Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Star Wars: A New Trilogy defined by an Old

Star Wars: A New Trilogy defined by an Old

I left the ‘Force Awakens’ hopeful. I didn’t care for a lot of the ‘New Hope’ retreads like Poe’s quick trench run to blow up an astronomically more powerful Death Star. But the new cast felt fresh, especially Finn. And I chalked up the repeats to this being ‘Star Wars the apology tour’. Disney playing it safe after the prequels. ‘The Last Jedi’ made me second guess that.

There’s a lot of chatter online about the ‘Last Jedi’ being a radically different Star Wars movie. It’s not. ‘The Last Jedi’ continues the ‘Force Awakens’ opening act, it just plays the hits. There were direct film quotes to Hoth, another jedi duel in the emperor’s chamber, an eccentric hermit training an idealistic jedi, the third goddamn time that people have infiltrated an imperial base with a costume change. The list goes on. A friend of mine suggested that it was so long because they stapled ‘The Empire Strikes back’ onto ‘The Return of the Jedi.’

Johnson plays a little with our expectations of these scenes, which might be why people felt it was so different. But what I think is more interesting is that we have these expectations at all. Star Wars has been around for over forty years and has created countless novels, video games, comics, movies. There’s a critical mass that has caused Star Wars to morph into something of its own genre. There’s now the question of what makes a ‘Star Wars’ movie’ a ‘Star wars’ movie?’

Take Snoke and the First Order. Snoke wasn’t a character, he was a plot device, a prime example of breaking the ‘show, don’t tell’ axiom. Any time they needed to handwave something ‘Snoke did it’. Snoke turned Kylo Ren to the dark side, though we don’t see it happening (or see Kylo Ren do anything evil before Luke confronts him). Snoke created ‘The First Order’, but like how thou? In the original movies the Emperor dies and the Empire is largely defeated. So where does the First Order come from? And how did they get so powerful?

I know the answers to these questions wouldn’t be satisfying. Snoke was basically ‘Emperor II’ and Johnson did one of the only interesting things you could with a character like that. But I still crave an explanation for Snoke and the First Order in a way I don’t from other genres. In a superhero movie I don’t need to know the origin of every supervillain that shows up, some even better without origins. I’ve accepted the rules of the superhero genre, the weird costumes and powers.

But I haven’t yet accepted the rules of the new ‘Star Wars’ genre. I think it’s because I used to view Star Wars like a big world, an ongoing story not defined by its legacy. It didn’t need to have an Empire with Stormtroopers, or characters that mimicked Luke or Darth Vader. It could go in other directions, explore new ideas or ones only teased at in the original films. But to Disney the old characters, vehicles, and duality define Star Wars. You don’t need to explain ‘The First Order’, because it’s part of the genre. You buy a ticket for Star Wars, you expect to see a ‘rebels vs. imperials’.

Despite years of consuming Star Wars media, I’m not fully into this new definition. I like some of it’s tenants like adorable droids that kick more ass than their owners. But the devotion to the original three feels stifling. And nothing makes that clearer when the new characters meet the old.

Look, I liked grumpy Luke. Han Solo was fun in Force Awakens. Leia being a general is a natural evolution of the character. But their involvement sucks up time and energy away from the new characters and the new world. This is now the second movie where it feels like the legends of old are handing over the reigns to the new kids, that leaves only one film for the new cast to stand on its own and do something.

There is a density that comes with characters like Luke Skywalker, he’s so iconic now, he’s going to wrap the film around him like a black-hole. That’s why Luke’s transformation into a hero that’s crippled by his own legend is so apt. Skywalker has becomes a metaphor for Star Wars itself. A franchise buckling under its own expectations.

But Star Wars needn’t carry that legacy, it can evolve, change. In my final post on Star Wars (for now) I’ll talk about the future of the franchise, why it matters, and hopefully where it might go.

Why we Time Travel

*Warning Spoilers for ’11/22/63′, ‘Erased’ and ‘Steins;Gate’*

Time Travel is one of those sci-fi concepts that has become so ubiquitous it’s essentially its own genre at this point. There’s even three different time travel shows coming to TV next season (that I’m aware of). A comedy called ‘Making History’, an action series called ‘Timeless’ and an adaption of the crime, ‘fish out of water’ novel, and later movie, ‘Time after Time,’ which stars the father of time travel stories himself, H.G Wells.

So what’s the appeal? I mean time travel plots can be some of the most confusing science fiction out there. They have all these difficult rules and concepts like alternative dimensions, time phantoms, becoming your own grandfather, the list goes on. So why do we enjoy them so much that we need yet another adaptation of ‘Time after Time’? (wasn’t the excellent 1979 movie enough?)

Before I answer that let’s break down the genre of Time Travel a bit. Most time travel stories are not about well, time. Our concept of time is basic necessity of modern life. We wouldn’t have a global society if we didn’t agree on things like time zones and Greenwich mean time. Sure America can get away with measuring length and weight differently than most the rest of the world, but imagine if we did the same with time? No, everyone has to agree that a minute is sixty seconds or everything falls apart.

And yet Einstein has taught us that time is relative; things like gravity and distance radically change the speed at which time passes. A minute on a planet circling a black hole might be closer to a year on earth. That is mind blowing; I can barely grasp it. And most time travel stories don’t want to touch it. Instead what Time Travel stories are really interested in is causality. The idea that our actions matter and led to certain outcomes. Are things destined to be the way they are? Or could they have happened differently?

