by Rjurik Davidson
Fantasy is often considered a genre about other worlds. It’s less recognized that fantasy is also a genre about other times. Reflecting its origins in myths and fairytales, much of the genre takes place in a kind of faux medieval world: I say faux because it rarely has the a realistic depiction of feudalism, a cold brutalizing world for the majority of its inhabitants, its class stratifications justified at the level of ideas. History offers us few benevolent Kings or Queens, few Aragorns or Daeneryses. Many of these feudal fantasies are a kind of idealized version of the past, and tell the story of the farm-boy or girl destined to become king or queen.
The best fantasies give their worlds a history (though it’s surprising how many exist in a kind of timeless world). One of the most famous, of course, is Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which possesses a long, rich and epic past — described in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and elsewhere. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth has been in slow decline for centuries: the noble pastoral past is winding down, threatened firstly by the industrial world of the Dark Lord (and the ‘sharers’ who take over the Shire), and secondly by the rise of humankind. This combination of moral diminishing and rise of industry gives Tolkien’s world — for all its visionary heights — a melancholy conservative cast.
To depict a history for your fantasy world means to have a theory of that history. You have to explain how the world moved from one stage to another. That means you need to have a sense of history’s driving forces. Is history essentially a movement of progress or (like in Tolkien) a slow fall? Are all possible histories likely to follow the path of our world’s, from antiquity, through feudalism, to industrial capitalism? Or is history more contingent than that, able to move through all kinds of social structures? In this kind of thought experiment, fantasy comes close to science fiction and alternate history, both of which also need to have the same kinds of theories of history. In science fiction: how did the world get from now to the future? In alternate history: what event was decisive enough to change the past?
In recent years, there have been several shifts within fantasy. Most recently, Grimdark has offered us more realistic depictions of violence. Before that, the New Weird opened up a new space for fantasy, out and away from the feudal typologies. One of its innovations was to shift fantasy out of the rural world and into the modern city. This had consequences for the history depicted in the books. Modern cities are a product of industrial (and later in the west, post-industrial) capitalism. Gone are kings and queens, in come parliaments and Directors and bureaucracies. Modern cities mean modern political movements, modern political ideas, modern sensibilities.
For my own novel in this tradition, Unwrapped Sky, I pictured the city of Caeli-Amur as inhabiting the space between about 1870 and 1920. It’s a modern world, but it’s also a world that is in our past. There are factories, modern political movements, a kind of state capitalism run by three bureaucratic houses, an avant-garde art scene, and philosophical meetings within cafes and tiny bars. All of this is infused with an essence of Greek and Roman myth. Wandering among the dirty industrial alleyways are Minotaurs and Sirens: I still find that image exciting. But I made a second shift to accompany this one. Like Tolkien, I presupposed a lost ancient world. Unlike Tolkien, I suggested that this world — the world of the Ancients — was an advanced civilization, a utopia, ruined by an apocalypse. The remains of its sophisticated technology lie scattered throughout the world, mysterious and incomprehensible. Hence the world has gone through a devolution — a dark age — but by the start of the novel it is beginning to drag itself back up into industry. In this way Unwrapped Sky retains that sense of melancholy loss that so moves us in Tolkien, but jettisons the conservative shell. Hopefully it speaks in some way to our own losses — to the destruction of the environment, to the losses of many cultures and languages of the world, to the sense that things have somehow come apart. Caeli-Amur also has a future, and its story is a story of social change — the movement from that bureaucratic capitalism to something else, perhaps.
This is only one approach to history available to the fantasy writer. The delight of fantasy and science fiction, is that it is a thought experiment. It allows playfulness. Fantasy depicts what isn’t, and why shouldn’t it depict what isn’t, or what can never be, historically? Its fun and it’s also serious to ask what is and isn’t possible in a fantasy world. It inevitable gets us thinking about our own world. Robert Jordan depicted a society in which history is circular, but what other ideas might we depict? How about entirely new social systems, not antiquity, not feudalism, not capitalism, but something else? What about a fantasy utopia, one without oppression? What about a world where minorities are not marginalized? What about a matriarchal fantasy? Each of these would require the writer to think of how this came to be: what was the history of that particular world? We’re only just beginning to explore these regions, these times, but the possibilities are exhilarating. We live in exciting times for the fantasy genre.
Rjurik Davidson is a writer of short stories, essays, screenplays and reviews, and the Associate Editor of Overland magazine. He splits his time between Australia and Europe.PS Publishing published a collection of short stories, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. He has been short-listed for, and won, a number of awards. His novel Unwrapped Sky was released in April, 2014 (Tor). SciFiNow claims it can “go toe-to-toe with China Miéville’s best.” Kirkus Reviews calls it “Impressively imagined and densely detailed.” And according to Library Journal it “marks Davidson as an author to watch.” A sequel, The Stars Askew, is scheduled for October, 2015 (Tor).