Happy post-Labor-Day, for you Americans out there. I spent the weekend relaxing with friends, eating peaches and drinking peach-flavored wine, and writing — blissfully writing. ::happy sigh:: It’s been awhile since I could write as much as I wanted. Felt really good.
Anyway. Earlier this weekend (starting September 3), I inadvertently provoked a sprawling discussion on Twitter by wondering out loud, “Does fantasy have to be set in the past, or use bygone technology?” It was a good convo — included reviewers like Niall Harrison and Rose Fox, as well as fellow writers Justine Larbalestier and Nnedi Okorafor. Go check it out.
However, I’ve been noodling a corrollary to that question: “Does epic fantasy have to be set in the past, or use bygone technology?” Because I tried to think of an epic fantasy that’s set in the future — one which is clearly fantasy, not just space opera with a little handwavium a la “Star Wars” — and it took some effort. I suppose one must consider “Star Wars”, since it fits many of the tropes: there’s a prophesied Chosen One, a Dark Lord (who’s even called a dark lord), a quest, a Five-Man Band, there’s magic (however much they BSed it with “midiwhatchamacallits”) and despite the ubiquity of laser pistols, the decisive battles are mostly fought with swords. But it takes more than tropes to make a fantasy, IMO, and as Lucas has continually expanded/revised the SW universe and franchise, he’s mostly added science fictional tropes: aliens, weapons based on actual Science, the occasional bit of real astrophysics. It’s clear that he intends for it to be science fiction, so I’m inclined to give him that — lest he retcon even more skiffy stuff into it and render the conversation moot.
But fictionwise, textually, the only other clear example I can think of is Weis and Hickman’s “Star of the Guardians” series. Which, like SW, is peppered with enough science fictional tropes that it’s debatable.
But does futuristic epic fantasy have to look like soap opera, and resemble past-oriented epic fantasy so closely? Must it contain swords, Chosen Ones, prophecies, all that? Is there any epic fantasy in a postapocalyptic setting? (Hmm. Maybe Steven Boyett’s Ariel and Elegy Beach qualify. Or Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series.) What about dystopian settings? Any epic fantasies set in the near/high-tech future, maybe cyberpunk? (Might “the Matrix” qualify? OK, but that’s not textual.) Could there be such a thing as an epic fantasy with a hard science fiction aesthetic?
42 thoughts on “Must Epic Fantasy Be Set in the Past?”
“Could there be such a thing as an epic fantasy with a hard science fiction aesthetic?”
Isn’t that the classic definition of Space Opera?
This is an awesome question. For space fantasy, I’d tentatively suggest the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey – I know it’s marketed as SF, but time-travelling and teleporting dragons in space on a mostly medieval world that also has sentient dolphins? I’m going to call that a tropemash at very the least. I’m interested at the role of technology, though. Intuitively, it feels like there’s a lot more scope for futuristic fantasies where magic and technology work alongside each other, as opposed to fantasies where the only technology is magically based.
For post-apocalyptic fantasy, I think Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles fir the bill, as does her stand-alone book Scatterlings: both are set on Earth after implied nuclear events whose fallout has caused people to mutate magic. I’d also suggest that Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian Sequence could feature in this: there’s magic and technology aplenty, and various books merge those themes awesomely on the matters of space flight, advanced civilisations and interplanetary colonisation. One novel I’m editing right now is a sort of steampunky-fantasy thing, in that it’s roughly modern level technology but on a different world with magic and crystal technology, which possibly qualifies it.
Also, Traci Harding’s The Ancient Future series, which was a blend of SF and Arthurian magic. Hm – starting to wonder if Australian writers might be a good place to look for this stuff, as both Carmody and Harding are from Oz. As are Sara Douglas – her Axis trilogy, which is entirely epic/magic, is ultimately revealed to be set in a world colonised by people from Earth (major spoiler, but the books are decades old at this point) – and Paul Collins, whose Dragonlinks series is a mashup of fantasy and SF, with characters travelling between epic worlds and high tech ones.
There’s probably more, but I’m going to keep thinking about this.
