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Genre of the Impossible

For a while now there has been an emphasis on realism in our fantasy, which has created some exciting new stories and series, including some personal favourites. However, as the trend for ever more ‘real’ fantasy grows stronger, I hope there will always be a place for the impossible and the mysterious in our genre.

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I was once discussing fantasy with a friend who was in the middle of playing a fantasy video game, and he was getting frustrated with some of the settings and ideas in it. It reminded him of the wall in A Song of Ice and Fire – too big, too silly. The problem with fantasy, he said, is its tendency to go just that little too far over the top – structures that are too tall, objects and ruins that are too old, weapons that are too powerful, bridges that span too far, civilisations that go too far back in time. For him, this tendency was annoying; it tarnished those fun ideas and great worlds. I suppose for him, fantasy is a genre of excess.

Waterfall City by Joshua James ShawI don’t disagree with all of this – fantasy does include a lot of larger than life elements, and I can even understand why some might scoff at them – but I have completely the opposite reaction to it. These unlikely and unbelievable elements are exactly why I love fantasy. They create a disconnect with the reality of our world, with logic and order, creating a sense of mystery and wonder that complements a certain kind of fantasy story so well.

Try searching for some fantasy art online. You’ll start to notice some fairly common themes. Whisper-thin bridges spanning depthless caverns, tiered cities perched precariously on cliffs with connecting walkways hanging over dizzying drops, trees the size of mountains, medieval castles as tall as skyscrapers, sail-ships crossing the skies, civilisations at the depths of the sea. In other words, fantasy art embraces the unlikely and the impossible. But I feel like I’m seeing less of this in fantasy books, and more and more emphasis on realism, particularly in worldbuilding.

Of course, realism can be vital in many aspects of a story, and realistic details really enhance a fantasy world, but it is not the only choice available to the writer. There’s no reason why a purely fantastical castle, a little too tall or a little too vast to be entirely believable, couldn’t feature in a fantasy world just as well as a thoroughly researched medieval keep. It depends on the tone of the story. There’s also no reason why realism can’t also be accompanied by touches of sheer, inexplicable fantasy. That touch of the impossible or the surreal that gives you a sense of wonder, a feeling that reality has been left behind. Look at those fantasy art images again. Tell me you don’t want to know about what it’s like to live in those incredible, impossible places.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (US detail)I recently began the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch and instantly fell in love with the world conjured up in those books. In particular, it was the elderglass remains that fired my imagination and gave me that feeling of wonder and joy at the fantastical. And it’s not just the idea itself, but what Scott Lynch does with it – a tower that has its lowest entrance hundreds of feet off the ground, with guests winched up in cages to attend parties; a glass garden at the top of a tower, as deadly as it is beautiful, used as a training space for sword combat; a house balanced on a thin arm of glass, suspended over a drop. In another context these things would be absurd, but that’s what’s so brilliant about them. They add a feeling of eccentricity to the world and to the plot that places it firmly in fantasy. That’s not to say that Scott Lynch’s stories are completely unrealistic – far from it. His characters act like real people and the internal consistency of the world is maintained. To me, they represent a perfect balance of the familiar and the impossible. And I don’t think those books would have had the same impact on me without those surreal, unrealistic pieces of worldbuilding, even if the story itself had remained unaltered.

Treehouse Castle Brainstorm by James Combridge

Other books may do similar things with their settings, or the clothes people wear, or the creatures that exist, or simply the characters’ acceptance of the spiritual or the impossible within their lives. In fairy tales and folklore, the characters and readers take the impossible in their stride and accept that this is how things are. Children’s books commonly include this kind of acceptance of all things magical and strange; it is less common in adult fiction but it does work well when used. If you read almost anything by Neil Gaiman or China Miéville, for example, the weird just…is. It exists and it’s largely unexplained and unquestioned.

Iz'Kal Mushroom Caverns by James CombridgeNow, I’m not arguing that all fantasy books should do this. Sometimes the point of a particular story or world is to focus on the details or the science behind the fantastical or the supernatural, to ask: why? And these can be incredibly compelling. Magic systems, for example, are a lot of fun! They give the reader the chance to understand and predict things, almost like a murder mystery where all the clues have been laid out for the reader. But I have often seen discussions that claim magic systems are essential, that magic can’t work as a major story element unless its rules and consequences have been fully explained. I don’t agree with this. A book like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is, to me, a great example of how a more mysterious and less predictable kind of magic can take centre stage in the plot and still be satisfying.

I’m certainly not saying that there isn’t a place for realism in fantasy – of course there is – but within the fantasy genre, realism and the impossible really don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Even the grittiest books can feature the most fantastical elements – just look at the Night Angel series. Nor should every fantasy book have to include these elements of pure, incredible fantasy. But when impossible worldbuilding does appear, I don’t think of it as a flaw. If science is about pushing limits, surely fantasy is about breaking them.

