13 December 2005

More on non-medieval fantasy worlds

In response to my open musing and questions about fantasy set in, or inspired by, other time periods/cultures/etc, Handworn suggested Barbara Hambly's Bride of the Rat God. It was in response to my particular question, namely about fantasies with a somewhat more modern setting/inspiration, namely the Jazz Age -- the 20's, early 30's kind of era, with flapper girls and expats in Paris and Berlin fabulousness, etc.

The funny thing is, today I got to thinking more and more about this, and realized something. I could definitely think of non-medieval fantasies. That wasn't the problem. Off the top of my head, and ignoring the obvious modern urban fantasy genre: Crowley's Aegypt and its sequels. Gregory Keye's Age of Unreason books. Susanna Clarke, of course. Patricia Wrede's Mairelon books. But, see, this is where it gets interesting -- all seem to be set in, well, this world. Most of "medieval fantasy" is alternate world fantasy -- made-up worlds that just happen to look like various visions of medieval romance. But once we get outside of the medieval vision, things become mostly Historical Times, With Wizards. So we have Regency fantasy (Clarke and Wrede), but what about alternate made up pulled 'em out of our asses worlds inspired, influenced and molded by the Regency period? And as we get more modern day, that seems to hold true even more.

The one clear exception that I can think of is China Mieville, who has, in New Corbuzon, a fantasy city and accompanying world that seems to draw its underlying feel and inspiration from a Victorian Era filtered through S.J. Perelman ("Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws." Except, of course, that Mieville being Mieville, his stories can be very political).

My theory -- well, vague hunch -- is that the medieval period is used so much for inspiration in alternate world fantasies for a number of reasons. 1)it kinda happened that way cuz there was that Tolkien dude and all; 2)the Medieval period is far enough away that it's easy to whitewash and handwave about, but recent enough that we know a lot about it; 3)no poofdahs. Oh, sorry. Couldn't think of a number three. Though now I suddenly can -- given how many people read fantasy for escapism (sigh, when it's the only reason), it has the advantage that it's far enough away that's it's definitely not Here and Now, but still has something familiar about. The Victorian age, in that sense, might be too close -- it can feel a bit like now. You know, pollution, urban anomie, you name it. And ancient Celts? Too weird.

Just a thought. But it seems to me we're missing some interesting territory. The mythic potential of different eras is overwhelming. This is where that escapist crowd really starts to bug me. We get penned inside this little tiny territory, and there's so much more to fantasy.

UPDATE: Hey! I just remembered the name of the book I was trying to think of last night: The Dream Years, by Lisa Goldstein. Out of print. Must get a copy sometime.


Anonymous handworn said...

Different night's sleep, different cup of coffee later, different thoughts of non-medieval fantasy:

Most anything by Martha Wells fits that description. You might also check out the Yahoo group Original Fantasy which focuses on elf-free fantasy.

I think what the medieval kick is about is partly the exoticness you mention, 'cause the further away in time you get, the further away from an individual person's experience it gets and the more supernatural it seems. But there's also a measure of wish-fulfillment in medievalism because the hard science that began to arise in the Renaissance often contradicts the perception of reality. Or as Yeats wrote,

The woods of Arcady are dead
And over is their antique joy
Of old the world on dreaming fed
Grey truth is now her painted toy.

12/14/2005 11:08 AM  

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