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7 Things I Hate About Fantasy Novels

October 4, 2009 30 comments

I love speculative fiction of all types. (Except paranormal romance and most urban fantasy, both of which I loathe with a disturbing passion.) Some of the best stories, characters, ideas and yes, ‘literary’ writing are to be found in the works of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, among many many others. Ender’s Game absolutely blew me away the first time I read it, and when I was younger I wouldn’t touch anything that didn’t feature some sort of mythological being brought to life. There are, however, some things about the genre (is speculative fiction a ‘genre’?) that annoy the crap out of me, and most of them are firmly in the domain of the ‘fantasy’ end of the spectrum.

If the following list moves you to start a ‘Science Fiction vs. Fantasy’ flamewar in the comments…well, go ahead, actually. That sounds kind of entertaining.

#7: The focus on nobility. All right, I can see why people do this. In the kind of society that most fantasy novels are set in, the king or queen is unquestionably the one with the most power and the most ability to act on that power. Sure, it might not make sense in terms of actual history, where kings and queens certainly couldn’t go dicking around in the countryside looking for magic artifacts every three months, but in the land of fiction it makes sense. I get that.

It doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. I always find it very difficult to empathize with a fictional example of the nobility, for the simple reason that I’ve never had the same worldview as them. Outside of the elaborate fantasies constructed by my raging ego, I don’t live in a world where I hold the lives of thousands of people in my hands, or where I can move entire armies against my enemies with a single command (as much as I’d like to be able to sometime). Any writer who’s going to bring me into that kind of character’s head is going to need to do a damn good job of it, and most fantasy author’s I’ve read just weren’t up to the task. Sure, I might have enjoyed their books for other reasons, but I never really felt connected to the core cast. (George R.R. Martin is the exception here, just as he is in so many things.)

Unfortunately, characters of noble birth will probably always be a staple of the fantasy genre due to the near-ubiquitous medieval Europe settings. Which brings me on to my next pet peeve…

#6: The near-ubiquitous medieval Europe settings. Before somebody jumps down my throat, I’m well aware that not all fantasy books are set in Pseudoshire, Arcadia. But I still think way too many of them are.

What’s that, fantasy author? Your epic story of epic kings is set in a pastoral land inhabited by short mountain people, beautiful forest people, and strangely bland people-people? Thanks, but I’d rather not read yet more poorly disguised Lord of the Rings fanfiction. Actually, now that I think about it, I’d rather not read Lord of the Rings either.

Do me a favor: go and get an Atlas, or a globe, or Google Maps, or something that displays a reasonably accurate depiction of what the Earth looks like. Got it? Okay, now throw it out the window. (Er…unless you’re using Google Maps, in which case I guess you could just close the window.) This is fantasy we’re talking about, people. You don’t need every location in your fictional world to correspond neatly with something that exists in real life. I’m not saying that every fantasy novel should be filled with terrain so outlandish that nobody will be able to picture it, but at the very least, please don’t ape real places and real countries unless you’re certain you can pull it off. Which segues nicely to my next point (let’s see how long I can keep this up)…

#5 The Obvious Ethnic Stand-In. Also known as the Fantasy Counterpart Culture, only mine tosses race into the mix for added controversy. It’s difficult to come up with a believable culture completely from scratch, which is why so many authors use bits and pieces from real cultures in order to lend authenticity to their creations. There comes a point, however, when the resemblance starts to get a bit too strong, and that point is when your brownish-skinned people with narrow eyes and Japanese names start describing their rigidly honor-based society that features a colorful pantheon of minor and major deities. Unless your story is set in some sort of weird multiverse, it might behoove you to vary things a bit more than that.

Even worse are authors who seem to think that people who look Asian have to correspond to modern (and Western) Asian stereotypes, or that fantasy people with dark skin all have to live in tribal societies in a desert. They don’t, and if you bungle things here you’re going to look at least mildly racist on top of everything else.

