative fiction it is almost a given – so to make the villainous reveal satisfying the author needs to have constructed a believable character. Some authors pull this off well, not that their reveals are necessarily surprising, more so that they are satisfying for a reader. On the other hand, there are creators who very much lean into the trope and use it as a shorthand to take away from genuine character building. This shortcut taking is obvious in films like Avengers: Age of Ultron while books like Chuck Wendig’s Wanders make some attempt to mask their AIs in mystery. Convincing stories about rogue technology require character building and an awareness of audience in order to create an immersive believable narrative.Read More »
Being a latecomer to an expansive fantasy world is often daunting and sometimes requires an unfortunate amount of trial and error to figure out where to begin. So, although authors may not have planned for their projects to end up quite so large it is still essential that their fantasy epics exist with some kind of structure to make them intelligible to readers arriving a little late to the party. The Forgotten Realms, particularly the extremely popular entries by RA Salvatore is a demonstration of the chaos that results when series organization becomes overly complex. On the other hand, the much less well-known Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell has a more accessible organization scheme. These of course are incredibly different series but ultimately their creators were facing the same problems about how to organize new additions to a series that was now more about a shared world than it was shared characters.Read More »
There is a great deal of speculative fiction that has been made impossible in recent years by the progression of science, technology and time. Stories that once presented a world that was not necessarily real but was still possible based on the understanding of the world that was prevalent at the time the story was being written. That isn’t to say that The War of the Worlds is no longer an enjoyable book to read because Wells didn’t know that there are no advanced aliens on Mars or that the message of 1984 is now irrelevant because Orwell got his timelines wrong. Rather, science has moved beyond the minutia of those stories and shifted the experience of reading those books. As a result, speculative fiction has had to shift if it wants to remain within the realm of possibility. One such place is the world of sleep and dreams which remain an area that science struggles to fully understand and explain. Films like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, or Hank Green’s debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing make dreams the setting of much of their world and build a speculative experience around something that science still cannot fully explain.
The entry into dreams is important, and very different, in the worlds created in Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Christopher Nolan does not give all people easy access to the world of dreaming, instead it is a process that requires drugs and no small amount of skill, especially if the dreamer wants to have the kind of high stakes adventures that are at the centre of the plot. Additionally, dreams in this form are not the benign experience of the real world but rather are filled with dangers and pitfalls that come with looking behind the curtain – implying that what science might find when it does master the details of sleep may not be as pleasant as some would like to imagine. Hank Green is one of the people who utilize dreams as a site of positive experience that is universal. His novel uses a dream world in order build a shared experience where everyone begins on equal footing across cultures. Nolan and Green’s contrasting interpretation rest on decisions about how they want their readers or viewers to interact with the notion of dreaming.
Inception feels in many ways aspirational – you sit and watch Leonardo DiCaprio run around taking on all kinds of risks and think about how great it would be to become that kind of badass. But rather than requiring a monster workout regime the dreaming of Inception is just out of reach because the world of dreams remains a mystery (also because dream sharing is not actually possible). Alternately, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing presents dreams as something amazing that will happen to you, not something that can be pursed or created by rather a phenomenon that is driven by an external force. These are very particular decisions that have been made in during the world building of the speculative stories in the same way that a fantasy writer must decide who has access to magic.
Both of these stories feature dream sharing as a pivotal mechanic. The creators are not just interested in a setting that is separate from science, they want to explore the collective experience of these places. The collaborative aspects are what are beyond science but the need for sleep and for dreams means that it much easier to accept these constructions that it is the notion that we might one day be invaded by Martians. Technology has enabled us to see Mars in detail and to send probes to collection additional information but the picture that science creates about sleep is much less clear so creators like Nolan or Green are able to fill in these spaces with their own imaginings. Dreams are still a place where we are able to collaboratively imagine a world that is not restricted by science which means they have an immense range of possibilities that Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing take full advantage of.
