June 01, 2009

War and Conciliatory Fantasy

by Alan Beatts

I'm in the process of reading a review copy of Joe Abercrombie's new novel, BEST SERVED COLD, which will be published July 29th.  For my money it's even better than his FIRST LAW series and he's managed to hit the balance between grim and funny with more accuracy than before.  For those of you who aren't familiar with his work, Abercrombie writes relatively dark fantasy a la Steven Erikson or Glenn Cook, filled with morally ambiguous characters and situations.  Reading along I found myself thinking of a comment that China Mieville made once about how he neither enjoys nor wants to write "conciliatory fantasy". His feeling is that fantasy as a genre can take on the same sort of tough questions and complex characters that are more usually the domain of science fiction (or even mainstream lit).  I agree with him and furthermore I think that we've been seeing a renaissance of sorts in that type of fantasy writing.  I think that it, perhaps, shows a maturity in the genre and among the readers that, in some ways, parallels the change in Western movies in the 1960s.

Prior to the mid-1960s, Westerns were in general hyper-simplified stories of good and often outnumbered people against "bad guys".  The good, by the end of the film, prevailed while suffering some losses and the bad were vanquished.  The good were clean and kind and the bad were dirty and cruel.  And that was that.  Granted there were some exceptions like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE in 1962 or THE SEARCHERS in 1956 but in general Westerns followed the format unerringly.  But then films like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969) and THE WILD BUNCH (also 1969) presented a Wild West in which the "good" were only moderately distinguishable from the "bad" and morality shifted like sand.

These seminal films changed the perception of Westerns and reshaped the genre such that space now existed for films like THE LONG RIDERS (1980), PALE RIDER (1985) and UNFORGIVEN (1992). Even painfully accurate portrayals of the West (i.e. squalid, filthy, violent, ignorant, and amoral) like HBO's DEADWOOD series (2004 to 2006) could now be admitted into the canon.

For quite a long time, fantasy that wasn't influenced by the shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS was hard to find.  Though some very fine work shows this awareness of Tolkien (Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books being a fine example), it was a limiting factor in the field.  Especially since Tolkien's view of good versus evil was very stark and clear-cut.  This view creates a sharply limited set of possible protagonists and plots, much like the Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s.

But in the mid-80s Glenn Cook started his Black Company series with THE BLACK COMPANY (1984). This was very different fantasy -- the "heros" were simple soldiers, mercenaries in fact, trying to stay alive in wartime and doing the kind of ugly, brutal things the real soldiers do to stay alive.  On top of that, they were in the service of the "Dark Lord" of their world.  Later in the series we discover that their employer, though probably "evil" by most standards, is fighting to keep an even greater evil imprisoned.  In Cook's world there was _no_ black and white, only a multitude of shades of gray.

Alongside Michael Moorcock's Elric novels (which found their real audience in the mid-70s and even then were far ahead of their time), Cook's work was on the forefront of non-conciliatory fantasy and stood there alone until the mid-90s.  But in the past decade we've seen more and more relatively traditional fantasy novels that are almost completely without Tolkien-esque elements and which encompass a much richer and more nuanced view of morality and human character. Steven Erikson's Malazan novels were some of the first but he has recently been joined by fine writers like Richard Morgan (THE STEEL REMAINS) and Patrick Rothfuss (THE NAME OF THE WIND).

But without a significant readership, it doesn't really matter how the books have changed.  And that's the complementary part of the shift that I'm talking about.  All the authors I've mentioned in this column are top sellers at Borderlands.  At one time or another we've been hard pressed to keep enough copies in stock to meet demand and there is no sign of the popularity slowing.  So it seems that fantasy readers are developing an appetite for novels in which the traditional elements of fantasy are present but in which there is a much more real-world expression of the complexity of choices and morality.  What excites me the most is that, by accepting this type of work, the readers are giving authors a chance to hold up a mirror to our own world; asking questions and making observations about ourselves rather than just delivering entertainment of the most simplistic stripe.

And the authors are taking the opportunity they've been given from Morgan's examination of the aftermath of war and its effects on both society and individuals to Rothfuss' tender yet cynical portrayal of how a hero is made and even Erikson's examination of grief, remorse, and guilt in TOLL THE HOUNDS.  I look forward with anticipation to where the next decade will take us.

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