#4: Absolute Good vs. Ultimate Evil. I’ll explain this one with an example from the Wikipedia page for Robert Jordan’s inexplicably popular Wheel of Time series:

The Creator imprisoned its antithesis, Shai’tan, at the moment of creation, sealing him away from the Wheel. However, in a time called the Age of Legends, an Aes Sedai experiment inadvertently breached the Dark One‘s prison, allowing his influence to seep back into the world.

….

In The Wheel of Time books, Verin Sedai says the Dark One is the “embodiment of paradox and chaos, destroyer of reason and logic, breaker of balance, the unmaker of order, and the opponent of the Creator.” Shai’tan (Arabic word for ‘Adversary’, related to Satan) is the godlike figure of the creatures of darkness.

‘Shai’tan’? Wow, that’s subtle. Those of you haven’t read the book will probably not be surprised to learn the The Creator has almost no presence in story – he’s implied to be doing something vague in the background, but unlike the ‘Dark One’ (blergh) he never seems to communicate with anybody or even act directly on the world. Yes, I get that it’s awesome to have some farmboy discover that only he can stop Mr. Evil, but you know what would be even more awesome? If Mr. Good actually got up off his ass and did something for once. This isn’t an issue of whether or not The Creator exists, since he (or it, or whatever) is the only thing stopping Mr. Evil from escaping from his can and killing everybody. There just seems to be this pervasive idea that evil gods should explode onto the scene with much fanfare and sulfur, while good gods should float in the ether and maybe give the main characters visions every now and then. (I could start making some point about monotheism here, but I’m not going to because that would be boring.) If the evil god is sealed away but still capable of taking over the world, why can’t the good god be similarly powerful? Wouldn’t it make more sense for our hero-farmboys to release the good god and have him deliver some righteous ass-kicking, rather than try to kill something orders of magnitude more powerful than themselves on their own?

Related to all of this is the common idea in fantasy novels that there must be a grand battle of absolute good and ultimate evil. The main characters, although they may make mistakes or have to work against their own consciences, are almost always certain that what they’re doing is totally right. There is never any hint that their conception of Mr. Evil might just be clouded by their culture’s prejudices, or that Mr. Good, seemingly impotent though he may be, is just manipulating everybody to fulfill his own goals. If this was how the real world worked, there would be exactly two religions: the Good One and the Bad One, which people would join based solely on how much of a dick they liked to be.

Here’s an idea: toss out the omnipresent systems of right and wrong and have fantasy heroes struggle in a world that seems to have no solid moral reference points, just like people in the real world.

#3: Always Chaotic Evil. Do I really have to explain why I hate this one? You know all about it already: some species, race or other group is always irredeemably evil. There are almost never any exceptions to this. Very often they will even brag about how evil they are, even though almost nobody in the history of the world has ever actually described themselves as ‘evil’ unless they were insane. If things are very bad, they will dress in black and live in big pointy fortresses and murder children for fun. If things are even worse, they will have some name for themselves that positively screams ‘I’m about to kill you” (‘The Forsaken’ springs to mind) and will speak in a language that just ‘sounds evil’. (Actually, Harry Potter is pretty bad about this, now that I think about it.)

I could understand this if the species in question was simply alien to us, and thus considered ‘good’ what we might see as unspeakably cruel or evil, but that’s almost never how it works. More often, they’re fully aware of whatever objective morality that governs their particular fantasy universe, and actually mold their identity around the fact that they fall way over on the ‘dark’ side of the spectrum. This, of course, gives our heroes a good excuse to slaughter them in their hundreds over the course of the novel(s).

#2: Never-Ending Series Syndrome. (I’m going to pick on WoT again here, because I just hate those goddamn books.)

