Let me tell you, it’s great to be a fantasy writer. The sky’s the limit. Imagination is my oyster. I can do anything I want. I don’t have to obey the constraints of politics or physics. I can ignore the boundaries of biology and geography. I can imagine bold and exciting new worlds and populate them with amazing races. I can push my readers to the limit, expand their horizons.
So, let’s see. I know! I’ll write about a strange and compelling medieval world, populated by magic-using characters out of Scandinavian myth.
What? That’s been done to death?
No problem! I’ll write about love affair between an everyday human and a vampire!
Huh. That’s done too?
Onward! I’ll do a retelling of the classic Arthurian legend, only I’ll make all the magic real, and update the characters so that they have the cynicism and practicality of modern day folks.
Oh, really? Done already? Crap. How about a blending of modern cyber technology and magic? Elves with comput . . . ? Oh. Well, maybe we could do a . . . No?
You get the idea.
Here’s the thing that you don’t realize until you set pen to paper. The fantasy genre has been around for roughly a century in its present form. When you add in myths and legends, its been around since the dawn of civilization.
That’s a whole lot of stories. Stories about magic and dragons and supernatural detectives and affairs between vampires and zombies and elves who take Xanax to treat their generalized anxiety disorder.
Stories about EVERYTHING. We’ve sucked all the magic out of magic. We’ve pressed that fruit until all that’s left is the desiccated rind.
Here’s another thing. People come to fantasy because they want to be transported. They are hungry for resonance and wonder. They want the NEW. And if you’re struggling to be a pro in this business, you want to give people what they want.
So, um, yeah. Daunting.
You know what I’ve been noticing lately? Mashups. Folks are calling it genre-busting, but it’s just another way of saying, “you take two things that have usually been played with separately and your throw ‘em together.”
A lot of the time, it works really well. Sometimes it works really, really, REALLY well. This is because it can jump the genre track and appeal to folks who aren’t normally fantasy readers. Paranormal romance is the best example of this. There is a large audience out there for romance, and a large audience for stories about fantasy creatures from faeries to vampires to selkies. Blend the two expertly enough and you just doubled your potential audience. More importantly, you’ve exposed both audiences to a side of the aisle they may not have considered before.
And, after a few years, that’s done to death too. “Urban Fantasy,” has become so ubiquitous now that my friends refer to it offhandedly as, “vampire porn.” There are “DOWN WITH SPARKLY VAMPIRE” movements spontaneously appearing at science fiction conventions. It’s so common that it’s reaching the familiarity-breeds-contempt levels that I consider to be the ultimate compliment to artistic work.
And that’s just the start. Harry Dresden, supernatural detective. Harry Potter, a coming of age story, but in a school for wizards. Pride and prejudice isn’t enough anymore. Try Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
All to the good, says I. Fantasy is my happy place, and the bigger it is, the better.
But I do worry. What if the well runs dry? What if someone uses up THE LAST IDEA? What happens then? You can only mashup so many things. I don’t care about the REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ORANGE COUNTY WHO BY THE WAY ALSO HAPPEN TO BE WEREWOLVES. The Simpsons famous “YA” episode is a good sign of a public starting to become fatigued with the assembly line feel of so many miners working the same vein of ore.
But there is hope, and I think it comes from those “genre-busters” who do their mashing up with their areas of expertise. Diana Rowland? Former law enforcement. Mark of the Demon turned some heads. Naomi Novik, Jane Austen freak. She introduces an aerial corps into the Napoleonic wars, mounted on dragons. Chris Evans is former Canadian army and edits military nonfiction in his day job. He gives his elves muskets and all of the pomp and politics of the real historical pike and shot days.
Such works are less mashup and more . . . er . . . sprinkling. They originate in the most critical question fantasy writers must ask as they lay out their ideas. “What if?”
I faced the same question as I walked the halls of the Pentagon, launching a career in/alongside the American military that lasted my entire professional life. Immersed in the conservative, rigid, slow-moving bureaucracy of the military (and I have found this to be true of all militaries. I’ve worked with many), I asked a simple and obvious (to a nerd) question. “What if there were elves in the halls? What if there was a . . . you know . . . magic department or bureau? What would the army do with that?”
Not a mashup precisely. Unless you think I’m mashing up Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling (I’m not trying to, honest). It was a fun what-if that resulted (over the course of 15 years) in CONTROL POINT, the first book in my military fantasy SHADOW OPS series that hits shelves (yikes!) in about a month. I could be flattering myself (hell, I probably am), but I don’t think this thing has been done before.
And that makes me really happy. Because this is a genre that exists to expand readers’ horizons. And the more expansive those horizons become, the tougher it is to find new directions to forge off in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also possible to tread in the time-honored molds, to take the fantasy tropes we know and love and do them again really, really well. Joe Abercrombie isn’t tearing the envelope. Neither is Scott Lynch. But both are stellar writers, kings of their field and deservedly loved by a growing legion of admiring fans. And it’s also possible to forge off into brave new directions, not needing to combine X and Y, starting from a deckplate so wholly original that “fantasy” doesn’t even seem to cover it.
That’s China Mieville, of course. I can barely wrap my head around what that guy’s doing. I only know how dearly I love it. Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker too, to a lesser extent.
But when we speak specifically of breaking genre borders, the big genre mashup and the light sprinkle of real world expertise comes immediately to mind.
Yeah, fantasy has been done to death. Heck, it’s been done to death, then reanimated so it could be killed again. And then, you know, um, yeah. Dead some more.
But I look at the 2012 release lists and I smile fit to split my face.
Because I love this genre.
And it’s an exciting time to be part of it. The best, my friends, is still to come.
Myke Cole is the author of the military fantasy SHADOW OPS series. The first novel in the series will be published by Ace (Penguin) in the US in February 2012 and by Headline (Hachette) in the UK in summer 2012.