Essay: Why Fantasy
is Not Crap
Fantasy: Just a short fairground ride or something more substantial?
I work in the genre of fantasy writing which is a fun, lawless place to be, with conventions enthusiastically upended and narrative rules cast to the four winds. A place where the imagination can take root, and creativity given free rein. The perfect place for a writer.
Well, yes and no. Yes if you like a free-flow of wacky ideas, but no if you want shedloads of sales and a corner of Westminster Abbey when you croak. The thing is, Fantasy and Science Fiction sit as lesser genres to Crime, Thriller, and Human Drama. And this always struck me as a bit strange, for if the truly creative and original writing is nearly always in Science Fiction and Fantasy, why are these the genres not the most bought and read? After all, Fantasy was once all there was - think of Perseus battling Medusa or Beowolf knocking the stuffing out of Grendell. Somehow, something went terribly wrong.
Along the road to civilisation and technological prowess, we lost our imagination. Not totally, and not all of us - but most of us, and since we live in a society akin to a large termite nest only with WiFi and Nando's, the 'Most of Us' hold sway. And that's worrying, for I've come to the conclusion that the sway-holding 'Most of Us' aren't that imaginative - or at least, not when it comes to Creative Intellectual thought. But conversely and frustratingly, we are all very imaginative when it comes to stuff we can see and hear.
So what's going on? Human Imagination stumbling during a technological era that by long force of habit we continue to bless with endless superlatives? Yes, totally - and a good place for me to start on this admittedly counter-intuitive argument is by studying that trusted stalwart of the imaginative intellectual art: The novel. How does it stack up when compared to those cheerily bright and irrepressibly noisy first cousins, Music and Art?
Music, 1850: Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt were popular at the time, but ahead lay Ragtime, Jazz, pop, R&B, Hiphop, Electronic - the form has been advanced out of all recognition in the past century-and-a-half. The New World Symphony is not generally considered very similar to the Rockfeller Skank, but they are definitely Funk Soul Brothers.
Art, also in 1850. After twenty-odd millennia of enthusiastically bold experiments with light, form, and perspective, we reach the impressionists. It's joyfully diverse from here on in: Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Koons. Art, like Music, has not only been interpreted in a myriad of different styles and possibilities, but - and this is vital, since imaginative creation requires imaginative acceptance to function - the works were recognised and, albeit with occasional reluctance - okay, quite a lot sometimes - embraced by the public. The Mona Lisa is as iconically indicative of the form as Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam!
How did prose writing fare in the same period? By 1850 the novel was well on its way. Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein lay three decades in the past. Vanity Fair was recently published, and the Bronte family, famous as much for their dying as their writing, were largely still writing. Dickens, already famous beyond measure, would remain so for well, probably eternity. The basis for the detective novel had been invented by 1855, and by 1897 we have been introduced to the concepts of time travel and alien invasion. I believe 90% of the groundwork for the novel as we know it today was laid by the turn of the twentieth century. A few decades in and Fitzgerald, Wodehouse, Wolff, Hemingway and others were still poking sticks in the wet cement - no wait, that should read 'refining the form', but that was pretty much it. Show Bridget Jones Diary to Jane Austen and she'd say: "Hmm, this looks familiar - have you considered Colin for the movie?"
The novel, unlike its audio - visual close cousins, remains steadfastly rooted in the past. Why didn't 1884's Flatland - a story whose hero, a geometric square, exists in a world of two dimensions - not spawn an entire sub genre of 'Pan-dimensional Fiction' that is still with us today? Why is Western Forensic Accounting and Scandinoir Squid Train Despatchers not popular sub-genres of writing today? They are no further from the mainstream as a Rothko was from Gainsborough, or The Sex Pistols from Elgar.
So this is the thing:
Are we writers, through our lack of imagination utterly failing our readers? or are readers, through lack of their imagination, utterly failing their writers?
And while blaming readers feeds into my deranged fantasy as an under-appreciated genius, there is an intelligent point lurking around here somewhere: Imagination works both on transmit and receive - the imaginators tossing the ideas out on one side, and the imaginees taking the ideas and either embracing or rejecting them on the other. If someone were to dream up the most staggeringly imaginative concept ever but doesn't have anyone imaginative enough to understand it, they're both dead in the water.
We fare better at understanding Art and Music because it's a lot less strenuous - it's simpler to listen to Bartok than playing it, and it's easier to see a Pollock than paint one. I know, I've tried. Humans can accept complex ideas, nuanced messages and the simple appreciation of beauty extremely well through the visual and auditory channels of our mind, and not so well when presented with intellectual ideas in the raw, requiring time consuming and expensive processing. Might this explain why Fantasy and Science Fiction are less popular when read, but wildly popular on TV and in the movies, when the hard visualising part is done? The people who watch Game of Thrones outnumber those who read it by a conservative ten million to one. We are, essentially, deliciously and delightfully, emotional creatures, excited more by direct physical experiences than the solitary crunching of data. Presentation really is everything.
