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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?

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?

Reading Challenge Review: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (or, “Problematic Fandom Revisited”)

A book based on or turned into a TV show (#49 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Outlanderby Diana Gabaldon

The new Outlander cover, featuring the stars of the TV series that debuted on Starz in 2014.

The new Outlander cover, featuring the stars of the TV series that debuted on Starz in 2014.

I bought this book on a whim about 3 weeks ago, knowing very little about the plot beyond the one-line summary  of “historical romance in Scotland.” I had a vague notion time travel might be involved. I had seen video of Gabaldon talking about her writing process at a 2014 Comic-Con panel (and smiling as she said that she cheated in her worldbuilding because she could draw on history openly instead of having to hide the fact that she’d done so); I also knew she was one of the subset of authors who officially requests that no fanfic be written in her world. But I didn’t know anything about her novels.

The copy I bought was over 800 pages, and I read it in three or four days. When I found myself in my local bookstore last weekend, I scooped up the rest of the series (7 more 800+ page books) and staggered to the checkout counter. Saying I found Outlander compulsively readable is an understatement. The characters are well-drawn; the details of the historical setting (actually two different historical settings, but we’ll get to that in a moment) feel painstakingly researched; the prose is smooth and witty. The book is full of scenes to love, both big ones like the ritual Clan Gathering when all the associates of the MacKenzie family come together to reaffirm their oaths to the clan head, and small ones like the moment when the main character overhears her new husband counseling his small nephew on the birds and the bees (and answering the question ‘Is it hard to keep from laughing?’)

And yet.

When I went to Goodreads to get a sense of the general reception for Outlander, I found it seemed to be one of those books people loved or hated. The ones who loved it praised the same things that I liked. The ones who didn’t love it talked about borderline-consensual sex and domestic violence. And I’ll concede that this book has those things, as well as deeply troublesome depictions of gay characters.

In brief, the story of Outlander is the story of Claire Beauchamp Randall, an Englishwoman who’s just been reunited with her historian husband, Frank, after World War II. On a trip to Scotland with him, she stumbles through a ring of standing stones and finds herself transported from 1946 to 1743. There, she quickly runs afoul of a sadistic English captain who also happens to be her husband’s ancestor (and looks so much like him that in the TV show they’re played by the same actor). To stay safe, she’s persuaded to marry Jamie Fraser, a strapping young nephew of the local clan head (thereby making her nationality Scottish rather than English and removing herself from Captain Randall’s jurisdiction). In fairly short order, Claire decides that she loves Jamie more than Frank and that she’s going to stay in the 18th century. Over the next few hundred pages, there’s a whole lot of, er, urgent sex; there’s a scene where Jamie beats Claire with a belt as punishment for disobeying him and inadvertently risking the lives of their traveling companions; and there’s an extended sequence exploring the psychological consequences of male-on-male sexual abuse. The perpetrator is one of only two identifiably queer characters in the book (the other’s played entirely for laughs). Both of them are unable to resist Jamie’s charms.

This development on its own wasn’t enough to make me turn away from the book. I’m willing to make some allowance for changing norms (Outlander was first published in 1991, when there was less widespread cultural awareness about avoiding tropes like these), and hold out hope that there will be less problematic queer characters waiting in the wings in future books. But the fact that the only gay character with substantial screen time in the first one is a monster is still troubling, and I’m not going to try to pretend otherwise.

The concern I see in other reviews around domestic violence and consent is there for me, too, at least upon reflection. While I didn’t find the scenes in question personally troubling as I read, I also acknowledge that my first reaction (which went along the lines of “this scene’s set in a different time and relations between men and women were different; it’s just Gabaldon being historically accurate!”) is a version of the same argument that explains away the whiteness of a lot of European-inspired fantasy stories by saying there were no people of color in medieval Europe. (Which, PS, is also far from true.) I’m aware of the argument that many women fantasize about “the sexy man who won’t take no for an answer,” and that for that reason encounters where consent is questionable-at-best are supposedly pretty common in romance novels (I don’t know the genre well enough to offer evidence one way or the other); I also completely support an individual author’s right to tell any kind of story they want to tell. That doesn’t make the themes this author chose for her book less problematic to a contemporary eye.

I’ve discussed topics like this before on the blog, and linked to the fabulous essay from Social Justice League on “how to be a fan of problematic things.” That author, Rachael, has three suggestions on how to do this in a self-aware way, and I’ll reproduce them here:

  1. Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it.
  2. Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements.
  3. Thirdly, you must acknowledge other, even less favorable, interpretations of the media you like.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to negotiate these issues as a fan. I like Firefly and Angel, despite being uneasy with some of their choices around race. I like A Song of Ice and Fire even though it has its own (“historically accurate”) issues around consent and around gender more broadly. Right now, Husband and I are watching The West Wing, which has some serious problems with both gender and race that don’t seem to get nearly as much press as its witty dialogue. I try to be aware whenever I consume media, and Gabaldon’s series is just the latest instance where this awareness has found something to trip over without having to look very hard.

I liked this book a lot. I’m curious to see where the story goes, and I bought the rest of the series without a moment’s hesitation. I’ve recommended Outlander to friends, and I’ll recommend it here, too — but when I do, I note the problematic things that I mentioned up above, because I know many people might not want to read a book that includes those elements.

As I’ve become more active in fan culture, one of the themes I’ve seen over and over in discussions of competing fandoms is that part of good nerd citizenship is acknowledging others’ rights to like things that you don’t, whether that’s Twilight or Harry Potter or the Transformers movies. I think the less-often-stated duty is to also acknowledge others’ rights not to share your love for something. Discussions about the problematic aspects of things I love make me a more conscientious fan and a more conscientious storyteller, and I’m glad that the tent of genre stories is getting bigger so that more voices can be heard. Because just as having one stereotypical character is less problematic if they’re part of a larger, less stereotyped population (also known as Don’t Make the Only Black Guy the Muscle) this book is less troublesome if it’s on a shelf with other books that have well-adjusted gay protagonists and sex that’s unequivocally consensual regardless of the era. So I’ll keep reading Gabaldon, and I’ll also keep looking for other new authors to add to my library. Go thou and do likewise.