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September 6th, 2008

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05:19 pm - The Return of/Birth of the Fantasy Genre in the US
Before the Tolkien revival of the late 1960s, fantasy as a separate genre did not exist in the US. Prior to WWII, there had been an abundance of speculative fiction published in the US, which included fantasy, SF, horror, lost world explorers tales, and blendings of all of these. These genres were not particularly separate. However, after WWII, SF became increasingly popular, while anything that could be described as fantasy largely vanished. One of the primary outlets for non-SF speculative fiction, Weird Tales, began publishing an increasing number of SF stories after WWII and ceased publication in 1954. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, a few SF authors occasionally wrote fantasy novels and short stories (Poul Anderson being the most obvious). Novels like Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions or his stories in Operation Chaos, were very much written from a SF sensibility and similar works were also quite rare.

The (now) classic fantasy elements of ancient prophecies, kingdoms to be restored, and suchlike simply didn't exist. There were a few Swords & Sorcery stories, including everything from various obvious Conan derivatives to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, but before 1970s, these were fairly rare and not all that popular – even Leiber's justifiably famous work didn't start appearing in collections until 1968, during the first part of the Tolkien revival, and S&S fiction didn't start becoming big news until almost a decade later and these tales were largely very different from modern fantasy novels, in part because so few of these fantasy stories were novels. It's also worth noting that while he is primarily known as a fantasy author today, even Fritz Leiber published as much SF as fantasy and almost all of what he published from the end of WWII to the end of the 1960s was SF.

By the mid 1960s, there were some signs of change. Michael Moorcock has published his first Elric novel in 1965, but he was British, and I'm fairly certain that few people in the US had heard of Elric or the Eternal Champion until the early 1970s (when he published most of the rest of the Elric novels). Even his Hawkmoon novels (the first three were published in the 1960s) were still arguably SF. However, the lack of fantasy becomes far more obvious if we limit our examination only to the US. Even after the late 1960s, when vast numbers of people in the US started reading Tolkien, it was a few years before anything similar existed that was being written in the US.

In the late 1960s, the revival of fantasy started with the creation of the almost universally brilliant Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter. However, all of the early works were reprints of novels written 30 or more years earlier (including gems by Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, and Evangeline Walton as well as works by H.P. Lovecraft & Clark Ashton Smith). Katherine Kurtz's first three Deryni novels were some of the only original novels published in this series, and were (IIRC) the first actual fantasy novels that I read that had been written in my lifetime.

I remember an editorial in (IIRC) Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the early 1980s, that for the first time a real distinction could be made between fantasy and SF authors, since there were now a growing number of authors who wrote fantasy and had never written any SF. Since that time, the SF and fantasy genres have continued to diverge, just as fantasy has diverged into several sub-genres which mostly come down to tome-like near endless series fantasy that mostly involve a man, a sword, and a prophecy and various sorts of romantic fantasy that are now as much a part of the romance genre as the fantasy genre. Naturally, there are no shortage of exceptions to these categories, including a number of truly brilliant novels, but most fantasy (both well and ill-written) falls into one of these categories, and almost all of it is very different from what is being published in SF or in fact what has ever been published in SF. We now have two very different genres, where 35 years ago we had only one. In addition to being somewhat unexpected, it also largely lead to the elimination of most science fantasy and similar work that lay on the boundary between these two genres, although we may (thankfully) be looking at a revival of that genre.

However, what I'm interested in now is what caused the rather sudden growth of fantasy in the US. I can see a set of inter-related reasons. Obviously the particular flavor of hippy-derived back-to-the-land environmentalism that grew popular in the late 1960s fit very well with the lush and non-technological fantasy worlds of Tolkien and many of the authors who emulated him. However, those attitudes faded somewhat by the end of the 1970s, and yet fantasy continued growing rapidly. Another reason for its popularity has proved to be considerably more long-lasting – the rise in religiosity. By the late 1970s, this was something visible to everyone in the US, first on the far right with the widespread popularization of Christian fundamentalism, and then on the far left, with the growing popularity of both the New Age movement and "earth spirituality", starting with the publication of Starhawk's The Spiral Dance.

