Postmodern Epic Fantasy?

Spotted an intriguing line in io9’s Power List of 20 people who rocked SF/F in 2010. I’m not one of them, alas, though I noted a great blurb there about Orbit’s publishing director Tim Holman. Tim rightly deserves the spotlight in that article, but, well, I’m just gonna own my narcissism here. What caught my eye was this:

Looking at Orbit’s 2010 titles, too, you’re struck by their range, from hard science fiction icon Greg Bear to space opera master Iain M. Banks, and from postmodern epic fantasy author N.K. Jemisin to steampunk innovator Gail Carriger.

So now I’m thinking, postmodern epic fantasy? Isn’t that kind of an oxymoron? Epics are an ancient art form; can they be postmodern? For that matter, what’s modernism in epic fantasy, and how does it contrast against postmodernism? And how does my work qualify?

I can’t answer this question, I think, because I’m too close to it. Plus I’m not trained in literary criticism; not sure I can keep my Derridas and deconstructions straight. So I’m throwing it out to all of you, amateurs and experts: what is postmodern epic fantasy?

ETA: And here my crappy memory kicks in, because I forgot there was a great mini-discussion of this very topic ’round the blogosphere just a few months ago. Paul Jessup has a good roundup of that discussion, which includes posts from Brandon Sanderson and Jeff VanderMeer, and which can add context to this one.

26 thoughts on “Postmodern Epic Fantasy?”

  1. I always thought postmodern was like a fancier way of saying “meta,” something that’s as concerned, or more concerned, with exploring form than content. But this is what PBS says it is:

    “Postmodernism is ‘post’ because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characterisitic of the so-called ‘modern’ mind.”

    That kind of works with your writing, especially 100K with Yeine’s often confused narrator, right?.

  2. Of course epics can be postmodern; the form of a work doesn’t change what its stance on objective reality is. I could totally see The Crying of Lot 49 recast as an Homerian epic, for instance.

    As for whether The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is postmodern, that’s another question. I could see a case being made; you certainly make the point that white versus black is only a social construct, to pick an example from the beginning of the Wikipedia page.

  3. I read that article when it first came out, and my impression was that “postmodern” was being used rather colloquially, if that’s possible. The term has become a lazy label for anything that deviates from “classical.” Plus, it sounds edgy, despite the age of the term and the waning of its power.

    That said, an unreliable narration is often a starting point for a postmodern approach. I think The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has some elements that could be considered a base for a postmodern novel, but I found that it was more about inverting and reworking fantasy tropes and reinvigorating the possibilities of an epic (often with a critical edge), not question all verities and received knowledge. I don’t think you can have a “postmodern epic,” because that would lack the deconstructive unpacking of the style itself.

    It’s hard to talk about in a brief response. I wrote the question of postmodernism last fall over at Apex: . And while I tried to be careful, I still overstepped a bit and trod on some folks’ toes. I really want to expand and rewrite that piece, given that the term still gets thrown around without much reflection on its meaning (and questioning of meaning).

  4. Hm.

    I guess your work could qualify under “postmodern” for the following reasons:

    – What Quinn said (first thing that popped into my mind, actually)
    – Written during postmodern era (which is apparently what we’re in right now)
    – There’s a kind of self-reflexivity in 100k Kingdoms on what’s going on within the story (especially with those storytime interludes and expository chunks)
    – 100k Kingdoms doesn’t quite read as a straight-up old-skool epic fantasy (e.g. it occurs within a single geographical location, whereas traditional epics cover a lot of ground; while there’s a lot of backstory which gets exposition, the story itself occurs within a small time frame, again, a departure from the traditional epic) (obviously this will change when the entire series is done) Because of these factors, Yeine’s hero’s journey isn’t quite the same as in most old epics too, that I can think of.

    Uhm. I’m sure there’s more I can think of but I don’t have the required texts (namely, In Defense of Fantasy and your book).

  5. I think I can see what he’s getting at, inasmuch as although the Kingdoms have the scope of epic fantasy (mythology, armies, world ending crises, apocalyptic cults, universe deforming magic, etc) they are not the Tolkieny blueprint “we’re off to kill the wizaaaard” Village People warparty tromping around countryside, trying to outrun the Great Darkness and Work Together to be The Only Hope…

    We don’t see this bunch of righteous muppets from the outside, we are IN your protagonists, who are very much aware both intellectually and emotionally of the import of the situations they find themselves inadvertently in – and usually really, really wish they weren’t involved. This “contemporary mindset” feel, the way your protagonists express themselves to themselves and us, how they react, what they DON’T do – I think the transparent authenticity of this is perhaps the greatest strength of your writing, it gives everything a self-awareness that makes it feel more vivid and poignant without pulling the reader or the main character out of sync with the fantasy world.