That’s a really interesting and thought-provoking question, I must say.
I don’t want to fall into the “well in the novel I’m working on” trap… so… I won’t. It doesn’t exist in a finished form yet so there’s no use speculating on whether it works in the way you’re contemplating.
But I think this is a question that more and more is being considered these days. I’m no expert, but I see signs that epic fantasy is iterating, slowly, toward a more modern age. It might be a more modern age where we still use swords because… you know… swords. It’s difficult to point to specifics, though, because a lot of that is open to interpretation.
Anyway, it is a question that is perhaps not driving but is at least informing my current work-in-progress.
I’m curious, though, why you reject the idea that tropes define the genre? Okay, I’ll give you tropes and themes. But without genre tropes, do you have a genre? And if a work possesses all of the typical genre tropes, is it not a representative of that genre (retcons-be-damned)?
Have you read Walter Jon Williams’ [i]Metropolitan[i] and [i]City on Fire[/i]? It’s about a world-city society whose machines are powered by (wikipedia) “plasm, an energy responsive to human will that is created by the arrangement of matter (such as buildings, or the structural elements within buildings) in certain geometric patterns.” Plasm is about as versatile as a Green Lantern ring and plasm users are called mages.
Dagnabit… I html-failed somewhere in there.
Also, there’s Melissa Scott’s Silence Leigh trilogy (Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude, 1986; The Empress of Earth, 1987) where handwavium powering the starships is purest fantasy.
[i]For space fantasy, I’d tentatively suggest the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey – I know it’s marketed as SF, but time-travelling and teleporting dragons in space on a mostly medieval world that also has sentient dolphins? [/i]
This is an artifact of the position noted wackaloon and hard core racist John W. Campbell held in SF for decades and decades: he was willing to buy psionics stories but after about 1950, around the time Astounding got serious competition in the form of Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, he embraced crank science with a passion  and psionics was a big part of that. Sticking mental powers into a story boosted the odds of selling it to JWC greatly  and anything with psionics would be seen by him as SF, even if the story that resulted would be classified as fantasy today.
The Lord Darcy series, for example, is in a world where instead of chemistry and physics and such, the Europeans developed the laws of magic but magic is really psionics so it got published in Astounding/Analog.
1: For example, he midwifed Dianetics.
2: There are mid-rank authors (like Christopher Anvil) who seem to have spent their careers writing stories built entirely around JWC’s idiosyncratic list of preferred tropes.
Because I tried to think of an epic fantasy that’s set in the future […] and it took some effort. I suppose one must consider “Star Wars” […]
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
So you could ignore it on the grounds that it isn’t set in the future.
This is an interesting question – particularly because I think the real question is, “Do the underlying tropes of epic fantasy (Chosen One, Dark Lord, all that Star Wars Joseph Campbell monomyth stuff, etc.) really matter as much as the more obvious surface aspects (wizards, dragons, swords, castles, Sean Bean getting killed) to the people who are classifying it?”
Frankly, I think there’s something to be said for the superficial. I think it has a huge impact on how people react to something, not because they’re being shallow, but because I think a lot of the power of stories comes from the way they play on a shorthand of setting and character. It’s the power of the first impression. Just like the first page of a book sets up more expectations from the reader in terms of tone, voice and character than probably the following 50 pages combined, I think the aspects of the setting that the reader picks up on immediately are much more influential (at least during a first read) than the underlying story structure.
It’s hard to explain exactly, but there’s just a mood I get into when I start reading a book, and it’s noticeably different for an epic fantasy vs. a hard sci-fi or a realistic lit-fic read. And that mood or mindset really affects how I approach the reading.
That’s not to say epic fantasy CAN’T be set in the future or the present; I just think that anyone writing something that way needs to understand that for most readers, they’ll be setting up expectations for something else, and then subverting them. Which could be exactly what they’re going for, of course. But you can’t really change your readers’ expectations; you just have to decide what to do with them.
It seems to me (although I’m not a connoisseur of the genre) that part of the attraction of Epic Fantasy, capitalized, is the vision of swankly dressed people who can snap their fingers and Make Things Happen on a grand scale. What individuals, in modern times, have that kind of Make-Things-Happen power?
