Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In Defense of Genre Mixing

I'm not sure how we got to a point in the gaming world where the idea of having science fiction elements in a fantasy setting have gotten to stick in the craws of so many people. I think people have begun to see the big fantasy fiction umbrella as two totally different reals of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as if they are wholly separate. I blame the slew of Tolkien imitators who have become so influential in the years since the 1970s, if only to have a nice scapegoat. The growth of heroic fantasy and of the publishing industry has certainly taken the gonzo excesses of Sword and Sorcery and filed them down to neater, cleaner forms, but also seem to have made an industry where the new formulas are much less interesting and fun to me than the old ones. (And longer -- when did we decide that every new fantasy novel had to be 500 pages and the first book in a trilogy/pentad/gazilliad? What happened to short, fast-paced individual novels and novellas?)

I was watching Krull the other day (it's available on Netflix for instant viewing), and found myself compelled by its mix of semi-renaissance garb (the other part of the semi- seemed to be 80s hair band costume), sci-fi villain, and moments of actually solid plotting and writing buried in the general mess of a movie that seemed to have major script re-writes and cutting room edits inflicted on it at the last minute. It's a hot mess of a film, but one that fits a long-lost sense of mixing mythical, magical, and science fiction elements into a single piece where all of the elements seem part of a (sloppy) whole. All that, mess included, strikes me as the heart of what a good RPG campaign looks like.

It seems to me that part of the fun of gaming has always been the weird, chimerical nature of individual campaigns, stealing from a variety of sources and putting together something new and ideosyncratic around the DM and the players. It's like a sort of living collage of found media, and the enjoyment of the campaign often comes despite the incoherence of the process, because the sum of the parts is much less than the whole experience at the table.


  1. I can happily say that I've never subscribed to avoiding genre-mixing, whether in my games or in my fiction. Luckily, my players down the years seem to have had much the same opinon ;3

    Aside from the usual laying of blame at the feet of those who came after Tolkien, with the heroic-fantasy-vs-S&S trope, allow me to also offer this: the developing blandness came about naturally as a (unfortunate) development of "fantasy" being its own literary genre rather than being associated with scifi if anything.

    The fantasy writers stripped away the scifi elements to establish themselves as Other Than Science Fiction; likewise, the scifi end of the pool clamped down on "fantastical" elements in that genre. Which brings us to today, alas ...

  2. There seems to be a counter trend developing in genre fiction, which I think is very, very promising.

    If you haven't checked any of these out you may want to consider doing so:

    Sean McMullen has wrtten the Moonworlds Saga (the 1st book is Voyage of the Shadowmoon {2002}) which is very much Fantasy Science Fiction. This one has vampires and submarines and power armor and magical-techno continent wide destruction and a lot more. Very much a great genre mash-up.

    S. M. Stirling has his The Lords of Creation series, the first book is The Sky People {2006}. This book deals with an American among the primitive jungle peoples of Venus. Wonderful swords and planet feel. The second book In the Courts of the Crimson Kings {2008} is set among the ancient decadent and decaying civilization of Mars.

    Karl Schroeder's The Virga series doesn't have the homage to past styles that the other authors I have mentioned does, but he makes a very nice napoleonic/weird science milieu. High science fiction with swords and wooden ships. There's a lot that could be used from these books in non-traditional gaming. The first is Sun of Suns {2006}.

    There are also a couple authors who are writing what I think of as high fantasy Sword and Sorcery. Greg Keyes has The Hounds of Ash: and Other Tales of Fool Wolf {2008}. Andrzej Sapkowski is writing some fun stuff about Geralt the Witcher. These stories definitely have the feel of S&S about them (albeit with much more overt fantasy elements).

    I think that the McMullen novels with their SF and fantasy elements conjoined may be an antidote to the boring fantasy out there now.


  3. I think part of the divide is that all that Tolkein-esque high fantasy Absolutely Must Have a "grand unified theory" that explains magic, the gods and the world." These hermetic, internal logically-consistant universes usually have no place for planets, the raminifications of high technology, and so forth.

    Old school fantasy usually never even bothered with the why/when/what/how of how the universe came into being, the gods/religion, how magic works, etc. In such a milleau, it didn't defy reality when little green men in a flying saucer dropped by.

    China Mieville's Bas-Lag stuff has a heavy "post-technology indistinguishable from magic" vibe going on, at least to my crazy brain.

    I'm going to have to check out some of Anonymous's reccomendations.

  4. @Anonymous: Thanks, like I didn't have enough to read already.

    when did we decide that every new fantasy novel had to be 500 pages and the first book in a trilogy/pentad/gazilliad? What happened to short, fast-paced individual novels and novellas?

    When magazines and anthologies died off for and paperbacks hit $8. It's a hard sell to get someone to buy 400 pages at $6-8 much less 150-200. A single novel is easier to edit than two novellas to fill that same book. Same rule applies in spades for anthologies and without a strong magazine market to serialize and pre-edit shorter works for book form it's just smarter for writers to "delivery your money's worth".

    I think it's also a byproduct of action fiction (men's fiction, whatever) being largely displaced by TV and other forms.

  5. Interesting point: I have two copies of Conan The Warrior. The 1976 reprint is "science fiction/fantasy", the 1988 reprint is "fantasy". What are you willing to bet that earlier printings were labelled "science fiction"?

    Or, to put it another way, why ought we feel compelled to defend "genre mixing" when it is more a case of one genre being mistakenly seen in terms of its parts and not its sum (the elephant and the blind men)?

    See also: Old Guard Gaming Accoutrements' post regarding the Stargate franchise as updated sword-and-planet.

    Ronon the Space Barbarian, anyone?

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