People do not experience these stories and necessarily believe that they will occur in the real world, but the experience doesn’t require the same level of suspension of disbelief that other texts may depend upon. The speculative worlds that Hank Green and Christopher Nolan create are based in the possibilities that arise when science is unable to provide a clear list of restrictions. Whether the creator chooses to use the world of dreams as an exclusive place that visitors must earn entry into or if dreams are a kind of magic that happens to the dreamer the dream is still a space that is protected by real world mystery. One day Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing will be made even less plausible as science explains the intricacies of sleep but until that happens dreams are a largely unexplained phenomena that make room for speculative imaginings of the future.
In gaming jargon, it’s called being overpowered but even if the discussion around fantasy literature lacks the vocabulary to pinpoint what makes certain book series loose their appeal, over powered characters are often at the heart of the issue. The way that fantasy stories tend to develop, both with larger plot points and the arc of the protagonists, often lead towards overpowered characters which then have to be somehow managed by their creators. J.K Rowling gave Harry that incredible power, but she also didn’t allow him to keep it – this was a well executed and mostly well liked as a strategy, but it is perhaps the obvious narrative choice. In contrast Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy gives Quentin near absolute power but rather than confiscating the power Grossman turns the narrative focus in such a way that it is not longer the great concern of the plot. The efficacy of these strategies is tied to the ways in which the authors tie magical ability to their character’s personality as well as the impact on the emotional moments of the story. It is a moment where the world building must integrate with the events of the text seamlessly and for maximum effect.
The culmination of this effect in the Harry Potter books is at the very end of the series as Harry fixes his own wand with the Elder Wand just before the end of the Deathly Hallows. It draws together world building elements that have been building since the moment Harry gains his wand in Ollivander’s and is told that his wand has a brother that will try and kill him through the irreparable damage to Ron’s wand in the second book and into the story of the terrible power of the Elder wand. Ultimately, Rowling is using these threads to bring a satisfying conclusion to the magic of her world without leaving Harry as some kind of god with a target on his back. There is no sense of loss when Harry chooses to set the Elder wand aside, rather she ties it to victory as that unlimited power is used to break the world building rules that made wands unfixable and give Harry a trophy of sorts. It is a masterful demonstration of what is possible when world building is well done and when the power that a character holds is well managed.
There was no way for Rowling to turn the series away from Harry as a hero or the Elder wand as a tool, but Lev Grossman’s Magicians is far less dependant on Quentin as savior so instead of placing limitations on him Grossman instead turns the reader away from Quentin’s arc. What makes Quentin successful as a narrator of Grossman’s world is his awe, and desire for absolute power without necessarily being a villain. Quentin’s awe made him a good student, it led him into Fillory and helped him become a magician for whom little if anything is out of reach. Early in the series Alice describes this state as the “wasteland of adult magic” and Grossman is faced with the challenge of creating tension in the conclusion to his trilogy even when his protagonist has few limitations. The solution that Grossman utilizes is not one of imposed restrictions on Quentin’s power, rather Quentin’s journey of magical learning begins to play second fiddle to the quests of those around him. While serving in a teacher role to Plum, the true protagonist of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s power is far less of a concern. He has his own narrative arc in this book that considers how to use that virtually unlimited power but much of the character growth is centered on his place as mentor.
Both Rowling and Grossman are capitalizing on the elements of their world building that are unique and captivating for the reader in order to solve inevitable problems with over powered characters. Readers are still able to enjoy the connection between wizards, their wands, and the lore of the wizarding world at the end of the Deathly Hallows. There is a sense that these elements will continue to exist in balance with each other and that there may be future stories to come. Similarly, the joy of magical discovery is not lost in Grossman’s world even though Quentin is past the point at which his primary goal is the acquisition of skill and power because he is facing the new challenge of how to pass that power onto a student. Quentin takes his place in a chain of teachers and students that was obscured by his perspective in earlier books but is the bigger picture conclusion that the trilogy needed. These successes are built on the back of masterful world building by authors who take the time to consider the ways in which their world operates and how to use their own rules to shape characters who seem to have moved beyond limitations on their power.