* Big-city political bosses (flunking the “grand scale” requirement)
* Dictators of small countries that are not very pleasant places to live and are generally clients of larger states (ditto)
* Soviet or Chinese premiers (flunking the “swankly dressed” requirement)
* Corporate executives (how many armies did Steve Jobs command?)
So I think it’s easier to project that kind of power structure onto a bygone era, even though real-world medieval monarchs operated under all kinds of restraints.
Having said all that… would Atlas Shrugged qualify as a contemporary epic fantasy?
For the purposes of clarifying the discussion, let’s just say I’m willing to drink the Kool-Aid on space opera’s traditional handwavium. If the work’s author/creator spins elaborate-enough
BSexplanations for how instantaneous interstellar travel works, or how psychic power is not magic power because Science, I’ll swallow it. Not because I believe it, but because that’s a by-now-long-established convention of science fiction — not provable science but plausible science, for degrees of plausibility that make Einstein do the cha-cha in his grave, but whatever.
What I’m after is stuff in which the woo-woo isn’t explained away. Stuff that openly embraces the idea of magic. Stephen King’s Dark Tower is a good example — there’s some handwavium (Slo-Trans engines) but also a lot of mystical forces, etc.
I would suggest that Atlas Shrugged qualifies as dystopian fiction, which usually gets lumped into science fiction. But it certainly is a certain kind of person’s wishful power fantasy.
I also think that again, it’s more than tropes that make epic fantasy. At its root, I think epic fantasy (sometimes unconsciously) emulates the epic, not in storytelling form but in theme and focus. The epics of old were not merely stories of Men (and Women) Making Things Happen On A Grand Scale; they were tales of People Making Things Happen Despite Destiny, or the gods’ intervention, or the forces of evil, or whatever. While it’s certainly possible that the people you mention think they’re doing great things despite destiny, they’re really not. Any student of history is all to aware that these dictators and crime bosses and so forth are really just the latest iteration of a very old and oft-repeated story.
But you’re raising a point, I think: maybe we need to decide which definition of epic fantasy we’re working with, before we try and figure out how to break it.
The magic in the Silence Leigh trilogy really is magic. Ditto for the plasm in Williams’ series.
I have an unexamined gut feeling that Japanese speculative fiction might be the place to look for examples because an iron hard barrier between sf and f doesn’t seem to have caught on there:
Shirow’s Orion has a galactic empire planning on annihilating all negative karma with a stupendous engine of this-can-only-badly-erism. Guess how well that works out?
Kazuma Kamachi’s Toaru Majutsu no Index is actually a boarding school story, more or less, but the world it is in features magic as something anyone who isn’t psionic can learn (at great risk to themselves) while psionics is scientific , can be trained (at the cost of magic effectively lethal to practice) but is limited by factors outside the realms that training can handle.
1: Or as I think TV Tropes puts it “technobabble dueling with fantasy”.
It’s been awhile since I read it, but I would probably put Gene Wolfe’s Books of the New Sun into the category of ‘future fantasy’. Without giving too much away, it’s set on a very far future Earth (the sun has begun to cool, if I remember correctly) and features: a torturer’s apprentice as our protagonist, all sorts of inventive new creepy-crawly-monstery types, an epic quest, and bits of future technology sprinkled throughout. I think there was even some society of bad guys who were a sort of cthulu-1984 hybrid from hell. Who spoke only in religious verse.
That being said, isn’t the entire ‘dying earth’ subgenre essentially fantasy that’s been plugged into a setting where things can go pew-pew-pew?
Also, and at he risk of displaying my uber-nerdness- Warhammer 40k liberally throws around magic, ancient horrors, psionics, dystopias, FTL ships, dudes in big suits of techno armor, demons, aliens, and all that noise. Though it’s very sci-fi, there are tons of fantasy elements in it as well, particularly its main story (The Horus Heresy) which reads like what would happen if Michael Bay were to direct his version of the bible.
