The Distance of Fantasy

I’ve been thinking about fantasy novels, having written a lot about mirrors lately during NaNoWriMo (via Through the Looking-Glass).  What is fantasy?  A reflection, either internal or external, of something real.  But I was noticing that different types of fantasy have different, I don’t know, lengths (and complexity) of reflection.

How far away is Urban Fantasy from “real life”?  Considering that it’s supposed to be about a fantasy world that very well could exist, but that we in the real world don’t know about, not very far.

Alternate History isn’t very far.  (Sorry:  Alternate history is mainly considered science fiction, but I realize that it’s based on “what if,” the way SF is.  However, it’s a reflection; I’m using it here.)

How far away is Epic Fantasy?  A little farther–at first, you think, “But it’s a totally made-up world!” but soon realize that X fantasy country is analogous to Y “real world” country.  Or–further still–you realize that X fantasy mythology is based on Y “real world” mythology, a story based on a story.  A second-level reflection.

The nonsense in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass aren’t random; they’re based on real-world logic and the way it clashed with the manners at the time; the books were closer to the real world–then–than many so-called fantasy stories.  Many of the surreal effects of the books come from our not getting the joke, now.

Something I’m wondering is, how far away do you have to get before you’re writing a fantasy world?

If there are werewolves in London (aaaa-ooooo), is it a fantasy world?  –Not merely an urban fantasy world, which is supposed to be the real world with extra stuff in it, but a fantasy world?

If you change the name of London to Underthings and keep the werewolves but leave everything else the same, is it a fantasy world?

I think the (thin and laughably permeable) boundary is crossed when you change public consensus about physical reality.  For example, Underthings becomes the capital city of a fantasy world when you make it common knowledge that air flight is powered by a compound derived from frog skins.

Now: this is illogical on the face of it, because it means that fantasy-ish steampunk is not set in the “real world” plus changes, but in a fantasy world. (The steampunk where the science is realistic but based on steam rather than gasoline is SF, to my mind.)

Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series is in a fantasy universe where the locations happen to have the same names as ours.  (Because those genetic manipulations and machines are totally logical and plausible to have built for the time and place.  Riiiiight.)  Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books are in a fantasy universe where the locations happen to have the same names as ours.  (And ditto.)  Those fantasies are further away from the real world than actual alternate history books, but they are closer than books based on Tolkein, like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, which are third-level reflections (Norse mythology–>Tolkein–>Sanderson.)

The fundamental rules of the universe have changed, and changed openly.  They are no longer “real worlds” being invaded by fantasy elements, as in Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Fantasy.  They are unreal worlds, even if they happen to have “real-world” names.



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  1. Hmmmm. Makes sense to me. I think the explicit Physical Laws thing (including settings that invoke Clarke’s Law) is the real trigger.

    Was considering Andre Norton the other day, and how many of her books are SF with what I’d call Fantasy elements (psionics, at a minimum, but often with mythic magical-invocations-of-spirits-and-other-nonmaterial-beings bits tossed in). That’s true both for her “hard” SF (_Moon of Three Rings_) and her more high fantasy novels (the Witchworld series, where the line between tech and magic blurs with a heavy psionic overlay).


  2. De

    You know, I think all SF works like that: the SF where the science is mostly in the setting, and the SF where the science is logical. I had been thinking in terms of steampunk, but you’re right.

    So here’s a question I’ve been pondering: how to write a truly fantasy-based future world. Not something like the Dragonriders/McCaffrey series, where it might conceivably have been based on our world directly, but a future Tolkein or a future Narnia or something. The only thing I can come up with is Warhammer 40K stuff, and that seems *right* but not what I want to write.

  3. Well, psionics aside, Pern is pretty clearly SF vs Fantasy.

    For high fantasy like Middle-Earth (or Earthsea, or Narnia, or Perelandra) … not quite sure where to start. I wonder — do you have to build the world, then write a story for it, or decide on the kind of story (epic myth, personal voyage of discovery, religious fairy tale) and then populate the fantasy elements that support it?

  4. De

    Exactly on Pern. It’s futuristic, and at first glance it’s F, but it’s really SF. I suppose Dragaera could be included–there’s space travel & magic. Oh, wait, Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, too.

    I’m working on a test (?) story–a kind of alternate Shanghai with goblins and elves and a human diplomat caught in the middle. The goblins being from another planet. I am having a HARD time hitting a plot that resonates.

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