Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and the Problem of Steampunk

Posted: April 9, 2012 in Braak, crotchety ranting, crushing genius
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been puzzling around this for a while, but have you ever noticed how many Epic Fantasies are quest narratives? I mean, a lot of it is couched in war, that’s a pretty common feature of epic fantasies. But for the most part – I think maybe nine times out of ten – the Epic Fantasy is defined by the fact that the central engine of the story is a small group of people Going Somewhere to Do Something. All those stories that followed Tolkien’s mold, you know, they’re about people taking a long trip in a strange land.

Broadening Your Horizons

It’s probably good that those strange lands are always so different from our world. “Epic”, which in the old days just sort of meant “heroic”, now conjures up images of huge armies and impressive vistas, of whole civilizations of people whose ways and customs are different from our own. Sometimes those cultures are better developed than others (though I still kind of abashedly dig on David Eddings’ whole, “yes, everyone in THIS country is like an angry viking! And THIS country is all full of Romans! And in THIS country everyone is dumb!”), but that immensity of scope as intrinsic to the form as the Secret Destiny, the Magic Sword, the Evil Sorcerer, the King Returning.

Every epic fantasy is half-travelogue, and I kind of wonder if it isn’t more than half travelogue. That the reason that the Epic Fantasy narrative is one of such boneheaded simplicity precisely so that we won’t spend too much time thinking about it. That the narrative is purposefully self-effacing, so that we can get to the part that we’re all here for, which is the Star Trek mission: exploring new worlds, seeking out new life, new civilizations, &c.

Maybe I’m the only one; maybe I’m the only one who is sometimes less interested in the “emotional core” of a story than I am in the new ideas that it gives me – the imaginary places that I want to see. I used to have a book called The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, and I spent hours reading that thing. No characters, no story, just a list of dictionary entries about places that fantasy authors had made up.

When you look at an epic fantasy like that, the narrative really becomes an excuse; you have to Go Somewhere (anywhere) to Do Something (anything, who cares what?) so that the main characters have a reason to take a trip through this imaginary world, that you, the author, have an excuse to build it and people it and examine its many intricacies.

The Quest Narrative is a good reason to go to strange places; and the strange world is one that demands a story that explores it – the setting and the story are reciprocally arranged, so that of all the Epic Fantasies that anyone has ever written, it’s the Quest stories that really stick out and stick around.

Fantasy of the Urbane

By contrast, Urban Fantasies are almost always mysteries. Why is that? It’s not like it’s required. You could make an Urban Fantasy novel that was a quest novel (and I’m sure someone has) or an Urban Fantasy that was a romance novel (which I KNOW someone has – though the paranormal romances are almost always also mysteries) or an Urban Fantasy that was a family narrative. But there’s another reciprocal arrangement here, and the thing about a mystery is that where the Quest gives you an excuse to go out, the Mystery gives you an excuse to go down.

Really, the Mystery narrative isn’t implicitly complex. Most of them are pretty simple: the mystery is discovered by the end of the first quarter, about halfway through the protagonist realizes the mystery is something different than she thought it was (it seemed like just a murder, but now I realize it’s a MURDER CULT!), three quarters of the way in the primary suspect turns out to be the wrong guy (the real villain being whoever we were supposed to least suspect), climactic gunfight, denouement, &c. You can make the mystery intricate and involved, but you don’t really have to.

You don’t have to because part of the reason that we’re here is to explore. And unlike the horizon-spanning exploration that the Quest takes us on, the Mystery takes us deeper: a narrative that’s suited ideally to the Urban fantasy environment. The fantasy city is dense, rather than broad, its complexities deep, rather than far-reaching; the Mystery is an excavation, an excuse for the protagonist to examine the intricate interrelations of her city. It’s not just that most Urban Fantasies tend to be mysteries – it’s that the Mystery story is uniquely suited to the Urban fantasy, in the same way that the Quest is uniquely suited to the Epic.

The Problem with Steampunk

Well, is there really a problem with Steampunk? I don’t know. But there kind of is, right? The problem with Steampunk is not that no one knows exactly what it is – it’s pretty obvious exactly what it is. It’s a neo-Victorian aesthetic laid overtop science fiction or fantasy, and all the technology is done with gears and steam power. Boom, done. Top hats, waistcoats, corsets; stilted dialogue, fussy manners, and a big old pile of gears. (There are some people who will add things to this – it has to be a recreation of modern science with old-fashioned means or something; I think this is tetrapyloctomy. If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, and it rummages in the mud for worms with its duck bill, then no one is impressed by you insisting that there’s a separate class of “true ducks” that only you can recognize by the sound of their quacking. They’re fucking ducks, relax a little bit.)

The problem isn’t that it’s not clear what it is, but that because it isn’t obviously Epic or Urban, no one’s a hundred percent sure what it’s for — and, as a consequence, there’s no obviously formulaic story to throw in there.