Title image by Tonyholmsten.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Yora says:

    This is something I’ve been talking about with a couple of people in several different places over the last months. Alternate versions of the middle ages with a hint of magic here and there seem to have been all the rage for quite a while, with the truly fantastic and mystic only rarely making an appearance. Fantasy painters are indeed the total opposite. They like to really jump into the deep end of the impossible and fantastic.
    An interesting exception to this trend for the last decade or so are videogames. Many fantasy games go to some real effort to have good stories, but since they are both a visual and narrative medium (which unlike film doesn’t have to have very expensive special effects that blend seamlessly with the landscape and the actors), many of these worlds don’t shy away from impossible landscapes and architecture.

    Personally my preference is for fantastic things in moderation. A 100,000 year old empire and 2000 meter high tower are silly and seem impossible. But that doesn’t mean that you have to stay entirely within the limits of what historically existed. I often feel that the best effect is achieved when it’s 110% fantasy. Bridges that are a bit too big and towers that are a bit too high to feel real, but don’t appear completely impossible. As many problems as I have with the book, I think The Lord of the Rings is a great example of how that works. Moria, the giant statues of the ancient kings, Orthanc, and Minas Tirith all seem implausibly big. But not exactly physically impossible. Would be very difficult, but with enough time and resources could be done.

    This is not the first time I’ve seen someone mentioning a wish for more fantastic fantasy in literature. And I am quite hopeful that we’re going to see more of this again in the future.

  2. I like the premise, but I can’t quite agree that the ‘impossible’ should be present. I think, rather, that things that are not possible in our world should be present in fantasy worlds, as long as they are explained at least in part. This could be as simple as saying the impossibly thin bridges or tall towers were built by mages or elves or advanced ancient civilisations (as often they are), or held together by ‘magic’. The problem would be with amazing cities built by people who don’t seem to have enough technology/magic, wealth, population or political will to get such things done. Where did they get all that damn stone, for a start? Also, if they are rich or advanced or magical enough to build something impossible, why don’t they also have X, Y or Z as well?

    On the other hand, you have historic examples things like Cathedrals, which were super advanced and expensive compared to everyday buildings around them and still take ones breath away today. I suppose in some way buildings like those are the inspiration for the iconic fantasy edifices. The problem is, with fantasy, that these realistically ‘impossible’ buildings aren’t impressive enough to the modern reader. I suppose I like to try to scale down the impossible (a bit) but still make it clear that these ‘possible’ buildings are still pretty damn impressive.

  3. Avatar Xen says:

    I actually get annoyed with people who don’t like the impossible elements of fantasy. I am willing to suspend disbelief as long as the fantastical elements go with the flow of the story, or in the case of a magic system, are consistent (or if the magic is supposed to be inconsistent on purpose).

    I think it has to do with all the realism being pushed around.
    It’s now popular to give dragons only four limbs in films and games whereas six limbs were perfectly fine before. It’s in the name of realism. Yeah, I get it, but it’s a fantasy world darn it, my dragon is going to have six limbs if it can.

    It seems to me that people are either slowly losing their imagination or that realism has so become the norm in fantasy that they can’t think outside the box anymore.

    • Avatar Yora says:

      I think it probably started out as a desire to have stories with more substance and not just style. Characters and their motivation should be believable and people want to understand how the characters did the things they just did, instead of relying on the writers telling them “Trust me, it makes sense. It’s magic.”
      Stripping a story of any fantastic elements that are only there for style but don’t really contribute to the plot and the character descisions is a sound idea. Just to clear up some of the chaos that makes it hard to see what’s really going on. Reducing the plot to its basic elements. Where I think things went wrong is when writers increasingly forgot, or just had no real interest, in putting the fantastic elements back into the fantasy stories. The plot works without it, so just leave it at that.
      But in fantasy, style is very important. It’s not just for decoration, but an important element in creating mood and atmosphere, which is one of the great strong points of fantasy to begin with. I think this is where the most is lost when stories are written with few fantastic elements.
      Of course, if you’re getting really serious, then a great fantasy story does actually have a plot based on and around fantastic elements. Style is important, but in fantasy you can build plots around fantastic elements, and that is really something I’ve not seen in a very long time.

  4. Avatar D.D.Price says:

    Its amazing how people are so ingrained into the reality of our world that they can’t see the fantastic in it…. Just look around at the world, there are kinds of things that we would think should be impossible but aren’t. Even better just look at history. It took Caesar and his men just ten days to build a bridge to cross the Rhine which must have looked pretty fantastical to the Germanic barbarians.

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