Wednesday, June 12, 2013

GUEST POST: Stories Outside History by Daniel Abraham

We are proud to present a guest post by fantasy and science fiction author Daniel Abraham! Regular readers of this blog are doubtlessly familiar with our reviews of Daniel's work, most recently the excellent and thought-provoking fantasy novel The Tyrant's Law. A prolific writer, Daniel also writes urban fantasy under the name MLN Hanover and co-writes the Hugo-nominated Expanse space opera series as James S. A. Corey (with Ty Franck). He has also written the graphic adaptation of A Game of Thrones for Dynamite and numerous short stories and novellas, the most recent of which ("The High King Dreaming") was a standout in Jonathan Strahan's top-notch Fearsome Journeys anthology. 

What you may not know is that Daniel is an equally accomplished critic of fantasy and science fiction--his piece on historical accuracy and "realism" in fantasy fiction for A Dribble of Ink is a must-read for any fan with a critical eye. Today Daniel revisits the topic of fantasy's relationship to history...

There's a way in which all stories are fantasies, but there's also a way in which some stories aren't.

I came to the conclusion a few years ago that reading is essentially an act of performance. When we read, we imagine the scenes described before us in a way that's a lot like remembering or dreaming them. When the passage talked about the smell of the sea and the darkness of the sky, we as readers evoke those sensations, putting them together based on whatever experiences we have that apply. We create a drama that each one of us experiences alone. How I imagine Frodo and the Balrog probably isn’t quite the way you do. How I hear Lord Peter Wimsey speak is probably a little different. The finest details and even whether those details are part of the experience will change from reader to reader, and even from reading to reading. Which is to say that the experience of a story – as opposed to the experience of grammar – is an act of imagination, no matter what the content of that story may be.

I live in the early twenty-first century. I have no direct experience of Weimar Germany. Or 1800s England. Or Napoleon's final prison on Elba. Or – more to the point – of Bag End, Winterfell, or Barsoom. Whenever I read a story, I am evoking places, people, actions, and states of mind that are outside my immediate experience. But some stories lay claim to a special status. To one degree or another, they claim to be real. That can range from "Based on a True Story" claims like the Amityville Horror books to any piece of fiction that takes a setting in the present or historical past. By placing characters and events in the world we know – or feel like we know, anyway – the story gains something. I may not have been to ancient Rome, but I've seen it depicted before. I am aware of who Julius Caesar was, who Brutus was, what a toga looks like, just the way I have a sense of Edwardian England or the suburbs of Chicago. A shared cultural background gives information that the writer then doesn't have to put on the page. It gives the since that what we read could have happened (and maybe really did).

The stories we call fantasy give that up. They take place outside of history, outside of the world, outside, that is to say, of plausibility. The deaths of Boromir and Ned Stark have no relationship to the deaths of Constantine and Alexander the Great. It isn't only that the events didn't happen at the same time, they didn't happen at times that could be compared. The yardstick of history becomes meaningless.

The obvious advantage is that it gives writers more freedom. The struggle between York and Lancaster may have a documented outcome, but Stark and Lannister has no other source to take information from. It's tempting to say that this distance is what makes fantasy powerful, but I think that's a mistake. As a reader, my experience of fantasy isn't that, by being outside of my world, it becomes less connected to me. On the contrary, the experience of reading it seems more personal. More my own. That doesn't some from greater distance, but greater intimacy. It's a puzzle I haven't entirely solved, but I have some clues that I've followed, and some guesses that I've made.

The first fantasies I remember engaging with were pretend games I played with my mother. I was young enough at the time that my connection to the real world didn't extend much past my front yard anyway. Any world I spun up was as good as another. It was only when I started school that the question of whether it was real or not – whether it was right or wrong – was an issue. The real world where everyone agrees to common facts was something that school and education constructed for me over the course of years. It's a necessary context, and it allows for civilization to exist. I don't resent it.

But when an author starts a story by saying I can throw all that out, I fall back into that more intimate kind of dream. Yes, maybe it looks a little like something I know – there's a king, maybe, or a free city built on lagoon, or a train station at the edge of a city that's never existed – but for the most part, I've stepped back into a pretend game, and it feels a little disloyal to the world. There's a joy in that. And more than that, there's a power.

The roots of fantasy have often been instructive, and they've often been a little dangerous. Fables, fairy tales, parables and the stories about the gods all functioned to make the world make sense, not by cataloging it but by framing it. And it seems to me modern fantasy still has that in its blood. It is a literature that is equal parts swashbuckling playground adventure and ideas. To the degree that it is escapism, it can tell us what we're escaping from. To the degree it reflects our own world back to us, changed to let us see ideas freed from the particulars of history, and in my lifetime, that is most often concerned with the loss of innocence and the futility of war. 

I don't think it's coincidental that the two great tentpole fantasies of the last century – Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire – are first and foremost meditations on war. Lord of the Rings is an extended argument about the morality of disarmament and the redemptive power of mercy. A Song of Ice and Fire is profoundly sorrowful story about the futility of petty, vicious wars in the shadow of an overwhelming catastrophe. Both speak to the weariness of war and the human cost of violence.

By stepping outside the flow of history, fantasy gives us the toolbox to tell stories that are about deeper concerns, and often ones that we don't have other places to talk about. Because all fantasies, whether they say it or not, begin with "Once upon a time, but not now and not here" and those of us who love them, love that. And we love it because it isn't true.