With each passing year, I find it harder to wrap my head around the fast-fading memory of a time when media was not, with its informational and emotional impact on our world, a graven image on the mountain top, mouth agape, roaring.
Before anyone gets the wrong impression, I agree with you. The internet is a wonderful thing. My twelve year old can gaze into the palm of her hand and “see” that eight miles to the west there is a frozen custard shop, that it’s open, and that her friends have arrived there. She has more access to insight and divination in the palm of her hand than King Solomon ever had. “Hey, dad. It’s going to snow on Friday.” Power on this scale would have made her my court magician in a different era.
But we all know there is a darker side to this coin.
Consulting with demons for insight often gets you tricked. Just the other day, my co-worker mistook a gag news article for the real deal and told the whole studio that the Pope had decided not to resign after all. That’s right, the pontiff was taking his hat back. And no matter what you believe about Julian Assange, it’s irrefutable fact that in the aftermath of the greatest military leak in history he was attacked and to a large part neutered by events (real or fabricated) that were scooped and fed to us world-wide. If I’m not mistaken, he’s still living in an embassy, barely out of reach from hands that would like to strangle him for good.
This is our world.
Aidan asked me what impact the media and the spread of information has on Fantasy with a semi-medieval political landscape and noted that my use of media, particularly newspapers, to impact the plot of my novels (The Last Page and Black Bottle) was unique within the genre.
Our world and the world of fantasy have a strong relationship. Fantasy needs reality as the thing it is compared against. If not, fantasy fails to be fantastic and winds up meaningless.
My goal in writing fantasy is not to explore some European place and time that I did not grow up in. My goal in writing fantasy is to explore the place and time that I grew up in, that I am still growing up in: that place and time is America since 1970.
Media and propaganda have been affecting me since I was born. Mom says I used to cheer every time the Hamm’s Beer bear came on the TV. I loved my Dukes of Hazzard Matchbox Dodge Charger. And if Nikki and I were to have another baby, I could buy a pink “Free Assange” infant bodysuit for $16.99. Not only can media become actual physical objects that we touch, play with, roll in and eat — media has become how we connect, how we communicate, how we understand everything around us. Media is at the core of our emotional make up as human beings. And calculating minds in the industry know this.
They know that we experience their portrayal of people, products and politics with immediacy, first hand, when we visit our bookmarks; type in our searches from the comfort of our sofa. We experience headlines within our beds, from inside our circles of comfort and safety. But the endless torrent of words pouring from — indeed, where? — also estranges us, subjugates us. We need the information. We want it. But don’t we also have that shadow of doubt, that distrust?.
Remember the graven image on the mountain top — roaring.
We approach the mountain as our ancestors would a wrathful god, eager for knowledge but wary of being fooled. There is discovery, truth, wisdom, but there is also seduction, fear mongering, and hate.
You could suppose that I’m going to say Media is a sort of magic in its own right, where you say the proper things and generate a result. But that’s not how I use it in my books.
Rather I use it in the more mundane way, the recognizable way I outlined above, the way in which you can see ordinary people manipulated; whole cities worth of opinion swayed by the publication of a single story.
I want fantasy to feel less primitive.
This is important to me because it echoes the truth of what I experience every day. I want fantasy to feel less primitive. Less quills and ink pots, more typewriters. Less town criers, more newspapers. Instead of going back a thousand years for inspiration, I like to draw on industrial revolution forward because people from that time on are more accessible to me. I’ve seen pictures of my great grandfather after all, standing next to trains. For me, writing a story must be meaningful in ways I can relate to. It must express something about what I know from my time in Middle America.
Media and its influence over our lives is intrinsic to this expression. Which, by the way, is a good thing: since its power to make stories of all kinds compelling is vast. We as readers don’t dispute it. We understand at a visceral level, from thrillers and even television shows (like Netflix’ new House of Cards political drama) the notion of wagging the dog and how it is accomplished.
We know because the whole swirling, shouting storm of voices coming from the mountain doesn’t stem from the Illuminati. It comes from you and me. We are the source of those voices pouring over the world, at least partly. It was you who fooled me with the Facebook image of Marty McFly’s time travel date. But perhaps you were duped, by your brother or wife, another victim of a senseless prank run rampant for the sake of ego: “I started this meme. Look. That was me.”
The substructure of modernity is information. Our hearts and minds and hands are in it. How can I write a book with any sense of relevancy, whose characters do not seem like Dark Age Neanderthals, unless I include this essential part of my daily life?
Well I suppose I could.
I could write a very strict period piece. But I choose not to. I like too much the strange ambiguity produced by rolling various parts of history into an alt-world setting, thereby allowing technology to be just as surprising as magic.
Media is part of this technology, so close to us already that each of us is partly cyborg.
But for me it isn’t that media is so much like magic that it merits being integrated into fantasy books. Rather it is that traditional medieval European fantasy settings don’t lend themselves to modern relevancy. It’s for this reason that I believe newspapers and telephones and all sorts information sources belong in books that hope to be fantastical.
As Lloyd Alexander said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”