And this is where the lack of human imagination really starts to worry me - away from entertainment and into the realms of where it might actually be relevant: Is all Creative Intellectual Thought withering on the vine? In the bright, shiny technological world of hyper connectivity it would seem that we are accelerating ever faster into a future world of limitless possibilities. I'm not sure we're going anywhere at all. I believe the best thoughts, political ideas and technological advances - like the best books - have already happened and right now, we're just being excited by the new ways in which our coloured beads can flicker and chime.
Technology, despite the hype, has moved on in only two fundamental ways in the past half-century: Faster and Smaller. Of the ten core ideas that make up the Smartphone - possibly second only to the automobile as the most important confluence of inventions in human history - only one, the liquid crystal display, was invented in the past fifty years. Digital processing, integrated circuits, communications satellites and the atomic clock all hail from the forties and fifties. Plastics and the scanning principles behind TV are both over a hundred years old, and of the remaining concepts: the keyboard, wireless telegraphy, the telephone, reliable mapping data, the camera, and, of course, electricity - all are from the Victorian era.
I simplify, obviously, and will gladly concede that highly creative and imaginative incremental solutions are found almost weekly in the field of engineering, but my broad point is this: Why have we NOT seen so much dazzling game-changing imaginative leaps in the past fifty or so years? Even the internet pioneers did not set out to invent a platform on which Facebook and Amazon and Wikipedia could exist, any more than the inventor of Smart phones or Twitter thought they could increase democratisation in totalitarian states. As far as I can see, the early information technologists invented the forerunner of the internet while attempting to find a way to send telexes without the inconvenience of having to use a telex machine to do it.
The malaise has also seeped into Political thought, which was once creative - dangerously so in some quarters. Collectivism, Socialism, Communism and even Anarchism may have looked good on paper and around an Edwardian dinner table in Soho, but ultimately failed once you introduced humans and their tiresome avariciousness to the mix, but at least someone was being imaginative - and experimenting with a system that didn't function by dumping on the little guy.
Today, there is no imagination in politics. The Status quo, or at least, the defence of wealth and position seems to be the loudest voice from the leading parties here in the UK, a doctrine enthusiastically championed not just by politicians but by industrialists, bankers, the collusion of much of the media and yes, we the consumers. The hoary old chestnuts of growth and profit, will - unimaginatively as always - trump those of equality and sustainability, and seriously needed long term plans be eroded away by short term political gains.
Is our journey as the 'Wise Man' of our own self-labelled Homo Sapien onwards and upwards, or are we a doomed liner on the high seas, its wheel lashed, boldly blundering at high speed onto clearly visible rocks, while we party on downstairs, aware yet oblivious and impervious to change?
Perhaps not. The ideas are out there - the ideas have always been out there. Imaginative people have and do posit notions of co-operativism, collectivism, environmentalism, localism, and even - shock-horror for us here in the West - an open world market. But being imaginative enough to have those ideas is not enough. The collective We need to be imaginative enough to welcome the new, the wild and the counter intuitive, and not just because it looks or sounds good. And this is more important than me selling my dumb fantasy novels, because if human imagination got us into this mess and lack of imagination is keeping us here, only Human Imagination two point zero give us any chance to survive the next couple of hundred years.
But since it's highly unimaginative to offer problems without solutions, how can we improve ourselves? Schools, mainly. Art, Music, debate and Creative writing should take top billing. We need to nurture and feed the imagination that is innate in our children. For us who are already tainted, we could start by embracing the new, and the bold, and the downright weird. Change your routine. If you normally turn left, go right. Question everything, even me, just then, telling you to question everything. Do something random at least once a week, keep lying to the absolute minimum, look after the smaller children and eat more veg.
But most of all, feed the active imagination, and cut down on the passive: Reading is a good start. Reading imaginative books is an even better start. Books that stretch, and confound, and challenge; books that inject new ideas, bold concepts, books that take you places that you never thought existed. Those fantasy books, those genre books, those books that not only chime and sing, but require imagination to accept, and embrace. Or why not paint, or sing, or learn an instrument? Write something. Smutty limerick, poem, potboiler or Political manifesto, doesn't matter what. And I think we could certainly do with more ornamental hermits, less reality TV, and far greater parental involvement in schools.
I'd have to be very deluded indeed to think that any of the above might offer a solution, but it might be a first step to finding a solution to the solution of the solution.
Because there is one. At the last count there were over eighteen squintrillion timelines running from here on in, and only eighty-three percent of them lead to despair.
And that's why you should read more fantasy.