Wednesday, 29 June 2011

AltFiction Panel: Has Fantasy Moved Past Tolkien?

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 MiĆ©ville 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?


  1. I think fantasy, if defined by authors producing original work and interesting stories of a fantastical nature, has unquestionably diversified. I'd also mention, as I did at Alt Fiction, that this diversity has *always* existed to one degree or another in the genre. It just tends to get forgotten. Fantasy's borders are porous and ill-defined, and have been so, historically speaking.

    Tolkien neither invented the genre, nor has always defined it. He does stride it like a Hobbit-loving colossus, and I'd not argue against his influences, benign, neutral, and deplorable, being widespread. But - he has always been only one author among many voices, some of them telling tales thankfully anything but Tolkien-like.

    I would say instead that the question is, why has this natural diversity within the genre struggled for equal recognition? Both among publishers and readers, it has been swept aside. I'd further argue that both these groups have had plenty to choose from, but have voted in a degree of homogeneity with their pocket books.

    More an issue of perception then - especially now. There are rapidly opening horizons for innovative fantasy with smaller imprints, ebook formats, and self-publishing authors taking the markets even farther away from the monopoly of traditional publishers. Even two years ago, this would have been harder to achieve I suspect.

    What will emerge out of this chaos is difficult to predict. But I'd go out on a limb and say that it will encourage overall diversity in the genre. It seems certain to spread awareness of such, among a previously, more traditional readership.

    For now, I'm expecting not only that the existing diverse offerings within the genre will persist, but that there will be a more accessible way for large numbers of readers, if still not publishers unless you count the authors themselves in this role, to experience it afresh.

    Good times. I'm counting on it.

  2. Tolkien had several powerful female characters in the Lord of the Rings. As for minorities, it may simply have never occured to him to include them. But that is all beside the point. I think he tried to make a somewhat subtle case that humanity itself is deficient. The Men of LOTR are generally portrayed as greedy, power-hungry, and corrupt. Aragorn hardly counts as an exception because he's not technically a Man; he's a Dunedain ranger, raised by Elves to be an exceptional leader, and even he has to overcome a significant character flaw (perhaps best described as a lack of self-confidence) before he can reclaim what is rightfully his. The non-humans, the Hobbits, wizards, and more particularly the Elves, are more "evolved" races that frequently shake their collective heads at the follies of Man.

    As for fantasy moving beyond Tolkien, you hardly need to look to urban fantasy to see examples of it. Even epic fantasy has broken new ground in the decades since. David and Leigh Eddings' Belgariad series introduced new versions of "the princess" and "the sorceress" in Ce'Nedra and Polgara, who were every bit the equals of their male counterparts. The Malloreon, the followup series, even took a stab at the "diversity" angle by making the villains of the first series, the Angaraks (whom Eddings admits were based on Muslims, Huns, and Visigoths), into allies and even heroes.

    Here's a branch of fantasy/sci-fi that people frequently seem to overlook, for what seem like obvious reasons: superheroes. Whether they're aliens, magicians, mutants, or scientifically-enhanced humans, the male and female heroes of the comics have always found ways to address such hot-button issues as racism and discrimination. The most famous example, perhaps, is the X-Men. If you haven't seen "X-Men: First Class" in theaters yet, then I highly recommend it; it suggests a whole new level to the "diversity" debate. It's another example of how sci-fi and fantasy give us new ways to examine and discuss old problems.