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The Return of/Birth of the Fantasy Genre in the US - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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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 11:01 pm (UTC)
I'll give you the last two (one being by Clarke), but I can't see how anyone could see anything by Heinlein is poetic, and I'm fairly dubious about seeing Smith's work that way.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
Heinlein manages to evoke some really powerful images in that book. There are the trilateral aliens on the moon, the warm and fuzzy Mother Thing, and the image of a planet being "rotated" has stuck with me all these years. I also remember the protagonist's jumbled but heartfelt defense of the human race. If poetry is conveying image, movement, and emotion in writing, there's a lot of poetry there.
[User Picture]
Date:September 8th, 2008 01:57 am (UTC)
Fair enough, but I certainly don't see any less of that sort of thing in LeGuin, Zelazny, Gibson, Cherryh, or Banks. Much of the later stuff is darker, but no less poetic.
[User Picture]
Date:September 8th, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)
Well, I think that's why those authors still have a lot of currency.
[User Picture]
Date:September 7th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth:
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.

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