Art by Jason Chan
A Secondary World Much Like the First

Even if you put aside problematic assumptions of biological determinism, there’s still one thing I just can’t understand: why on earth would a fantasy world have to conform to the (supposed) rules of this one?

Lately there have been questions as to whether epic fantasy is inherently “conservative.” The term is sometimes specified in terms of political movement or ideological conservatism, but more broadly refers to the production and reproduction of social convention. I have serious doubts about the ideological bit, a point already well articulated by Liz Bourke. Unfortunately, I have little doubt about the rest—particularly in comparison to epic fantasy’s sibling genre, science fiction. But why is that, and does it really have to be that way?

I started thinking about these questions after reading excellent essays by Kameron Hurley and Foz Meadows on the historical precedent for women warriors in epic fantasy (as well as Django Wexler’s epic follow-up piece), and particularly after being drawn into a vigorous online discussion on that topic. The prevalent counter-argument, as I understand it, is this: for biological-evolutionary reasons (lesser upper body strength, necessity for the slow human reproductive process, greater empathy, etc.), women in our world are less likely to be soldiers; therefore, they should be less common as soldiers in fantasy worlds.


Even if you put aside, for the moment, problematic assumptions of biological determinism (and ignoring what social construction processes and social institutions do to constitute and maintain gender “roles”), there’s still one thing I just can’t understand: why on earth would a fantasy world have to conform to the (supposed) rules of this one?

A Secondary World, Much Like the First

Let’s be clear about a few things before proceeding. First, when I say “epic fantasy,” I mean “stories that take place in second-world settings (i.e. made-up places) marked by pre-industrial levels of technology and some degree of magic or metaphysics as lived realities”. Sword & sorcery, high fantasy, historical fantasy, mythical fantasy, gritty fantasy—these are all things I stuff into the category of epic fantasy. I’m excluding urban fantasy, or at least the “gods, magic and monsters in our world” stuff that most people mean when they say “urban fantasy,” for reasons that will be abundantly clear in a moment.

Epic fantasy, so defined, is a heterogeneous umbrella category comprising many traditions—each with their own histories, conventions and internal critical narratives. But these traditions are also tied together by certain common threads: they take place in worlds other than our own, with invented geographies, histories, cultures and mythologies; and they feature magical or metaphysical powers that remake or recontextualize the physical laws of our own world. There are alternative ways to define the genre, but I think this one has the right combination of comprehensiveness and specificity.

The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the table.

What’s more, epic fantasy worlds are by definition places where the unreal becomes real. Sometimes there are dragons in the mountains, or elves, orcs and gnomes living amongst us. Occasionally there are malevolent gods who want to come back to rule; more often there are malevolent sorcerers who wield god-like powers and seek to do the same. Nearly always there are powers beyond the control of regular folks, though some gifted or enterprising young types might learn to master them. These are, by definition and in name, fantastic spaces where magic and metaphysics render the impossible possible. Epic fantasy worlds do selectively borrow from real world histories, mythologies and cultural norms, but they are rarely comprehensive or terribly accurate in those borrowings. The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the table.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the a) invented nature of epic fantasy worlds; b) heterogeneity of what falls under the epic fantasy rubric; and c) presence of user-definable systems of magic, metaphysics and the otherwise made-up would, taken together, also encourage authors to adopt a speculative perspective on social arrangements. Yet somehow keep going back to the same old medieval European settings and patriarchal, ethnocentric and heteronormative assumptions of how societies “should” look like.

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Scratch the surface and you quickly realize that Sapkowski is subverting the tropes of its source material, and presenting complex and well-constructed critiques.

This isn’t to bash fantasy set in alt-Europe, or to say that social relations in fantasy realms should always conform to 21st century political sensibilities in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality or other modes of social categorization. As it happens I’ve enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, a lot of epic fantasy set in conventional second-worlds marked by conventional alt-medieval social relations, and believe that authors can squeeze a lot of meaning out of this template. Take Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher cycle, which superficially looks like the story of an Elric clone stuck in a Tolkein-meets-Grimm world. But scratch the surface and you quickly realize that Sapkowski is subverting the tropes of its source material, and presenting complex and well-constructed critiques of racism, patriarchy and authoritarianism—both within fantasy and in the (real) world.

