Why Fantasy?

I am sometimes asked – why fantasy?  Of all the genres out there, why one that is often regarded as frivolous, clichéd, superficial and occasionally pornographic in a slightly weird way.  And let’s face it, fantasy has had its off days.  Glowing swords, ancient quests, and wizards who feel the need to talk in rhyme have traipsed across landscapes with more than a certain Tolkein-esque something about them, while, perhaps, lustful vampires deflower roaming princesses who curiously enough do wear white, even when mud is going to be a problem.

And I’m not here to defend this, particularly.  I mean, the defences are obvious – escapism, powerful storytelling, worlds full of could be and should be and all that jazz.  But for me, personally, it’s not why I love fantasy.

I first got into reading fantasy via two great geniuses of the genre – Roger Zelazny and Terry Pratchett.  In recent years, Neil Gaiman has also joined the pantheon on my shelf, while I still enjoy in a different way the works of Iain M.Banks, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss, Anne McCaffrey and Charlie Stross, to name a just few.   My love for Terry Pratchett sprung, to a degree, from being a city girl.  Anyone who’s ever read the Discworld books will be familiar with the city of Ankh Morpork, a great semi-industrial slum of mud and dirt and dubious goings on.   Over the course of many books it has become a character in and of itself, but it doesn’t take much looking, and I doubt if Pratchett would deny, to realise that Ankh Morpork is essentially Victorian London in action.  From the towers of Unseen University to the first ever printing press, there is nothing about it which isn’t immediately and instantly recognisable as somehow real, as a thing that has happened in real life, only minus the dragons.  The coppers are proper coppers, the wizards are dinner-obsessed academics, the politics is savage, the banks are suspicious, everything about this world is constructed on something that we all know to be true, but which has been pushed to its logical and comical limit.  Fantasy, Pratchett teaches us, is a wonderful tool with which to subvert cliché, to grab familiar things and put the magic back into them, from witches at the opera to fairy queens storming out of the cinema screen.  It’s escapism… but not as we know it…

Then there’s Roger Zelazny.  And he doesn’t just write with an amazing style and wit – he does, with that kind of use of language that feels so natural you don’t even notice how clever it is – but his ideas are huge.  His most famous series – the Chronicles of Amber – takes the whole of reality, all that is and all that could be imagined as its starting template, and from this spins out a story that is both huge and very personal across ten, reasonably slim volumes.  Even if you’re not enthralled by the end of that particular tale, with all its politics, backstabbing, betrayal and retribution, his other stories are just as powerful.  He does big ideas in personal ways, putting recognisable figures into a universe that seems too vast to comprehend, and which he manages to boil down to the difficulty of buying a pack of cigarettes.  He also does character in a way which I’d argue mainstream literature would struggle to achieve – witness Damnation Alley, which is essentially a character study of one man in a car – but which pushes both the character and the world to the absolute limit.

Fantasy can be so many things to so many different people.  Sometimes simple escapism, a release from the daily trudges of life.  (As someone wittier than me once said – ‘when I go the theatre, I don’t want to see death and tragedy and incest!  I can get all that at home.’  I paraphase, but not much.)  Sometimes it’s about an idea, pushing those ever buzzing questions of what if to new and thought-provoking limits.  Sometimes it’s about characters, about what people do in a situation beyond their control of imagination.  Sometimes it’s about the world we’re in, dressed up in another guise, sometimes it’s about a world that might be, sometimes about a world that was.  Whatever you think of fantasy, there is usually something in it for everyone, and lots for me.