The Wheel of Time series currently consists of eleven published books, all of which are well over 200,000 words long. Hell, some of them are close to twice that. The last volume is now being split into three books, presumably because Brandon Sanderson’s contract stipulated that he must have at least one of the characters say or do something stupid enough to derail the plot every three paragraphs. (Those of you who have read the books will know exactly what I’m talking about here.) If your story takes that long to tell, something has gone wrong.

I can understand why writers, readers and especially publishers love a long-running series, but I’ve always felt that it allowed for some mild…excess, shall we say. Subplots breed like rabbits because the writer knows he can always ignore some of them for entire books if he needs to (I’m looking at you yet again, Robert Jordan) and characters proliferate way beyond what’s necessary to get to the end of the story. I have yet to read a book that convinced me it’s a good idea to dump an entire extended family into an already complex story, especially if every single member of that family ends up creating a fractal-like nightmare of parallel storylines.

A closely related problem to all of this is Universal Character Immortality, but I’m not going to go there for now because it would mean hitting on WoT again, and I’m already going to do that in the next entry. (For the record, I actually did enjoy the series until the whole ‘strong women dominate men’ theme got so pervasive that I thought I was reading very long-winded erotica.)

#1: Prophecies. Oh, how I loathe them. I could write a doctoral thesis on how much I hate prophecies as plot devices.

I actually wouldn’t mind them so much if they were handled well, but very often they’re not. Take our literary punching bag for the evening, the Wheel of Time series. Almost every event in the series happens because of an ancient prophecy, one which is literally inescapable. There are numerous points throughout the series where the characters (all ten billion of them) are literally incapable of choosing to act in a certain way, because doing so would go against what Destiny has proscribed for them. Do I have to point out that this sucks all of the tension out of the story?

For example, we know from the beginning that Rand Al’Thor, the savior (or possibly destroyer) of the world, will not die before close to the end of the series. He starts out as the main character, but there quickly comes a point where things could easily continue without him…except they actually couldn’t, because then The Prophecy wouldn’t be fulfilled. We know that he can’t die, which means that every confrontation he has with the legions of evil are always going to end the same way – with him winning. The only question mark over his fate is whether he’ll save the world or give in to his encroaching madness and destroy it, and even then you can be pretty sure that he isn’t going to go nuts and blast away the planet’s atmosphere in the middle of book 5 of 14. Nothing kills interest in a character faster than knowing that he or she will definitely do A, B, C and D before they die, and in the Wheel of Time virtually every major character has such a checklist to work through.

Prophecies (or prophetic dreams, or magical-artifact induced trips to the future…) also seem to inevitably lead to clumsy writing. These things always seem to take the form of ‘cryptic’ (cough) poems or songs, which means we get treated to crap like this:

Twice dawns the day when his blood is shed.
Once for mourning, once for birth.
Red on black, the Dragon’s blood stains the rock of Shayol Ghul.
In the Pit of Doom shall his blood free men from the Shadow. (Source)

The first time I tried reading the series, I started skipping the poem-prophecies once I realized they weren’t going to go away. The story still made perfect sense. 1+1=…?

***

Thus ends my needlessly confrontational list of pet peeves. Feel free to tell me what makes you mad enough to throw a book across the room in the comments section. But before I go, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I’m currently writing a fantasy novel involving a medieval Europe-ish setting, at least two noble main characters, a ‘Lord of Darkness’ type character and a prophecy (which, in my defense, I’m trying to be creative with). It just goes to show, some things are popular for a reason. And also that I’m a massive hypocrit, but then you probably already heard about that.

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Categories: Writing

Focus on the Family and the Banning of Books

September 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I really should have been paying more attention to Banned Books Week, but I’m afraid I’ve been a bit busy with my own reading. (By that I mean both college books and my ever-expanding list of RSS feeds, which is now on the verge of gaining sentience and deliberately breaking the internet in a desperate bid to end its tortured existence.) I’ve had just enough time to keep up with the latest developments in what I will grudgingly refer to as ‘the culture wars’. Luckily, said wars and Banned Books Week have dovetailed rather unexpectedly: Focus on the Family is against the free proliferation of controversial books, apparently.