If you think about it there are essentially only two time travel plots (…well, maybe three, the third being whatever the hell is going on in ‘Dr. Who’). Each plot is a different answer to the question of causality. There’s the ‘alternative dimension’ story (‘Sound of Thunder’, ‘Back to the Future II’, etc) that says, ‘yes, things could have happened differently, here’s how:’. And the ‘Loop’ story (‘The Shinning Girls’, ‘Looper’,etc) that says ‘No, things were meant to be this way and there’s no changing it, and furthermore any attempt to change it is just going to make the that thing happen’. Most Time Travel stories are either one of those two, or more commonly these days a combination of both.

The ‘Loop’ story is particularly interesting because it’s wrestles with this idea of fate. It’s essentially a modern update on old ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus. In the anime ‘Steins;Gate’ a group of eccentric college geeks discover a cache of time travel documents and use them to subtly change their current lives. Halfway through though it’s revealed that they ‘pushed’ themselves onto a different ‘timeline’ one where their friend Mayuri is destined to die. The main character Okabe travels back in time again and again to prevent Mayuri’s death only to cause it or change the location or prevent it for a matter of hours. Just as Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, regardless of what action he takes or preexisting knowledge he possesses, Okabe is destined to watch his friend die.

Another recent example of this is the Hulu series ‘11/22/63’ based on the Stephen King book by the same name. In it James Franco’s character, Jake Epping, inherits a dinner that lets him travel back to 1960 for some reason. He also inherits a mission to prevent the assassination of JFK. In the series ‘Time pushes back’ against time travels; suggesting that time has some stock in making sure events happens a given way. It tries to dissuade Jake’s actions by creating obstacles and adversaries like throwing random cars at him or having a whiny manifestation of time moan at him ‘You shouldn’t be here’ . Whenever there’s a physical manifestation of time like that trying to prevent our heroes from time traveling, that’s a variation of the ‘loop’ story, a literal take on our struggle with fate.

In ‘11/22/63’ Jake ultimately must succumb to his loop which turns out has nothing to do with JFK. I won’t spoil it, but the loop is pretty mishandled, both an arbitrary plot point and key element at the same time. In fact ‘11/22/63’ is an example of how not to blend the loop and alternative dimension narratives. Jake never really wants to change the world, and in the end doesn’t, because the results of doing so are so horrible and because ‘time’ as a force always wins.

Acceptance like Jake’s is the most common way loop stories end. In ‘Steins;Gate’ Okabe escapes of his loop by putting back all the subtle changes he made to the timeline and thus accepting fate as it should be. But that’s not all he does. He also sacrifices himself, taking a stab wound for the girl he loves, so he could both perverse events and change the timeline (it works in context). This is the other more interesting way characters break the loop and achieve the ‘Alternative Dimension’, though noble sacrifice.

The Anime ‘Erased’ is all about changing fate through sacrifice. It’s also a great counter to ‘11/22/63’ because it deals with a lot the same themes. Like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’s’ protagonist, Satoru Fujinuma, has the ability able to travel back in time for seemingly no reason. Also like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’ is focused on accurately recreating a recent time period: in ‘Erased’ it’s 1980s Japan rather than 1960s America. Where ‘Erased’ diverges and improves on ‘11/22/63’ is intimate scope. ‘Erased’ is focused on only the life of it’s protagonist and not on changing history.

When we first meet Satoru in ‘Erased’ he’s a numb outcast who has difficulty connecting with people and is working as pizza deliveryman. His ability to time travel, known as ‘Revival’ is triggered only when something bad is about to happen and sends him back several minutes to prevent the event. However every time he acts, he pays a toll, like getting into a car accident while preventing a truck from hitting a little boy.

We find out that a series of child murders occurred in Satoru’s home town when he was a kid. It left him with a profound sense of guilt because he was the last person to see the first victim, a fellow classmate, alive. The consequences of these murders bleed into the present and Satoru breaks his ‘revival’ ability to send himself all the way back to middle school in the 80s, hoping to prevent the murders from ever happening

In the 80s Satoru sees his middle school life with the world weariness of adult. He notices problems that went over his head before, like the physical abuse of a quiet classmate and the sacrifices that his single mother made for him. Unlike Jake from ‘11/22/63’ Satoru has no road map for stopping the murders and is in the body of a middle schooler, so he’s unable to use force to prevent the crimes. Instead Satoru does his best to forage a community between the potential victims, hoping that if everyone stays together they won’t be isolated long enough for the murderer to act.

Satoru still finds himself stuck in loops, but through slowly trusting and revealing his insights to his childhood friends he creates connections that have ripple effects in the future. Furthermore middle school was the moment that Satoru’s social isolation began. He witnesses this trait in the little girl he’s trying to save and by befriending her he starts to change himself. By the end of the series Satoru still pays a terrible price for meddling with time, but one that he is now strong enough to survive and thrive after.

Ultimately that is what we seek with our time travel stories, the idea that our pasts our malleable. That we can change events and escape the ‘loops’ of fate we find in ourselves trapped in. ‘Erased’, like the best time travel stories though, show that it is not fate and the past that must be changed but ourselves. It takes years of sacrifice for Satoru to break his loop, but a better alternative world is waiting for him once he was does.

As Charles Yu points out in his beautiful novel ‘How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe’: “Everyone has a time machine. Everyone *is* a time machine. It’s just that most people’s time machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines.”