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First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara

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ARC Review


Forms Of Fantasy

I haven’t written an article for Fantasy-Faction in a while and so, I thought I’d better start by saying something interesting.

“As a fantasy/science-fiction fan you are deeply nostalgic and/or interested in the progression of our world.”

Is that interesting? Well, I’m not sure, but what about if I chuck the words fantasy literature, science-fiction literature, fantasy gaming and science-fiction gaming in there? Now…now things get interesting!

Yes, if you are interested in science fiction or fantasy, then it is likely that you are a speculative person who likes to ask yourself questions such as: “What happened before I got onto this Earth?”, “What will happen after I am gone?”, “How could I change things if I was there?”, or even, “What would things be like if ‘x’ happened/existed?”. The sad fact is that you will NEVER find out the answers to those questions. Well, until they invent the time machine or a means of crossing into alternate dimensions, which I’m hoping (and yet doubting) happens very, very soon.

For the time being, until the intelligent people invent these means of travel, there are a number of ways that you, as a speculative person, can indulge your exploratory mind.

Option One: Movies

Labyrinth (poster)Firstly, there are many, many fantasy and science fiction movies. These allow you to be nostalgic certainly; however, they are generally enjoyed in a single relentless event that does not allow you, as an individual, to speculate along the way. A movie will guide you through another human beings vision of what could have been/what will be. And, whilst you enjoy those 90 minutes/two hours, you will probably leave without being able to ask too many questions. Now, as a speculative person, this will probably not satisfy you – not deep down at least. Oh, you may have enjoyed The Terminator, Aliens, Labyrinth, or Lord of the Rings, but part of you would be frustrated at the minimal time you had to explore those worlds and the lack of answers to your questions.

This leads me to your two other options and, in my opinion, your two superior options.

Option Two: Literature

Number two is literature, or in terms you no doubt prefer: books. Books are far, far superior to movies. Although you may be thinking that I’m dropping the ball here and forgetting that I said, just moments ago, a medium that “will guide you through another human beings vision of what could have been/what will be” is not entirely satisfying, a book isn’t exactly that. Let me try and think up an intelligent metaphor for you here.

A Game of Thrones (cover)If a piece of speculative fiction is a house, then the movie experience is you sitting in the passenger seat of a car and driving past it at 30 miles an hour. You see the house, you enjoy it, but then it is gone – you have no control over how long you stay there. The literature experience however puts you in the driving seat. If you like you can stop the car, reverse it and re-evaluate the details you’ve seen. Unlike movies, you will also be able to drive away from this house and return back to your own home as many times as you like. Now, we are getting a little lost in metaphors here (my fault entirely, sorry about that), but the important thing to take away from this is that you can put a book down and reflect upon it. This means that when you put a book down at Chapter 7 for example, that speculative part of you is asking, “What happens next?”, and questions regarding the characters and the world within that novel are whirling around in your head begging and beginning to be answered.

So, I’ve talked books up a lot there, but for us, as readers, there is a problem with them. Books, like films, guide us down a certain path and although we can speculate, read between the lines, and think up alterative paths whilst we read, we are limited by the words on the page in regards to how far that speculation can lead us. Additionally, there is no single book that could possibly answer the many, many “what could” or “what will happen” type questions that readers have. This isn’t a bad thing for publishers, because it means that we, as readers, are forever craving new worlds to explore.

It is also important to note that this isn’t a problem with books themselves, it is just because of our nature, as speculative people, that a book, even a book as large as A Game of Thrones for example, can’t answer all the questions we have. Now, publishers and authors are clever people and they are writing to please us readers. Consider for a moment the length of fantasy novels in 2012. Now, I am going to pre-empt you saying: Lord of the Rings here. However, Lord of the Rings was at the time written as six books, and even as three books, it was considered a monster. You were far more likely to find shorter novels and certainly during the 1930s-1980s with authors such as Asimov, Moorcock, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Eddings, Howard, etc – you see that 150-200 pages novels were very much the fashion. The longer novels of today give the reader more answers to questions they have and a greater ability to connect with characters (due to the time spent with them).

Option Three: Games

Now, to our third option; games. Until very, very recently video games had the same limitations as books and, before that, movies. Although they were interactive, essentially they were just stories that you, as the gamer, walked through from beginning to end. Look at Golden Axe for example, oh yes, what a classic that was! However, when you look back at it – it could have easily been a Final Fantasy (cover)terrible, terrible book. All you, as a player, did was press right, hit a+b a few times (to punch a couple monsters) and moved on to the next level. “Kain Grinder walked right and was attacked by a monster. He killed the monster with a slash of his blade.” Yes, the story progressed exactly how the developers intended it to and you didn’t have any freedom. Also worth noting is that years ago, we didn’t have memory cards and therefore you needed to be able to complete a game in a single sitting – this is what I meant earlier when I said video games used to be very much like films.

