Panellists: Adrian Tchaikovsky, Graham McNeill, Gav Thorpe, Juliet E McKenna
Just a quick thought from me before I head into the details of this AltFiction panel – I thought the make-up of the panel was very interesting, considering the topic being discussed. On the one hand, you have two people writing Black Library work (Graham and Gav) and, whatever else it may or may not be, Black Library fantasy (and Warhammer Fantasy) is pretty Tolkien-derivative, what with the Elves and Dwarves and Orcs etc. At times it moves beyond Tolkien, but most of the basics are straight out of Tolkien. On the other hand, you have Adrian who is creating a really unique world in his fantasy, and Juliet, who writes epic fantasy without all the Tolkien trappings. I commend AltFiction on pulling together a group of panellists who represent both sides of the story, in my opinion.
Now to the panel itself. Much as I like and respect Juliet, and much as it is a current vogue to talk about women and publishing, I did feel that this was the wrong panel to have the first point be about women in fantasy. For one thing, fantasy is a much healthier arena in terms of women being published. Unlike in science fiction, I could name you a HUGE group of women who are currently under contract and turning out excellent novels. Let’s try this as an exercise: Juliet herself, Fiona McIntosh, Sharon Shinn, Elizabeth Moon, Celia Friedman, Kate Elliott, Mary Gentle, Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, Ekaterina Sedia, Lois McMaster Bujold, Trudi Canavan, Mercedes Lackey, Amanda Downum, Aliette de Bodard, Lauren Beukes, Gail Carriger, Celine Kiernan, Helen Lowe, J V Jones, Rachel Neumeier, Karen Miller, Mira Grant, Glenda Larke, Jo Graham, Kate Griffin, N K Jemisin, Rachel Aaron, Jacqueline Carey, Holly Lisle, Jude Fisher, Elizabeth Haydon.... I mean, these were seriously off the top of my head and then with a brief look on t’Internet. There are LOADS of women writing fantasy – and, within that, there are LOADS of good strong female protagonists.
I felt this was the wrong way to start because of a) the reason above; and b) the fact that Tolkien was writing as a product of his time and hence women were not going to be as dominant characters as men.
Of much more interest was the point that there should be a definite difference between female heroes and heroines. The female heroes drive the plot themselves, while the heroines wait for the men to drive them. The former are not defined by their menfolk, while the latter are. I thought this was a great distinction to make, and a real measure to set against women in fantasy fiction.
There was also some mention made of the fact that most fantasy is set in a medieval setting, and therefore women fit into a pre-defined notion of being less independent than their menfolk. A member of the audience did raise the point that, even if a medieval world is being used, a FANTASY author is able to play around with the preconceived notions of society. Therefore, a matriarchal society would be just as valid – as long as it is constructed well – as a “men are best” society. Adrian was quick to point out – and I agree with him – that his society holds men and women as equals. Just because medieval societies are used is no excuse to not present women as strong characters.
From sexism, we moved straight along to racism – and I felt a little sad by this. Do we have to see our fantasy in these terms? Again, Adrian made a fine point – he stated that the Beetles in his Apt series (including Stenwold Maker, a key character) are all black. I was astounded by this, frankly, because it is never mentioned explicitly. And then I realised that this was the point: in other novels with all-white protagonists, there is never a need to say that they are white, so why should the rule apply if you include black protagonists. The very best authors are able to introduce characters of race without it ever being made an issue. I thought then about Erikson – until I saw a picture, I was never entirely sure whether Quick Ben was black or white. He is black, but it doesn’t MATTER in the scope of the story, so it is never brought to the fore. Clumsy writing is the sort that will be bound and determined to make clear what skin tones everyone has.
Under the section on race, Gav made a point that was swept to the side a little, but that I think had great validity and could have been discussed more. He talked about differentiating between race and species. For instance, Dwarves are a species – but, within them, race is never discussed. When was the last time you saw an Asian dwarf, or a black dwarf?
This led neatly onto the fact that Tolkien has left this legacy whereby all Elves are tall, fair-skinned and graceful; Dwarves are all squat, gold-loving, bearded Scotsman. There are few novels that use these species and then go against the archetype. Although some of the best novels do play with the audience’s pre-conceived notions. A key novel mentioned was Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett, where the Elves are discovered to be a little less... nice than expected. (I love this novel, by the way, and for the very fact that I was shocked and thrilled by the rather nasty elves!)
I liked the fact that Graham raised the idea that possibly there hasn’t been a massive reaction against Tolkien, but against the poor Tolkien knock-offs that we were subjected to as fantasy fans. A lot of us – even if we don’t like the novel – accept the place of The Lord of the Rings in fantasy canon. Is it more that we got sick of people trying to replicate Tolkien (in The Sword of Shannara, and The Eye of the World, amongst others)?
A member of the audience suggested there was WAY too much focus on Tolkien, considering the people who were writing both before him and at the same time as him. Fritz Leiber, for instance, and C S Lewis were producing fantasy worlds and strong characters around the same time and just before, and yet they don’t receive the same adulation and castigation as Tolkien. Why is this? Why is there SO MUCH focus on Tolkien?
I raised the point that urban fantasy could have developed as a real kick back against Tolkien – moving the action to the cities, and away from the leafy idyll that Tolkien wanted to see; putting females centre stage who were more than capable of taking down their enemies, without the loophole that Eowyn needed to fight the Witch King.
In some “urban” fantasy – such as China Miéville and Mark Charan Newton – we are seeing a real remove from the travelogue fantasy/quest fantasy that used to be written. Now characters are unable to leave their troubles behind – all of their actions have consequences, since they will not be moving on the next day to a new place. I liked this part of the discussion, and felt that very valid points were made.
A final point I shall leave with you is the idea that the panel should have been called: Has Fantasy Diversified Beyond Tolkien? And the answer would be a resounding yes!
What did you think of this panel? Do you agree or disagree with any of the points made above?