We in the fantasy community love to categorise. Perhaps more than any other genre, we delight in dividing and subdividing into ever more specialised niches, until the distinctions between subgenres are so subtle as to be almost meaningless. And yet, for all our enthusiasm for labelling, a lot of it is pretty superficial. More and more, our taxonomy seems to me to be based on backdrops and widgets – urban, or flintlock, or steampunk – rather than substance. To use an analogy, it’s a bit like punk: to some people, punk is a subculture; to others, it’s just a hairdo.
I’ve had this on my mind a lot lately, in the course of promoting my latest book. When it comes to guest posts and interviews, I’m most commonly asked to focus on one of two things: antiheroes, or what it’s like to write two different – completely different – series. These two subjects have something in common: they both boil down to a discussion of worldview. And it got me thinking, is there a different way, still meaningful, that we could be categorising our books? A taxonomy that tells you more than what the characters will be wearing, and whether they’ll be driving or riding or winging about on dragonback?
I think there is, and I’d like to take a shot at it.
Jared got us off to a good start in his recent review of The Goblin Emperor, by offering the following definition of grimdark:
“For this purpose, I think grimdark fantasy has three key components: tone, realism and agency.”
More specifically, he argues that grimdark occupies a particular place along these three continua. I think he’s on the right track with this, but I’d like to offer a slightly modified view.
Let’s start with agency, because I think Jared got this one perfectly right. What role does fate or destiny play in the world? Are we talking prophecy and visions, or pure free will? Where a book is situated along the predetermination vs. individual agency continuum tells us a lot about what kind of tale we’re in for (though I would argue it’s not enough on its own to tell us if we’re in high fantasy or low).
Next up, realism. This is a tricky term; it can mean a lot of different things. Realism in the sense of human emotions? Realism in that camping isn’t all dancing firelight and lutes, but bugs and rain and shitting in a hole in the ground? Or do we just mean there’s no Hogwarts? And what’s at the opposite end of the scale – unrealistic? Nope, this term is just too much trouble. Instead, I’d offer high magic vs. low magic. For the purposes of this spectrum, anything supernatural or otherworldly, from ghosts to elves to superpowers, qualifies as “magic”; the number of magical elements, weighted by their importance to the story, determines where the book sits on the spectrum.
Finally, tone. The more I think about this one, the less satisfied I am with it, because it suggests something more superficial than it should. Tone evokes imagery and colour palette. It implies a particular mood and feel. But it doesn’t quite go far enough. The word I think we’re looking for here is worldview.
Are we in a Hobbesian world, where people are fundamentally self-interested and their natural state is conflict? According to this worldview, the concept of justice is meaningless, because every person is at liberty to do whatever is necessary for preserving his own interests. Life is famously “nasty, brutish, and short”. (Also “poor” and “solitary”, in case you fancy that extra hit of gloom.) Don’t look for heroes here, at least not in the conventional sense. Morality and justice don’t exist; a “heroic” act is necessarily self-interested on some level; even saving the world is fundamentally an act of self-preservation, that most basic of human instincts.
That’s one end of the spectrum. On the other is… Locke. (You thought I was going to say “Rousseau”, didn’t you?)
For the purposes of the analytical framework I’m proposing here, Locke is the better choice. (Plato would also work well, with his notions of innate ideas universal to all man.) In this worldview, we have a natural, God-given duty not to harm others, except in self-defence. Good and evil do exist in an objective sense, as does justice. They are firm and immutable, not globs of silly putty for the characters to stretch and mould as they see fit. Here there be heroes, and villains too – though that doesn’t necessarily mean that a character is purely one or the other. This isn’t a simplistic or idealistic world, necessarily. It’s just one in which morality is a thing that exists independent of the choices of the characters. Bad things can still happen to good people, but the term “good people”* has objective meaning.
This last scale is admittedly tricky, since identifying the worldview of any given book (which should under no circumstances be confused with the worldview of the author) is not always straightforward. We experience books through the eyes of the characters (or, more rarely, through the eyes of an omniscient narrator), and thus we perceive the moral landscape through those same eyes. What if the characters don’t share the same worldview? It’s easiest, I think, with first person POV, because even where the characters disagree, their points of view are filtered through the lens of the protagonist. But what about books with multiple POVs? Personally, I haven’t come across a lot of books that put multiple worldviews in conversation with each other, but they are out there. A good example would be the Song of Ice and Fire series. The worldview of a Sansa Stark is fundamentally different from that of a Cersei Lannister; the Ironborn see things differently than the Dothraki, or the Night’s Watch. For my money, this is actually the most interesting aspect of that series – in part because it is so rare. What you tend to see instead, especially in epic fantasy, is two opposing worldviews clashing for hegemony, and we are clearly meant to sympathize with one over the other. So in most cases, it should be possible to identify a dominant worldview, and situate the book accordingly.
Where a book sits along those three scales, predestination vs. individual agency, high magic vs. low magic, and Hobbes vs. Locke (or, perhaps less pompously, moral vs. amoral) gives us a very different set of groupings than conventional notions of genre. It still gives us categories, but it’s more about a type of story than a particular type of setting.
What use is that, you might reasonably ask? Nobody shops for books by worldview. Bookstores don’t shelve them that way. (But wouldn’t it be awesome if they did? “Yeah, hi, I’m feeling kinda cynical today – could you point me to the nasty, brutish, and short section, please?”) I’m not suggesting this method of categorising is better, or even complete – there might be other scales worth adding. But I do think it offers an interesting point of departure, something with a lot more meat than “has it got dirigibles in it?” It goes beyond the hairstyle to look at the underlying culture, and that, for my money, is where the interesting discussions are to be found. I, for one, would love to see my favourite books plotted out in this way, if only to see how some books that appear very different on the surface actually have a great deal in common. I think you’d start to see some interesting patterns that are otherwise tough to spot.
One thing’s for sure: if I look at my own books through this lens, what at first appeared to be almost polar opposites turn out to be strikingly similar. Pretty sure that says something about me as an author, and maybe even as a person, something a lot more insightful than “flintlock fantasy” or “fantasy romance”.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I feel a cluster graph coming on…
*NB: “Good people” can still be flawed people.
E.L. Tettensor likes her stories the way she likes her chocolate: dark, exotic, and with a hint of bitterness. She has visited more than fifty countries on five continents, and brought a little something back from each to press inside the pages of her books. She is also the author of the Bloodbound series, writing as Erin Lindsey. She lives with her husband in Bujumbura, Burundi.
Master of Plagues, the second Nicolas Lenoir novel, is out now from Roc.