Anyway, things change, technology develops and much like books, video games have got longer and longer over time. It is hard to pinpoint the games responsible, but I would say that Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, Baldur’s Gate, Breath Of Fire, and those kinds of lengthy RPGs, that not only had vast story lines that took around 10-20 hours to complete, but also provided the ability to go away and come back, pushed fantasy and science fiction gaming to new levels. I guess when you think about it, we owe a huge amount to the memory card.

Where did we get to? Ah yes, we were around the late 1980s when those very early, blocky RPGs provided gamers with storylines and the ability to take their time when gaming. Over the years fantasy and science fiction gaming has, like books, got longer and longer. Think about how long Final Fantasy games are these days. You are going to have to invest around 40-60 hours in those games to fully complete them, at least! I was speaking to a fantasy author the other day – should I name drop? I will anyway – Joe Abercrombie – who had sunk 105 hours into the MASSIVE Skyrim in just a couple of months. It isn’t just Skyrim though, think about games such as Fallout, Mass Effect, and dare I mention World Of Warcraft, which is well known for having people invest over a thousand hours into.

Skyrim (cover)It sounds crazy – but it is what we want. As speculative fiction enthusiasts we want to explore every possible option. The investment of time may be large, but we are prepared to put our time into it as long as the answers are there. Skyrim for example you can spend five hours just walking around the landscape looking for a dragon to kill because you want to know if your necromantic powers could take out a dragon with the powers of ice. You may even decide to rob a nearby village because you want to check out your powers against an army of guards. Could you get away with murder? Skyrim allows you to stroll into a bar, slay a guy, and find out.

In that way, video games are outgrowing literature. They are offering answers to questions you have. However, books are fighting back. And actually, this brings me to a publisher who seems interested in the development of books: Harper Voyager. I hope most of you have heard of A Game Of Thrones: Enhanced Edition by now. A Game Of Thrones: Enhanced Edition is essentially an interactive book. It may not allow you to change the storyline, however, it allows you to expand your comprehension and understanding of the story – answering some more of those questions that you, as a speculative reader, have.

So, where is this taking us?

The exciting thing is – I’m not really sure. I know, I know, I said as a fan of speculative fiction I should be craving answers and not happily sit to see what happens. The fact is, though, that everything seems to be tearing along – I mean, who would have thought five years ago that we’d be able to sit here reading an interactive version of A Game Of Thrones on a tablet that you can control simply by touching the screen? Heck, I didn’t even believe ereaders would catch on!

Oh, not good enough, you want me to guess? Well…the next BIG step for video games will obviously be virtual reality. I’m sure it is years and years away – hopefully in my lifetime – but that would be the ultimate form of nostalgia/means of experiencing what may lie ahead. I don’t think it’ll be like ‘Tron’ anytime soon, but the headsets have been created, the wii and Konnect and Move all allow movements to be recorded. Movies, well – I see 3D cinema being around for a while. I recently had the privilege of visiting the Marvel 4D cinema experience in London and it set my mind wondering whether, one day, that could be the way forward for movies. Both of these mediums seem to be moving closer towards reality then: visually more realistic, development of touch. For books, well, they are slightly more limited as to where they can go in that respect, but I do think that they will develop as a medium too. A Game Of Thrones: Enhanced Edition is a template to work from. I think that authors will begin to put more and more extraneous material into their work. I see digital becoming the norm and whether it is maps, pictures of characters upon a click of their name, optional short stories that fill in the gaps – they will evolve just like film and game.



  1. Option Four: creating your own world (whether in writing a book or producing a game). Now that’s an even more thorough means of exploration for the fan of speculative fiction. Just throwing that out there.
    Good article.

  2. Avatar Andrew Phillips says:

    I’m curious why isn’t there any mention of Planescape: Torment? It has got to be in the top five, if not #1, best stories in video games.

  3. Avatar Berislav Lopac says:

    You forgot one very important form: classic (i.e. non-computer) role-playing games. If a book is the equivalent of a house, a RPG is a house that has a whole Yellowstone as its backyard — you may roam in it, discover, even create new rooms and areas, and always have something new to explore. And, unlike most other forms, you’re doing it in company.

  4. Avatar Fallen One says:

    It’s an interesting point.

    Just two small additions:

    1) There are a couple more mediums where fantasy can thrive, I think. One of them is in comics (Mouseguard springs to mind), the other one is music (like Rhapsody of Fire, for example).

    2) About virtual reality, it might be a looot closer than you think, with the advent of the Oculus Rift 🙂 This link might prove of some interest http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oculus_Rift

  5. My favorite way to live through different possibilities: tabletop roleplaying games!

    I never really thought of things they way you put them in this article… I guess we fantasy/SciFi fans DO live a state of “what if…?”

    I wonder…

    —Vic S.—

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