Fantasy at its core embraces both the improbable and the impossible. In the realms of fantasy, almost anything can be achieved through the right means! This can be through belief or a bit of ingenuity. It was our dreams that invented both possibilities for the past and present that helped to forge fantasy in the first place after all. But when people hear fantasy fiction, we tend to think of a select few items. These are typically castles, ancient warriors, classic melee weapons, and royal societies. On top of that, fantasy usually takes a Euro-centric turn towards societies from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. But surely, there’s a lot more to fantastic fiction than this, right? Of course!
So, you might be like me! Heroic quests from knights of yesteryear is fun, but it gets pretty old after a while. Granted, this is coming from someone who loves absolutely the Arthurian mythos. (Just look at my gaming blog.) But in the end, fantasy fiction seems to fall for the same setting traps. I can’t exactly blame authors myself, as following the leader has always been a sure fire method of some success. That and the prominence of JRR Tolkien has transcended far BEYOND the mainstream. One could even argue that the tabletop roleplaying game, “Dungeons & Dragons” has helped to push this means of fantasy as the only recognizable form as well.
Because of heroic high fantasy, the whole genre fit into a single box, rather than a broad category. And because of this, one could say that science-fiction is squeezed out of the realms of fantasy fiction, despite being referred as that for a while. (Granted, a lot of old sci-fi serials and television shows are pirates and cowboys… IN SPACE!) The result of this is shunning anything outside of the typical “Castles and Quests” fantasy. Numerous tropes have been discouraged as a result, such as guns in fantasy being a big one. Firearms have existed since the later Medieval age/early Renaissance, after all. It seems a tad ironic for a faux-Renaissance world like the Forgotten Realms to have an issue with firearms (outside of the ‘faux-steampunk’ island of “Lantan”). But, this isn’t to say that other forms of fantasy haven’t also been popular. While not nearly as popular as high fantasy, they have still made their impact.
While we’ve had fantastic worlds outside of Arthuriana as far back as the Romantics, but I want to focus on more contemporary fiction. One trend to emerge from 1980s/1990s is advancing worlds to be pseudo-Victorian Britain with airships and steam-age gadgets. This would imply that the Renaissance world has embraced an industrial revolution. Fantasy is now in line with the gaslamp settings of the Romantic writers. No longer is fantasy confined by old castles, knights with swords, and epic ballads of a forgotten age! Now fantasy can embrace a growing industry fueled by magic, wonder, and super-science. But this creates another conundrum in fantasy, as people are now adverse to advancing fantastic technology and culture past a steampunk setting. Plus, the movement typically continues to embrace a very Euro-centric perspective from an age of imperialism and overactive industrialization. In fact, much of its roots of ”Jules Vernes” (quintessential Victorian sci-fi) meets “William Gibson” (cyberpunk) have fallen wayside to pulpy tales of rich British people and their plucky working class companions having airship adventures. Now, this isn’t always the case, but quite a bit of steampunk has a problem remembering the -punk aspects of the fiction itself (i.e. problems occurring in a Victorian style setting). Despite this, huge communities have formed around Victorian fantasy and retro-futurism, embracing a 19th future that never was.
Perhaps after steampunk is where modern fantasy comes in. This fantasy movement was brought into the light by famous names like Anne Rice (who wrote Interview with the Vampire; a series involving a vampire struggling with himself), White Wolf games (creator of World of Darkness roleplaying game; where you play as hidden supernatural creatures), and Chris Carter (who wrote The X-Files; involving conspiracies with paranormal beings and aliens). As such, urban fantasy tends to involve the magic and monsters being behind a veil and unavailable to the public. Thus, subway systems, television, politics, and more work as normal; as the fantastic may as well not be there… to the average person. As such, one has to dig deep to get beyond The Masquerade! This revelation is enough to make a character into a conspiracy nut that you see on mainstream news stations. As such, many of these stories balance a duality between the two worlds. Some even break down the walls like in The Matrix.
While those two examples are satisfying genres that go beyond epic fantasy knights & dragons, they’re not satisfying for everyone. For example, what if you want a world that reflects a contemporary age where the supernatural is an accepted part of reality, neither will fulfill that to the highest extent. Sure, some examples are bound to exist, but they seem all too rare. Why is this though? Simply put, it’s easier to empathize with the familiar. Let’s take World of Darkness, for example. It’s a world with our cities, our towns, our norms, and of course… our history! Except, there have been mystic forces watching from afar. Now, if we completely rewrite the history with a greater magical involvement or build a new setting ground up, it’s not as easy to relate to. Plus, you’re constructing a history and world from the ground up, which is simply exhausting work, when many people are comfortable with sampling from what they know and expanding upon that.
But, if making your history and evolving magic is a challenge, it begs the question, “can it be done?” And the answer is ‘Hell yeah, it can!’ In my opinion, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series holds high regards for doing just that. This is a complex world of strange powers and stranger worlds somewhat akin to the pulp sci-fi of yesteryear. His setting have have a complex politics and intricate social systems not too far off from a contemporary Earth-like world, right down to a heavily invasive industry.
Mieville’s type of “weird fantasy” isn’t too different from a mash-up called “science fantasy”, in which aspects of sci-fi and aspects of fantasy were merged together. This could range from the techno-magical worlds of D&D’s Spelljammer and Eberron, the genre mish-most of RIFTS, or the space-time antics of BBC’s Doctor Who. And one can’t discuss a mix of sci-fi and fantasy without bringing up the most well known name in the genre. Of course, I’m talking about Star Wars. While this has all the classic sci-fi elements, we’re also given mystic duelists, incredible powers, and downright absurd creatures… to name a few things. For those who favor the alien and “in your face” method of the paranormal over the mundane and subtle, this is a form of fantasy fiction that you will enjoy. Perhaps you want to see how are innovation and change can shape the worlds of fantasy? If so, than these movements were made for you. But, if you’re looking for a middle ground between urban fantasy and weird fantasy, there’s still something out there for you.
Some styles of modern fantasy craft a setting that still feels like a mundane and relatable modern world, however the supernatural still plays an important part in everyday life. The “Greyhawk 2000” articles from Dragon/Dungeon Magazines provide great example of this. In short, this took the Greyhawk Campaign Setting and advanced its timeline to an era not too different from ours. While it was still pretty vague and only covered a few aspects, it presented a fully playable and modernized heroic fantasy adventure. Besides games, one of my favorite modernized fantasies is dark fantasy/film noir, Cast a Deadly Spell. This film features a brooding detective moving through a magic-driven Las Angeles underground. In this film, he faces spell-crafting gangsters, mystical landlords, a werewolf criminal, and an occultist seeking the Necronomicon. While all of these elements seem very strange, the film plays them off as a stressful day on the job in this magical alternate-Earth.
So, back to the main topic at hand, fantasy can be anything! Even if epic fantasy a la Tolkien and WoW is the mainstream, there’s something for everybody! Fantasy can skip forward in time or into the past, it can even take into space itself! And just because it’s fiction and revels in the impossible doesn’t mean there isn’t much to take away from it. After all, the worlds of the fantastic are merely a reflection of our world. Fantasy is a part of us; it’s our dreams, our nightmares, our inspirations, our fears, and much more. As such, it should make sense that the genre exists to be molded however we want it to be.