Thursday, November 1, 2012

I Gotta Get This Off My Chest - Old Fantasy vs. New Fantasy

Alright, I normally don't like "rant" posts, because they're little more than self-serving.  However, I decided to indulge my selfish side and get this message out, because I think it needs said, and you may agree or disagree freely.  I will not take offense.  It's the view I hold, and here it is.

I've been spending a lot of time with old paperbacks, like the one pictured, old pulps from the '40s, and material from the sword & sorcery genre written well before the inception of D&D.  Here is my observation:  too much of modern fantasy is informed by what D&D brought to the world as an implied fantasy setting, and is too informed by modern political correctness.  Where is my proof?  Well, just off the top of my head (like I said, this is a rant, not a dissertation), Jim Butcher wrote a role-playing group turned werewolves into his books about Harry Dresden.  Dragonlance still sells.  And how many Forgotten Realms novels are there?  A billion, you're right.  (We'll get to PC influence in a minute.)

Most big-name fantasy tomes, and I use the word tomes to purvey a sense of the page count of most of the epics coming out these days, are Tolkien-esque imitations.  There is little in the way of the manly and un-politically correct heroes of yore who exist in a world that is just plain old out to get them.  Sure there are a few authors still writing this kind of thing, but just like everything else these days that has suddenly become mass-marketable (I'm looking at you D&D), the things masquerading as heroic fantasy or sword & sorcery usually aren't the kind of visceral, imagination-inspiring, sword-wielding, death-escaping stories of yesteryear.  Too often I see "sensitive" heroes, or the author dwelling on how things make the character "feel."  We've lost the action, the adventure, and the sense of wonder because fantasy has become commonplace.  I'm not saying that every hero has to operate in the same moral gray area as Conan or his ilk, but the action, atmosphere, and wonderment in those stories far surpasses a lot of what is written today.

I think the crux of the problem is this:  fantasy and science fiction literature used to be outsider entertainment, just like roleplaying games.  Both the stories and the games are much, much, much less so these days due to the huge movies coming out and succeeding (the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings adaptations for instance - which I love, oddly enough), and the onslaught of sci-fi/fantasy video games of the last two decades spurring the genre into the national consciousness.  

It's good in that it will never, ever go away and that there will always be a market for fantastic imagination, but it is heavily diluted with marketing.  Decisions are made to tame things down in stories because it might offend people, and that was rarely ever a concern of the pulp fantasy writers even up through the 1970s because of how society was at the time (white-centric, male-centric).  I totally get why companies do it, but I think people are offended far too easily, especially today in 2012.  Quentin Tarantino is getting things right with his movies - push the limits!  Challenge what people think.  Smack them in the face with something.  Rattle their stupid post-modern cage.  That's what the original S&S stories did.  They were vivid, lurid, and in-your-face.  They sold exactly because they were shocking!  The words popped off the page, even in some of the poorly written stuff.  I'm just so sick of reading about nature-loving elves, mountain-dwelling dwarves, dragons, paladins, and worlds that aren't weird.  That is normal now.  I don't want a normal fantasy novel.  Ever.  I wish Quentin Tarantino would take a shot at sword & sorcery.  He'd get it right.

Now get off my lawn.

(Addendum:  Sometimes I think the above thoughts are what really rankles a lot of us in the old-school gaming community.  We desire what the game was before it was marketed and diluted.  Of course, it is in OUR hands to take back that feeling.  And it's what the OSR has been doing all along.  It can only be done in a niche of a niche today.  This whole thing is why so many of the monsters I've put up here on the blog have that old pre-D&D pulp fantasy feel to them.  The rules serve my world, not the other way around.  You can even do that with 4E and Pathfinder - remember Rule Zero.  We shouldn't have been at war with the rule set, we should have been at war with the marketing.)

6 comments:

  1. You seem to know your stuff, so you've probably already encountered them, but if not, you should hunt down some books by Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch. Both writing morally grey fantasy without much in the way of political correctness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Got one or two things sitting in the to-read pile by those gents, actually. They're in the cycle, but that it takes me forever to read things at times - right now I think I've started 5 different books. I gotta stop that!

      Delete
  2. No thanks. I am actively opposed to political correctness, but by the same token I don't want shock for the sake of shock. To me that's worse than no shock. Both political correctness and shock for shock's sake are both the same form of extremism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps I was misleading there. Shock must, I say must, have a purpose.

      Delete
    2. But if shock has a purpose then it is not really shock but rather an extension and natural outflow of the story being told. Yes, it can be shocking to the reader's sensibilities but it is not shocking to the story.

      I guess your cry for more shock came across as pursuing shock instead of pursuing a good story, which are two separate things.

      Delete
    3. Guess I'll word more carefully the next time. Thanks for the input.

      Delete