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Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?

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In-Jokes and Crossovers In Fiction: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

Quick poll, dear readers: what’s your opinion of crossovers?

I ask because I’m still working my way through the Outlander series (only the most recent one left to race through, and then I’ll have to wait like everybody else for Gabaldon to write the last book), and the book I read most recently didn’t draw me in as deeply as its predecessors. After some reflection, I’ve concluded that the main reason for this is because, unlike the other books, this one felt as though it expected readers to be fluent in a whole different set of characters.

Essentially, the Outlander universe consists of two related series. The Outlander books, the first of which I reviewed here, center on Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their family’s adventures in the 18th and 20th centuries. A comparatively minor character from this series, Lord John Grey, is also the hero of his own set of books, described in the reviews I’ve read as crime/mystery novels. Since I’m not a mystery fan, I’ve not made an effort to hunt those books down, and through the first six books of the Outlander series (of which Lord John appears in five), I didn’t feel their absence. But when I encountered Lord John’s first viewpoint section in Book 7, An Echo in the Bone, I suddenly felt out of the loop. There were winking references to events I didn’t remember; Lord John had conversations with people I was clearly meant to recognize; again and again, I noticed things going over my head. And it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Of course, Gabaldon is hardly the only author to craft a set of interlaced stories. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, there are several places where the readers are presented with Mysterious Characters who feel like they ought to be significant. These characters, Sanderson’s committed fan community will gladly explain, have detailed backstories which fit them into the larger cosmology that links Sanderson’s otherwise-unconnected series, but within the pages of Mistborn, their identities are left unexplained. And there are others, large and small. George RR Martin threads moments from his Dunk and Egg stories into the background of the Song of Ice and Fire novels; Robin Hobb has a number of ostensibly unrelated series that take place in different corners of the same world. During the four years Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were airing simultaneously, the two shows had so many instances of interlaced plot that there are whole episode guides devoted to iterating proper viewing order.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Easter eggs as much as the next person. My favorite show as a pre-teen, Space Cases (may it rest in peace), reliably included in-jokes for its especially-nerdy viewers, including everything from throwaway lines about “Minbar chess,” or a character’s declaring that the best response to encountering new life is “Fascinating” to directions like this:

Okay, now, Alpha Epsilon is to port, and Centauri is to starboard… triangulating to the Narn homeworld…

If you’re coming from the Delta Quadrant, turn left at the Bajoran wormhole, then take the Vogon Hyperspace Bypass to Exit 42.

These references  are fun for those who catch them, but to those who don’t, they slide right past without feeling like they should be important. This is the level of cross-reference I strive for in my own writing: if I’m writing a short story that draws on the world of my novel, I might put in a throwaway line or two aimed at my “constant readers,” but I’d also want the story to stand on its own legs, without leaving casual readers standing on the outside.

I certainly get the appeal of crossovers, both as an author and an insider fan. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series includes everything from throwaway lines about King’s made-up Maine cities to the reappearance of characters from earlier books; as a longtime and committed King fan, I found it a lot of fun. I regularly and enthusiastically recommend this series, and I’d still say it has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen – but I do admit that its target audience is King fans. Readers who don’t know the rest of his canon could still enjoy the books, but I suspect they’d be just as jarred by the in-jokes and sly cross-references in Roland of Gilead’s story as I was with the ones in An Echo in the Bone. If you haven’t read The Stand, It, ‘Salem’s Lot and a handful of others, you could read all 7 books of the Dark Tower series and still feel like you’d missed something.

And maybe that’s the crux of the problem for me, why it gets under my skin: because in all the crossovers I’ve mentioned here, the (ostensibly self-contained) series making the references is a commitment on its own. Three books, or four, or six, or nine; maybe 100 or 150 hours of TV. As a longtime fantasy reader, I’m very comfortable with long series, and very conscientious about starting from the beginning and making sure I read things in order. But if I’ve done my due diligence and started from Book 1, when I come to a scene or a plot revelation that’s clearly written to make the audience gasp, I want to know what I’m gasping about. In the same way that I try to build each book in a series with a self-contained story so that readers don’t feel like they’re being bribed to buy the next book, I feel that if a reader’s followed a series from the beginning, they shouldn’t trip up halfway through with the feeling that they should’ve bought all the author’s other books, too.

I’d be curious to hear other authors’ and readers’ opinions on this: how do you feel about encountering material in a story that you know isn’t there for your benefit? If you’ve got a large world with many stories in it, how do you maintain and manage the boundaries between them?