    And that is why it might be considered postmodern in the context of epic fantasy’s usual cast of Scottish dwarves and BY MY TROTH I AM WRATH Method Acting writing; that, barring linguistic problems, we could understand your protagonists as they understand us, should we meet, because they are not merely the product, role and context of their fantasy world, but also aware of these things independent of their identities.

    On the other end of the scale you have people like Joe Abercrombie, who might also be deemed postmodern epic fantasy in that everyone involved is an unmitigated cynical bastard. And somewhere between the two of you would be KJ Parker, with a bunch of engineering and socio-political textbooks, an eagle’s eye and a sad smile.

    I love the lot of you.

  6. regenklang,

    Gee, tell us how you really feel about traditional epic fantasy. ;)

    That said, a question — you said you can see what he’s getting at. What “he”? Are you referring to Sanderson’s post? Or John Stevens’ comment upthread?

  7. Quinn,

    OK, using the PBS definition, the Inheritance Trilogy books definitely don’t qualify. There is an objective truth underlying the whole thing: the gods do exist, they did stuff which has affected human history, and they have their own agendas. The first book of the trilogy is concerned with revealing this truth beneath the lies that humans have told to conceal it, and the second book explores what caused that truth to come about. The third book deals further with the consequences of that truth, but I can’t talk about it yet.

    Yeine’s confusion has nothing to do with the objective reality of her world; it’s a purely subjective, “Who am I, really?” kind of thing.

  8. John,

    Is the deconstruction of the style an absolute necessity for postmodernism? It would seem impossible to write something like an epic fantasy, which is to a degree reliant on a certain style*, and simultaneously change that style to the point that it’s no longer recognizable. A deconstructed epic fantasy would be… not epic fantasy. Or would it?

    *Of course, I might be answering my own question, here. The biggest reason I’ve noticed that some readers reject/dislike the Inheritance Trilogy is because it doesn’t adhere to whatever style they’re expecting of it as an epic fantasy. Lots of complaints that my charas don’t visit every one of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, or at least half of them; lots of complaints that there’s girl cooties in them; lots of complaints that Yeine doesn’t hit stuff with her axe.

  9. Jha,

    In Defense of Fantasy — whassat? I google it and get lots of fantasy readers feeling defensive, something about fantasy baseball, and an essay about Final Fantasy. -_-

  10. Sorry, I got a bit caught up with the named men involved in your post – after backtracking, it’s Charlie Jane Saunders’ original choice of wording that started this whole thing off, and that’s the “he” I meant.

    I honestly don’t harbour any contempt for traditional (epic) fantasy, I just have this habit of overdoing the reductionism to get points across quickly. Everything is imperfect and can be reduced to acidic tropes if you dislike it, right? I just feel goodness resists reduction without denying it (Iamsonotgoingtoapplythistodescribingyourbooks)

    On the other hand, if I didn’t take this approach I think I’d find most modern pop culture reason to despair.

    Hope you had a quiet and satisfying NYE, btw.

  11. regenklang,

    Oh. Just a couple of notes — a) it’s Anders, not Saunders (are you doing some kind of mashup with Charles Saunders here? Speaking of postmodern! :), and b) I believe Charlie Jane identifies as female. I’ve only ever been introduced to her as “her,” so let’s go with that, OK?

    “Goodness resists reduction without denying it” — huh. I’m going to have to noodle that one a bit. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that goodness resists reduction; in modern society, nothing resists reduction. But I do think goodness can withstand reduction, and yes in some cases does embrace it. But that’s a matter for another post, I think. :)

    I did, yes, and hope yours was equal on the satisfying part!

  12. yep, I reduced my realisation that Charlie ANDERSON was a woman down to ->”he”<- to avoid typing out I AM AN IDIOT, WHOOPS!

    I really shouldn´t be posting on here, chatting to several people at once whilst trying to think about Jha's last post and a coherent answer, scanning twitter AND checking on my mother occasionally, but… it's sort of what I do online these days.

