The OF Blog: Setting and Fantasy

Friday, November 23, 2007

Setting and Fantasy

Daniel Abraham recently participated in an informal type of symposium on secondary-world fantasy with other New Mexico-based authors such as Melinda Snodgrass and George R.R. Martin, among others. In the link above, he summarizes the discussion on setting.

In the first part of his discussion on setting as a physical entity, Abraham notes the difficulties that secondary-world (I use this in place of "epic" fantasy because it also applies to stories that most certainly do not revolve around a Heroic Quest or star larger-than-life characters) fantasies have in creating a setting that would be both unique and "familiar" to readers. While most certainly it is much easier to create a certain "tone" for a story by having it set in a concrete place/time such as the early 1960s American South or Napoleonic Era France, fantasies certainly are not obligated to recreate this sense of familiarity. One thing that Abraham does not focus on, perhaps because of the unwritten rules regarding what constitutes "secondary-world" or "epic" fantasy, is the opportunity to use the physical landscape descriptions to create a sense of "otherness." I cannot help but to think of Michael Moorcock's excellent survey of similar themes in his revised Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. In that book, Moorcock explores the use of symbolic (and often simultaneously "real") images such as ruins and desolate landscapes from the early 19th century Romantics (Keats in particular) and how these images served to create vistas that were alien in feel and appearance, but which also served to create a sense of depth of time and of place in their stories.

Moorcock in that book notes that this use of setting to create a jarring effect (something that Abraham fails to discuss in his summation, although perhaps it will be addressed in a future column) has been a driving force behind some of the more memorable fantasies. Although Lovecraft certainly would not be considered the most "literary" of fantasists, his use of imagery to create this effect of desolation, despair, and doom went a long way towards making his stories so chilling and so popular a century later. M. John Harrison is another that Moorcock discusses for this effect. His Viriconium novels, full of ruins and the diseased leftovers from the mostly-vanished Afternoon Cultures, uses these ruins, these artifacts of a mysterious past that have come to haunt the denizens of a world-weary and altered world, to not just create a sense of a xenoscape, but also to make us question if what the characters experience around them is "real" or if it is part of a hallucination related to their environs. Viriconium, while ostensibly "real," has so many layers of perception around it, that as the reader progresses through the three novels and the various short stories, one cannot help but to question if one can really "place" this Viriconium in any one locale.

Setting as place can and perhaps ought to be more than just creating a sense of familiarity. While certainly there are readers (and to be honest, perhaps there is something to the argument that those who like to read "epic" fantasy are those who want more "broken in" settings than those who read fantasies for the experiences of the strange and the unusual) who view setting as being the establishment of a physical sense of "solidity," I believe there is much more that can be done with setting in a fantasy. If a setting also can evoke emotional attachments or deal with matters of time as well as with place, perhaps fantasies, with their explicit focus on the matters that cannot happen (or could never have happened in the past) here on this earth, could and maybe ought to utilize the jarring effects of "otherness" to create a milieu that is vivid precisely because we have to question the "ground rules" constantly in order to understand it.

Abraham's second part to setting, that of Setting as Milieu, concerns itself with the apparent conservatism of both the readers and the writers. When a setting (or "world," if you may) is established, there does appear to be this sense that it is somehow "independent" of the stories told to date within it. From those who ponder the fates of the "blue wizards" of the Istari that never appeared in person in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to those who write fan fictions dealing with Hogwarts, readers of secondary-world fantasies do tend to view this setting as being more than the sum of its story appearances. Abraham makes a good argument for this appeal being the combination of two seemingly contradictory impulses: The appeal of fantasy settings as being "new" and "different" from the world around us, but with the added sense of "familiarity" or "returning to home" with each additional volume.

There is indeed something to that argument. But I think it could be explored in more detail further in another writing. What are the sociological implications of readers wanting to immerse themselves in a fictional experience that have settings that become increasingly "familiar" and perhaps even more desirable than "the real world" with each passing volume? How does this relate with other trends in fantastical/speculative fictions where the lure of setting is to jar one from a sense of comfort or familiarity, to force that reader to consider things that are alien in nature? Those are just a few of the many questions that can and ought to be raised from a consideration of the uses and implications of setting in secondary-world fantasies. Abraham makes a good opening round for discussion here with this point. Hopefully others will take his points, question them, and perhaps come up with new vantages upon which we can continue to explore its influence on our experiences with these type of fictions.


Robert said...

Great article Larry :) It's definitely something to think about regarding 'setting'. Personally, I like worlds that are unique and vividly rendered... In fact, the more 'alien' a world is the better, because I love the exploration and the opportunity to let my imagination cut loose...

SpecLit said...

Excellent piece. Thank you for pointing out that Abraham link as well.

I'm sure this is something I'll have to go into at length on my blog, but you've expressed some of my own thoughts here.

Mike F said...

If I'm not mistaken Lin Carter pointed towards landscape or setting as being important to the "otherworldliness" of fantasy in Imaginary Worlds.

Larry said...

She did, as Moorcock cites that book in his book. I'll try to get a copy of hers in the near future.

Larry said...

Or rather, his book. *sigh*

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