At the end of the month I’ll be jetting off to Ohio for the latest World Fantasy Convention. While Ohio doesn’t seem like the most exotic of locales for the WFC (especially for a transplanted Californian who grew up in Kentucky), the real location of this fantastic con is the hearts and minds of writers, artists, editors, publishers, and agents involved with the world of fantasy and horror fiction (and by association science fiction).
My first WFC, last year’s San Jose con, left me so inspired and energized about my writing, I was brimming with ideas for months. Since that time I’ve written a new novel and a half-dozen new stories (including “The Taste of Starlight” running in this month’s LIGHTSPEED magazine). One of the terrific highlights of the con were the panels on writing craft and topics related to fantasy and horror fiction. I’ve never seen a better “meeting of the minds” for the discussion and exploration of all things related to the crafting of fantasy fiction.
This year I’ll be sitting on a panel that sounds especially intriguing: “The Continued Viability of Epic Fantasy. How has this evolved in the 50-plus years since Tolkien hit it big?” What a terrific topic. My fellow panelists will be Blake Charlton, David Coe, David Drake, and Freda Warrington. We will be chatting about what exactly “Epic Fantasy” IS, as well as how it has grown beyond the “stock elements” that were blazingly original back when Tolkien adapted them from folk legends, mythology, and fairy tales. There may even be some who argue that it HASN’T grown beyond those stock elements. Not me.
When I was a kid I read my share of “cookie cutter” fantasies…thinly disguised repackaging of Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS and/or THE HOBBIT. As I grew up, got wiser, and broadened my horizons I realized that I had no use for those types of fantasies anymore. If I’m going to spend days, weeks, or even months reading a fantasy book (or a series of books, as most fantasy epics are), it damn well better be something original and compelling.
If I want Tolkien, I’ll go back and read Tolkien again. Don’t give me the same old thing in a new package. No more Dark Lords, please. No more elves, if you can help it. No more Pure Good vs. Pure Evil. Give me characters, worlds, and stories with depth…complexity…and originality. There are certain Epic Fantasies in the last fifty years that deliver this perfectly. These are the ones I will be talking about during this panel, the works who have kept Epic Fantasy a viable genre:
THE ELRIC SERIES (Michael Moorcock)
TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH/LIONWOLF (Tanith Lee)
THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER (Stephen R. Donaldson)
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN (Gene Wolfe)
THE ARTHOR SERIES (A. A. Attanasio)
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (George R. R. Martin)
THE AMBERGRIS TRILOGY (Jeff VanderMeer)
THE PRINCE OF NOTHING (R. Scott Bakker)
I’m sure there are other Epic Fantasies out there that will eventually join my list (there better be). These are the ones I have read that revived, reinvented, reestablished, and regenerated the genre. A couple of these might be dismissed by purists as “not fantasy” because of subtle or overt sci-fi or horror content (most notably the Wolfe and Vandermeer series). That does not trouble me…I’m always reminded how broad the term “fantasy” actually is. There are literally dozens of sub-genres beneath the “fantasy” umbrella, and if that’s true how could there NOT be dozens of sub-genres to the “Epic Fantasy” category?
It really grinds my gears when someone narrowly defines Epic Fantasy as This or That, just as it irritates me when someone applies an ultra-narrow definition to Sword-and-Sorcery. Narrow genre expectations lead to a lack of creativity and fresh voices. If you want to do something special or unique you have to break the rules of whatever genre you’re working with (or against).
An “epic” is a long tale that usually spreads through more than one volume, and a “fantasy” is a story that involves fantastic elements not normally possible in the “real world.” My favorite type of fantasy is “Secondary World” fantasy…and these are the stories most commonly associated with the “Epic Fantasy” label. Yet it never hurts to broaden a genre by bringing in outside influences, challenging preconceptions, and turning right when everyone expects you to go left.
Could you write an “Epic Fantasy” set in the otherwise “real world?” Sure–why not? Can your “Epic Fantasy” involve technology as well as fantastical elements? Absolutely. There are no hard-and-fast RULES to writing fantasy…or Epic Fantasy.
Good writing is good writing. A great story is a great story. Epic Fantasy, like any other type of literature, must continue to grow and evolve, or it will surely wither and die. The authors I’ve mentioned above have been part of that evolution. And I hope to find plenty more when all is said and done. Ideally, I’ll make a modest contribution to that evolution myself. I’m certainly trying my best. 🙂
Here are a few of the other panels at WFC that I look forward to attending (as an audience member):
Story Cycle vs. Novel. Suzy Charnas, Scott James Magner, L.E. Modesit (m), Dennis McKiernan, S. Andrew Swann
Sword & Sorcery. Scott Andrews, Martha Wells, Howard Jones, Patricia Bray.
Slaughtering the Evil Hordes. Robert Redick, Eric Flint, Dennis McKiernan, Patricia McKillip
The Moral Distance Between the Author and the Work. Kathryn Cramer, Jack Skillingstead, Robert Sawyer, P. Witcover (m), S. November
The Evolving Image of the Dragon. Merrie Fuller, Paul Tremblay (m), John Pitts, J. Kathleen Cheney, James Maxey
Authors and Ideas. L.E. Modessitt, Tim Powers, S.M. Sirling, Jason Sanford (m)
What Can Be Done with Old Mythologies. Ari Beck, Lynn Cantwell, Sarah Hoyt, Dave Sakmyster, Seressia Glass
Dream Inspired Fantasy. Kij Johnson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mark Teppo (m), Sydney Duncan, Susan Forrest
Why Is There No Religion in Middle Earth? Samuel Butler, Ellen Denham, Daryl Gregory, Med Turville-Heitz, Eric Van (m)