Sci-fi & Fantasy: Out With the Old, In With the New
It’s 2014. A new year and a time, as the tradition goes, for change. I thought it might be fun to discuss several tired and worn tropes from Science Fiction & Fantasy and maybe look at ways in which they could be reinterpreted, transfigured for the future. I’m not declaring any of these dead, by the way — a talented writer can always breathe new life into a dusty old corpse. But I think those below deserve something of a rest, at least for a little while.
I think this trope hit its nadir with Twilight, perhaps. But it didn’t stop there. Take The Vampire Diaries, for example. Or the latest crop of sexy vampire stories. I’m not against paranormal romance, but I’ve simply had enough of ancient vampires falling in love with young girls. Throw in a couple of werewolves to make it even more trite. What I miss most, personally, is the tragedy that used to come with vampires. There was a sense of something lost, some essential part of humanity—a cost, if you will—to having such immense power. These days, however, there doesn’t seem to be a price. Sure, you have to drink blood, but so many people offer themselves up and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone that much. No, I’m sorry, but I’m pretty much over vampires.
One of the ways to handle this is to make vampires dangerous again. Holly Black did this in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (which I mentioned in my last column). Black still uses a lot of the tropes that we’re familiar with, but somehow brings them back to their horror roots, even while maintaining some of the romance elements.
Then you have Kim Newman who has written a series of novels which themselves are a kind of meta-commentary on our depictions of vampires. It began with Anno Dracula, a what-if novel that is predicated on the idea that Dracula survived the events in the Stoker novel (killing Van Helsing) and married Queen Victoria. Appearing throughout the novel are other famous vampires and characters from other Victorian stories. The series has continued, jumping through time until the newest and last in the series, Johnny Alucard, which came out at the end of last year. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it references such diverse vampire tales as Buffy, Vampirella, Lost Boys and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film.
And then there’s what Stephen King thinks:
What should they be? Killers, honey. Stone killers who never get enough of that tasty Type-A. Bad boys and girls. Hunters. In other words, Midnight America. Red, white and blue, accent on the red. Those vamps got hijacked by a lot of soft-focus romance.
I really love zombies, I do, but while I was making excuses for them a year or two ago, even I’m feeling zombie fatigue. Part of that has to do with them being everywhere these days. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television. Mythbusters even did a zombie special recently.
Part of my problem, I’ll admit, is that zombies in fiction don’t work for me as well as zombies in film or television. I have a different response to seeing rotting, shambling undead creatures mob living people than I do to reading about it. Maybe I’m just not reading the right zombie fiction?
But a larger part is that I’ve seen many of these scenarios play out. There’s nothing really new to zombies. They want to eat you. You can take them out by shooting them (or bludgeoning them) in the head. It gets very samey after a while.
One simple solution to this is to make different zombies. Mira Grant does this in her book, Parasite. The creatures that the protagonist face in the novel are clearly based on a zombie template, but they’re different. And the nature of what they are is tied up in the main mystery of the book.
Another approach is to utilize zombies from other cultures. If I may mention it, I had a story published in an anthology from Prime Books called Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages. The theme of the anthology was zombies, but interpreted through different cultures and throughout different eras of history. There are stories set in Japan, China, India, Russia and more, spanning from the Bronze Age to World War II. And the zombies are just a little bit different.
I have a novel coming out later this year that was based on a short story I wrote at a writing workshop. Originally, one of the major antagonists were creatures that were zombies in all but name. Even then people were experiencing zombie fatigue and told me so. Even just the recognition that they were zombies took much of the energy out of things. So I changed them. They still retain some zombie qualities, but they’re different animals, and as a result I think the work is much stronger.
Old School Epic Fantasy
Let me be clear — I’m not saying epic fantasy needs to be retired or that it’s run its course. I know it has many fans out there and writers like George R. R. Martin and Pat Rothfuss have helped to revitalize the genre. But there’s a large portion of epic fantasy that treads and retreads worn ground. I’m tired of mostly male protagonists. I’m tired of so-called secondary world cultures that borrow from European history. I’m tired of endless trekking and camping. I’m tired of black and white/Good and Evil/ and prophecies (especially the Chosen One trope, though that’s explored below).