So no, I’m not making an “exhaustion” argument. Rather, I’m saying that the range of social structures envisioned in epic fantasy is too narrow, and I’m suggesting that there’s vastly more ground to cover.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

Science fiction looks positively freewheeling in comparison. In a political history of the genre, SF blogger ‘ESR’ describes the appeal of science fiction thusly:

Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging — characteristic SFnal tropes such as these are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures. SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures…but even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.

Conventional epic fantasy has a decidedly different orientation. As Daniel Abraham puts it, traditional fantasy worlds are conceived of benign entities facing existential threats (evil gods, invasions by sentient non-humans, megalomaniacal sorcerer-kings, etc.). Resolution of conflict thus centers on putting things right, and getting back to status quo. The main alternative within the genre—gritty or grimdark fantasy—presents the world as essentially malefic, bad to the bone and incapable of being fixed. The status quo is inevitably maintained because, well, the game’s rigged and humans can’t really do much to change that. Epic fantasy worlds are preserved in time in both cases, either because its heroes value normalcy over all else or because they come to realize that normal is all it’s ever going to be. Only rarely is the world moldable.

By contrast, the fact that science fiction is a literature centrally focused on transformative change paradoxically imbues both its “hard,” neo-Campbellian center and the revolutions against it—Fredrik Pohl’s New York-based “futurians,” the new wave (both British and American), cyberpunk and the more specified radical hard SF and new space opera movements—with an openness towards exploring social arrangements. The crucial questions have always been as to the nature, degree, extent and form of these explorations.

The inventiveness of the new wave is particularly notable here, from Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, which is a complex deconstruction of the social instruments of gender, racial and sexual domination, to the polyandrous anarchy of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, to Ursula K. LeGuin’s exploration of gender-neutral society in The Left Hand of Darkness. University of California, Davis Professor Mark Chia-Yon Jerng argues that Dhalgren is not just a revolutionary work of literature, but a fundamental expression of the science fictional approach:

Because science fiction often requires the reader to discern the governing norms and values of its constructed, alternative world, it questions the traditional contexts and visual cues by which racial difference appears as racial difference at all.

Player of Games by Iain M. BanksOr look at Iain M. Banks’ lauded Culture novels. The Culture is a post-scarcity society where individuals can change their appearance and sexual organs at will. There are no gender, racial or national boundaries. And humans aren’t even in the business of ruling or dominating other humans anymore—rather, they are content to be led by hyper-intelligent and benevolent machines. This is as radical a re-imagination of human society as I’ve ever seen in literature.

Utopian literature tends to founder on the rock of boring. But as I noted in a review of The Player of Games, tensions emerge from the Culture’s interactions with other societies. In that book, the target is Azad, a rapacious, hyper-Hobbesian society where males and females are dominated by an “apex” gender and social status is conferred by the level of success or failure accrued in the game Azad, for which the society is named. The Culture inevitably views as Azad as cruel and inferior; on the basis of self-perceived moral superiority, Culture minds decide to intervene.

Do the ends justify the means?

Though Azad clearly is all the things the Culture accuses it of being, the neo-colonial implications of the Culture’s manipulations provoke a set of uneasy questions for the reader. Do the ends justify the means? Are our perceptions clouded by the fact that we are seeing this from the Culture’s perspective, and not that of Azadians? What comes after the fall? Banks doesn’t offer a lot of answers to the moral quandary he poses, but the questions themselves are illuminating.

Want to imagine a world where sexuality is fluid? Let sorcerers change their gender at will.

There’s no reason why epic fantasy can’t create the same kinds of dilemmas or pose the same kinds of questions. After all, even if there’s no advanced technology, there’s magic. Want to imagine a world where women are both polyandrous and physically stronger than men? Have them be the ones who wield the magic. Want to imagine a world where sexuality is fluid? Let sorcerers change their gender at will. Or don’t even bother with magic: you made the world, so you make the rules. The only thing you are required to do by law is to ensure that said rules are internally consistent. Once that’s completed, you can explore the implications of these changes. How might they affect the social structure or political system more broadly? What might happen if a society built along these lines encountered one like ours, or one equally different from it?

