Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Obligatory fantasy rant

RSJS writes:

I've been thinking about literature of late, what with the latest Harry Potter hoopla – I love pulp literature, and still read Clive Cussler on flights around the country as its not too challenging and you don't lose the thread when hot towels and cold tea is profered by bored trolley dollies. My favourite book from my youth that I still read in my more hungover moments is "Have Spacesuit –will travel" by Robert Heinlein, about a young lad who accidentally gets to see the universe. But a book about a four-eyed twat with a wand and broomstick just leaves me cold.

And I'm trying to get to grips with why my some people go the way of the Tolkein trilogy, while I went the way of the Jedi. And I've decided to blame someone's god.

I've never been too fond of swords and sorcery stories, and I think the reason is the deus ex machina cop-out that is so often applied to the genre, namely "Magic". Magic bugs me: A few spells and incantations and Something Miraculous Happens, for no good reason. The act of chanting and mixing and spinning around stones nekkid results in a Holy Chicken appearing to bestow fatal pecks upon the Swamp Donkey of Doom or somesuch. It seems too similar to waving a smoking censer about and praying for a masculine child... I can't really differentiate between magic and the institutionalised begging to some benevolent sky-beard to fix everything – except in the fantasy realms the Big Dude seems to actually DO something. Kinda like in the Old Teatament.

It's not just that aspect, it's also the fact there doesn't ever need to be rhyme nor reason to magic, and it can basically solve or create any problem it likes. There is no structure, no governing laws that can't be broken by the word "magic". I remember a chap used to bemoan the telly show House because the punchline was always something so medically obtuse there was never any chance the audience could predict it – Hugh Laurie would just rattle off a dozen syllables, insult some folks, kill the patient thrice and cue the credits. And we'd be left none the wiser. House might as well wave a magic wand at the patient, and practically does – he gives his incantation no-one understands and suddenly Everything is Peachy. House is somewhere between Merlin and the Judeo-Christian God in that aspect – Ineffable, and grizzled of chops.

Maybe its not the idea "it's magic, go with it" that bugs me. Maybe its the laziness of it all. I'm a science-fiction nerd, and in that genre miraculous things happen all the time, but the authors are forever trying to explain the science behind it. Nanotechnology, cloning, time travel, laser-phaser-bobasers, Faster-than-light travel demonstrated with folded Playmates, all these things are pored over and researched and so when a sci-fi book says "And then Something Miraculous happens" there is normally a well-thought-out lead up (or caffeine-fuelled crazy lead up) to this. There are rules: authors try to predict how science will deal with things, how their ideas will be plausible. While "magic" is invoked as something basically bestowed for no obvious reason upon some mortar-and-pestle-wielding freak, science-fiction solutions try to have internal logic, and be created by people themselves. I guess I prefer this idea of the futuristic goings-on being manmade rather than just random "Unicorns appear when you jump down, turn around, and kill a newt, because the Universe is just kinda like that" bullshit.

Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, all the way back to Wells... I'm finding based on biographies that a lot of science-fiction authors I grew up reading are atheists. And I wonder if there is a link – atheists interested in the physical realm, in what mankind will become, while the more alembics and stuffed-alligator crowds look to a past with ogres and stoats and pixies and FUCKING ELVES (God I hate elves, since before their spokesfairy Orgasmo Bloom came along. But he didn't help). Atheists wonder "what can we do, where can we go, how do we do that?" and the fantasy twerps focus on "I know, goblins! Yay, goblins!".

Arthur C Clarke once suggested sufficiently-advanced science would be indistinguishable from magic, but you can bet when that science turned up in his books he worked his puckered old ARSE OFF trying to make this magic logical, reasonable, explainable. He never copped out and just typed "And then blue sparkly stuff flickered about and they all came back to life and went off for lashings of Ginger Beer". Perhaps if he did I'd have become inured to the irritations of fantasy at an early age and would be reading the Deadly Hallows right now. But thank fuck the old kiddie-fiddler didn't. He sometimes sacrificed plot to go off on mad fractal tangents but by gum, not a "Just so" dragon in sight.

Fuck Harry Potter and his prayers to a doting deity. And knee-jerk fundamentalists thought it was "pagan"... Eejits.

1 comment:

Apathy Jack said...

I agree. Silly though it may be, I always liked books where I only had to susoend disbelief so far, not cpmpletely; there are aliens? Why not? That could happen. Wait, what do you mean elves? And exactly how does waving that magic stick make all of that happen?

I guess that's also why I outgrew Star Trek. They spend most of the episide setting up a problem, then solve it at the end by saying "I know Captain, I'll reroute the made up word through the other made up word, which will create a made up word to get us out of here!" Sure, I'm not saying that there was a lot of hard science in, say, Babylon 5 or anything, but it was less reliant on, for lack of a better term; magic.