Influential Figures in Fantasy, 7

Transitional Figures I
Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)
Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

Transitional Figures II
Jack Vance (1916-)
Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)
Gabriel García Márquez (1927-)
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)
Michael Moorcock (1939-)

So far, we’ve seen ‘Fantasy’ begin to take shape. MacDonald, Dunsany and Morris have achieved quiet success with what we might call ‘Romantic Fantasy’ (with a capital R – ironically, romance in the modern sense has rarely had much attention in Romantic fantasy…), while Burroughs and Howard have evolved the ‘Lost World’ genre in the direction of ‘Sword and Sorcery’, achieving commercial – if still niche – success. Machen, Hodgson, and Lovecraft have provided a darker, more horrific take on the genre. “Science Fiction” writers who stray perillously close to outright fantasy, like HG Wells, have received critical acclaim, and perhaps the most influential and respected author in pre-War England, GK Chesterton, has spoken out in support of the nascent genre.

But Fantasy is still a minor, niche product. So are Science Fiction and Horror, though they’re both a lot bigger than Fantasy. That’s why I’ve called this section ‘transitional figures’, as they all wrote between the establishment of Fantasy and its arrival as a significant genre, yet are distinct from the Chestertonian strand of writers I discussed above. I’ve divided them into two chronological sets: the first three (along with Lewis, Tolkien, White and Borges) wrote when Fantasy was still small and undirected; the second set had to write in a landscape dominated by The Lord of the Rings (published 1954-1955) and to a lesser extent Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (published 1950-1956).

Of the first, Leiber represents the most succesful representative of the next generation of Sword and Sorcery, the genre that dominated fantasy until the 1980s (albeit without ever producing single works with the mainstream crossover appeal of Tolkien or Lewis). Leiber knew Howard and Lovecraft – indeed, he was, strictly speaking, of their generation, though his later start as against their precocious fame and untimely deaths puts him in the second wave of the genre rather than the first. Like the other pulp writers (though Leiber’s career long outlived the pulps that gave it birth), Leiber wrote voluminously and eclectically across SF and Fantasy as well as in realistic settings, but he is best known for his long series of S&S short stories – indeed, he is credited with coining the term ‘Sword and Sorcery’ to describe his genre. He was a pioneer in the yet-to-be-born genre of urban fantasy.

Mervyn Peake, unlike Leiber, did not continue any literary school. A painter, poet and illustrator, he was no doubt aware of Chesterton, Morris, Dunsany and so forth, but his own inspirations were Dickens and Stevenson, and the Gothic movement in general. In some ways, his Gormenghast novels might be seen as a sui generis strain of fantasy, resulting from an independent intensification and exaggeration of Gothicism, and in particular a fusion of the Gothic with the popular English comedy of manners (a tradition in which Chesterton sits alongside Wilde, Wodehouse, and in particular the macabre and mordant Saki). Indeed, though typically considered Fantasy, it shows few outright fantastical elements, and those that it does show are closer to SF than to conventional Fantasy.

Isaac Asimov, on the other hand, is closer to Fantasy than most people consider him. Although famous for his ‘hard SF’, Asimov in fact incorporated many fantasy elements into his fiction – the Foundation novels, for instance, revolve around magical prophecies, and feature mind-controlling psychics, collective consciousness, and sorcerors able to destroy spaceships with their thoughts alone – but masked in a veneer of ‘scientific’ explanation. More importantly, however, Asimov led the movement for a shift toward ‘social science fiction’ – fiction, in other words, that explored not merely technology, but alternative social structures and their effects on psychology, blurring, in effect, the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. His most famous ‘SF’ story, Nightfall, is notable for containing no science fiction elements whatsoever, instead choosing to explore a broadly 20th century human society (there is no attempt to disguise them as aliens) on a planet where the mutiple suns mean that nobody has ever experienced night. He is also notable for leading the way in designing genuinely alien aliens (most famously, The Gods Themselves takes a break from the economics of a new technology to spend its middle third exploring the society and sex lives of three-gendered aliens). [He also wrote a number of outright fantastical stories (he wrote virtually everything at some point in his career), though none are generally considered among his best work]

