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The Changing Face of SFF

Elspeth Cooper—author of Songs of the Earth—said “fantasy’s a broad church” and she couldn’t have been more right, especially in regards to the modern fantasy and science fiction market. If there is one rule, one single idea that binds all fiction that falls under the auspicious (to us, anyway, friends) banner of SFF, it is that “anything goes”.

And it’s true.

2012 FEB SFF - DnDGone are the days of stereotype, replaced by new visions of both character and setting. The old clichés no longer dominate the genre; bastard sons and orphans actually have goals, personalities, and agendas that stretch further than listening to the counsel of wizened wizards and creepy crones, whose hands ultimately steer them toward the path of becoming king—whether by stolen birthright, exclaimed by prophecies thousands of years old. Or to head rebellions against the chosen Dark Lords with a magic sword, magic abilities, and convenient party of warrior, rogue, mage and sometimes a token elf, druid, or clan-born barbarian. Roll for initiative, then?

Another thing that’s changed is that SFF has begun to receive a lot more respect from the world at large. Yes, yes, there will always be critics (quite often female—sorry, it’s true) who moan endlessly about men with swords trampling about fighting dragons and goblins, claiming that any adult who reads fantasy has the intellectual and emotional maturity of a fifteen-year-old boy. But these people, those who say fantasy is “boy fiction”, or that “no woman alive” would read fantasy, clearly haven’t done a shred of market research on the topic. If they risked a glance at the dreaded genre, they might glimpse educated, sophisticated people of both genders reading writers of both genders and warming to characters of both genders. Girls read fantasy, too. In fact, with the sheer amount of female writers and female protagonists (go on, tell me much of the urban fantasy out there isn’t awash with leather-clad females hunting vampires, slaying werewolves, and generally getting gritty all whilst sexily glancing over one shoulder on the front covers of their books!) you would think critics who claim SFF to be a male-genre might want to check their facts. Fantasy hasn’t been a game for us chaps and our prophesised swords for quite some time—if it ever was at all. But, of course, SFF isn’t a serious enough genre for them to do that, is it?

Well, actually, it is. Now, more than ever.

Fifty years ago, fantasy was a whole different story. It was, much like science-fiction’s “Golden Age,” a genre written by and for the male persuasion. Of course, as with most things, time changes everything and any literary genre will always adapt with society—it’s not a stretch to see that as equality blossomed, more women started taking up the pen and scribbling out fantasy and science fiction stories that would become classics.

The only reason fantasy doesn’t get more acclaim than it does, is because it’s not en vogue. Most literary-fiction will always be fashionable, because there is the misguided belief that intelligent people write it, therefore intelligent people read it. Whilst there are scores of talented writers of general fiction out there, there are equal numbers of excruciatingly talented writers within genre circles—but because it’s not as “fashionable” as lit-fic, people disregard it.

2012 FEB SFF - EddingsThen, of course, you have the stereotype of the readers of SFF. Perish the thought that a suited businesswoman/man might nibble his/her sandwich during her lunch break, with their nose in the latest fantasy bestseller—oh no! That person is a geek. Avoid, it might be catching! It sounds almost silly that this kind of mentality still does exists…it seems such a throwback to the decades in which fantasy was a lot less sophisticated in delivery and scope. But then, weren’t all novels less sophisticated in the sixties, seventies and eighties? Of course they were: literature reflects its time. It’s as simple as that. It’s another fact that people forget, distracted by He-man-esque heroes dressed like Hercules, standing atop mountains thrusting a magic sword to the heavens. The covers used to be dreadful, let’s make no mistake, but they were what they were. The covers of some of Eddings’ earlier editions are positively laughable (to modern eyes, compared with the slick styling of modern covers—and you have to remember, we’re modern because we’re talking about this now. They might not have seemed so silly to those buying them at the time), but doesn’t that come back to the old chestnut of “don’t judge a book by its cover?” Seems so.

Fantasy’s evolution from its fragile birth, its exuberant puberty, to its levelling and quiet self-confidence in maturity, seems to have passed some people by, and it is this fact that keeps the genre out of the limelight. However, is this a bad thing? Do we really want SFF to be en vogue? Imagine, suddenly, a hoard of “fans” interested only because it’s “The ‘In’ Thing” to read on the tube, or at lunch—or anywhere anyone can see you toting your latest buy. Fantasy doesn’t need to be fashionable; it’s stronger than that.

