Tuesday, January 26, 2010

on fantasy

I’ve been reading the first book of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Since George RR Martin has shriveled up and quit writing his A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve had a hole in my heart that can only be filled by really well-developed and expansive fantasy fiction. And Erikson’s series seems to deliver on all fronts regarding my reading needs. It is massively complicated, populated by a cast of characters roughly as long as the list for War and Peace, and is currently nine books long. And there is a co-creator, Ian Esslemont, who is writing his own series of five books set in the world that the two authors created together. As a role-playing world. Of course.

I miss role-playing more these days than I used to. I have had this pet theory for years that my interest in various hobbies waxes and wanes, with certain things that I am interested in becoming more or less prevalent in my daily thoughts in a cyclical fashion, and I find myself currently thinking about role playing games. And more specifically, the stories that develop in a person’s mind as a result of role playing.

It came to me last night as I regaled my patient and long-suffering wife with a tale about a character that the creators of the RPG Godlike had included in their rulebook. She nodded and listened patiently to me as I spouted off a list of characteristics about this fictitious person, and her role in the formation of a fictionalized version of a real country. Essentially, I have an impressive depth of memory about a made up person in a game that probably less than 5000 people in the world know of.

Now, if I were, say, a professor of English literature, this wouldn’t give me any cause for reflection. Of course I would have this set of things I know about, say, Boo Radley, if I were a teacher who instructed students in a class that was reading To Kill A Mockingbird. But to be able to say that I have a deep personal knowledge of Raistlin Majere, a wizard in a series of pulpy novels I read as a teenager, makes me wonder at the value of that information. And that isn’t the deepest part I was reaching for. To wonder about Raistlin is a minor concern; someone was paid to write that series of books, it was a popular series, lots of folks share that body of knowledge.

My real wonderment comes at the degree to which I remember things from games I participated in 10-15 years ago. I can’t remember where I put a stack of homework that I collected last week, but I can tell you exactly what my character did to become prince of the city in a Vampire game I participated in over 10 years ago. I still have to be reminded of family birthdays, but I still remember the night my old friend John’s character beheaded an arch-elementalist, stole his sword, and ran off. Even further back, I remember staying up an entire night once with my friend Jack in 1991, revising the rules of Dungeons & Dragons to govern a conflict we had set up on the floor between two forces of Lego Castle knights. That was 19 years ago.

I suppose that the degree to which people find the pursuit of these fantasy stories to be enjoyable or worthwhile is the degree to which these things are remembered. And I find this to hold true for my self to some degree. Then I wonder about the degree to which those of us who are truly enamored of fantasy (both written fiction and interactive sorts) tend to denigrate those pursuits to a larger public. I also have a taste for what I guess I would call more serious literature, and consider myself well-read in classic literature as well as contemporary literature, considering my age and available time. But whenever I think to myself that I’ve had enough Cormac McCarthy or Don DeLillo for awhile, and seek out something like the books mentioned above, I feel guilty. I feel I am somehow regressing, or indulging a craving I should be above these trivial writings. Like a renowned chef hitting the drive-thru at Taco Bell.

The reason for this pondering is fairly simple. When I make attempts to write, I tend to find it easiest to simply write about either an experience that I have had that involved fantasy games, or to extrapolate upon these created worlds by adding characters and events. I tend to find that having the context nailed down aids in the creation of narrative. Having this sort of, I guess geographical and temporal, grounding tends to make it easier to write down whatever it is.

I found this true with my old blog as well. Typically I was able to write easiest when I had a focused, narrow, context. I would just talk about fifth grade, or about my bad taste in music. It would seem that the crux of where my thought is leading is that I have somehow convinced myself that writing out the fantasy stuff that appeals to me is somehow easier or less worthwhile than taking a stab at what I guess we would call a ‘serious’ book.

Of course, that makes my wondering seem grandiose. In all honesty, I’ve tried to write something more sustained than an article or paper many times before. The effect is always the same. At some point, I will stop writing, get frustrated, bored or self-judging, and pitch the unfinished effort. But most of those efforts have been of a ‘serious’ intent. I’ve never just sat down and started typing out ‘elves, magic, swords’ crap.

And maybe that’s because I have this weird dichotomy that maybe doesn’t really exist. Fiction is fiction, and although it is unlikely that a Forgotten Realms paperback will win a Pulitzer, I think we can all respect the amount of money The Lord of the Rings made. And even if Lord of the Rings has been embraced by a more serious literary circle, it wasn’t always that way.


  1. Dammit, I think I actually agree with you.

  2. I think we've had this conversation a few times. It's like that crazy deep french dissertation on Lovecraft you picked up. One of these days there'll be one of those from China about Salvatore.

    That said, I have a big ol' folder on one of my flash drives titled "The World" which I think you'd recognize copious portions of. I still page through that and enjoy it fairly often.

    On the initial point about cyclical interests, I have experienced the same thing. I made a special and concoius effort after watching Avatar to specifically read supernatural and fantasy works to even things out so I didn't let my cycle drift far enough to go dig out Rifts books.