Phoning It In The Fantasy Way

Please note: this is, like everything else, a series of opinions – both informed and not at all so. So the feeling that I am full of crap and have no idea what I am talking about is ALWAYS a viable feeling about this article. 

I think Fantasy writers have an easier time of things. First of all, any unexplained phenomena can be explained with two words: it’s magic.

Second of all, magic can do anything. Whatever the author requires, magic can fill in.

Third of all, when in doubt, emulate Tolkien.

This is, of course, to reduce a difficult genre into ridiculous simplicity.

The thing is, Tolkien overshadows everything. Sci-fi had a broader spectrum of writers all competing for ideas in its infancy. It was a rich field of ideas… so many ideas that no one writer dominated the field, inspiring countless copycats – pardon me, I meant homages.

However, with Fantasy, Tolkien was the first writer to really dominate the field. I’m not saying that there was no one else toiling away at the genre. I am saying that Tolkien was the first runaway success. A LOT of people grew up (or threw up) reading Tolkien. He casts a long shadow.

After all, he spent the better part of sixty years developing an entire world, with various functional languages, to serve as the backdrop of his stories. Even if Tolkien’s style droned on and on (and on), there was a richness to his world.

Which left a lot of budding writers thinking “that’s awesome! I’ll do THAT!”

But even a world as meticulously fussed over as Tolkien, “magic” is poorly defined. It’s the ultimate deus ex machina. Are the heroes trapped? Magic it out. And it doesn’t even need explaining. Establish early on that one person can do magic, then you can use that magic any time later in the story to get out of danger.

I like to think of it as “Chekhov’s spell.”

The question is: can there be Fantasy without magic? If a Fantasy novel has no magic, is it still “Fantasy?” Or is it a speculative history novel? And how much magic is needed to push it into the “Fantasy” category?

After all, magic requires no explanation. It is, well, a “magic” word.

I am certainly not saying that it needs definition. There’s no point in stopping the flow of the story to get into magical theory. Even if the author has an idea on how magic is supposed to work, if the definition cannot be folded into the world… if it is not something the reader NEEDS to know to keep interest in the story… best keep it to yourself.

Sometimes the theory of magic plays an important part of the story itself. I am thinking of The Laundry series by Charles Stross as a good example of this. He has a cogent reason as to why magic works, where it proceeds from, how the main character can use it, and why it matters in the series. He often folds the reasons into the actions. It is important for the reader to possess this information to understand the action.

OBVIOUSLY OPINION TIME: I don’t think he always succeeds. Sometimes the action stops dead in its tracks while Stross explains how the puppet show works for many, many pages. Exposition is sometimes very necessary, but it’s a heavy spice. Too much and it spoils the flavor.

Although to be fair, Stross is more of a Sci-fi author than a Fantasy author. His explanations of magic may be born out of the genre he usually chooses. He’s used to explaining how things work in his world.

It all reduces to “magic,” which is an option that most Sci-fi writers don’t have. They can’t suddenly declare “science!” and get away with a sudden rescue. The Sci-fi reader tends to be more demanding than that. Regardless of the level of technology, the Sci-fi novel has to abide by physics on some level. If there are dragons, there’d better be a damned good reason why there are dragons.

PLEASE NOTE: I am certainly not saying that Sci-fi readers are better than/more observant than Fantasy readers. It’s just the Sci-fi genre tends to demand more “nuts and bolts” than Fantasy.

So in some ways, Fantasy authors have an easier time. “Magic” excuses the author from all sorts of sophistry and explanations. They can use the catch-all word and get on with the plot without further explanation.

Lucky sods.

Am I full of crap? Can you think of any Fantasy novels with no magic? I’m dying to hear about either.