So, to answer the question (I think), I firmly believe fantasy can find a place in future settings, and no, there’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing your apples with my oranges.
I do wonder though: do the aesthetic trappings of sci-fi (lasers, starships, etc) and fantasy (orcs, swords, etc) define those genres? I’d like to think that they’re not so superficially distinguished from one another ;)
I can think of a dozen examples of this from other-country fantasy, easily, although much of that comes from my love of J-RPGs. The Final Fantasy series (science used to mine the planet’s magical energy or enslave naturally-magical beings, depending on the game), the cyberpunk Digital Devil Saga games (they’re AIs given humanoid avatar shapes, basically re-living the Mahabharata in a postapocalyptic future world), and I’m currently playing a game called Nier that’s set 1300 years after the end of modern civilization, in a society that’s now stuck somewhere between hunter-gatherer and pseudo-medieval (the “magical” creatures are, I suspect, bits of corrupted computer code or maybe formerly-human “ghosts in the machine”, but it’s hard to tell; I’m only halfway through). That’s one of the reasons I still love playing J-RPGs despite their tendency to linearity; but it’s such interesting linearity.
But it’s in other places. Chinese wuxia (there’s a few futuristic examples; the one most Americans will be familiar with is Jet Li’s movie “The One”), Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasies (she’s American, but her work is heavily flavored with her Nigerian ethnicity), etc. But Nnedi’s stuff isn’t called epic fantasy — even by her publisher — even though it follows the forms of traditional epics to the letter.
Is there any epic fantasy in a postapocalyptic setting?
It’s not epic but the Sharing Knife series by Bujold is post-apocalyptic.
So is Pratchett’s Nation, on three levels (one a huge spoiler so I will rot-13 it):
1: Plague has decimated Britain and presumably the Continent as well.
2: A tsumani has wiped out all but one member of a culture in the Pacific (and killed many thousands of people in the region).
3: Vg gheaf bhg gung na ragver pvivyvmngvba jnf qebjarq gubhfnaqf bs lrnef ntb jura gur vpr ntr raqrq naq gur frnf ebfr. Gur vfynaqf hfrq gb or zbhagnva gbcf jura gur frnf jrer ybjre.
That’s a good point; I’d forgotten the Dying Earth books (though are there enough of them to qualify as a subgenre? I guess there must be…) Some of them clearly fit epic fantasy: Mark Charan Newton’s Red Sun books, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. But to hark back to my earlier comment, there are plenty of hints in some of Nnedi Okorafor’s books that they’re postapocalyptic/dying earth too — just more optimistic/pragmatic about how people survive afterward. Why are Mark’s and Brandon’s labeled epic fantasy while Nnedi’s aren’t?
(I have my own suspicions/answers for that, but I’ll hold them for now.)
For those going ¿Como? at James’ third point above, copy it and paste it into this.
C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy reads as future epic fantasy to me–it’s one of those “lost colony on distant planet” set-ups, but I think the fae go beyond handwavium into straight-up magic. (For those who haven’t read the series, the fae is a mystical force native to the planet that makes humans’ thoughts and desires, both subconscious and conscious, into reality. This goes about as well as you’d expect and very quickly throws the colony back into Renaissance level technology; they know, in theory, how to make guns, but it’s too likely that someone’s stray nervous thought of “I wonder if this will blow up in my hand” will make them go boom, so they by and large don’t. This is unfortunate, because given humanity’s tendency to dream up monsters they could really use effective weaponry.)
Jennifer Fallon’s Second Sons trilogy is another in the lost colony subgenre with a similar tech level to Coldfire, but while it’s got the evil cult and long-lost royal heir it has no magic, so I think it’s easily set into science fiction even if the publisher disagrees with me. (C’mon, the main character’s greatest power is his facility with mathematics; how is this not sci-fi?)
You know what would be an epic stage for an epic fantasy? A Dyson Shell! Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson had one where the humans had colonized the outer shell of a 4-solar mass shell (which conveniently had light sources able to power an ecosystem and also an atmosphere that could be breathed by humans, otherwise it would have been a very short story). The result was an area billions of times larger than Earth, with gravity low enough a suitably equipped human could fly with muscle power.