Whilst fantasy has altered, yes, it has also endured; its tropes, devices, delivery and methods have changed—but not entirely. Fantasy is still what it was fifty years ago, just older, wiser and far more self-assured. As it should be. Fantasy has had a rough evolution—mainly due to adversity and thumbed-noses—but a strong one; we’ve come a long way. But not too far. After all, it wouldn’t be right to lose the spirit of the genre—that would be a transmogrification, not an evolution. If we take modern fantasy, the fantasy that lines the shelves of our bookstores today, and compare it with the cruddy paperbacks of yesteryear, used and abused through decades of wear, we will (delightfully) find that the apple does not fall far from the tree.

Earlier I said, “Anything goes” to describe our modern fantasy market. Think about what you might have read this year.

Think about Mark Charan Newton’s “new weird”, with his dimension gates, mortal-imagined deities and races, and super-soldiers and -heroes. Think about A Dance with Dragons and the sheer emotional slug it takes to get through the tome that it is, for all the reward GRRM fans have come to expect. 2012 FEB SFF - MievilleThink about the subtle self-surety of Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear, a writer unafraid of merely telling a single man’s extraordinary story. Think about Elspeth Cooper’s familiar, comforting Songs of the Earth, dressed in the neatly pressed costume of classic-era fantasy, yet cut from newer, shinier cloth. Think of Blake Charlton’s forthcoming Spellbound, where language literally is magic and all the old prophecies and impressions are given a dust off and invited back on stage. Think of the mighty Miéville’s Embassytown, which has been described as no less than art—and when we’re talking about fantasy—nay, worse, science fiction—that’s huge. Think of Mira Grant’s zombies and bloggers in Deadline, following the success of last year’s Feed. 2012 FEB SFF - ButcherThink about the quiet acclaim of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files with this year’s offering, Ghost Story; a series which accumulates fans to a point where most people have read the Dresden Files and consider them a staple of urban fantasy. Think of The Fallen Blade, where Grimwood crafts a dark and re-imagined Venice with vampires and werewolves. Think of The Unremembered, where Orullian glimpses a world so classic that he evokes the same familiarity as The Wheel of Time. Think of Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, which presents itself clad in all the complex shadow of human nature, sinking its briar hooks right into the skin of its reader, forcing to let go in the face of a relentless tide of darkness. Think about Sprunk’s reinvention of sword and sorcery in Shadow’s Lure, with nary a buff bicep or robed wizard in sight, replaced by a lean assassin with a deep conscience and the constant nagging of his true nature on his heels—but there’s still a sword (many!) and quite a lot of sorcery, too!

All of these books are true fantasy books, despite what subgenre(s) they identify with: the bare roots of fantasy runs deep through them all, even if only through the bones of inspiration their authors amassed and channelled. Just a portion of this year’s fantasy releases demonstrate that the main evolution of the genre, is that it is no longer constricting, no longer the rigid fame it once was, within which everything had to be just so, to be considered publishable fantasy.

2012 FEB SFF - Temple ruins by AlexToothInstead, the church has grown—in fact, it’s more a cathedral, now: immense and massive and all-welcoming. Fantasy is a strong and enduring genre because its contributors never cease to speculate. This speculation sows seeds and imagination waters the ground. Fantasy is constantly growing, constantly evolving and changing. History demonstrates that regardless of whether something has passed by, it can always return, different and changed, but recognisable as the original. One branch of fantasy is doing this; the other, the opposite.

Classic-era fantasy is no longer bogged down by the same chains of apprehension—thanks to writers like Charlton, Rothfuss, Sprunk, and in many ways, GRRM—and it has begun to blossom again, new and changed. This will continue, just as the opposite branch will continue to grow in parallel.

The other branch is different, changed, uglier in the best of ways, somehow. Ugly, in that it is entirely unfamiliar and different; entirely new and following its own course. Sometimes ugly is good and sometimes ugly is beautiful; in this case, ugly is both good and beautiful, and a million things besides. It’s raw and ugly and completely devoid of self-consciousness as it grows from the ashes of classic-era fantasy—thrown off by the branch itself—and blossoms into something alien, something entirely new and unexpected.

Both branches are necessary, and it is inevitable that they will meet in the middle—on several occasions, in fact, as they paths cross throughout the next decade, and beyond. In fact, when they do meet, there will be fireworks. Good ones. Be assured: this isn’t a competition, not a fight for survival—one will not overthrow the other. It’s impossible. Neither will they ever fully merge, merely have brief encounters, copulate, give birth to new ideas, and branch off again, each coursing towards their respective goals. The goals of both branches, however, are the same: to imagine, to create.

The face of SFF is changing, it has always been changing; everything always changes. Change is frightening, exciting, loathsome, necessary, and within literature, whatever the genre, evolution and change is never a bad thing, whether it produces something contemptible or awesome; the process is what matters. The way the branches of the tree twist, turn, recoil, overlap, entwine and entangle: this is what matters in the ever-fluid genre of SFF. Of course, usually, the product is pretty damn awesome too.

