So on the way up to my parents’ place, before the pain and the screaming and the agony and so forth, I was reading a book when it wasn’t my turn to drive, and that book was Clive Barker’s “Abarat” which illustrates a favorite point of mine, lovingly polished, about horror and fantasy, so I’m gonna bend your ear (or eye, as the case may be) at rather excruciating length about it.
First of all, I have a hard time reading Clive Barker. It’s not that he’s bad, but I had a really hard time finishing his books. There’ll be this moment of visceral brilliance that makes you go “Neeeat imagery! Of course there’s a crazy tyrant in a sprawling megalithic castle inventing disturbing performance art/torture tableaus and walling them up alive in the rooms! Snazzy!” But unfortunately, then you have to slog, and slog, and slog to the next one, while trying to keep the characters straight, and the end result is that unless you’re stuck in a car or something, it gets terribly easy to set the book down and go do something more mentally accessible, like paint, or play video games. Couldn’t finish Imajica despite enjoying bits of it significantly, absolutely had no luck with Weaveworld.
His kids books, however, are incredibly readable. Call me juvenile, but there you are–they’re captivating, and they suffer none of the total overload of the other ones, and also you don’t have to deal with a Clive Barker sex scene, which has yet to really impress me much. And the whole tone changes into something much crisper and clearer and less wearisome. I may someday get up the nerve to try Imajica again, but I’ll be at the bookstore picked up his kid stuff the week it comes out.
So anyway, “Abarat.”
“Abarat” was a pretty good example of everything I have harped on so often about fantasy writing these days. There were things that…again, the language, or my grasp of it is letting me down, but…archetypal things. Singular things. THE Wolf, not an example of a dignified race of eco-minded lupine telepaths hunted by humans who live in the Ap’os’tra’phe Mountains, etc, etc. You’ve heard that one before, but it’s still true. For example, in this setting, there’s an archipelago with twenty five islands, and on each island, it’s always a particular hour of the day. It’s always midnight on Gorgossium, and always two in the afternoon on Nonce.
Most fantasy authors would be scared to try to do something like that. Because it’s absurd! It’s illogical! There are practical problems! How could that WORK?
Well, when Barker does it, it works just fine. It’s magic. Not in the sense that magic can be waved around to cure all ills of plot, but in that magic is magical, and a world of magic does not neccessarily look like medevial Europe with better costuming.
Maybe that’s the problem. Magic in fantasy, nine times out of ten, has gotten seriously unmagical. It’s become…oh, I don’t know, a stratified spellcasting system, something explicable and with carefully defined rules and logics and shortcomings. Great for D&D. Makes for awfully dull fantasy the thousandth time around. (Don’t get me started on magic with a k, we don’t have time.)
And the problem is, I see WHY it’s happened. If you have no limits on magic, you run into some real problems–if magic can do ANYTHING, then it’s a short book, because Sauron snaps his fingers, and the world ends, or Gandalf snaps his and Sauron turnes into an artichoke. But the thing with magic…the reason it’s interesting…is because it’s magic. It’s…it’s…weird. And illogical! We know how to do logical things, we do ’em all the time with gizmos and levers and whatnot. Magic is what happens that can’t happen. Absurd, weird things. Things that can really mess up a plotline.
And so if you’re trying to explain why someone DOESN’T snap their fingers to turn Sauron into an artichoke, you lay out your magical system so that everybody knows the rules and doesn’t go “Hey! Plot hole!” because hey, maybe you’re a little insecure about the whole thing and are waiting for the reader to find fault, and you want to cover all the bases. And that’s perfectly logical, too, but the end result costs you the magicalness of magic, and just gives you telepathy and psychokinesis with sparkly bits. And what we’ve got in far too much fantasy is magic as a perfectly logical, orderly system that doesn’t do anything too weird. It’s science with hand gestures. It creates mutants, or explosions, or kills people, like science. It doesn’t do anything really magical. I can’t think of anything they did in, say, the Mercedes Lackey books that they couldn’t do in Star Trek with enough telepaths. Not all fantasy is quite that extreme in that direction, but a lot of it is, and some of it’s even worse.
Maybe I’m trying to wriggle past that great law, that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. In D&D, maybe. Nobody cares about the difference between magic missile and hand-held photon cannons. But–and this is the key–really magical magic, magic that has that fairy tale, reallymagical feel, that doesn’t much look like uber-technology. You could gene-splice up your telepathic eco-wolves, but it’d be pretty hard to create the singular Ur-wolf, in which all fear of wolfness in the world is contained.
Also, on a somewhat unrelated note, names. There’s an island in “Abarat” called Ninnyhammer.
No self respecting fantasy author* would EVER name a place “Ninnyhammer” because…um….people would laugh or something. They’d call it N’hamm’er, or get out the Fantasy Noun List and string together a coupla words until we had Darkmist or Sunsea or Ravendeep or Bloodfrog.**
I don’t know. Maybe fantasy is insecure and trying to prove itself as not mad escapism, and these are two symptoms of the disease–or maybe some people were, and the majority of people who write fantasy learn by reading fantasy, and at the end of the day, you get the copy of the copy of the copy. I don’t know.
The only other thing I’ve noticed is that horror writers write much more…um….biological fantasy. By which I mean things are more…crude. Nobody ever went to the bathroom in Tolkien. I have read entire series that passed without anybody farting. The only time anybody has a bladder is if they have lost control of it in the extremes of terror (which doesn’t happen to the hero, because, y’know.)
Now, me being the sort of person I am, I can see myself, with agonizing clarity, walking in front of the Mighty and Terrible Cerulean Dragon, standing between its swordlike talons, lifting my silver shiny maaaagic forged-by-gods-and-dwarves-working-in-shifts-in-a-burned-out-volcano sword in challenge, and thinking, “Oh, lord, I so need to crap!”
And now, since I’m just rambling aimlessly, back to the canvas I go…
*Except possibly Sheri S. Tepper, who has some really weird names. Okay, there are probably others, but for the most part, I can pick up most fantasy books and be confident that I won’t run into any names that I will remember for more than thirty seconds. “Ninnyhammer,” however, will stick with me for years.
*Okay, maybe not Bloodfrog, but I’d totally buy healing potions there.