Saturday, 9 September 2017

Cast of Thousands Need Not Apply

Vampires. Werewolves. Witches. Zombies. Elves. Goblins. Fairies. Elder Gods. Practically every fantasy novel one pick up these days appears to have a cast of thousands, that makes Tolkien's five sentient species look positively stingy.

Sometimes I imagine conversations between these writers.

"Oh, Mary's book isn't going to be any good. She hasn't even got vampires!"
"I hear Fred's new one has Silkies and a Pooka as well as dragons, griffins and elves."
A brief hush follows, as a roomful of writers scribble notes to look up what a Pooka is and add it to their Gothic Christian Steampunk Transgender Erotic Romance Fantasy Epics. Or whatever.

This mania for having one of everything has, I suspect, in the ancient art of 'Keeping Up With The Joneses.' "Oh," one imagines them saying to themselves. "Joe's got zombies AND cyberpunk." And off they rush to add some zombies to their mediaeval quest fantasy.

Don't even let me get started on how overworked is the mediaeval quest fantasy. It's a truism in the writing world that whenever something really good and original is published, at least a decade will follow where hundreds of people produce poor copies of it. As far as I can see, this applies to just about every genre except literary fiction. That one's too hard for copyists.

Is this overabundance of fantasy species in modern fantasy literature a bad thing? Yes, I have to say I think it is. It's not so much that extra species are a bad thing per se, but more that the wholesale inclusion of everything under the sun signals a lack of restraint. Further, there is something intrinsically comical about the 'cast of thousands' approach. Who can even hear the words 'cast of thousands' without a tiny snigger? And unless your book is actually meant to be funny, that really isn't the response you're looking for from your readers.

About now, I can hear my reader thinking, "But what about Terry Pratchett?" Although I never accept the appeal to authority as any kind of valid argument, his books are so lovely, and so very successful (in the literary, not in the commercial, sense) that the existence of the Discworld, with its dwarves gnomes gargoyles vampires werewolves dragons et alia, may be seen as adding weight to the contra position.

I don't think this is so. Pratchett's work is deeply satirical, and he does not just make fun of policemen, movie producers, dog breeders or whatever aspect of society he's chosen for his particular target in any given book. He is, all the time, making fun of himself and all the other fantasy writers. He mocks us all, and we love him for it. 

My own approach is different. If I write fantasy, I like to keep the fantastic element to an absolute minimum - no more than is needed for the story to work. Some people have unkindly referred to this as 'diet fantasy.' I will defend this approach with my last breath, though. To me, it's a matter of fixed principle that you should use no more of anything than is required for the story to work. And that applies to sentient species, just as it does to sex, to violence, to descriptions or anything else. 

No story needs more
than one dancing zombie cockroach.
Danse Macabre

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