Note: I have not watched the Magicians television show and am only speaking about the books.
Note: I am perhaps not the best person to be writing this given that I identify as non-binary rather than as a woman but I rationalize this because there isn’t really a lot of essays about the challenge of writing outside the gender binary (and feminist writers tend not to leave a lot of space for these identities) so I think it is still acceptable for me to put forward an argument on this topic.
The accessibility of writers and other public figures through the internet has brought to the forefront issues that remain over the way women writers are viewed. Misogynistic abuse, or comments over the appropriateness of women addressing various issues in their work can now be directed to authors which brings feminist back to the forefront after a period where the public may have considered these issues solved. Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy, published an essay about the experience of female author which joins a tradition of women authors addressing their positions. Virginia Woolf wrote and delivered a paper about female authorship to the National Society for Women’s Service in 1931. These are texts separated by a great deal of change in the feminist landscape but due to the influence of other factors in Sudjic’s essay Woolf’s treatment of the topic stands as better suited to the well being of today’s women writers.
Both Woolf and Sudjic have chosen particular ways of framing their commentary on being a woman writer but there are very different implications to those devises. Olivia Sudjic brings her argument out of her experiences as a writer in residence in Berlin – a time when she experienced crippling anxiety that rendered her not only unable to write but also unable to function in her everyday life. She builds this experience of anxiety into a comment on the challenges of female authorship and ultimately concludes that her anxiety is what enables her to write, not just in general but with a “strong female I” that works against patriarchal expectations. She has chosen the experience of anxiety as the frame for how she speaks not just about her own experience of female authorship but in general about the often-hostile world that female writers encounter. Woolf’s paper is one that was written with the intent of being delivered as a speech to a woman’s college, so it is very much a product of that context and of Woolf’s time as the framing device is the Victorian idea of the Angel in the House. In her essay Woolf speaks of her own journey as a woman writer, the need to not just write but to rise above societal expectations for what a female writer was but she frames this as an argument for killing the Angel in the House. She speaks of societal expectations as if they are a supernatural entity that must be battled constantly until it is finally defeated.
Ultimately, I think that Sudjic’s choice of anxiety as a way of framing female authorship could have worked if that argument was made in a slightly different context. If Sudjic herself wasn’t experiencing what is clearly a clinical mental illness, or if she was able to recognize and address that illness by demonstrating an attempt to recover. Sudjic’s justification of her illness is not unique to her, most people who suffer from similar disorders do justify their illness but it always falls apart in the end (my anxiety got me the top graduating average in my high school, a scholarship and then top grades in my first year classes but it also got me a year in bed, a hospital stay and an inability to do simple things like ride the bus). There is also the fact that mental illness has long been used as a way to stigmatize the experiences of women and invalidate their experiences or achievements so perhaps that is also part of Sudjic’s rational. So, the close connection of her mental illness and her activism is understandable but that doesn’t mean it is a view that should be promoted or taken up.
Reading Sudjic’s book is a deeply uncomfortable experience, and not in the ways one would think she intended. The weaknesses of her argument and the danger of her framing of what is really a mental illness is much clearer when read beside the Virginia Woolf essay with its metaphor. Like Sudjic’s anxiety the Angel in the House metaphor allows for the sense of outside imposition. It is not the female author that creates the angel, rather that is a specter of society that follows her. Woolf develops this angel as something that tries to sway her writing, to trap her into some less opinionated version of herself, and then shows the act of writing as one wishes to be essential to the killing of the angel in the house. There is even a consideration of the challenges that come after the defeat of expectation, Woolf addresses how hard it can be to find and stay strong in an identity of her own. Even though the context that readers encounter Woolf’s essay in is far removed from the context that it was written in the angel in the house is still a metaphor that allows for a worthwhile discussion of the female author. Except this is a version of female authorship that allows for strength and resistance without promoting an acceptance of mental illness as valuable.