Is it a science narrative? Sometimes. Is it a narrative about class and prejudice? Sometimes. Is it Epic? It can be. Is it Urban? Often. Because it’s only an aesthetic, and not actually a class of story, it’s not altogether obvious where it’s supposed to fit in. We can’t easily find a reciprocal narrative for it, a story that, by its nature lends as much to the setting as the setting informs the story.

The Mad Science story is, I think, usually the strongest choice (See: Boneshaker, Leviathan), because so much of the creative part of Steampunk is in envisioning where the gears go – Mad Science gives you a pretty good reason to explain the crazy technology that you get to make up. But sometimes for Steampunk, what you want to do is explore this kind of weird, ad-hoc, semi-Victorian culture that you’ve made, and so you kind of want that…what would you call it. Ugly Duckling narrative? The one where the Urchin suddenly finds herself in the midst of High Society. This is an ascension, right? Rather than a detective digging down into the dirt of his city, it’s someone from the bottom rising up to the top, letting us see how the other half lives. That’s a good way to explore the fake cultural conventions that you’ve made up, a good way to let us, the audience, learn something new.

It’s learning something new that I think has always been at the root of my appreciation for fantasy, and I think is really why it exists as a genre. I mean, there’s got to be a reason that all of our books and stories and movies and TV shows aren’t just mirror-perfect reflections of the world that we live in. Why do we even have fantasy, you know? It’s because there’s a human instinct to find the new, the interesting, the unfamiliar, the exotic and learn about it.

The…Other…Problem with Steampunk

On the face of it, the idea of making Steampunk more multicultural just seems kind of weird. It is an aesthetic that is literally defined by its reference to a particular culture and one that is, in the world of fantasy, basically independent of race. It’s the tophats and the waistcoats and the corsets that are important; if you want to put those on people from China or Kenya or Afghanistan, you can just do that. Who cares? There are no rules. If you like tophats, and you like Kenyans, write a book about Kenya where everyone wears tophats.

But maybe you want to say, “Yeah, but shouldn’t we be paying attention to what life was like in colonized Kenya during the 1890s, if we want to talk about a neo-Victorian aesthetic?”, well, yes, that’s certainly a worthwhile thing to do in as much as anything is worthwhile thing to do, but I’m not sure that Steampunk is a literal lionization of the British Empire so much as it is a convenient excuse to put everyone in tophats and waistcoats. It’s not a history textbook, you know, where we really could say that you were doing something morally reprehensible by ignoring the complex tapestry of culture that makes up the era that you’re looking at.

A stronger multicultural approach might be ignoring the strictures of the late 19th century and looking at whatever set of fashions and culture you like, from whatever era you think is cool, and just doing that. But, then, like I said, a steampunk novel set in colonized Kenya actually sounds like a really good idea, so fuck that shit.

The thing about it, though, is that as much as exoticization is problematic from a cultural issue (because it teaches a hegemonic culture [in our case, mostly white people] that other cultures are interesting by virtue of how strange and different they are), it’s actually at the root of what we like about fantasy, and that makes it a really good opportunity to build the kind of diverse, multicultural readership that is actually the morally and socially-desirable outcome of…you know, art. I mean, I assume that’s the point; we have art to teach us empathy and compassion and understanding, so making it interesting to read about cultures other than our own is a pretty worthwhile endeavor.

The Multiculture

In another way, though, I guess this is an issue for publishers more than it is for writers. If you’re a writer, you’re going to write about what you think is interesting, and if white people in tophats is your thing, then that’s pretty much where you’re going to be at. Moreover, I’m not really sure I want white people writing books about other cultures. Speaking as a white guy, I actually already have a pretty good idea what other cultures look like through the eyes of a white guy. I’m kind of not really interested in any more of Whitey’s opinions on the subject.

I say this with the full realization that demanding that fantasy editors start hiring more people who aren’t white guys to write more books that aren’t about white guys is a pretty sure way of ensuring that there will be less room available for MY books, but I’m okay with that. (I’m also pretty aware of the fact that most publishers aren’t going to publish my books anyway, so let’s not think of me as being too selfless.)

What I mean by all of this, though, is that actually we are all on board to learn about other cultures; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what the genre of fantasy exists for – it is a tool that lets us nurture the instinct for exploration, that lets us feed our yearning for the strange and the new.

I don’t know, man, maybe I’m just bored about all the epic fantasy that’s medieval Western European or 19th century British or something. Somebody write a fantasy set in the Kingdom of Zimbabwe or something.

  1. goldenboy62 says:

    I totally agree with you especially as far as Steampunk goes. Heck white people weren’t the only people running around England in the 19th century. And of course that only matters if you’re writing historical steampunk. It’s weird that most steampunk in the media nowadays at least seems to be completely fantasy based; Victorian clothing (with a modern twist) 20th century sensibilities, Hollywood version of pirates , and no real discernible time period; is it the future, the re imagined past, or an alternate present? Either way it’s remarkable that for something so utterly stitched together there seems to be such a complete disregard for any sign of multiculturalism. You can even find a backlash against the idea, same as you will find it at the mention of epic fantasy placed in non-European settings.

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