There were also a lot of inhabited levels below the surfaces. Lots and lots. 3 solar masses worth of levels.
(Magic comes in because obviously you can’t built a shell given real world constraints on materials…)
Justin Cronin’s the Passage has some fairly strong fantasy elements – it is about a quest to save the world undertaken by a chosen one and an eclectic group of companions who are forced to battle a dark lord (thirteen of them, in fact, but only one is prominent in the stroy). Although the future’s vampire apocalypse was caused by science, the novel is ambiguous on the question the supernatural, leaving plenty of room to read the novel as if there are supernatural forces at work.
Also I love Nier. Possible way more than is healthy. I would definitely recommend playing it through twice (the second run is relatively quick). The first playthrough is good, but it really shines when it tweaks the perspective on the new game+, taking the tragedy of the central conflict and force-feeding it radioactive mountain dew.
Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens trilogy? It’s languishing on my TBR, so I can’t provide details, but this is what I currently know: it’s about a few of the Norse gods who survived Ragnarok “and how the end of the world transformed them and everything they touched. It’s a dark and dreaming story of a steampunk alternate future, in which battered demigods roam the streets of ancient cities and heroes–mortal, immortal, and doomed–do what terrible things they must, in the hope of life and the face of the end of everything.” (From Bear’s website, bolding my own.)
And, maybe not quite what you asked for, but there are books like Iain M. Banks’ Inversions, which looks just like epic fantasy (it’s about political intrigue and the downfall of kingdoms, so actually I guess it’s more kingdom fantasy than epic fantasy, but I don’t see why you couldn’t have done epic fantasy the same way) unless you know that two of the main characters are Special Circumstances agents manipulating the events of a medieval-tech world because that’s what the Culture (far-future post-Singularity people who like to shape events galaxy-wide so that evolving groups become “enlightened”) do.
Forgive for the parentheses; I think nestedly for a few hours after I wake up. (I also make up words, apparently.)
“Could there be such a thing as an epic fantasy with a hard science fiction aesthetic?”
Yes, yes, yes! “Hard science fiction” is something for really bitter people to squabble over, but there are plenty of shows that tell the sprawling stories associated with “epic” fantasy in space. Dune, rebooted Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who! I’m not even that dedicated a sci-fi girl, but all of those are clear sci-fi stories that tell “fate of all humanity” stories. Also check the 70s manga (or its 2000s anime adaptation) “Terra e…”/”Toward the Terra.” It’s a classic “boy hero grows into great leader, saves world, overthrows evil empire” except in space and the evil empire is a computer.
But I can’t let the Star Wars mention pass, either. On the whole, the franchise is wibbly-wobbly between being science-fiction and science-fantasy. It has some elements that are hard sci-fi — the Rogue Squadron and X-Wing books are dogfighting war stories with minimal mysticism, for instance. But there are bubbles within the Star Wars universe that really are perfect examples of “epic fantasy with a hard science fiction aesthetic.” “Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor,” “Traitor,” and the Luke and Mara plot of the Hand of Thrawn duology read like pure, sweet fantasy, despite taking place in a sci-fi galaxy. And certainly, absolutely, the films are epic fantasy at its finest, dressed up with lasers and sci-fi accouterments. To prove it, look no further than some of the opening narrative text of the Revenge of the Sith novelization:
“This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it. It is a story of love and loss, brotherhood and betrayal, courage and sacrifice and the death of dreams. It is a story of the blurred line between our best and our worst. It is the story of the end of an age. A strange thing about stories- Though all this happened so long ago and so far away that words cannot describe the time or the distance, it is also happening right now. Right here. It is happening as you read these words. […] Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”
That’s straight-up fantasy lingo!
A few other things not already mentioned:
C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine saga feels quite a bit like epic fantasy, but is unambiguously and canonically set in the future and built around a technological artifact.
Brust’s Vlad Taltos series has a canonical science fiction setting and history, but is full of real, working magic that’s not handwaved away as something else.
Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East and Book of Swords series is postapocalyptic epic fantasy with working magic, and with an in-series explanation of how the transition happened.
And yeah, there are oodles of examples from other cultures, particularly Japanese RPGs where this is a long-standing favorite trope.
I cannot believe nobody even mentioned “Dune”. It has swords, Dark Lord, Chosen One and magic. Well, it also has spaceships and nukes, but I would be willing to let it pass. ;-)
A few other Japanese examples:
Kieli by Yukako Kabei – alien world, an immortal cyborg soldier who can see ghosts, a teenage girl who can see ghosts, the ghost of another dead soldier, oppressive church, tech ranging from 19th to early 21st Century levels, and sandworms. Has very much the same feel as The Dark Tower.
Fate/Zero by Gen Uroubuchi – wizards and their familiars fight for control of the Holy Grail in modern Japan. The novels haven’t been officially translated, but there are fan-translation floating about.
Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon (Horizon on the Edge of Nowhere) by Minoru Kawakami – I have no idea what it’s about, the descriptions I’ve read are truly bizarre, and there are no fan translations yet, but there’s an anime adaptation that’s supposed to start next month.
I’m amazed no one has yet mentioned Patricia Kennealy(-Morrison)’s Keltiad, which is flat-out epic fantasy with magic and telepathy and prophecies and gods and fairies… on the six planets the spacefaring Kelts fled to after the Christians invaded Ireland. In book three people from Earth find the Kelts and are like “What the FUCK they are SEVEN FEET TALL and speak LATIN”; hilarity ensues, also interstellar war. The whole thing is made of delicious delicious crack. Kennealy also did a very peculiar but enjoyable retelling of the Arthurian legend in the same setting.
I’d say actually that Meredith Ann Pierce’s “Darkangel” trilogy (“The Darkangel,” “A Gathering of Gargoyles,” and “The Pearl of the Soul of the World”) fits the bill. It’s set on the moon in a distant post-Earth apocalypse future, and is a pretty standard “must save the world from evil villain” epic fantasy story. It’s got plenty of magic as well as typical fantasy creatures such as dwarves (called something else though) as well as technological references to the (now defunct) former human societies. I’d never considered the books that way before, but this post made me think of them.
Diana Wynne Jones melds the two very successfully in several of her books – for example, Homeward Bounders, The Merlin Conspiracy, Hexwood, Deep Secret. The first three are YA (which does tend to take genre boundaries out the back and give them a good kicking) but the last one is adult, and if I recall correctly, several of her adult books do the same thing. You’ve got spaceships, intergalactic wormholes, gene-splicing, computers – and mages, centaurs, vengeful Gods and cursing.
My muse has been recently playing around with that exact idea. I asked myself why magic and non-Earths is so often associated with medieval living and that set her off to consider the possibilities.
And now, thanks to this post, the idea has just merged with my next in the list project and my brain hurts with all the idea sparkling that’s happening. ;)
Some of Clifford Simak’s work felt like futuristic fantasy. It’s been long enough since I read the books in question I can no longer recall if he had an SFnal handwave or not.
Is there any epic fantasy in a postapocalyptic setting?
Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara series and Fred Saberhagen’s Books of Swords are set in postapocalyptic settings. However, both take place so far “post” (50,000 years in case of Books of Swords) that not enough of modern world remains to notice, and the fact of settings being in postapocalyptic future has to be spelled out.
Some of Clifford Simak’s work felt like futuristic fantasy. It’s been long enough since I read the books in question I can no longer recall if he had an SFnal handwave or not.
I am pretty sure Goblin Reservation did not bother with any handwavium. It has magic, and it has technology so high it is indistinguishable from magic.
How about Buffy? Unlike Doctor Who (which was a good suggestion above), it never pretended to be science fiction. But they weren’t above using modern or advanced technology (Buffybot!) right along with the stakes, swords, and ancient tomes.
Haven’t read the comments yet, which I will go back and do in a moment :) but my take on it is that “epic” refers to the scope of the story. One of my favorite epics to point out isn’t even fantasy, and it’s not even written media — it’s Babylon 5. If the first four seasons are not an epic, I have no idea what it is!
