Last week I implored people to put aside prejudices of ‘genre fiction’ and read some science fiction. This week I’m going to do the same for the cause of fantasy. I suppose as a scientist and writer and reader of science fiction I tend to define sci-fi as representing worlds and futures that, however bizarre, might or could exists. Whereas fantasy deals with magic and fantastic magical, often mythical, beings (e.g. dragons) mainly set in a society akin to the Middle Ages, men in armour, swords, castles and all that (I know that is an over simplification – see below) i.e. worlds that couldn’t exist, that are pure, well, fantasy. Perhaps that’s why I’ve tended to use fantasy as light, and sometimes not so light, relief between my extended bouts of science fiction. Having said all that who wouldn’t like to believe that magic and fantastic beings might just, possibly, maybe exist?
I guess my first exposure to fantasy was when, as a student, I read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, twice. ‘By-the-way, does anyone else think the second book was way too long? That like Frodo’s trek through Mordor it was a bit of test of endurance? Anyway, it was something of a rite of passage in those days and it opened me up to a world of fiction that I didn’t know existed. Although at the time I didn’t think of it as ‘fantasy’ or even realise that there might be more and so went back to my standard diet of sci-fi.
The real epiphany came when I discovered David Eddings and the Belgariad series, followed by Stephan R Donaldson and ’The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’. Following those my eyes were truly opened by the discovery of Raymond Feist. I don’t know anyone who has read ‘The Magician’ and not been hooked. I am also for a sucker for an Arthurian story and later discovered Stephen Lawhead’s excellent five book series.
This then brings me onto a dilemma with fantasy. I say above that the definition I give is over simplistic. That’s because I struggle to see the boundaries (perhaps it’s the scientists in me that looks for one). For me fantasy bleeds into historical fiction, or at least what I call ‘fictional history’ or ‘alternative history’ e.g. Bernhard Cornwell also wrote an excellent Arthurian series, is this fantasy? His other excellent books (of which I’ve read all) are history with fictional characters. The wonderful David Gemell’s books I guess are fantasy, although without magic and some being close to ‘alternative history’. But then his Jon Shadow books lean more towards post apocalypse science fiction. And then where do the wonders of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman fit in?
My final confusion is when science fiction mingles with fantasy as in Michael R Hicks, Kreelan Sagas. Far in the future humans come into contact with a warrior based culture where what we would define as magic exists.
My advice put aside definitions, ignore those that somehow look down on what they would class as ‘genre’ fiction. If anything these days I prefer those stories that break the traditional mould, that blur the boundaries. If fantasy has a problem it is that, at one time, it became too reliant on swords and magic. It became a cliché. The books that have annoyed me, that have been bad or at best mediocre, have relied too heavily on that formulaic approach.
So, go on – read some fantasy. What’s wrong with escapism, surely we want all fiction to transport us to new worlds (in the broadest sense) and what can do that better than fantasy. Ignore the ‘genre’ label, there is some truly great fantasy fiction out there. Choose from any of the authors I’ve mentioned above. Also, let me know your favourites, I’m always looking out for something new.
As always comment are welcomed