Focus on the Family is encouraging donations of books to neighborhood and school libraries: books that communicate a Christian and socially conservative perspective on hot-button issues such as homosexuality and abortion. The effort coincides with the ALA’s annual twisting of the First Amendment, as it showcases books to which parents have objected — and which libraries have generally not pulled from shelves.

“Every year, the ALA and other liberal groups use this trumped-up event to intimidate and basically silence concerned parents,” said Candi Cushman, education analyst for Focus on the Family Action. “The truth is, parents have every right and responsibility to object to their kids receiving sexually explicit and pro-gay literature without their permission, especially in a school setting.”

The ALA claims that Banned Books Week is all about celebrating “availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints.”

Cushman said it’s time for families to turn the tables and challenge the ALA to honor its own principles.

“You can do this most effectively by simply going to your local public library, or a school library,” she said, “and donating books that communicate your family’s perspective on those issues.”

Their strategy for turning back the tide of bias strikes me as rather odd – they don’t support what the libraries are doing, so they’re going to donate more books to those same libraries? Hey, be my guest! Libraries, especially small ones and especially small school ones, need as many books as they can get their hands on. I’m of the opinion that making a book available is never a bad thing, regardless of its content.

And yes, that includes the books on this list (PDF link), as obnoxious as most of them are. (Someone I Love Is Gay is really badly written – I pity whatever unsuspecting library-goer picks that one up.) I don’t know, maybe this is just an American issue? I’ve been in small-town libraries here that carry the The Holocaust Industry, for crying out loud. If that’s not offering both sides of the story, I don’t know what is.

Categories: Writing

Orscon Scott Card, Tim Hortons and the Morality of the Boycott

August 12, 2009 Leave a comment

(I know, I know – catchy title, right? Don’t worry, I’ll tie those together in a minute.)

I recently finished the first draft of a novel, hence the name of this blog. The reason why I’m currently posting here several times a day is that I’m letting that first draft ‘cool off’ on my hard drive before I take the editing hatchet to it, and blogging appeases my need to write. I’ve been writing for almost ten years at this point, and the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten came from Orscon Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. The books clarity is matched by its brevity – it’s short, as writing advice books go, but it contains more useful information per chapter than any other book on the subject I’ve come across. I would recommend it to anybody who’s even remotely interested in writing speculative fiction.

After devouring this book I sought out Orson Scott Card’s fictional works, curious to see if his own writing matched up to his brilliant teaching. Naturally, I started with Ender’s Game, and I wasn’t disappointed. I finished it and immediately bought Speaker for the Dead, which I liked just as much, and when I was done with that I bought Xenocide, which I never finished because the plot becomes rather ludicrous halfway through. (Ludicrous even by the standards of a series that features a man having a theological debate with a sentient tree, by the way.) It was at around this time that I decided to look up Card on Wikipedia, and I was dismayed to learn about his strong views on homosexuality. I was even more dismayed to find that he is, if not more offensively anti-gay than most members of the religious right, at least far more candid about his opinions and less willing to pull any punches.

Below are some examples of what I mean. Card is a senior member of the LDS Church, who played a now-infamous part in the Proposition 8 debacle, and his views apparently reflect those of the Church’s leaders.

Firstly, from a Salon interview:

Card raises his voice. “No, what they’ve done is oppose efforts to apply the word ‘marriage’ to a homosexual couple! People are treating it as if they were seeking out opportunities to persecute somebody else! They’re simply opposing changing the word ‘marriage’ to apply to something it’s never applied to.”

“How is that different from changing the law so that blacks and whites can marry?” I have to force the words out.

Incredulously: “Are you asking that question seriously?”

“Yes.”

