Been There, Done That

...And actually it was pretty fun. I think I'll go again.

I've recently come into contact with the famous "Fantasy Novelist's Exam", though I'd read it before, and indeed mentioned it here. I got a couple points, folks. Fundamentally, it's flawed—"seen it before" is not a value judgment, it's a biographical statement and, like all other biographical statements, totally irrelevant, because nobody cares what's happened to you. Who the hell are you, anyway? More to the point, making "originality" the sole criterion is simply announcing you're too stupid to judge a work on its merits, and have opted to substitute novelty for quality.

Now, it's true that a lot of fantasy is derivative in the negative sense, but what that really means is "it jumped on the bandwagon to try and sell inferior goods." Merely following formula or genre conventions isn't bad, in fact well-executed formula works are probably the most satisfying things in all of fiction (watch a Zatoichi movie if you don't believe me); attempting to use "having conformed to formula" as a substitute for quality is the problem. But so is attempting to use "departing from formula". Bad fiction is bad fiction; there's no simple way to detect it.

Even then, the argument is flawed. Conceding for the moment that unoriginality is a detriment to a work, there is no checklist of taboos one can keep to stay unpolluted by it. For instance, one of the questions is, "Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?"

Guess what, mine has elves and dwarves, but they're nothing like you've ever seen. The dwarves are the allies of the elves, indeed their vassals—the elves are the leader of the fairy faction the dwarves also belong to. Miners and woodcutters give the dwarves libations in exchange for luck. The elves are more major spirits—they used to be worshiped, and humans still give them libations in exchange for luck, good weather, and good harvests—but they're not the all-singing, all-dancing stargazing archers of Tolkien, still less the thin-wristed little sissy-britches of D&D. Let's put it this way: the female elf lead splits a minotaur's skull with her bare hand (people on the Internet have some weird thing about minotaurs and female elves; I don't want to say my reversal's a Girl Power moment but I can't for the life of me say why it's not). The male elf lead, who rules a village of woodcutters, is a boogieman in the barbarian nation's legends; they call him the Corpse Hanger. Elves in my book have elemental powers, wood is one of the elements, and the barbarians passed through his forest to try and raid his village. I trust you can figure it out from there.

That's almost the only one that I answered yes to; another is "Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?" One does, but she goes by the diminutive in a related language. It'd be like if an Italian woman named Giovanna usually went by Jeannette because she happens to be living in France.

On the other hand I avoided the "farmboy protagonist" by the simple expedient of having most of the characters be nobles (the plot involves one of the mage-nobles contracting with trolls to get out of her fealty oaths, so it makes sense nobles would be involved), except for one farmgirl (secondary character, most of the rest of the cast doesn't even speak her language) and the illegitimate daughter of a barbarian chief, working for a troll, who's mostly there to show the softer side of the villains (and to show the dragons' personalities—some of them think humans are moe).

Yeah, like I said, it's got dragons. Only they're the same type of being as the elves and trolls. I've never met that before; I've also never read a fantasy book that's led me to believe its writer had read any anthropology (except Conan, but I mean good anthropology).

Come to think of it I do have a problem with things I've 'seen a million times', as 'twere—I just don't object to formula. I object to people jumping on bandwagons of various political or cultural ideologies. They're always the really simplistic ones—multiculturalism, academic-style feminism, or libertarianism, for instance—and they're always about as subtle as a mule kick. I don't mind it as much if it's an ideology I don't see that often—I'd take a by-the-book Stalinist fantasy book over the standard lukewarm leftism, any day, just for the conviction it takes to stay loyal to that lunacy—but fundamentally, you people are not qualified to preach to me. Especially if you're an English Marxist—that combination is worse than anything it could ever try to warn us about.

Yeah, basically, China Mieville is everything that's wrong with fantasy today.

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