Title image Warm Mist by andreasrocha.

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7 Comments

  1. Genre has always been changing. But I think the pace of that change has accelerated as of late.

    • the_hound says:

      Dude, you are making seriously sweeping assumptions here. Its not all wrong, but you have conveniently brushed a lot of more edgy fantasy from the 70s and 80s under the carpet.

  2. This is a good article, but don’t think the cliches and issues are gone from this modern era either. They have shifted, but being creative with character origins can leave a very weak protagonist or a very flimsy story (I know, I’ve written some in my day). There is something to be said about the strength of the genre, but it can only be as good as the middle of the road, not the superstars.

    The breadwinners will always be that way. Since the publishing world moves at glacial speed (another thing killing the industry), the people craving more will go to the middle of the road content. If it doesn’t hit the mark, the desire wanes and then these people find something else.

    These are new days, yes. There are some great bolstering of people in the wings, waiting for their “breadwinning” moment, but we aren’t there yet.

  3. Kev McVeigh says:

    “weren’t all novels less sophisticated in the sixties, seventies and eighties? Of course they were: literature reflects its time” Oh really?
    It’s hard to get past this statement to take the rest of your post very seriously, I’m afraid. Unless you have a very unusual interpretation of ‘sophisticated’ I really wonder where you get this idea from that all novels were less sophisticated in the past.
    Let’s just limit ourselves to SFF for now, and consider the linguistic and political sophistication in Delany’s Neveryon series, or the work of Ursula Le Guin. Look at the mythological depth of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago series, the radical political analyses of Joanna Russ, the grace and charm of John Crowley’s Little, Big, or the literary invention of Tim Powers.
    Think that Urban Fantasy pioneers like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Lisa Goldstein’s Tourists, Megan Lindholm’s Wizard Of The Pigeons, Pat Murphy’s The City Not Long After, none of which feature leather clad females hunting vampires but are fundamentally urban in so many ways that Twilight clones aren’t, were all published in the 80s. If Vampires are your thing however, Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Vampire Tapestry is not lacking in sophistication.
    Go back to the 70s to Angela Carter, M John Harrison, Josephine Saxton, Kate Wilhelm, RA Lafferty or Avram Davidson. Again at the end of the 80s Geoff Ryman, Mary Gentle, Gill Alderman, Emma Bull, Charles De Lint, Octavia Butler, James Blaylock, Lucius Shepard, Gwyneth Jones, Lisa Tuttle, Christopher Priest and so many others were doing new, intelligent, sophisticated, imaginative, radical, passionate things with fantasy that avoided or subverted the cliches.
    You are right that things have changed, back in the 80s George RR Martin was able to write single volume dark, powerful, sophisticated fantasies such as Fevre Dream rather than multi-volume doorsteps. (I don’t think this change is either good or bad, merely different, by the way.) As for sophisticated authors such as those I mentioned, it’s hard to see major publishers putting out Lewis Shiner’s Deserted Cities Of The Heart anymore, Lisa Goldstein’s debut The Red Magician would be YA these days, and so it goes.
    Back in the seventies and eighties Fantasy was frequently as sophisticated as it has ever been, as literary and as imaginative. Now, whilst the core may have developed, the markets for the interesting and different on the fringes is less. If you think that is improvement, I have to disagree.

  4. I’m glad fantasy has changed as much as it has, taking a break from traditional sword and sorcery. While I’m not sure it’s more sophisticated, it certainly does seem to allow more room for darker and edgier material. Hard to go back and read, for instance, some Piers Anthony that I loved as a teen. Yikes!

  5. A fanastic fantasy article :-)

  6. “Do we really want SFF to be en vogue? Imagine, suddenly, a hoard of “fans” interested only because it’s “The ‘In’ Thing” ”

    Way back in the era you are obviously referring to as “before things changed” I was working an SF convention somewhere (I think NYC but that could be wrong) and the con managed to get the hotel management to put a “welcome science fiction fans” notice on their billboard out in front of the hotel.

    All weekend long groups of mundanes (tourists obviously) would wander into the hotel, gape, scuttle along the walls and eventually leave by the entrance they’d come in through.

    No harm, no fowl (not even peeps). “Mainstream” – academic, literary, whatever – always treats genre in this fashion, as a passing fad, light diversion, a (giggle) trip to the sideshow.

    I think it will always be that way – and believe that most, if not all of the (good) works we’ve seen over the past 75+ years owe at least some of their existence to having come from the ‘ghetto’. Ghettos provide unique environments for creativity and apply pressures to creators that are not found in the mainstream. We’re better off for it.

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