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On fantasy and speculative fiction

Posted in Blog, Essays

So I’m writing this on turkey day (though it’ll post slightly later), otherwise known as Thanksgiving in America and just Thursday to everyone else. Unlike back in undergrad, my break only lasts from Thursday until Sunday, so it’s kind of like being back in high school again. It’s not the most exciting holiday because it means there’s more people in the house than usual, which means I can’t sleep in because of people noise, but it does mean I get some time to play games and lay down, which is always a plus. Personally, I’ve spent the weekend so far trying to learn the official Chinese rules for mahjong and writing more of Something Wicked so I have enough content queued up for the next few weeks because I’ve got a schedule to keep.

This would be an opportune time to talk about holidays and family and the fantastic turkey I roasted, but I don’t really feel like it, so let’s talk about that book I’m writing.

So to bring you up to speed, the book I’m writing is (at the moment) titled Pearls and Smoke, which is a reference to some in-universe slang I’ll probably discuss at a later date. It’s some weird combination of alternate historical fiction, urban fantasy, and hardboiled detective novel because if you’re writing your own book that caters to your own narrow band of interests, you might as well go for the hat trick and throw in some lesbians while you’re at it. The plot, briefly described, goes thus:

Seven years ago in 1933 Chicago, Detective Sable Hsüeh gets murdered in an investigation involving the demon mob and her remains dumped in the river, which sucks, but it’s okay because she gets better about a year later. Cut to present day 1940, Sable’s a private investigator who gets a case from a woman who is possessed by a demon, who wants Sable to investigate a man who recently got shot to death, but then came back to life. Sable is skeptical about said resurrection, but agrees on the basis that the woman is paying a considerable sum of cash and is clearly hiding something. Things get more complicated very quickly.

I bring up my book not because it’s going to be the main topic today, but because I want to offer some context about how I approach stories. It will probably not surprise you to learn that almost every story I write involves fantastic elements, whether of the magic or technological variety…but usually magic. Science fiction is a bit rough for me because I know too much science to know the wild stuff can’t really work but not enough to come up with a way for the wild stuff to work anyways, so most of the science fiction I end up writing depends on some kind of black box technology that can handwave specific problems away, which basically just makes it magic. But I digress.

What’s so good about magic and technology? If I’m a self-proclaimed specialist in character drama (and I am), and I’m constantly demystifying the fantastic to work it into the plot (and I am), why not write some realistic fiction?

Well, that’s pretty easy. I like magic and realistic fiction bores me. It’s not that deep.

But let’s pretend for a second that it’s at least a little deep, or I’ll have written five hundred words of buildup for no actual discussion, which would waste the last few minutes of your time and be a frankly dickish thing to do as an essay-writer. So let’s discuss.

I like magic. I grew up reading primarily fantasy books and let me tell you, I loved that shit. I went to the local library pretty much every day through middle school because it was really close to school and I only stopped afterwards because I went to a boarding school in another town which made it a little hard to visit. I’d borrow five to ten books at a time and read them in class or after school or over the weekend (we still had dial-up internet at that point so I didn’t do a lot of internet stuff), then I’d return them and get some more. One of the librarians told me when I visited again in high school that I was one of the library’s most prolific patron with regards to how many books I checked out, and I say this not to boast about how much I read (I’m pretty sure that I ended up at the top of that books checked out list partially because it wasn’t a very big library and I spent so much time there), but so I can qualify the following statement:

“Fantasy” is a very, very wide umbrella. Artemis Fowl is not the same type of fantastic as Dealing With Dragons is not the same type of fantastic as Wolf Brother or Magyk or Harry Potter or Sabriel or Gone. And while all these mentioned books are ones that I’ve read and enjoyed greatly, they’re wildly different mechanically and in how magic affects the story and characters and environment. Fantasy is so big that as long as creative people still exist, there’s going to keep being new and exciting ideas right up until the inevitable heat death of the universe.

It’s obviously not to say that realistic fiction has expended all the stories that could ever be told, but when you throw magic into the mix, the number of exciting problems you have increases exponentially, along with the number of exciting ways to solve your new magical problems.

