On Realism in Fantasy

The CompanyToday I finished reading KJ Parker’s 2008 novel The Company. And, as usual when I finish one of her novels, I wondered why the hell I had.

It’s not that they’re bad novels (although I felt this one was somewhat inferior to her other books), it’s that they are relentlessly depressing. I’ve never read novels that struck me as so utterly misanthropic, where you typically end up despising every character there is. The cynicism is breathtaking, and that’s even before we get to the way that they’re normally about wars in one way or another.

Her portrayal of warfare is worrying. In every fight, every battle, people lose because of luck. They die because they tripped over their swords, they have cheap helmets, people misunderstood the plan, weapons broke, weevils got into the flour, trebuchets were badly constructed, the civilians didn’t listen to the military – I could really keep going all day. There’s never any sign of skill or a plan determining who dies; it’s just rotten bad luck and people being morons.

Having read about, oh, ten of her novels by now, I’ve sort of figured out what they’re really about. In each case, a major character loses something that they care about badly. They then spend the rest of the novel (or series) trying to get whatever that thing is back. This doesn’t sound so bad, and essentially the motivation is good.

What is horrifying are the lengths they go to in order to achieve their ultimately petty desires – which usually won’t or can’t be the way they desired. For example, in her recent Engineer Trilogy, engineer Ziani Vaatzes is exiled by his people for making a toy against specification. To end his exile, so he can go back to his wife whom he loves, he has to carefully engineer a war between his own people and three other societies so he can betray the societies and gain forgiveness. Thousands on thousands of people die, two civilisations are destroyed, and he finally comes back to the city to find out his wife organised his exile to begin with because she was screwing one of the city leaders. It’s enough to make you want to kill yourself.

I think the really horrifying part of her novels is that no-one is ever trying to be evil or do the wrong thing. Ziani Vaatzes never really saw what he was doing as wrong, just as something he had to do – and it’s a trend that continues. Often, people trying to make things right are the people who do the most damage (a trend bucked by The Company, but only on a technicality). Every person in the Engineer Trilogy justifies the awful things they’re doing as something that is necessary; the phrase ‘because I have no choice’ comes up every other chapter. For The Company, every really horrifying thing occurs because their leader has a vision he is determined to carry out, no matter the outcome.

But I think the most dreadful example, really, is in the Fencer Trilogy. Gorgas Loredan doesn’t think he’s a bad man; just a man who has made mistakes and is trying to come good. He does admit his flaws: he pimped out his unwilling sister and shot his brothers and father when they almost found out. And he admits it was a mistake; what he really can’t figure out is why his sister and other brother won’t move past it – so he dedicates his life to trying to win them back. Sadly, that plan involves a lot of death and blood, but that’s just what he had to do.

You see why this gets depressing? And it gets worse, mostly because the brother is hypothetically the protagonist and eventually sinks even lower than Gorgas to get some vague revenge. Most of the Engineer Trilogy is justified as people doing what they have to for love.

So I guess at this point you’re wondering, like me, why the hell I keep reading these novels. And I guess the answer is that I think these novels have more realism in them than anything else I read. Let’s be serious: neither the fantasy novels I read for a break or the high literature I admit to reading are honestly realistic. They’re stories, with carefully thought-out plot lines, heroes, villains, protagonists, people with motivations, and a carefully drawn conclusion that the reader can find balanced and satisfying. And you know, I really like that in a book; I like knowing that eventually things will work out in a practical and fair way. That’s why I read stories, and why I get so annoyed with books that have no climax or ultimate reason (see Cryptonomicon, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

Parker’s books walk some kind of balance between the two things, between reality and fantasy. They’re full of horrible people with horrible reasoning and really horribly bad luck, but most people do get what they’ve got coming. It’s a pity no-one generally has anything good coming, but sometimes I think that’s more realistic than stories with wholly good and wholly bad people. If nothing else, her novels make you think. They don’t make you comfortable, but they do make you think.

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  1. “neither the fantasy novels I read for a break or the high literature I admit to reading are honestly realistic. They’re stories, with carefully thought-out plot lines, heroes, villains, protagonists, people with motivations, and a carefully drawn conclusion that the reader can find balanced and satisfying.”

    I can’t help wondering what “high literature” you’ve read. Maybe try Fyodor Dostoevsky or Roberto Bolano or Carson McCullers or Thomas Mann or Celine or Handke or… I don’t know, Wuthering Heights or Shakespeare or Aeschylus? I can’t think of a single book I’d call “high literature” that features people who are “wholly good” or “wholly bad”.

    1. Hi Alison,

      I read everything, really. And in this case, I think my comment on wholly good/wholly bad people reflects more strongly on the fantasy (and you know, crime, pulp fiction, popular fiction, sci fi, etc) genres than it does on the lit. On the other hand, I do find even modern lit normally has an array of background characters who are given very one dimensional parts. I mostly try to read books or authors that have won awards, so it’s somewhat less prevalent, but still very present. And let’s be really clear, it’s everywhere on tv.

      If you’d still like a reading list, I can give you one… I should warn you I’m already up to twenty five books this year, though.

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