    When I say goodness resists reduction, I mean, well… no matter how many bad games, errors or other negative results you could construct a critical framework to produce, Michael Jordan will always remain an amazing basketball player, just as Sir Donald Bradman will always be an Old One at cricket, even if you hate those sports. Yes sports achievement can run on stats in a way artistic creation can't really be charted, but great sporting experiences don't necessarily look that great on the chalkboard. Sometimes Brazil only won by 1-0 and watching Pelé during those games can still be like savouring liquid gold flowing across the pitch. Some of the players who have scored most, defended most, played most games are Boring As Hell, no matter how solid their careers.

    It feels to me (and this is where things become vaguely relevant after having apparently swung way off course there) that joy, or appreciation, or whatever we use to define the Benchmark of Quality in sports or art or people; that *goodness* stems from a momentary sense of moment that is both surprise and completion at once, that fulfils itself, that is both uniquely new and just as things have always been in truth. If it's there, no analysis or shame for what surrounds it can deny it, if it's not, no critical rapture or popular plaudits can give it to you.

    To borrow from Carl Sagan, to explain any (unique/subjective) moment comprehensively you'd need to remake the entire universe from scratch; if as Saul Williams has said "as a matter of fact, matter is fact, and mind, fiction", if we are the story of ourselves, then literary theory may in some senses define everything, or indeed define everything for our senses – but it is still only a subset of the All, not outside or above, just within.

    If reduction isn't immune from the process of reduction, and our understanding of What Is is pre-verbal, then can't critical thinking be a recursively looped tool in one hand and experience be a river in the other?

    Apologies for letting this answer run away with me – I fully agree with your rewording for better parsing, this "train of thought" just developed into trying to blow postmodernism's head off with it's own Lazy Gun*

    Unfortunately my mother got acute altitude sickness whilst we were up in Cuzco over the past 5 days, wasn't able to go to Macchu Picchu and was still more or less paralysed for NYE, so as you can imagine things were muted. Now we're back in Lima and she's a little better but still very weak, doesn't want to go to a doctor but doesn't want me around either, which reduces (hah!) to me typing this frantically in my room as an attempt to deal with my worry.

    So apologies for this thing being less than cogent, may it least present some entertaining babble. Look forward to that other post! Shanti.

    *Iain M Banks reference from Against A Dark Background

  13. Ha – debates about postmodernism always kick up a fun firestorm.

    I think the generic catch-all term “postmodern anything” has lost whatever precision it might have once had (which, having read quite a few of the theorists, wasn’t that much to begin with). For example, is Gene Wolfe’s There Are Doors postmodern? What about Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies? Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”? NK’s Inheritance trilogy? Each of these has been called “postmodern” for one reason or another by smart people, yet it’s hard for me to imagine a set of more dissimilar works.

    I think the problem is that one can employ postmodern devices (meta-fictional narrative, unreliable narrators, subversion of expected tropes, etc.) without employing postmodern values (subjective or non-objective reality, hypertextual reliance, etc.). As a result, you can have a work which rejects postmodern values while employing just about every postmodern device out there (some of James Morrow’s work does this, for example). Or you can have a book which adopts postmodern values but eschews the devices/techniques traditionally associated with postmodernism (some of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion works come to mind).

    Thus, trying to label anything a “postmodern epic fantasy” tells us nothing at all about what to expect in the book. Is it going to be like Catch-22? Or like the Name of the Rose? It’s like trying to group humans and slime molds together under the rubric of “living matter”: factually accurate, but functionally useless. For an astute reader, it’s an ineffective shorthand.

    But while its informational value is low, “postmodern epic fantasy” does serve a valuable marketing purpose. The instant something gets called a “postmodern something-or-other” it places it on the radar screen of respectability. Critics who would never touch “genre” are happy to consider something “postmodern”. Just look at the non-genre (“literary”) community’s love for works like Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet or for anything else dubbed “magical realism”. Is there a significant functional difference between magical realism and fantasy (epic or otherwise)? Both Calvino and Borges said that they couldn’t really see a difference. But if something gets labeled “fantasy” it’s considered low-brow entertainment. If something is “post modern” it becomes high-brow literature.

    (DISCLAIMER: Yes, I know this is somewhat over-simplified and a touch cynical…but that doesn’t necessarily make it inaccurate. And the marketing implications affect award competitions, popularity amongst reviewers, and even placement in the store.)

  14. Chris, Elfland etc.,

    But isn’t there a way to be postmodern within the genre label? Especially if a book doesn’t adhere to genre conventions? c.f. most stuff published by Small Beer press.

