Escapism and Epic Fantasy’s Mean Streak

On the heels of my post about escapism in F/SF and what works for me, Elizabeth Bear had an essay about it in Clarkesworld.

Filtering her cheeky epistolary voice, she seems to be lamenting the paucity of playfulness and fun in current speculative fiction.  Replaced, as she notes, by the moral complexity of layered character motivations. But she suggests that that move to darker fiction may have gone too far.

In my shallow survey of post-George R.R. Martin epic fantasy novels, I’ve seen that very thing. Through the mid-90s, epic fantasy protagonists on the whole had monochromatic motivations and battled singularly eeevil villains.  A Song of Ice and Fire brought characters with multifaceted motivations (which incidentally obviated the need for a villain because complex characters will, quite justifiably, do plenty of villainy to each other).

Like Bear posits about spec-fic in general, I’ve seen epic fantasy take that villainy or ‘meanness’, as she calls it, and pile it on, with seemingly no care for balance or reason. She laments the loss of positive endings. I more lament that the preponderance of villainy has given me John Gardner’s disPollyanna Syndrome, which she mentions: the expectation that every outcome will be the worst possible one.

It’s not that I want happy endings; I want to feel the chance of a happy ending. Or an unresolved ending. I want to feel the same uncertainty in a fictional situation that I feel in real life. I want to feel the characters fighting to control their destiny, and failing if they are going to fail but also succeeding, if that’s the perfect conclusion to that story.

This dark or brutal or ‘mean’ trend in current epic fantasy has sold tons of books and launched dozens of novelists’ careers, so plenty of readers are getting escapism from it. But I prefer the ones that are multifaceted.  I knew already that I find escapism in complex characters, but this makes me realize that I also find it in complex situations and nuanced outcomes.

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2 Responses to “Escapism and Epic Fantasy’s Mean Streak”

  1. AE Marling Says:

    I’ll maintain that the happy ending is the correct one because it allows for the greatest shift of emotion after the gulf of despair that should begin the last act of a story. The problem might be that some epic fantasy considers the last act of a story to be books seven through nine. Sigh.

    I’ll admit though, I feel a spoon full of grief helps the happy ending go down. One thing not going right adds believability.

  2. scott Says:

    I’m not sure that that greatest shift in emotion, which the happy ending does provide, is the most profound type of ending. I just like not knowing how the story’s going to come out; it having the freedom to go in whatever direction it needs to.

    I do agree that “mixed” endings are more nuanced. They are my favorite type–a limited victory or a limited failure. They definitely do for me add to believabilty.