At the same time (and closely related to this) you also have the growing disenchantment with technology and engineering, with much of the far left (sadly and foolishly IMHO) seeing (in the aftermath of the Vietnam War) high technology and engineers as being intrinsically linked to war and environmental devastation, while the far right increasingly distrusts the idea of technological progress, especially if it in any ways involves anything that might disrupt the current social and economic order. The far right sees scientists and engineers as being sources of dangerous and radical ideas (like peace), while the left sees them are the makers of death machines of various sorts. So, instead of stories of heroic spacemen and engineers, you have tales of medievalesque worlds without cars, guns, or modern air or water pollution.

The science fiction of this era also reflected this disenchantment. Instead of the idealized and generally optimistic technological progress of Star Trek and 1960s space opera novels, you have all manner of technological cautionary tales in 1970s SF, including eco-disasters, nuclear war, and similar stories on one side and (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) various stories by the likes of Jerry Pournelle where techno-fascists go into space to abandon the vile and racially impure hordes to their grim malthusian fate. At the same time, you had a new sort of science fantasy with Star Wars. Instead of the older style books that were (very) soft SF with fantasy trappings, you have fantasy with SF trappings. Star Wars has prophecies, generational epics, and most of the other now classic fantasy tropes.

Meanwhile, fantasy literature was growing rapidly. Many of the fantasy novels of the early 1970s, like those by Poul Anderson or Katherine Kurtz, were generally set in the semi-historical past, with (as in Tolkien) the idea that magic was present then, but faded away as the modern world grew closer. However, by the mid 70s, you had novels like Patricia McKillip's (brilliant) Riddlemaster trilogy, which were set in fantasy worlds with no relation to this world. Such novels (both excellent and dreadful, and everything in between) became increasingly common.

Most of the early ones were also novels of heroism and optimism. In the 1950s & 60s, SF had been a genre largely defined by heroism, optimism, and rocket ships. By the 1970s, there was a whole lot of deeply depressing SF (which had certainly existed before, but became far more common, both in novels and in film). Meanwhile, fantasy became the literature of optimism and heroism.

As athenian_abroad mentioned, in a wonderful conversation we had on Labor Day, in many ways, fantasy became the genre of retreat. Instead of imagining the future as better and more heroic than the present, all sides of the issue imagined the future as various flavors of grim, while heroism and optimism was banished to fantasy worlds with no connection to our own world. Even when there was some mention of our own world in the novel, the plot almost always involved some person from our world escaping into a fantasy world and finding a new and glorious life there.

By the mid 1980s, Charles De Lint, Megan Lindholm, Terri Windling and many others started writing urban fantasy, where our own world was made more wondrous and good and optimistic by the reintroduction of magic, elves, and similar enchantments. At the same time, the new big movement in SF was cyberpunk, which was considerably more optimistic and heroic than most SF from the 1970s, but featured a vision of the future where heroes were exceptionally marginal people in a deeply corrupt and decaying society.

Urban fantasy and cyberpunk had a great deal in common. In both there were heroes fighting modern or near future greed and callousness. However, when comparing most of the stories the clear message was that magic combined with heroism could transform a decaying society into a more positive one, while technology combined with heroism could at best allow the heroes to create small pockets of decency or temporary victories. Magic could solve problems, but technology, no matter how cleverly applied, could merely keep them at bay for a while.

By the early 90s, cyberpunk was winding down, after many standard tropes had been absorbed into more standard SF. There was also somewhat of a return of optimism in the mid 1990s with the revival of space opera, but September 11th effectively killed that off. As a number of people have pointed out (including James Nicoll and Charles Stross) pessimism has been a constant of US SF for quite a while and is exceedingly pervasive now. For the last 7 years both progressive and conservative US SF authors writing various grim futures. There are (and have always been) exceptions, but the genre as a whole has mostly (with a break from the early 90s to 2001) been fairly pessimistic for most of the past 30+ years.