  15. NK: I definitely think one can be postmodern within a genre label. The most basic convention in a genre story is the ability to draw the reader into an imagined world. It might be a realistic world like ours, or it might be totally secondary, but so long as the reader can come to inhabit it, I’d argue the work can probably find a home as a “genre” title. Whether a book uses postmodern devices or values doesn’t affect that particular characteristic. There are good genre books that do, and good genre books that don’t.

    I realize that’s probably not particularly helpful, but it strikes me that outside of its marketing classification “postmodern” really just refers to a set of tools and a set of values. Just like tense, perspective, or passive voice there may be times when it makes sense to employ those tools in a genre work. And there may be times when an author wants to speak to postmodern values. Both the tools and the values can be used in any work, whether genre or not.

    But that being said, there ARE a variety of good genre books that employ postmodern techniques and/or values. Here are some examples that I was able to come up with:

    There’s an epic fantasy series called “The Banned and the Banished” by James Clemens. I think it was first published in the UK, but if I’m not mistaken it’s available here in the US in mass market now as well. It is – very clearly – a genre series. It operates within most genre conventions, including a “chosen one” and the dreaded “Dark Lord”. I don’t think anyone could possibly call it a mainstream or non-genre book. However, it employs two postmodern devices very effectively. First, it is a meta-fictional text. The story itself is framed as a rare academic text, made available only to the best and brightest students. And the framing device makes the narrator fundamentally unreliable. The first sentence (which reads: “First of all, the author is a liar.”) does a good job calling everything else in the story into question. And despite the use of those two postmodern devices, the text remains a fundamentally genre text, employing a host of classic tropes (witches, warlocks, a literal “Dark Lord” with minions, etc.). I think the attempt to stick with genre tropes (note I mean tropes, not conventions) within a postmodern frame is actually a quite neat idea.

    Within fantasy, I think postmodern devices are used most often in what Farah Mendelsohn calls “liminal fantasies” (for a cool way of thinking about categories of fantasy, I strongly recommend her Rhetorics of Fantasy). John Crowley’s Little, Big is probably the defining work in this sub-genre. It is extremely hypertextual, relying on all manner of allusions to earlier fantasies in various media (Shakespeare, Carroll, Arthur Rackham, etc.). And being such a powerfully liminal text, the relationships between the world of Edgewater (the Drinkwater residence) and the “real world” and the “world of faerie” are purposefully (albeit subtly) blurred. Little, Big is clearly a genre (fantasy) work (winner of the WFA, nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo), but it is definitely not an epic fantasy.

    Other liminal texts include many works by Gene Wolfe. He seems to especially appreciate unreliable narrators, using them to very good effect in Soldier of the Mist and in There Are Doors. Soldier of the Mist especially also makes use of a meta-fictional narrative (the book represents a “found diary” of Latro, the titular character) to further call everything into question. In each case, the reader has no way of knowing whether the narrated experiences are – in fact – real or not. Both books are strongly rooted in genre conventions (though I would argue less so than Little, Big), but they still rely on postmodern devices to achieve their narrative goals.

    In terms of postmodern values, here I think it’s a little harder to find genre examples. The best examples (although in science fiction, not fantasy) are probably the works of Vonnegut, who the postmodern literary community seems to have “claimed”. I’d argue that Vonnegut was primarily a science fiction author, writing very clearly within the confines of the science fiction genre. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have anything similar in the world of fantasy. At least, I can’t really think of a Vonnegut-type fantasy postmodernist. I think – in terms of values – Moorcock comes the closest, although he consciously eschews both postmodern devices and traditional genre conventions.

    Actually, to be more precise Moorcock eschewed traditional epic fantasy conventions and by doing so created a whole new set of epic fantasy conventions. The ethics and values of his Eternal Champion books (especially the Elric saga) are strongly rooted in the postmodern philosophy and activism of the 1970’s, while the books explicitly strike out as a reaction to the Merry England value system of Tolkien high fantasy. For some of Moorcock’s own criticism on epic fantasy, I’d strongly recommend his Wizards and Wild Romance. While not explicitly dealing with issues like postmodernism it certainly addresses perspectives on genre conventions.

