The Happy Place

Sitting here in Boskone getting ready for a panel on the economic future of the European Union (I’m not quite sure what this has to do with SFF, but I’m sure I’ll learn something), and what do I do to prepare?  Write my monthly post for SFNovelists, of course.

I guess it’s going to be short. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how most epic fantasies fall into two distinct types.  There are those that start in an idealized happy place (Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter).  In them, the heroes generally end up trying to defend their happy place from change, which usually takes the form of some Malevolence trying to take the place over.  One might call these sorts of books Optimistic Fantasy, or Escapist.  The other sorts of stories are those that start in a darker place (A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan, The Warded Man).  Here the heroes struggle against a cruel and capricious world; generally they are the ones trying to change things, rather than their antagonists.  These sorts of books one might call Pessimistic Fantasy, or Realistic. 

Given the recent trends towards verisimilitude in epic fantasy, the Pessimistic Fantasies seem to be the ones garnering greater attention these days.  They are often bleaker in their outlook, less concerned with good versus evil, and more interested in the ambiguities inherent in their conflicts.  In that, they are certainly more realistic than the Optimistic Fantasies.  But I have to confess that, in these days of real world ambiguity (come on, guys, nobody made us finance that trip to Reno with a second mortgage or take out the subprime loan, it was our own choice), I have a certain fondness for something a bit more escapist.  Trying to make a better world is hard work.  You have to do it every day.   

Which is why I don’t necessarily want to read about it every day when I come home, either.

What about you?  Which sort of fantasy story do you prefer?  Can you say why?

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  1. 1. Tim of Angle

    I would be hesitant to characterize the Middle Earth of THE LORD OF THE RINGS as “a Happy Place” — say rather a place that has the potential to be Happy but is infected with Unhappiness; it is the spread and eventual triumph of the Unhappiness (and Unhappiness tends to spread if action is not taken) that the protagonists are attempting to accomplish. I would sooner characterize it as a Place That Was Once Happy But Has Since Fallen From Grace. I’m not sure how that fits within your paradigm.

    I don’t like reading dystopian fantasy every day when I come home, either, but the fact is, that, however little interest you may have in dystopia, dystopia tends to be rather intrusively interested in you, and it behoves all who do not intend to spend their golden years begging for spare change to consider what could happen and how to deal with it. In that sense, reading dystopian fantasy is much like the perennial wargaming that military staffs do — perhaps we’re not in a war right now, but Shit Happens and the shit that we prepare for is more effectively handled than the shit that we don’t. As Marines of my acquaintance like to say, “You can only do what you’ve trained for.”

    But that’s just me. Everybody calls me an old gloom-buckets and I confess that it might be true.

  2. 2. Peter V. Brett

    Despite the fact that you call me out for pessimistic fantasy, I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like reading Marvel comics anymore, much as I hate to say it. The characters are always living under the weight of a year-long Civil War, or a Green Goblin presidency or a Skrull invasion or what have you. I long for the simple days where Spider-man is distraught because he missed Aunt May’s birthday party because he was busy fighting the Rhino.

  3. 3. Satima Flavell

    I love both, depending on my mood. There’s something reassuring about stories in which good always triumphs and people learn from their bad experiences.

    OTOH, the dystopian story tells us that it’s normal to struggle: that good doesn’t always triumph and that the world we’ve got is the only one we’re going to have and when the chips are doen most of us will be true to our natures – no blinding flash of light; no sudden transformation – just normality, which is pretty shitty, really, people being what they are:-)

  4. 4. Eliza Wyatt

    Definitely pessimistic fantasy.

    I think it’s because there is a lot more possibility for elaborate conflict in a more corrupt scene. One great evil, in fact, surrounded by a happy, idealistic world can’t take a storyline in many directions.

    Now, Tolkien has a theme of corruption, of turning great good into great evil (which is why Gandalf absolutely refused the ring– he would have become another great evil, while Smeagol was a pathetic, wretched character)… that doesn’t really fit into an ‘idealistic’ fantasy setting. I’d almost say that the thematic elements of good and evil were so displayed that Tolkien doesn’t fit in either box, since Realistic Fantasy gains its conflict from the depravity of men.

    Now, take a hypothetical realistic fantasy– the heroes have struggles that relate more to their situation, instead of the abstract concepts of good or evil. Morality may or may not be the focus. It is surrounded by people who have their own dilemmas, who jostle each other and interfere, with their own lives and subplots. There is an opportunity for immediate conflicts of interests that are more easy to relate to, and yet the fantasy element remains.

    As someone who likes to think, who likes to watch detailed characters, who loves a well-woven series of sub-plots, realistic fantasy is a clear winner.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Tim and Eliza – Looks like I should have made my thoughts more clear. I was only talking about stories that begin in the happy place, which does not necessarily make them happy stories all the way through. Regarding Middle Earth, I would agree that it is a very Unhappy place, by and large. But the Shire, however, is not. The Shire is the happy place, and Gandalf and Aragorn very much want to keep it that way. At great expense to Elves, whose world will be lost forever. LOTR is a very sad book.

    Conversely, there are plenty of dystopian fantasies that end much more unequivocally. The hero triumphs, despite his flaws, and the venal regime he was fighting is torn down.

    How a book starts is not necessarily reflective of how it’s going to end.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Satima – I’d say good doesn’t always triumph in books that begin happily, and vice versa.

    I also enjoy both sorts of stories, depending on my mood. But I also get a certain pleasure from reading stories that begin in the happy place. They possess a wistful sweetness and longing that (nostalgia?) that I can often savor throughout the entire book. Regardless of whether the protags even get back to the happy place or not.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Peter – No, no! The Wounded Man only starts pessimistically! Well, I guess it ends that way to, but it’s just the start of the series. Which I’m sure ends in rainbows and unicorns, right?

    But you’re right about Marvel. Too often the soap opera outweighs the superthero aspects of the story.

  8. 8. Missy Sawmiller

    Hi Butler!! It’s MelaLyn from LJ…

    Personally, I like both. Sometimes I need the cheerful, but there is something that feels a little more introspective in the dark. It depends on my mood. Do I want to cry happy or sad tears?

    But when it all comes down to it, it’s all about the story. If it’s good readin’, then I don’t care what kind it is as long as it holds my attention.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Missy – “But when it all comes down to it, it’s all about the story. If it’s good readin’, then I don’t care what kind it is as long as it holds my attention.”

    Boy, do you have that right.

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Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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