Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Reality of Fantasy

Agree with him or not, Jeffrey Sconce is entertaining in his dismissal of Game of Thrones and the fantasy genre in general:
Now, you might be saying, shouldn't you at least give Game of Thrones a chance? How can you pass judgment on an entire series without seeing it first?

Easy. Though we now supposedly live in a pluralistic world of egalitarian taste where everyone's pleasures are to be defended as uniquely meaningful and personally significant, I think we can still hazard to opine that certain genres are incontrovertibly terrible and that the world would probably be better off without them. "Fantasy," for example. Given the decidedly alarming trajectory of the 21st century, this is no time to retreat into a world where we hope some combination of "magic," courtly love, and benevolent nobility is going to save our sorry asses.

... Most insulting of all, however, is the affront "fantasy" makes to fantasy itself. How sad that "fantasy"--a protean and theoretically limitless domain--should be so rigidly codified around such a ridiculously childish set of conventions: kings, queens, knights, jousts, quests, faithful hounds, noble steeds, etc. It's as if "comedy" could never advance beyond variations on the banana-peel gag.
I say variations on the banana peel gag can make for pretty compelling comedy -- the shit dollar, for example -- so following a tired convention is not necessarily a failure. I think I am trying to say I am willing to give Game of Thrones a chance to prove it can be the shit dollar of fantasy dramatizations.

One explanation for the durability of the 'fantasy' genre is that drama involves conflict among intimates, that conflict becomes more interesting when it comes with violence and, naturally, an uncertain outcome. With these in mind, modern-day violence tends to be flat and boring. Watching someone shoot someone else with an AK-47 is dull; they don't even have to be in earshot of each other. Move to a realm of swords, spears, clubs, axes, and maces -- especially maces -- and voila! Suddenly someone is chopping off an arm or collapsing a rib cage and it is all-caps awesome.

It makes most sense to transfer all of this to the past, where people really fought hand to hand; but for those who can't resist the urge to insert made-up elements, or can't be bothered to represent actual historical events, fantasy is the way to go. It doesn't have to go to an imagined past, of course. George Lucas tried transferring some of these conventions to a futuristic setting, and the results were fair to middling to shit-dollar without the dollar. Similarly, Gene Roddenberry constructed a futuristic world in which, for some reason, galaxy-traversing spacecraft fought battles using the terminology and techniques borrowed from 17th and 18th-century galleons. Had either of them done otherwise, it might have been nothing but laser beams flying back and forth, which would be no more believable and far more tedious.


John Carter Wood said...


Besides which: Orcs do, like, totally exist.

I think I saw one earlier today.

Patrick said...

Eh, his objections about the 21st century are stupid, but... a reader of fantasy, I'm freaking sick of kings, queens, knights, jousts, orcs, and dark warlords.

Its gotten to the point where, at the library, I just put a book back on the shelf unless I already know and trust the author, or else it promises me something other than Yet Another Generic Medieval Fantasy.

And fantasy made for popular, non-literary consumption? Its usually worse.

I just finished playing Dragon Age: Origins, which I loved, but... even behind all the great writing and believable characters, this little voice in the back of my mind kept reminding me that they'd just renamed Uruk-Hai to "Hurlocks" and created a relatively generic fantasy setting. The only new invention was the Qunari, who don't even play a role in the game. They're just off in the distance somewhere being new and interesting where you can't see them.

Fantasy isn't devoid of new ideas. Mieville is fun. Swainston is fun. There are some others. But I'm feeling major genre burnout at this point, and as far as I can tell, Game of Thrones offers me Yet Another Medieval Fantasy, Now With Sex. I'll probably pass.