    Anyway, that’s it out of me for now. :-)

  16. I know this is OT for this comment thread, but I’ve just finished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I was struck by something. We’re told that all the demon children were hunted down by the Three because their flesh/blood was essentially poison to the Three. But the Enefadah were forced into human form and then forced to have sex many, many times with their human captors. Was it possible for these human/god forms to conceive with or make pregnant the humans who abused them? And if so, would the resulting child have been a demon, or would the Enefadah simply have taken steps to destroy any such off-spring before the question came up? I’m sorry to plague you – I just found your story world and characters utterly fascinating and I want to know moooaar (and I’ve made myself promise not to read The Broken Kingdoms until I’ve finished revising my WIP).

  17. Sorry I’m coming to this discussion late! I just saw this. I was not the first to refer to the Inheritance Trilogy as “postmodern epic fantasy” — a friend used that phrase to describe it, I think at World Fantasy. Off the top of my head, things that would make it postmodern in my book include the fact that there are gods and huge stakes, but no traditional epic quest. And the fact that the first two books don’t have a traditional fantasy protagonist, and in fact you’ve said that the “real” protagonists of the trilogy, in your view, are the gods, who are mostly viewed from the human vantage points of Yeine and Oree. Hope that helps!

  18. Hi Zoë,

    The question’s OK; I’m actually reading this thread, versus the older threads on the site. :)

    Viraine explains this to Yeine in chapter 4 or so of 100K. As he puts it, any unlucky barmaid or careless soldier can do what the Enefadeh (all gods, actually, including Itempas et al) are no longer capable of since Enefa’s death: reproduce. This gets addressed a bit further in book 2, so I’ll stop explaining here for fear of spoilers. :)

  19. Hi Charlie Jane! Welcome!

    OK, I’ll buy some of the postmodern markers you’re noting — but is the mere use of a non-traditional protagonist really postmodern? Breaking the all!whiteguy!all!thetime! paradigm is really all it takes? I find that somehow sad.

  20. Darn, I wrote a long response to your response, which my browser ate. Shorter version: I don’t actually think your protagonists’ race or gender are the reason they are non-traditional protagonists. There’s a lot of other ways in which they seem like atypical heroes for an epic fantasy, including the lack of a “hero’s journey” and the fact that a lot of their importance to the story is through the relationships they form. Plus the fact that you’ve said you don’t consider Yeine or Oree the protagonists of their respective novels puts them (almost) in a sort of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern role in those stories, to some extent anyway. Finally, I’d say these are epic fantasies that come with a certain amount of awareness, and side-stepping, of the tropes of epic fantasy.

  21. charlie: I love you but those are some rather odd statements. those novels are not postmodern. they’re just not cliche. why do they have to be postmodern? it’s not like postmodernism is a *progression* over modernism or anything else. it’s just…different.

  22. Thanks for answering! I was confused because – well, one of Yeine’s first comments is that the Gods ‘breed like rabbits’. I didn’t make the connection with Viraine’s remark that it was PAST tense. I have to confess that I read the book in one day; I was so desperate to find out What Happened Next that I couldn’t put it down, which probably means that I missed a lot of subtleties. I’ll have to go back and re-read it again more slowly – I can already tell I’ll get even more from it the second time around.

  23. Charlie Jane,

    Ah, gotcha. Though in doing these things, I think I was less defying a convention than adhering to an older one: I structured the books of the Inheritance Trilogy to read more like an epic of old, just told from within. So, the Trojan War as spoken about by Helen (which I think has been done), if it acknowledged that a) Helen probably wasn’t blonde or northern European-looking, and b) she was a survivor of multiple rapes. This kind of subtext has always been present in ancient epics; I just tried to make it explicit. Or the conflict between Osiris and Set as observed by Isis. I’m kind of amazed when I read reviews that are shocked, shocked they tell me, at the sexuality in my novels. And I’m like, dude, at least I didn’t include clay “replacement” dildos, bestiality, or necrophilia! But I think the problem is that not a lot of epic fantasy readers have actually read epics; they’ve only read other modern epic fantasy novels. They don’t realize just how disturbing-in-subtext, and blatantly sexual, the original source material is.

  24. I’m came across this thread as I am trying to understand whether fantasy fiction as a genre, can be post modern, I’ve read a lot of interviews with Stephen Erikson, a fave author of mine about how he wants realism in his characters, and to avoid the tropes… which got me thinking about whether this made it post modern. Thanks for all your thoughts, this is helping me along with my pondering… and btw, I reckon once I finish the Erikson Malazan series I’m going to be reading One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – sounds right up my street!

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