“I find the comparison between civil rights based on race and supposed new rights being granted for what amounts to deviant behavior to be really kind of ridiculous. There is no comparison. A black as a person does not by being black harm anyone. Gay rights is a collective delusion that’s being attempted. And the idea of ‘gay marriage’ — it’s hard to find a ridiculous enough comparison. By the way, I’d really hate it if your piece wound up focusing on the old charge that I’m a homophobe.” (Source)

Card has stated elsewhere that he has gay friends which, as we all know, immediately prevents somebody from being a homophobe.

Or not:

Within the Church, the young person who experiments with homosexual behavior should be counseled with, not excommunicated. But as the adolescent moves into adulthood and continues to engage in sinful practices far beyond the level of experimentation, then the consequences within the Church must grow more severe and more long-lasting; unfortunately, they may also be more public as well.

This applies also to the polity, the citizens at large. Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those whoflagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

The goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail. The goal is to discourage people from engaging in homosexual practices in the first place, and, when they nevertheless proceed in their homosexual behavior, to encourage them to do so discreetly, so as not to shake the confidence of the community in the polity’s ability to provide rules for safe, stable, dependable marriage and family relationships. (Source)

Now, Card clearly isn’t too happy with the word ‘homophobe’, and I’m not particularly wild about it either, so let’s just say that his views run counter to those of the gay rights movement and leave it at that.

My initial reaction to reading all of this for the first time was to toss my copy of Ender’s Game into a fire and never buy any of his books again, as much as it would pain me to deprive myself of such excellent literature. And if somebody else asked me if his books were worth buying? Well, I’d…actually, what would I do? It’s one thing to stop buying his books myself, but recommending others do the same would be tantamount to starting a very small-scale boycott. Boycotts aren’t something I’ve ever been all that comfortable with, so I wasn’t sure how to feel about the whole situation.

Eventually I realized that I was being stupid, for several reasons. As Card himself points out, his books aren’t ‘for’ or ‘against’ homosexuality, at least not any of the ones I’ve ever read. Ender’s Game is not in any way anti-gay, and in fact several scenes made me wonder if Card himself might have felt some sort of same-sex attraction in his earlier days. As well as that, boycotting an author is an attempt at hurting that person financially, which would be spiteful as well as, in this case, completely pointless. I’ll steer well clear if Card ever writes  a non-fiction work on the evils of homosexuality, but I’m perfectly happy to recommend his fiction to anybody who loves a good story. (Well, with the exception of Xenocide.)

The reason why I’m writing all of this now is because of the recent controversy over the donut/coffee company Tim Horton’s decision to supply free food and drinks to a National Organization for Marriage rally. NOM, which Card himself is actually a director of,  is strongly anti-gay, and it wasn’t long before gay rights activists contacted the company to protest their decision. Tim Hortons replied by explaining that the decision to support or not support an event is usually up to individual franchise owners, but that the NOM rally ‘fell outside of their sponsorship guidelines’. So, no Tim Hortons coffee and donuts for NOM.

This angered some people, mostly those on the religious right and those who oppose boycotts in general. The situation forced me to consider my own feelings on the matter, particularly in light of what I’d already decided in relation to Card’s novels. Firstly, I think it’s important to differentiate between boycotting a single person for their views and boycotting a company for their actions. The people who run Tim Hortons may or may not be opposed to gay rights – that’s really irrelevant. What is relevant is that the company was planning on supporting one of the most anti-gay organizations in the United States.

Let’s face it – this is tactics. If we disagree with what a company is doing, the only reasonable methods of fighting back is either protesting (which is what happened in the case of Tim Hortons – it never got any further) or boycotting them. And why shouldn’t we boycott them? We’re not depriving anybody of their freedom of speech or any other right – all we’re doing is letting them know that if they want to support a cause we disagree with, we’ll take our business elsewhere.

In the case of a business like Tim Hortons, then, I would support a boycott as long as it was targeted solely at that business’s actions and not at the personal views of any of its employees.

Categories: Gay Rights, Writing