The writing of female authors is undoubtedly empowering, both for the women who write the texts and the people who read them. But the way these writers speak about their authorship can have implications beyond feminism and in an increasingly complicated world there needs to be far more attention paid to the ways that activism can end up being damaging. The Angel in the House may not be the recognizable figure that it used to be but Woolf’s essay stands the test of time in a way that Sudjic’s should not. Women can be strong without having to accept their own suffering and the battle for recognition is one that should not ride upon the back of mental illness. Woolf killed the angel in her house and now it is time for Sudjic to kill hers.
Humanity threatening disasters of debatable evilness are prerequisites for most speculative fiction. Although these stories tend to also include character growth arcs, romances, and some degree of environment survival as well, there is always some looming threat that needs to be defeated. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings typifies this kind of threat as Sauron is undeniably evil and lacks the kind of moral tension that appear in some other narratives. Tolkien’s trilogy is the story of humanity and the other races of Middle Earth fighting back against that evil until ultimately the world is left to the humans as magic steps back. However, there is a reversal of this narrative where in humanity faces its great threat, one of much more debatable morality, and looses. This is the story in the 2016 film The Girl With All the Gifts which grapples with what will happen when new beings rise up to replace us.
The end of Lord of the Rings is poignant, and powerful because even though the heroes won there is a sense of consequences, of something lost. The elves are leaving, so is Frodo and even the hobbits are being slowly enveloped into the ranks of men. The Third Age of Middle Earth has ended to make way for the Age of Man. This is the kind of melancholy that pervades Tolkien’s work and it is incredibly effective, but it does show a very particular view of humanity’s place. There is a sense of entitlement to the world of Middle Earth, as if the great evil was a product of magic and since that evil is gone it is also time for magic to step aside. I think some of this feeling is tied to the world in which Tolkien was writing, that is in and around the two World Wars. Humanity was definitely seen as flawed, but it was a very particular kind of moral flaw that lead to the carnage of the two wars.
In the present moment we face a different kind of failing in humanity, one that poses a threat to everyone’s survival rather than the extreme moral stakes of the World Wars. Climate change and all the politics surrounding it lead to questions about whether or not humanity is worth saving, if we deserve the kind of heroic measures that the magical peoples of Middle Earth pull off for humanity. So where the complexities of the 20th centuries crisis (which should not be down played, it was a critical moment of history and we should take the time to appreciate the people who fought and died for the world we live in today) become a black and white battle that leaves a near blank slate for humanity to progress from in Lord of the Rings – The Girl With All the Gifts considers the broken world that will be left to those who come after.
There are no real heroes by the end of The Girl with All the Gifts, the teacher figure who begins the story as the protector of the vulnerable protagonist is by the end just a last vestige of defeated humanity, there to stand in for the viewer. Instead it is the zombie hybrids who are left in control after a zombie plague breaks out and the children born of mothers who became zombies existed in a place that is neither human nor monstrous. When Melanie, the little girl who is the narrator and protagonist of the film lights the tower of zombie spores alight and locks the teacher in the pod it is the final moment of humanity’s defeat. Rather than being a film about the heroic quest to find a cure and rebuild it is the story of a new species rising up to take their place. And as the tower of spores burns and destroys any hope reclaiming the world for humans there is a sense that this is a righteous victory on the part of Melanie.
I don’t think the writers and directors are arguing that humanity should be abandoned, nor do I think Tolkien considers morality to be as simplistic as it is in parts of Lord of the Rings. But the contrast between these speculative stories does show a shift in the way creators are envisioning the place of humanity in a world that contains other beings. The Girl With All the Gifts suggest that humans have had their moment with the world, their moment to build a legacy for themselves, but that moment has passed and space needs to be made for what comes next. A more optimistic view would be to find a balancing point between surrender and the domination of Lord of the Rings. The real world doesn’t contain magical beings, or zombies (at least as of yet) but there is a growing environmental crisis and a legacy of colonial abuses around the world that need to be addressed. So perhaps the balancing point is not just about how humans will ensure that the world will still support human life but also about how we got to this moment and moving towards a future on the earth for both people and the natural world.