For most of this time, fantasy was the literature of optimism and heroism. Interestingly, in the post September 11th US, both US fantasy & US SF have become more grim (leaving me reading a great deal of British-written SF), and so I have no idea what the future holds. However, it very much looks like for at least several decades as SF became more pessimistic, fantasy grew to fill the niche for genre literature optimism and as a response to the continuing distrust of modern technology and in fact the widespread distrust and lack of faith of modern life & modern society.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(33 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)

Interesting discussion...

Yeah... I got a market analysis for my latest novel (The Wrath of
), and got warned that it's pretty much unsaleable because of genre
(between SF and fantasy) and distance from standard saleable plots.
Preliminary attempts to sell it suggest that the analysis is right. The next
novel, um, at least has a dragon as the narrator rather than a sentient tree,
and has some more recognizable elements in it, but we'll see.

Let's see. One of the core features of Wrath is ecological. It's set in a
generation ship -- a generation sailing ship on the vast ocean of what
amounts to an elemental plane of water, mind you. They're fleeing an
ecological disaster brought about by the foolish importing of an ornamental
weed that spreads pretty fast, and, because it is slightly toxic to
everything around, has no natural suppressants. (This is not a good
situation for a sentient off-world tree to find herself in, of course.) The
solution is complicated, partial, and mostly technological. But aside from
that it's a fantasy, with magic, ancient artifacts and gods of lost
civilizations and that kind of stuff.

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 01:39 am (UTC)
That sounds fascinatingly nifty. Of course, my own tastes are sufficiently odd that it also sounds like an environment I'd be more than happy to roleplay in.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 01:03 am (UTC)
This was an interesting read; thank you for sharing!
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 02:58 am (UTC)
A lot of the optimism has moved to paranormal romance, I think, with the sense that no matter how weird life gets, people can make adjustments, evildoing can still be sought out and punished, and love can flourish in the weirdest ways.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 03:07 am (UTC)
I hadn't consider that, but I think you are definitely correct.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 05:43 am (UTC)
As you kind of note, in the days before fantasy was big, a lot of the SF was practically fantasy in SF drag. Sometimes done well from a SF POV, like Cherryh's Morgaine books; sometimes just psychic handwaving, like Pern or Darkover, or more recently Lee and Miller's Liaden books; sometimes just cool, like Lord of Light. One view might be that people became less ashamed of writing fantasy, less concerned with hiding it in technological colors. Perhaps combined with a growing respect for science, which seems odd to say, but a lot of the young fantasy/specfic writers I see say they don't feel qualified to write science fiction. It's not that they treat fantasy as anything goes, they talk a lot about research, but the historical/anthropological/folklore research is easier for them than the various sciences.

From your 2003 boundaries post:
Unfortunately, while an increasing number of authors now seem content to create new and unique worlds by blending various visions of the 19th century with worlds of magic and mystery, for some reason the 20th century and the future both seem off limits to contemporary fantasists

I don't know if you've read the webcomic Errant Story. It includes Tsuiraku, a flying city which is basically 21st century Tokyo done in magic, down to the pocket crystal balls and yaoi. The Midlands/Heliothaumic was another elves/magic/modern society pastiche. It's not all Girl Genius or Gunnerkrigg Court steampunk.

Though I suspect the modern isn't popular for reasons ranging from excessive familiarity, lack of cool aesthetic, and the ubiquitous information making trouble for people's plotting abilities. -- Most of Errant Story's plot takes place in what's effectively the Third World, and even modern communications haven't been emphasized. Though it's one of very few settings with mass teleportation. It, Larry Niven, maybe Hyperion...

Victorian has the cool clothing, the brass, and the feeling of discovery and expansion but with technologies one could understand, or at least imagine understanding. That one can *see*. Past the 1920s era of RPG pulp, the world starts feeling too mapped and defined, or so many people say.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 05:44 am (UTC)
Fantasy and internet: then of course there's McKinley's Sunshine, who's a total 'net junkie.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 11:10 am (UTC)
Also note the collapse and implosion of psi powers/psionics/telepathy/telikinesis in SF.