A lot of epic fantasy writers have already started adding sword and sorcery elements to their work, if not shifting mostly over to that side of the street. That definitely helps. While I grew up with Tolkien-like epic fantasy, it was Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock who really excited me when I discovered them. Books like Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora take the action from the rural to the urban. Richard Morgan’s A Land Fit for Heroes series features investigative elements. These books might not appeal to those, though, who crave huge, sweeping plots that threaten all of the universe. On the other hand, after seeing so many of those, plots that focus more on the characters and their problems, well, those speak to me more.
Then there’s the issue of diversity. More diversity in fantasy is better as far as I’m concerned. Whether it’s female protagonists (like Yeine in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) or gay protagonists (like Ringil in The Steel Remains and its sequels), they help keep the genre fresh. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and its upcoming sequel both deal with a non-European setting (Arabian in this case). Ken Liu’s trilogy, coming soon, deals with an Asian setting. Remember kids, more diversity = better.
Blame The Hunger Games, perhaps, but dystopias have been all the rage, especially in YA fiction. It makes sense for that age group — teens are often learning who they are and feel like they exist in a world set up against them. The themes of the genre map quite well onto teenage life. At the same time, it exploits the fantasy that a teenager can change the world. That even in the face of overwhelming odds, of the system being rigged against you, you can make a difference.
One word (hyphenated): The post-apocalypse. In some ways, dystopian fiction is a precursor to post-apocalyptic fiction. But like I always say, post-apocalyptic fiction is a literature of hope. The world has already been shattered and it’s the protagonists that have to try to build something, try to forge a future from the ashes of the past. Now granted, I have a horse in this race. My upcoming novel is post-apocalyptic. But I love the genre and I think we’re about due for a new round of post-apocalyptic stories. Editor John Joseph Adams seems to agree with me. He is teaming up with Hugh Howey to release The Apocalypse Triptych, a series of three anthologies that deal with Before, During, and After the apocalypse. Howey’s own Wool series is a massively-successful self-published post-apocalyptic series.
You may be saying to yourself, how is this new? It’s been around for ages. True, but we’ve seen different kinds of apocalypses. Back in the 80s, everything was post-nuclear. Lately we’ve seen more viruses. Now is the time to explore environmental apocalypse (in the vein of J. G. Ballard) or the addition of other elements. My upcoming post-apocalyptic novel has airships in it. But I’d love to see the genre pushed more. How about post-apocalyptic fantasy? Bring it on.
The Chosen One
This is a trope that’s obviously endured for ages and pops up in all kinds of things. Where I think it’s perhaps the most tiresome, however, is in epic fantasy. How many tales have we seen of young farm boys destined for greatness? Too many, in my opinion. Even Tolkien managed to avoid this. Frodo and Bilbo are, essentially, ordinary. They do great things because they find hidden greatness inside of them, not because they were destined, too. (Aragorn, on the other hand…)
I understand the attraction, I do. We all want to imagine that there’s something special about us, some great destiny awaiting us that we were previously unaware of. Most of us would love to find out that we’re secretly royalty or powerful magicians. But in the end, it’s even more of a fantasy than all the magic and mythical creatures.
The easy way to avoid this is to just create interesting characters who excel because of their qualities rather than prophecy or fate. Isn’t it more empowering to see people succeed without having some magical destiny? Granted, this has been less of a problem of late, but I hope it remains that way. Also, I’d love to see less of prophecy altogether. That includes prophetic dreams.
Even if you want to hold on to your cherished tropes, they can become more palatable by pairing them with other tropes and elements. So, a vampire romance with a young girl in the 21st century seems derivative. But a gender-flipped vampire romance (young man and a vampire woman) set in the 50s, in post-war Los Angeles that blends noir elements and adds in a secret Nazi cult could work. All of those elements are also old standards, but something new is created by blending them together.
Take Ian Tregillis’ Something More than Night, which I also mentioned in the last column. It melds angels and Heaven with noir and mystery. Old ideas that end up feeling fresh. Joe Ambercrombie’s Red Country adds a heavy dose of Western into Heroic Fantasy. Brian McCLellan’s Powder Mage books brings a colonial flare to fantasy featuring guns and gunpowder.
I’d like to see more mix-ups and mash-ups in the new year and beyond.
What are you sick of? What tropes have worn themselves into the ground? What would you like to see in the future?
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