Thoughts on the Unreal, Part 1: Anticipation

I love fantasy fiction.

This is not, it must be said, a particularly bold statement on this site. I doubt that anyone reading is likely to disagree, unless you are here by accident whilst browsing for information on Cornish Hills.

I should point out, that I’m using the term “fantasy” to encompass the whole of the tagline: “Science Fiction. Fantasy. The Universe. And related subjects.” For me, the most ethereal faerie enchantments have just as much charm as a solid piece of sci-fi hardware. I love the unreal: the power, and wonder, and delight of worlds where nothing can be taken for granted, and everything is new.

The only question is…why?

What is it about fantasy that is so beguiling? I mean, one of the cardinal rules of fiction is supposed to be the possibility for the audience to identify, to sympathise with the characters and recognise their own lives. In Poetics, Aristotle suggested that the purpose of fiction was to purge emotions, to let us experience all the joy and grief that, were it real life, might otherwise overwhelm us. But in order to do that, fiction has to show us something that we might genuinely fear, or desire. Something that could actually happen.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been captured by hyper-evolutionary marsh people.

And no, I’m not going to make a “well, apart from that one time in college…” joke, because this is serious. How can a literary form so self-consciously unreal have even more appeal than a tale set firmly within the bounds of the real world?

In my first book, The Midnight Charter, one of my favourite creations was a shop where human emotions could be extracted, distilled, and bottled for sale. So, following on from that idea, I wanted to see if my own feelings towards fantasy could be boiled down and captured—if some of my favourite elements could be lined up on a shelf. Do I love the unreal for its weirdness, or for its familiarity? Is it at its best when it is plumbing the emotional depths or just having fun? And does it gain its edge from commenting on the real world, or should it be left to fly free, in all its wonder?

There will be more about this, because (brilliantly) Tor have generously given me a whole month of guest blogs to examine my love of fantasy and science fiction (and speculative fiction, horror, magic realism…for now, I’m going to stick to “fantasy” as a catch-all term). It’s going to be subjective, and personal, and needless to say, you’ll be able to think of a thousand other reasons, and a million more appropriate examples. Maybe you’d start with fantasy’s grandeur, its symbolic power, or its emotional resonance.

But for me, it all starts with the joy of anticipation.

I love the prospect of starting a new work of fantasy. In any other genre, no matter how brilliantly constructed, there are some things that I can take for granted: the Earth, basic human interaction, non-explosive chickens and so on. But in fantasy, any or all of that can be upturned in the first few pages. Wardrobes become inter-dimensional portals, statues come to life if you blink, and eggs will set you linguistic conundrums. This, I think, is the thrill of the classic fantasy map—the laying out of a whole other world, and knowing that the story might take you anywhere in its vast and rolling plains.

And it is the reverse of more realistic fiction. In a detective story, to take a simple example, the most important part of the set-up is to reduce the world, to create a list of suspects, to narrow down the criminal possibilities to a few streets. If the criminal turns out to be a character completely unconnected to the rest of the plot, we would almost certainly feel cheated. Even in the most sensitive portrayals of everyday life, to fictionalise is to choose certain elements and prioritise them over all others. Our own world is far too large and complicated to truly explore every possibility, so the art of the realistic writer is creating this focus.

But if realism is like a photograph, fantasy is more like a painting. There is nothing accidental or incidental in a painting, or in an unreal world, even history and landscape that are apparently irrelevant exist to give depth and richness to the characters and story. Surely that is part of the charm of Tolkien’s world–the vast spaces of Middle-earth which he delighted in filling with history. Fantasy presents you with a custom-made universe.

And this thrill of discovery isn’t limited to the obviously fantastic. In a way, it is even more interesting to begin a work where everything looks comparatively normal, but quickly takes a turn into the strange. This was, to me, one of the most appealing aspects of LOST—just how much madder could they make it that week? Particularly in its later seasons, when the character arcs received less attention, the Island took up the slack with a parade of supernatural twists. Magic and ghostly whispers mixed with time travel and electromagnetic super-science, whilst the cast of characters looked as baffled as we were.

But somehow—it worked. The unsettling, timeless nature of the Island, and the clever conceit of having multiple groups (survivors, scientists, pseudo-mystics) interfering with something much older and stranger than they could understand allowed for many different genre ideas to clash. And personally, I don’t think it ever did step outside the rules of its own world—although bearing in mind how broad that was, the only way it could really have happened would have been if the mysterious “monster” had actually turned out to be a “pissed-off giraffe,” as one character suggested.

The excitement never goes away. Even when I’m returning to a long-running series, where that other world is almost more familiar than our own, fantasy retains the thrill of the new, the feeling that anything could happen, and in all honesty, probably will.

In fact, that can be a little too much of a temptation. Certainly, there have been writers who, faced with all the glittering possibilities of unreality, have leapt head-first into the most blissfully strange and surreal possibilities they could imagine…

But that’s a story for next time.

David Whitley is 26, and very, very British. His higher brain functions are almost entirely dependent on tea. He is the author of The Midnight Charter, and its sequel, The Children of the Lost, which is out in the U.S.A. on January 18th.


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