It just went away.

Up until the late 1970s it occupied a respectable niche; some time during the 1980s it withered up and died (replaced where appropriate with brain implants, magic fluffy nano foo-foo, and the Rapture of the Nerds).

The magic-disguised-as-science niche within genre SF is prone to fashion, too.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
It just went away.

Indeed it did. When I first thought about writing a response to this I was going to attribute this to the fact that during the (mostly early) 1970s, Psi was still (more or less) treat as science, while by the 1980s pretty much everyone but crackpots regarded it as pseudoscience and so it was banished to the lighter space operas. While I think this is part of the reason, it's equally true that FTL has been pseudoscience for far longer and still features prominently in lots of medium-hard SF. If an idea is sufficiently gripping or useful (mostly useful) to storytelling, it doesn't really matter if it's based on actual science.

I think much of the reason for the rapid decline in the use of psi in SF was the split between SF & fantasy. Lots of SF authors like the idea of having something *like* magic in their stories, which is why we now have an abundance of magic nanotech. However, psi wasn't something *like* magic, it was having actual magic in SF, and I think when fantasy split off, that became less acceptable. Meanwhile, psi powers are still very popular in both urban fantasy and classic fantasy world fantasy.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)

The Return of/Birth of the Fantasy Genre in the US


The Google crawl bugs alerted me to your post this morning. It's a very good analysis of the Fantasy/ Science Fiction/ Science Fiction Romance situation. I like it! Science Fiction Romance is my genre of choice; however, I like most 'positive outcome' fiction as long as it is well written with good plot, pacing, and characterization. For those who like Science Fiction Romance / old fashioned Space Opera, I highly recommend anything written by Linnea Sinclair. Besides getting bang-up good action combined with technology and romance, one gets humor, a commodity in entirely too short supply.

Thanks again,

Frances Drake

Writing Science Fiction Romance
Real Love in a Real Future
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)
"At the same time (and closely related to this) you also have the growing disenchantment with technology and engineering, with much of the far left (sadly and foolishly IMHO) seeing (in the aftermath of the Vietnam War) high technology and engineers as being intrinsically linked to war and environmental devastation, while the far right increasingly distrusts the idea of technological progress, especially if it in any ways involves anything that might disrupt the current social and economic order. The far right sees scientists and engineers as being sources of dangerous and radical ideas (like peace), while the left sees them are the makers of death machines of various sorts. So, instead of stories of heroic spacemen and engineers, you have tales of medievalesque worlds without cars, guns, or modern air or water pollution."

Your comment hits the nail on the head. The far right and the far left are linked more closely than any member of either camp would care to know.

On another note, I would place a rather old novel in the fantasy genre that is usually categorized as political fiction: Ayn Rand's Anthem. I place it there because it's about a futuristic yet medievalesque world. It features the idea of one hero versus a corrupt society. And it oozes with gooey pastoralism. In spite of these defects, I think it is a far better read than anything Mercedes Lackey and company have written in the last ten years.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
I think to a great extent the growth fantasy can be traced from the leeching of poeticism from SF. A lot of SF that came out of the late 70s to to late 90s or so could be described as "people talking," "bad stuff happening," or "X ... in space," where X might be military fiction, romance, etc. Whereas fantasy continued to produce a lot of work that centered on meaning, community, wonder, and things outside the merely human experience. I think what has hurt hard SF as a genre is a retreat from the surreal, whereas before SF/hard SF/Fantasy had such firm borders, there was no such hesitation. The importance was storytelling.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
While there was a fair amount of poeticism in New Wave late 60s/early 70s SF, before that I don't see all that much. Honestly, I've seen more of that in 90s SF than in almost anything from the 1950s or early or mid 1960s. The emergence of authors like Zelazny & LeGuin (with her Hainish novels) in the late 1960s was (IMHO at least) the first large-scale expression of poeticism in SF. With a fairly small number of exceptions (mostly involving Arthur C. Clarke), there wasn't much of this at all in SF before the late 60s.
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