I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly attracts me to fantasy novels. The historical aspect is no small part of it; I began looking to fantasy as a replacement for the poor selection of historical-fiction that was available. But it was something more than just that.

Today I started reading ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb, when one possible reason became rather obvious to me. Fantasy novels (and by extension, their authors) tend to inherently posses a certain amount of arrogance within them. This arrogance is justified because the author, in every sense of the word, is truly the ‘creator’ is such a setting. Freed from all the restrictions of reality, of physics, history or even evolution, the fantasy author is like some playful Yahweh, proclaiming the existence of the sun, a moon or two, all with a few shakes of his mighty pen. How can any fantasy author help but be arrogant?

Faced with such absolute power, the author lends himself a sense of importance, a belief that the events he describes are momentous, earth-shattering and entirely under his control. Other authors in comparison, subconsciously cower in the face of the immense limitations that bound them to the painful realities of this world. So much so, that they shrink themselves, reaching more timidly than would be normally allowed by the boundaries of our universe. They seem to ignore the absurdities and wonders that appear in our everyday lives. For these authors, there always remains the small trace of self-doubt, the small voice whispering in their heads telling them that they could not possibly have all the answers, have the complete picture.

For what mortal can assume to know what was going on in the mind of Julius Caesar as he chose to cross the Rubicon, or be fully aware of all the circumstances that surrounded the event some two thousand years in the past. The fantasy author, on the other hand, is comfortably secure in the knowledge that every motivation, every event, indeed every breath taken will only occur at his behest.

Neal Stephanson, the author of ‘Cryptonomicon’ and other sci-fi/cyber-punk classics, (as well as the historical-fictionesque ‘The Baroque Cycle’) talked briefly about this arrogance. He said that he had been scorned by ‘literary’ authors for the appearance of this very arrogance in his writing. These ‘literary’ authors are the ones cowering far within the limitations of this world that they write in, and for them assuming such omniscience is incomprehensible (my words, not his). The arrogance however, appears in abundance within the writings of fantasy/sci-fi authors, the best of whom make full use of this license and weave a story of such imagination and scope that we are left in awe of their creations. While I may be stretching his meanings a little (since he was talking about himself compared to the ‘literary’ authors, not fantasy or sci-fi authors) but I believe that he parallels my discussion closely.

Guy Gavriel Kay, nominally a fantasy writer, truly writes historical fiction (or you must, then historical fantasy). His insight is in openly acknowledging and embracing a truth that everybody already knows: that all historical fiction is truly fantastical in nature. In Kay’s case, by marginally changing the names of people and places he is writing about, he allows himself the freedom to assume the mantle of a world creator, rather than merely a chronicler of history, a figure that he even includes in one of his books. His historian is a bumbling yet sly figure, fully aware of the obscurative powers of history, knowing that even though he is part-villain in the present, history (under his control) will show him as an innocent bystander in the horrific events that he was forced record on page.

Examples of successful wielders of this arrogance I go on harping about are numerous, most recently (in my readings) by R. Scott Bakker in his “The Prince of Nothing” trilogy (a series I will soon talk about in far more depth). Outside the realm of novels, I believe Peter Jackson is a stellar example of someone with such capacity, in both The Lord of the Rings, as well as (more surprisingly) in King Kong. In the latter movie, I was struck by how uncompromising he was in his commitment to his vision of the movie, with a long introductory section based in a wonderfully recreated 1930’s New York. Here, in what many people felt was an unnecessary and somewhat cheesy sequence, Jackson unflinchingly throws us into the heart of the Depression period, and is so true to his vision, that I was swept up along with him, even as Naomi Watts plaintively cried to her surrogate father figure “But you’re all I’ve got!”.

The fact is, I tend to enjoy myself the most when the author/director fully embraces his mantle of ‘creator’ and show us a world where the differences are revealed in all their alien glory, rather than grudgingly explained away, as if to say “see, see, its not all that different after all!”. So it is the Scott Bakker’s of the world that truly transport us into their living worlds of inexplicable customs and races and powers, and with their sheer determination and conviction, sweep us away and allow us to truly experience a book.

We have the Power!

December 17, 2005

Continuing with my Web 2.0 contemplation, Wired News compares the accuracy of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica. The results are not what you would expect. It turns out that a Wikipedia article which receives enough viewers (and so has enough “fact-checkers”) is nearly as accurate as Britannica, long thought to be the bastion of human knowledge. This just once again shows the power of the many over the few, and how the Social tools of the internet become more efficient and useful simply as a result of the sheer number of participants. Thus we can only expect Wikipedia to become more accurate and comprehensive, while Britannica and its like will be left behind in the dust.

This reminds me of how the TV companies (NBC and the rest) kept on insisting that it would cost too much, and would be too complicated to put all their TV shows online for subscription/pay-per-view download. And at the same time thousands and thousands of people were managing to do just that with no official help, minimal funding, with only the support of ardent tv fans that helped create the now-gargantuan Bittorrent community.

The recent controversy over the existence of certain inaccurate articles in Wikipedia, and its somewhat misguided coverage in the mainstream media (specifically by CNN’s Kyra Phillips), shows the strength of the website, rather than expose a crippling flaw in its premise, which is what some would like us to believe.