Dumbledore’s Other Army: Orientation and Sexuality in Genre Fiction

In the second of my posts on representation in genre fiction, I’ve decided to tackle the visibility (or lack thereof) of LGBT characters in fantasy and sci-fi. This post contains one significant spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as relatively smaller spoilers for several other shows/books (most notably the new BSG and Babylon 5).

In some respects, it seems like the visibility of queer characters in genre fiction is improving faster than for some other underrepresented groups. I’ve read several books in the last few months that feature major gay or lesbian characters whose same-sex attractions are not the only relevant aspect of their identity (most notably Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty, reviewed here). There are some noteworthy queer characters in genre TV shows, too. The one that’s caught my attention most recently is Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, who even gets to be PG-sexual with her girlfriends on screen (a relatively big deal for the early 2000s), and there’s also Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5; these characters are especially notable for being bisexual (in action if not in label).

Of course, there are Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange books, focused on a culture where the expected default is bisexuality. And even the new edition of D&D jumped on the bandwagon a few weeks ago, including a paragraph in its chapter on character creation explicitly encouraging players to think about “how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior… You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”

So, queer folk have a presence in the SF/F canon, and it seems to slowly be growing.

And yet.

  • When Game of Thrones showed Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell being openly sexual on-screen, many of fans raised voices in protest, saying that “they totally weren’t gay in the books” (reminiscent of the fan outrage when Rue and Cinna from The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movies, in keeping with Suzanne Collins’ description of them in the books). Although GRRM has publicly stated that these characters are indeed supposed to be in a relationship, allusions to it in the text are always relatively subtle.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica has one “openly” gay character in its relatively large cast (and her sexuality is only discussed in the bonus TV movie): the tough-as-nails admiral Helena Cain, whose memorable actions include ordering the shooting of conscripts’ families to force their compliance. I agree with those who’ve said elsewhere that there’s no intrinsic problem with giving underrepresented identities to characters who do questionable things; having a particular group appear in your story only as saints and martyrs causes its own problems. But when the only member of a group appearing in the story spends most of their time doing questionable things… well, that makes me go hmm. BSG does have a second character, Felix Gaeta, who’s been officially identified as bisexual — but the scenes where he’s shown to be in a relationship with another man appear in a series of “webisodes” that aren’t included on the DVD box set or otherwise available to latecomers to the show. In fact, as far as viewers of the DVDs are concerned, Gaeta is altogether relationship-less.

In that vein, we could also talk about Dumbledore. Or Gobber the Belch from How to Train Your Dragon 2. These characters have been revealed by their creators to be gay… but it’s after-the-fact. Or outside the scope of the movies and books where they appeared. Good for the creators for giving some thought to representation… but not good enough.

Some people will continue to argue that “of course” series like these will be subtle with their representation of LGBT characters, because they’re designed for children and queer characters have no place in children’s fiction. But as this article from io9 points out, even children’s stories are full of references to love and romance. Nearly every Disney movie has boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy as its central theme. And as LGBT activists argue when talking about queer life in the “real world,” the question of who people love, date, and daydream about filters into many more aspects of life than just what happens in the bedroom.

Love interests are a central part of the stories we tell, regardless of what age those stories are aimed at. Short films like this one and this one are a step in the right direction, but if the rest of us are serious about making our sf/f worlds look more like the real world, there need to be more queer characters in our fiction who talk about their lives. Video game writer Anthony Burch wrote a great post on this, where he said in part:

I’ve been told once or twice that the bisexual or gay characters I wrote for Borderlands 2 were arbitrary and forced. This is one hundred percent true. I did not have any particular stories to tell about human sexuality — I just randomly chose a few characters and decided that they weren’t heterosexual. I had no “reason” to do so other than the belief that a cast of sexually diverse characters is better than a sexually homogenous one. Did it hurt the story? Maybe. Maybe it feels arbitrary that certain female characters mention their wives, or that certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends. … On the upside, though… while arbitrarily diverse casts might make the story worse, they make [the] world better. Not the in-fiction world, either; I mean, you know, the world. The actual one. The one you and I are in. Real life.”

Genre fiction is supposed to be about playing with wild and crazy ideas. When the real world  is consumed by the debate over whether boys should be able to marry boys, I think we as genre writers have some obligation to think about making it happen.