The Big Boom II
David Eddings (1931-2009)
Glen Cook (1944-)
Margaret Weiss (1948-) and Tracy Hickman (1955-)
Robert Holdstock (1948-2009)
William Gibson (1948-)
If Terry Brooks taught the lesson that, in attracting the new generations of Fantasy fans perennially looking for ‘the next Tolkien’, superficial tropes were far more important than soul, then one of the first and most succesful authors to learn that lesson was David Eddings. Eddings was considerably older than his peers – he was not a lifelong fantasy fan determined to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, Lewis or Vance, but rather a more-or-less-failed minor novelist who (as he said himself) one day observed the tremendous success of Tolkien, Donaldson and Brooks, and, browsing through their work, realised that this ‘Fantasy’ business seemed very easy to do, and potentially very lucrative. A series of succesful novels followed. Eddings goes further, and more intentionally, than Brooks in mass-marketing his work – his protagonist in the Belgariad, for instance, is even younger than Brooks’, a common farm boy onto whom every child reader can project their aspirations. His stories strip out the wondrous even more than Brooks’ do, intentionally creating thin worlds of stereotypical cultures and archetypical characters and plots (Eddings himself observed that for a certain type of reader these archetypal elements worked like powerful addictive drugs, overriding their better judgement and forcing them to buy more of his books), but all delivered in a mundane and hence accessible style – in sharp contrast to Tolkien or Donaldson, both his narrative voice and his characters would not be in the least out of place in any other mass-marketed genre.
Even more significant than Eddings, however, may be the authorial duet of Weiss and Hickman. Dragons of Autumn Twilight may not have been the first ever Dungeons and Dragons novel – improbably, that honour belongs to an André Norton novel set in Greyhawk – but it did launch (semi-accidentally) TSR’s programme of game-supporting in-house novel-writing. In the next fourteen years, until TSR’s bankruptcy, over 240 more fantasy novels followed from TSR alone, and many more from other companies following in their footsteps. A replacement to the pulps had been found. Few shared-world novels were ever interesting as literature, and only a handful of their authors achieved significant name-recognition (the most prominent being R.A. Salvatore), but D&D and its novels set the foundations of fantasy from that point on. In terms of plot, the genius of these novels was their ability to set S&S-style tales, with their immediacy and action, in a world with the grandeur of epic fantasy – Dragonlance perhaps is the greatest example, with a spine of fate-of-the-world epic fantasy novels supporting a vast hinterland of adventure stories following every minor character and every historical reference in those central books (albeit with lamentably poor continuity). The variety of worlds (made more accessible by shared and linked elements) and the sheer number of novels allowed some of these writers to explore more unusual, and often darker, directions (Dragonlance, for instance, included an entire subseries of biographical novels in which the protagonists were the villains of the main novels) – including at times (particularly in Spelljammer and Planescape, but also in Dark Sun and elsewhere) some very weird directions. More important, however, was the way that D&D codified many of the tropes that would later be taken for granted, such as the pseudo-Tolkienian array of sentient ‘races’, and (in order to tie in with their roleplaying games) developed the concept of a ‘magic system’, a series of mechanistic (game-like, of course) rules underlying the use of supernatural powers.
Donaldson, Brooks, Eddings and Weiss & Hickman (among others) turned Fantasy into a massively successful (and prolific) genre, while Rice and King were showing that it could be even more succesful if it pretended to be something else. But some of their contemporaries were trying to take the genre in other directions. Glen Cook’s ‘Black Company’ novels developed a strain of military epic fantasy that made the ‘heroes’ into hardbitten mercenaries and challenged the Chestertonian/Tolkienian clarity of good and evil, while combining fantastic subject matter with realistic, ‘gritty’ portrayal. They may not have had a great immediate impact on the Fantasy fiction of the ‘80s, but they would not be forgotten by later writers. Robert Holdstock, likewise, achieved more influence than sales, his portal fantasy Mythago Wood and its sequels revivifying and updating a ‘mythic’ strain of fantasy that moved in exactly the opposite direction from the bestsellers of their day. Finally, William Gibson isn’t perhaps strictly a fantasy author at all, but his influence on a strain of fantasy shouldn’t be underestimated. Gibson’s most famous contribution was the cyberpunk genre, bringing a SF setting to the brink of fantasy through nightmarish and magical ‘science’, dazzling the reader with a brilliant weirdness of both setting and prose, and infusing the whole with the paranoia and cynicism of a noir mystery. As an encore, Gibson collaborated with Bruce Sterling to create the increasingly prominent ‘steampunk’ brand of neovictorian retrofuturist science fantasy.