In this endeavour to soften sci-fi, one of his most prominent followers was Ursula Le Guin, who takes SF so far that it is hard to distinguish from Fantasy. Her The Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, takes place entirely on an alien world (with magical/mystical elements), and the only two real SF elements – a spaceship and an ansible radio – hang over the story like Chekhov’s gun, present in thought but not in body. Blending the genres even further, her Rocannon’s World may again feature relativistic space travel and an ansible, but also features sword-wielding heroes, castles, and ‘aliens’ suspiciously similar to elves and dwarves. Meanwhile, her outright Fantasy novels, A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels, became the most popular books of the genre, after the works of Tolkien (and probably shaped the decision of later writers to concentrate on similar coming-of-age stories, rather than Lewis’ children or Tolkien’s middle-aged adults). The Earthsea novels in many ways continued the legacy of Tolkien, while challenging some elements of it (in particular, in seeking to de-Europeanise Fantasy).

Another writer on the borderland of Fantasy and Science Fiction at this time was Anne McCaffrey. A science fiction writer in origin – and always a science fiction writer in her own estimation – her most famous novels, the Pern series, were nonetheless (despite arguably being SF themselves) among the most popular and influential fantasy novels of the period, set in a broadly mediaeval world governed by a knightly class riding teleporting dragons. Her emphasis on character and relationships, and in particular her many female characters, allowed her to appeal to a broader audience than most genre writers of the day, as did her decision to orient several of the Pern novels toward younger readers. McCaffrey is, if not the originator, at least the populariser of many modern fantasy tropes, such as mystical human-animal pair-bonding and, of course, dragons themselves, who had played a surprisingly peripheral and largely villainous role up to this point.

Alongside Leiber, meanwhile, completing the triumvirate of Sword and Sorcery writers of the era, Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock (considerably younger than the other writers in this section, but more precocious) both tried to take the genre in new, more literary directions. Vance, a prolific author of Science Fiction, did not so much directly follow on from earlier Sword and Sorcery as take Planetary Romance in a similar ‘social science’ direction to that in which Asimov and others were taking hard SF: his adventurers became anthropologists and ethnographers, observing the baffling alien societies around them. In his ‘Dying Earth’ novels, Vance created a new subgenre by combining this sociological impulse with the adventure stories of Sword and Sorcery in a genre-blurring far-future ‘science fantasy’ setting. Meanwhile, as Vance tried to colour and deepen (and enstrangen) the settings through which his heroes/antiheroes moved, Moorcock turned his attention to the characters themselves, as well as to the genre as a whole; most of his stories fit into an overarching framework, the story of the ‘Eternal Champion’, in which a cast of fixed underlying characters are projected into various (intentionally only semi-realised) setting in order to pastiche other writers and subgenres; most famously, the melodramatic weltzschmerz of his Byron-inspired ‘Elric’ stories parodises earlier S&S, while itself being parodied by other Moorcock stories. Moorcock was a leading figure in introducing more ‘postmodern’ and self-consciously ‘literary’ elements into Fantasy, and in particular served as the leading voice of the opposition to Tolkien’s legacy, which he found childish, old-fashioned and politically reactionary.

Finally, Gabriel García Márquez was the foremost writer in a new subgenre of Fantasy that took place largely independent of contemporary English-language traditions, and that, through the cunning expedient of being written in a foreign language, was able to be considered serious literature at a time when English-language Fantasy was increasingly being exiled from the attention of ‘serious’ readers. This ‘magic realism’ (or ‘Fantasy written in Spanish’, as Gene Wolfe fans may call it) was inspired by (though as much to opposition as to devotion) Borges, and the influence remains clear, yet García largely rejected Borges’ elevated and artificial style and concerns, prefering more traditional story-telling and closeness to ‘reality’. As a result, his work is closer to Chesterton than to Borges, and much of the stylistic project of magic realism is very close to Chesterton’s own stylistic ideology – in particular the determination to describe the quotidian as though it were fantastical and wondrous, while describing the wondrous and fantastical as though it were ordinary and unexceptional, in order to impress upon the reader that, as García puts it, “reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs.”

One thought on “Influential Figures in Fantasy, 7

  1. […] (etc.) (early 20th century writers)Symbolism and Religion (the MacDonald school of English Fantasy)Transitional Figures (bridging the gap between the founding figures of the genre and the later growth in popularity)The […]

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