Wednesday, June 5, 2013

GUEST POST: "On the Widening Gyre in Fantasy" by Jonathan Strahan

We are proud to present our very first celebrity guest post, from the inimitable Jonathan Strahan! Jonathan is one of the foremost anthologists and editors working in SF/F today. Over the years, he has edited and co-edited numerous anthologies and collections, including The New Space Opera (co-edited with Gardner Dozois), Edge of Infinity, Night Shade Books' annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year and the recent Fearsome Journeys, which The G described as "a strong statement on what this oft-derided genre can accomplish." A winner of the 2009 World Fantasy Award for Best Professional Editor and six-time Hugo nominee, Jonathan also co-hosts the well-regarded Coode Street podcast.

Welcome to the very first stop, I believe, on the Fearsome Journeys blog tour. It’s wonderful to be here. Last year noted science fiction critic Paul Kincaid wrote an essay, "The Widening Gyre", for the LA Review of Books that inspired an energetic debate, here at nerds of a feather and just about everywhere else in the science fiction and fantasy field about the current health of our field (a discussion that has been going on, in different guises, for as long as I can remember).

Reviewing three 'best of the year' anthologies, Paul suggested that the short stories in those books indicated that SF/F was experiencing three related problems: first, short fiction was no longer pushing boundaries; second, in much of it writers seemed to lack conviction in their own stories, and third, that short SF was experiencing a crisis of ideas. Read what Paul had to say on this here (and here) and don’t just go with my too brief summary.

A question that went through my mind at the time, and which our host The G raised with me, was how does Paul’s article apply to fantasy? Regardless of what health SF might be in, how is fantasy doing? Paul addresses this in “The Widening Gyre”, acknowledging the excellence of K.J. Parker’s story “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong”, but questioning how it can be considered as a fantasy story given that’s fantasy elements are at best tangential to it in his assessment.

My reaction at the time, back before I began working in earnest on Fearsome Journeys was that Paul made some excellent points, but that not all of them as readily applied to fantasy. Unlike science fiction, fantasy doesn’t have the same commitment to the search for the new, for example. It can be in a state of good health and not be pushing formal boundaries or searching for new and innovative ideas, though those things are desirable and I think in evidence when we look around the field. 

It is interesting to apply the argument to Fearsome Journeys, which is deliberately a centre-of-genre book. It doesn’t set out to be formally innovative or to push boundaries. Instead, it was always intended to cover the ground between epic and military fantasy, in a way not too dissimilar to my earlier anthology Swords and Dark Magic (co-edited with my good friend Lou Anders). And I think the stories in the book reflect that. Each of them is, unequivocally, a fantasy story. In some there’s central fantastical element, as in Scott Lynch’s “The Effigy Engine” or Elizabeth Bear’s “The Ghost Makers”. In some, that fantastical element is almost as much provided by the setting as anything else, as in Kate Elliott’s “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine”, or in K.J. Parker’s “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton”. One or two are even trendy, like Glen Cook’s dark military fantasy “Shaggy Dog Bridge” which may even be grimdark. And while a story like Ellen Klage’s delicious ‘Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” is clearly an author having fun with fantasy, I don’t think it lacks conviction.

I think that in the end my own experience reading and editing the stories in Fearsome Journeys left me reasonably content about the health of fantasy short fiction. Given that the book only contains a handful of stories, it can’t cover everything. But with stories like E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” or Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down” or Kij Johnson's “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” or any one of a bunch of other stories out there, it’s hard to believe the field isn’t healthy and isn’t experimenting. It certainly definitely seems as relevant and as vital as ever to me.