Monday, December 31, 2012

Good Wine, Bad Taste

So there's a writers forum where I hang out when I'm on the Internet. One day, one of the F/SF regulars  posted a question. He was writing a fantasy that was heavy on diplomacy, and he wanted suggestions for other fantasies with diplomatic and political elements.

In other words, instead of doing his own research with primary sources - actual politicians, actual diplomats, academic experts on diplomacy and politics in history - he was drawing his source material from other fantasy writers. Writers who, one assumes, had never had political or diplomatic careers of their own, but were cribbing and researching themselves. He was researching at one remove.

It made me sad.

There is a weird pool of derivativeness that bubbles up in the heart of certain sections of fandom. Some fantasy fans seem to prefer the
mundane, fuzzy and stale to the original, sharp and compelling; and some authors (and wannabe authors) are delighted to give it to them. For every Lord of the Rings, based on thorough primary knowledge of a powerful and unfamiliar subject (Germanic storytelling and philology, for instance) there are a dozen Sword of Shannaras - and they sell. It is possible to write entire fantasy series simply by manipulating and re-remanipulating the tropes that are already out there, and there are readers who expect it: Because for them, fantasy is a literature of comfort - and there's nothing more comforting than the predictable, nothing more frightening than change.

So let's hit the Mabinogion one more time; let's take yet another gulp from that never-refreshed well of Germanic folklore; let's become the regulars at Merlin's overcrowded cave. Let's see what the other writers have done and take our cues from them.

Or we could...I don't know...try something new. Like Perelandra.

C.S. Lewis wrote quite a lot in addition to the Narnia books. (The majority of it was Christian allegories and apologetics.) Perelandra is the middle book of The Space Trilogy, in which Lewis used his Christian and Neoplatonic theology as the background for a story of interplanetary conflict. Most of the story takes place on a planet that, unlike Earth, it has not experienced the Fall of Man. The main character, Ransom, is an Earthman sent to the planet to prevent the Fall from happening. Now here's the thing: Whether you agree with Lewis' theology or not (I certainly don't), his descriptions of this Eden are still fresh and new,  more than 70 years after the book was written. What's more, it sticks around in your memory years after you've read it. Instead of turning to other fantasies or science fiction for inspiration, Lewis sought out his own wellsprings, and found them.

But the people who devoured The Sword of Shannara and clamored for more would find Perelandra uncomfortable, or puzzling, or simply boring. Dulled palates don't appreciate good wine.

1 comment:

  1. I would say that Tolkein and Lewis were using sources of higher quality but not different type than a Terry Brooks or your friend who was looking for some diplomacy fiction shortcuts. The quality of the author is more important than the source of his material. Patrick O'Brian uses tons of original source material for his books but I'm not sure that makes them any better than the Hornblower stuff.

    To me, the only differences in using things like the Bible as source material is that those sources have put deep hooks in all of us (believers and not) so using it borrows the resonance and power of those associations.

    That said, bland is bland and I never managed to read another Terry Brooks novel after the first one so I think I get what you mean ...

    p.s. - Keith Laumer was a diplomat before becoming an author though I hope your friend wouldn't consider the Retief stories to be much in the way of research help ;)