Again, this isn’t a call to dismantle the conventions of the genre, but to expand them. The most interesting epic fantasy already does this. Glen Cook’s 1986 novel The Black Company blazed a new path for dark, morally ambiguous and tightly focused fantasy—a path now so well traveled much of it has become cliché. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (which is technically both fantasy and dying earth science fiction) demonstrated the genre’s capacity for narrative experimentation, while complex and highly variable social relations and political institutions mark the societies of Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont’s Malazan novels. Recent books by Nora Jemisin, Doug Hulick, Saladin Ahmed and Elizabeth Bear signal that epic fantasy has discovered that worlds beyond the geographic, mythological and sociological borders of alt-Europe can be just as, and often more, compelling than the stuff we’re used to. Scott Lynch, Catherine Valente, Kate Elliott, Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham—these authors and others like them are effectively using the medium to ask complex questions about human nature.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is this: give me weird shit that pushes boundaries. You won’t be sorry that you did.

As far as this reader and critic is concerned, though, epic fantasy should take these as starting points for ever-wilder and more daring experimentation—an epic new wave, if you will, or an epic new weird. Part of the onus for this is on writers, who produce the stuff, but it’s also the responsibility of publishers and agents to sign a range of material, and the responsibility of critics, bloggers and readers to provide the demand that, ultimately, shapes a lot of supply issues. Ultimately, what I’m getting at is this: give us more weird shit that pushes boundaries. You won’t be sorry that you did.

Written by The G.

The G.

The G is founder and co-editor of ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F, crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

  • Jessica Burde June 10, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    My favorite fantasy epics have been the rare few that push boundaries this way. I love the boundary pushing of sci-fi (hey, there actually is a place where pushing boundaries is a good thing, how about that?), but I’m a magic girl, not a techie. I want more of that in my fantasy!

    Also, many thanks for a burst of inspiration. Just realized that an old RPG character of mine would be perfect for just such a boundary-pushing story. Off to plot!

  • Anne Lyle June 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I like your definition of epic fantasy – it gets around a lot of nitpicking about whether such-and-such a book counts as “epic” or not. That said, I still don’t know where my alt-history fantasy books fit: real world in the pre-industrial past, but we share the planet with a second sentient race (one that’s bisexual and can reincarnate into bodies of either sex)? I blame my SF roots :)

    I’m all for epic fantasy extending its remit, whether through venturing into non-European cultures or just tweaking the familiar tropes to make them less tied to the historical past. Of course you’ll get backlash from the more conservative end of the readership (like the idiot who complained about the black female pirate in “Red Seas Under Red Skies”), but we have to push the envelope or we’ll be stuck in a time-warp forever.

  • The G June 11, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Anne, you’ve just given me (yet another) reason to read your books! I love the idea of authors pushing/eschewing/crossing genre conventions, and that sounds like exactly what you are doing.

    On the definitional side of things, pretty much *any* typology will inevitably fail to capture everything. What I needed for this essay was something to adequately describe the genre’s center of gravity, and found most of the alternatives problematic (e.g. the distinction between “epic fantasy” and “sword and sorcery” when these things have crosscut for decades). As for stuff that doesn’t neatly fit either my definition of epic fantasy or fall under the historical and contemporary (i.e. “urban”) fantasy umbrellas…I’m not sure what works best. I think Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, for example, would technically be “experimental fantasy” or “slipstream fantasy,” since it crosses fantasy and SF. But those books are also definitely embedded in epic fantasy discourses and, as such, I don’t think it’s necessary or even desirable to consider it outside the scope of epic fantasy.

    Regardless…whatever we call stuff like this, I want more of it :)

  • ScrivK June 11, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Love this article and I could not possible agree more!

  • Stephen June 20, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Who is the first picture by?

  • Aidan Moher June 23, 2013 at 8:59 am

    @Stephen — The art used for the title is by Jason Chan.

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