Ariel, the webmaster (which is what spiderman should really have called himself) of myself and several other authors, has drawn my attention to an interesting debate.
Mark Chadbourn a fellow Gollancz author and a very nice bloke has made a post about the impact of RPGs, particularly of the multiplayer on-line variety, on fantasy, and how the resulting leaking of fantasy concepts into the mainstream is making it more difficult for fantasy authors to be original, especially when these online worlds are more immersive, more detailed, beautifully realised down to every blade of grass.
“Fantasy authors – and all the thousands of would-be fantasy authors out there – need to wake up. They’re being squeezed out of the territory they have occupied for the last hundred years or so. They can no longer count on the fact that they’re the only visionaries in town, or the only explorers charting the fringes of the imagination. They’re being supplanted by a much more dynamic and agressive breed.”
I don’t find this worrying, myself. I’ve played a hell of a lot of computer games in my time, though not so much of the MMORPG variety. I enjoy them hugely, some probably have been an influence on the way I write. But they’re very different experiences from reading, and if they’ve increased the potential market for fantasy, I think that can only be a good thing.
These games are written by huge teams, with vast budgets, aimed at the biggest possible markets, and as a result usually are rather bland and cliched, taking as few risks as possible. I don’t think it’s too difficult for an author, who by the nature of his medium is free of the need to worry about every detail, to come up with something that offers a different experience. I think we, the fantasy authors, can find a way to co-exist with our every multiplying video-game brethren. There’s always a need for good writing, in video games as much as anywhere else.
It’s true that, with these games, and the Lord of the Rings movies too, the tropes of fantasy have become even more widely and instantly recognised. But to me, it’s precisely the familiarity of those tropes that is the point. When everyone’s expecting the same old same old, even small deviations can be interesting and surprising. In fact small deviations are especially interesting, because large ones break that sense of familiarity and leave the reader feeling disorientated, let down, and, often, bored.
Jonathan McCalmont responded over at his blog SF Diplomat, by turning the question on its head. I think it’s safe to say he’s not a fan of fantasy, particularly of the epic, post-Tolkein kind that we’re talking about here:
“The MMORPG market, much like the world of fantasy literature, is one that operates on the basis of narrowed horizons. In the world of console gaming, the lack of innovation has reached such a point that any change is treated as earth-shattering. The best example of this was a gun in Half-Life 2 that allowed you to lift things up at a distance. To my eyes this was a new swirl of icing on a cake largely unchanged since the days of doom, but to gamers everywhere it was an innovation.”
I totally agree. The first-person shooter is an area with way too little innovation, as the rather disappointing Bioshock seemed to me to prove. But it’s interesting that it’s also a genre of gaming that is even more overrun with the tropes of bland military sf than the RPG is overrun with the tropes of bland epic fantasy. I think video gaming as a whole is prone to the bland, but it’s nothing to do with an ‘infection’ by fantasy. Much more it’s because – as with the blandifying of movies – it’s becoming increasingly a corporate big business with vast teams and huge budgets, and that set-up does tend to push things in the direction of the mediocre. He goes on to say:
“The same lowered bar holds sway over innovation in the mainstream fantasy and RPG markets with any fresh deviation from Tolkienian roots seen as an innovation and sufficient grounds for fans of the new work to sneer at the fans of other works (this was something I learned from my run in with George R. R. Martin’s fans… to me the books appear to be yet more tales of battle, magic and great men but to the devoted fantasy fan these are worlds away from other works featuring battle, magic and great men).”
I’m not convinced he learned anything from that run-in with Martin’s fans apart from how to turn his comments off on potentially incendiary posts. This is exactly the same as claiming High Noon and Unforgiven are identical films because they both feature gunfights, six-shooters and sherriffs. They are both small-town westerns, yes, but a world apart in their presentation of character, their investigation of morality, their approach to violence, right down to the manner in which they are shot and edited. Both great films, incidentally. Likewise, Martin and Tolkein both write epic fantasy, but their approaches are nothing alike. Martin was an innovator in his use of realistic dialogue, in the gritiness (a term that has itself become a cliche, but still) of his world, in his ruthlessness towards his characters, in his tight focus on single points of view to tell the story. Epic fantasy can be bland and derivative, for sure, but to fail to notice the difference between Martin and Tolkein is poor criticism.
“The problem here is that the vast majority of fantasy fans simply have no interest in innovation. If fantasy authors were to hear Chadbourn’s rallying cry I suspect that the result would be a decrease in sales across the genre. The problem is not with the world of RPGs or lazy authors, it is the audience and until someone finds a way of evolving the tastes of that audience, the market will reward the writers who are able to pleasingly re-arrange old ideas and not those who present us with new ones.”
To me this both patronises and misses the point in equal measure. The majority of readers of any genre have little interest in innovation. They want to read/play/see something that’s just like the last thing they liked. That’s what a genre is. That’s what a popular market is. The same is true of crime writing, of chick-lit, of westerns, romance, black-ops action, and pretty much everything else. Sci-fi is perhaps the one exception because, more than any other, it is the genre of new ideas. But even there, anything very successful always spawns a great slew of unimaginative imitations, and the more successful, the more it’ll be imitated. Epic fantasy is, in book terms, extremely successful and so it tends also to be conservative. But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer something new while still working within the form. And it doesn’t mean that readers are too dumb to appreciate something new if you present it to them in a familiar framework, in a form that appeals.
Of course you need innovators. Of course you need the new, the bold, the wildly imaginative. There’s a daring romance to throwing caution to the wind, and it’s important to push the boundaries. But you can’t expect to shift shed loads of units that way, and you shouldn’t bitch when you don’t. Those who tend to achieve lasting commercial success are those who, like Martin, carefully combine a few new ideas with the familiar, and send the genre in a slightly different direction, usually spawning their own generation of imitators in the process.
The fact is, for the vast majority of readers (and I think I probably count myself among them), too much innovation is boring. Too much innovation is pretentious. Too much innovation is … wank.