“Epic fantasy” was, IMO, originally referencing large scope fantasies like Tolkien or Jordan or whomever. At this point in common use, it’s become less of a comment on scope and more of a classification for “fantasy set in a medieval-esque world with wizards and dragons and magic”.
Short answer, I do think that you can call something that isn’t necessarily a traditional fantasy an epic, but if you refer to it as an epic fantasy, you’re likely to have some very confused readers.
The Amber novels by Roger Zelazny come to mind: everything starts in a mundane present (1970s?) world, and gradually deeper levels of the cosmos are revealed. There’s an awful lot of swordfighting, but no dragons (if I remember correctly, it’s been a while).
I’m having trouble defining epic fantasy here, since no one’s really agreed on what makes it epic (unless I missed it somewhere, totally possible) so I can’t really answer this the way I want to. I’m not nearly as well read as I could and probably should be, so I can’t think of any books off the top of my head. Maybe Lawhead’s The Skin Map, although I haven’t finished it. It reminds me of Gaiman’s Neverwhere a little. Would that qualify?
Let me go to what I know. RPGs. Final Fantasy was already mentioned.
The video game, Xenogears, fits into this if epic involves swords and sorcery, a Chosen One. It starts out traditional fantasy for the first hour or so of the game and then these huge mechs come in and tear everything up. Next thing you know, there’s two floating cities at war, a guy with split personalities, life extension, nuclear disasters, and a ton of psychoanalysis and Jungian stuff. It’s an awesome game (to me at least) if you don’t mind a ton of cut scenes.
I do know that blending the two is something I call myself trying to do.
I can’t think of any Epic Fantasy style stories in post-apocalyptic, dystopian or sci-fi settings that weren’t already mentioned, but my favorite crossover between Fantasy and Sci-fi is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series.
The planet Darkover is a lost colony that has regressed to medieval level technology and where interbreeding with the native race has created an upper social class that can use psionic powers called laran – it’s magic, and they even have cool magical items and teleporting! There are a few books just set exclusively on Darkover and told from the perspective of Darkovans. However, the best books (IMO) are those told about what happens when the people of Earth rediscover their lost colony and the clash between hard sci-fi/spacefaring humans and these low-technology, magic-using humans. Both are shown as heroes and villains, depending on the book. It’s a great series for combining the two, I think.
Also, I wouldn’t rule out some superhero and comic book storylines. Surely, they qualify as “epic” with the boy or girl hero who must defeat the evil dark lord (super villain!) and many if not most involve magic or weird powers and technology.
If I remember correctly, the ‘Dying Earth’ subgenre (Wolfe et al) originated with Jack Vance. It’s far future ‘where technology is sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic’ (Clarke, probably paraphrased). A lot of contemporary fantasy tropes originated with Vance, who was very influential for early D&D (e.g., spells you forget when you cast them) and thus on everyone who ever played D&D. I’m guessing for fantasy authors alive today, that’s a pretty common influence, conscious or not.
So, one answer to ‘does epic fantasy have to be set in the past?’ would be ‘no, but we usually forget that’. Epic fantasy doesn’t have to be ‘Tolkien fanfic’, but an overwhelming amount of the time, I guess it is.
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How would you classify a book like ‘Archangel’ by Sharon Shinn? It’s in the distant future but with characters like Gods and Angels?
I would look no further than anime to say yes. Great adaptations of classic stories set in a fantastic setting like The Count of Monte Cristo or Seven Samurai adding hard science fiction to provide a sense of a cosmic scale. I think that Marry Shelley when she essentially invented Science Fiction did so as a way of providing a fantastic backdrop to her stories that was alternate to the use of religious elements or magic but that achieved the same affect. Setting something in the far future simply serves as a fantastic setting. For Marry Shelley that meant the 21st century in The Last Man. The bar on what is fantastic shifts as technology advances while the past will always seem the realm of monsters inventing new ones just means redrawing the map to give that sense of wonder again. Here there be monsters and heroes, just traveling out amongst the stars.
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