Thursday, 26 August 2010

Fantastic Fantasy

Having been reading quite a lot of Fantasy recently left me thinking about this genre that is called 'fantasy'. As a youth I accumulated swathes of science fiction books and enjoyed them immensely. Asimov, Clarke,  Lois McMaster Bujol, Heinlein, Moorcock and many more - but no fantasy. Many years later I became aware of fantasy as a genre and wondered why I had never encountered it before. On reflection I now understand.that Fantasy didn't exist. Everyone was obsessed with SF and everything was classified as such if the publishers could get away with it.

I thought I would now look back and choose the best fantasy stories I have read. Therein lies a problem... You tend to favour the books you read recently which means you end up listing the most recent books instead. I will try not to do that here, but instead reclassify some of that old SF as fantasy and try to be impartial.

So what element is needed to make it fantasy, rather than SF? For me the separation is that the story must contain non explainable fantastic elements that are key to the story. This tends to come down to .... Magic.

I will now list some of the fantasies that have either influenced my reading or have become favourites. There is a temptation to do a top 5 or 10 but I will resist that and try to cover them in chronological order of my reading them.

Magic Inc. - Robert Heinlein
   I acquired this book (Waldo and Magic Inc.) as a teenager and have to admit that it is the first story I can recollect reading that I could classify as 'fantasy'. By today's standards it probably doesn't classify as that good but I include it as an influence in my taste for fantasy. It was classified as SF at the time, but wouldn't be today, although 'Waldo' - the other story in the book - probably would still be SF.
Dune - Frank Herbert
    Very much a 'cult' read shortly after it was published but I left it a few years before trying it. It started to define fantasy in a way but also spawned sequels which never quite came up to the original. As a story I wasn't overly impressed but like so many fantasy novels the hero is very special and the story focuses on the individual. It was an all too frequently followed idea.
Lord of The Rings - Tolkien
   I tried to read this at school and stopped at Bilbo's eleventy first birthday party. OK the first couple of pages but I was a serious minded teenager and could not take this silly idea. I tried again later when I was married and a father and while I found the writing style not to my taste I did get totally pulled into the story and had to admit that I enjoyed it. It was Frodo's 'unspecialness' that made him such a wonderful and innocent hero and allowed me to really enjoy it. Perhaps I should have persevered as a teenager?
Stardust - Neil Gaiman
    I read this at the recommendation of my wife. I found it very sweet and very different to anything I had read before. Our hero that we meet in the first few pages doesn't remain with us and his son takes over. I later saw the film and found I was disappointed as it didn't feel very much like the book I read and enjoyed so much.
Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula LeGuin
   This is sort of back to the special hero formula, but is also a 'dark' story and at times it almost feel depressing in it's 'darkness'. So why include it?  Well at the recommendation of my wife, I read it to my daughter as a bedtime story. We did enjoy it, though I have never read the next two books.
Colour of Magic - Terry Pratchett
   Fantasy fiction for me would be nothing today if not for Mr. Pratchett. I felt Discworld was not for me - it seemed it would be too silly so I ignored it. So why did I change my mind? I didn't - my daughter made me. It was my birthday and one of my presents was 'The Colour of Magic'. I could not believe  my wife had bought it me. She hadn't I was told when my daughter was asleep, my daughter had because she liked the picture on the cover. My daughter was reception class at the time. Well what could I say - such innocence. I had to read it because it had made it special, so I did. I was totally HOOKED. Since then I have acquired a shelf full and borrowed many more from the library but Rincewind and his luggage remain a very firm favourite and I always hope my next Pratchett will have them in, if only in a cameo roles. This book will always be special to me.
Ye Gods - Tom Holt
   I was in hospital - confined against my will - reading a Pratchett - I forget which - when a nurse asked what I was reading. I showed her and she asked if I had read any Tom Holt. When I replied that I hadn't she brought Ye Gods in for me to read. I tried it and was entranced. One thing I very much like about Tom Holt is that he has very few recurring themes. Things like 'Wells & Co' do appear in more than one book but the concept is not overdone. His humour is not as schoolboy as Pratchett and that is another attraction - variation. I only have half a shelf of Tom Holt but have added to that shelf Robert Rankin and Andrew Harman. And all because a nurse encouraged me to try Ye Gods by Tom Holt.

Since branching into the humourous fantasy genre I have read a great deal more serious fantasies and now find SF far harder to read. After 30+ years in IT I find myself questioning technologies in stories instead of suspending disbelief and loosing myself in the plot. With fantasy I can make that release and whether reading Holt, Rankin and Pratchett or Pehov, Juliet E Mckenna and Gillian Philip then I can find I can put the world on hold and just relax in the humour or tension of fantasy.

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