A Low Tolerance For High Fantasy

I’ve never been a great fan of high fantasy. And I don’t know why.

I’ve enjoyed Tolkien’s poetry, but my attempts to read Lord of the Rings always come to a rapid halt a few pages in. I enjoyed Donaldson’s Gap cycle, which is a high fantasy story retold as sci-fi, Wagner with cyborgs and multinationals; but I can’t get anywhere with Thomas Covenant.

As to J.K. Rowling, I managed to finish the first Harry Potter story, but I had a nagging dislike of the whole setup, a reaction that I eventually decided was political.

Perhaps it’s because fantasy tends to be slightly stylized in its plot and characterization, but I can manage space fantasy just fine, whether it’s Douglas Adams or Diane Duane. Perhaps the future, even the future of some other reality, is a more comfortable setting for people and stories with a slightly artificial timbre: it’s easier to accept that constraint when it’s something to do with the confines of a spaceship.

Then again, I can manage historical fantasy just fine, too. Bernard Cornwell’s medieval novels fall subtly into this category, and I’d thoroughly recommend Mike Ford’s The Dragon Waiting and Winter Solstice: Camelot Station – the latter is a Christmas Card so good they invented a new category at the World Fantasy Awards for it.

I also read medieval Arthurian texts, some of them with more definitely and overtly fantastic elements, for pleasure. Yes, in medieval French. And Dante in Italian, too.

Perhaps I’m just a snob, then? After all, I can finish Tom Holt’s non-fantasy novels with little trouble, even if I find myself apathetic about them as works of literature.

But then again, I really like simple, unpretentious old fashioned thrillers, too.

There are two fantasy authors I’ve managed to read with pleasure, both of whom I gave a go to because I encountered them first as Star Wars novellists: the one is Greg Keyes, the other is Matt Stover. Then again, for all the differences between their writing, they’re both actually telling dimension-hopping sci-fi fables with a cyberpunk psychological twist, cleverly disguised as blood-and-sword high fantasy. Swordpunk, perhaps?

I’d add an honourable mention to Richard Morgan’s Land Fit For Heroes cycle, which I read more with interest than with pleasure; but then again, he seems to be pulling the exact same trick.

And I have no problem with that. Or not much, anyway.

And while I’m on the subject of Star Wars, I want to read my way through Troy Denning’s back catalogue outside the franchise. I’ve been impressed enough by Christine Golden’s Star Wars writing to maybe try her new Arthurian cycle.

But I don’t want to start, and then feel obliged to give up.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I like my fiction to be about people. I can just about manage Jedi, but I can’t accept a truly dualistic Force. I don’t like the way that high fantasy divorces the dynamo of its plot from human agency, and I don’t like the moral dualism that’s implied thereby: it suggests that a certain section of humanity have been turned into expendable monsters or victims by forces outside their own control… just for the reader’s pleasure, or for the author to make a point.

Perhaps it’s an aesthetic choice, perhaps it’s a moral one. Perhaps it’s just something innate about me – I’d like to think that I was being true to some basic human principle, though it seems that the majority of the reading public don’t share my qualms.

Another thing I don’t really understand is the idea that a disinclination for stories with straightforwardly “bad” villains makes someone a “moral relativist”. I don’t see anything terribly moral in explaining villainy (or justifying conflict) in terms of anything other than human fallibility, ego and short-sightedness… and most of the writers telling these stories don’t give me the impression of being terribly concerned with moral sensitivity, either.

I’m not expecting them to change, mind you. I’m just trying to work out what I think, and why it’s different.

Whatever the exact problem, I suspect it’s something to do with that – which is why I absolutely blazed my way through Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, but I’m still yet to get very far with the “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser” series that it’s a direct homage to.

Go figure.

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