So, my book. I usually write stories because they’re stories that haven’t already been told (or I haven’t seen them, which to be fair, there’s a lot I haven’t seen). Here’s a secret about Pearls and Smoke: the reason I was inspired to write a film noir detective novel is partially due to my love for the film noir aesthetic and atmosphere, with the gritty detectives and crime solving–the kind of stuff that Bill Watterson would draw in the detective strips of Calvin and Hobbes–but the actual biggest push that inspired me to make a film noir novel of my own was Rockstar’s L.A. Noire. Now, L.A. Noire is hardly the greatest game or the most airtight detective story, but it got me thinking about how I really love the genre. And thinking about that eventually led me to thinking about how the film noir detective formula is one that can be combined with a lot of different kinds of story–cyberpunk being the main secondary ingredient. That line of thinking led me around to thinking about how there’s not a lot of crossover with magic (especially because most detective magic stories are more magic stories than detective stories), and that led me to throwing together the story of Pearls and Smoke.

I think the distinction of a magic detective story being a magic story with some detectives versus a detective story with some magic is an important one, because it signifies what role magic takes in the story. It’s something that I think can be characterized by one question: how is the major conflict resolved?

In Harry Potter, Harry wins because he finishes his coming of age journey and accepts the inevitability and necessity of death, fully rounding out the story as a coming of age adventure sort of story. In Sabriel, Sabriel finds and binds the evil and accepts her role as the next Abhorsen (aka necromancy border patrol), rounding out the story as a magic adventure. In Skulduggery Pleasant, they destroy the magic book of names and Stephanie decides to pick a new magic world name and learn magic, starting out the series as it means to go on as a coming of age magic series.

These are all what I’d consider “stories about magic” because the protagonists’ gaining and learning magical abilities is critical to the plot. They’re stories of personal progression, where one of the limiting factors to defeating the bad guy is having the physical or magical power to do so–e.g., obtain the magical artifact, learn the special abilities, exploit the magic loophole, that sort of thing.

Pearls and Smoke is a detective novel with magic in it, because the primary conflict is not to defeat anyone, but to find out why, how, and who brought these assholes back to life. Sable as a character doesn’t really develop over the course of the story, or at least her character progression isn’t a major part of the plot. She also doesn’t personally have any magic except for the fact that she comes back to life when she dies, but I’d argue that even if she did have magic, as long as the plot didn’t center on her becoming more powerful, it would still qualify as a detective novel with magic as opposed to a magic novel with some mystery in it.

The line comes down as something like this: Is magic treated as part of personal development or is it used as a tool with defined uses? If magic is emotionally involved, then the story leans more towards being a “story about magic” rather than a “story with magic”.

When you think about it, it’s a similar question to the distinction between fantasy and speculative fiction.

It’s a bit weird to think about because by definition, fantasy is under the larger umbrella of speculative fiction. All fantasy (and science fiction) takes place in a world unlike our own, making it speculative fiction, but when you think of speculative fiction, I can absolutely tell you you’re not thinking of Harry Potter or Star Wars and definitely not The Lord of the Rings. You’d probably be thinking about something like 1984 or The City of Ember or, hell, even Hunger Games. So what separates the two?

Well, the great part about writing a blog on my own website is that I can make completely unfounded conjectures like this one: What separates fantasy from speculative fiction is the grounding of the world and conflicts in real-life concepts and issues. Or, to put it in a different way, do the fantastic elements cause new problems to be solved or do the fantastic elements exacerbate current problems? If the fantastic elements are being used to affect issues, but don’t encompass them, then speculation is occurring about how those fantastic elements affect the people and the world and the conflicts. What would happen if there were ghosts or demons or divination? Those sorts of questions.

On the other hand, if the fantastic elements encompass the story such that the story couldn’t exist at all without them, then it’s fantasy. The whole thing is divorced from reality because nobody’s really thinking, “oh, what if things were like this in real life?” so much as “how do things work within the confines of the story’s world?”

By which I mean the distinction is speculation versus escapism. Speculative fiction is a lot about the what ifs and hows and should we’s, while fantasy is, well, fantasy. It’s about imagining something completely new. They’re not necessarily discrete categories, but most things will lean very heavily into one or the other.

Pearls and Smoke is a story with magic. Something Wicked, my web serial about witches and adventure, is a story about magic. I have a place in my heart for both, but they’re very different beasts in the conflicts the characters face. Pearls and Smoke is about untangling the truth amidst multiple murders and conspiracies while Something Wicked is about self-discovery and sacrifice and digging yourself into a progressively deeper hole.

At the end of the day, I think that if you’re writing something for fun, you should have fun doing it. I enjoy a lot of world building and discussing with my friends how different fantastic elements would interact with each other and with the people who use them. I want to write about character drama, and fantastic elements are one of the ways to create new exciting problems to solve and to build circumstances that push characters to their limits.

And at the very least, it’s worth noting that with fantasy, there’s always new stories to tell.

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