Not so long ago Steven Erikson penned an open letter to Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, the creative team bringing the new Star Trek series to the small screen. While the response to this online has varied between abusive and dismissive, to thoughtful and considered, it did raise some issues that go beyond Star Trek itself, and it is that which has piqued my interest.
In his extensive letter (parts 1, 2, and 3, or the whole thing here) Erikson attempts to explain what he believes are some of the core principles behind the success and the longevity of Star Trek: The Original Series, and how the subsequent series of The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and the prequel series, Enterprise, have drifted further and further away from the strengths of the original. So below I am going to address my interpretation of what Erikson said and how it relates to what I consider a broader trend within SF and TV toward violence and conflict as action, and then, in turn, how that actually relates to a more significant general problem in terms of compromised morality. Lastly, how I think this is related to a systemic and flawed understanding of narrative by producers and production companies.
In the Dragon’s Den: Interview with Steven Erikson Part 2
TCD: So carrying on then from the other day, you also have The Fiends of Nightmaria about to be released, a new Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella. For those not familiar with this series of Malazan novellas how would you describe them?
SE: They’re just stories following two evil, insane heroes. Nothing unusual there, really. Oh, and it’s a lighter side of the Malazan world, assuming one can characterise ‘lighter’ as darker. The whole Malazan Book of the Fallen is just the necessary frame for my Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. Most people have got that the wrong way round. Everything important and vital that I feel the need to say shows up in the novellas. Like, breasts with mouths instead of nipples and men who use beard trimmings to insulate their houses. I understand that most of my readers are proceeding under a misapprehension about all of this, but I expect Fiends of Nightmaria to put them straight.
Review: Fall of Light Book Two of the Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson
If you liked Forge of Darkness then you will like Fall of Light. Same Shakespearean style and tone, although this time there are more elements of comic relief and respites from the darkness. The civil war continues, the factions become more delineated and yet messier, and the War on Death gets some more attention. What can I say? It is a book two, so it follows on from Forge.
(Spoilers for the first chapter, but no further)
With Forge of Darkness, Steven Erikson launched into the mythic history of the Tiste and began the story about the sundering of their civilisation and the creation of the distinct races. Fall of Light continues this epic fantasy narrative by delving even deeper into the tensions that run rife in a civil war, and by exploring the various factions and how the individuals within those factions often have their own agendas. It is always easy to see the grand sweeping movements that alter societies, but part of the focus of Fall is on how individuals actually shape and alter the course of history, almost without knowing it. Some events seem inevitable, others can be changed, and the reader is in the privileged position to see how individual ambition, pride, and simple mistakes, cost the realm dear.
Spoiler Free Review: The Fiends of Nightmaria (6th Bauchelain and Korbal Broach Novella) by Steve Erikson (Subterranean Press, 2016)
Bonkers, absurd, silly, fantasy comedy, this time poking fun at dungeon crawls and the often times ridiculous politics of genre fantasy novels… amongst the other usual targets. Sharply written, but did I mention silly, absurd fun? Plus, the Subpress Edition has great artwork.
(Only Slightly) Longer Review:
The king is dead, long live King Bauchelain the First, crowned by the newly en-cassocked Grand Bishop Korbal Broach. Both are, of course, ably assisted in the running of the Kingdom of Farrog by their slowly unravelling manservant, Emancipor Reese.
Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?
At the heart of a significant proportion of fantasy is the diegetic reality, the setting itself, the diegesis or storyworld. It is one of the things that often sets fantasy apart from other forms of literature, those stories that use the real world as the foundational basis for the setting of the narrative.
Fantasy, like a lot of SF and Horror, creates a new reality in which the narrative resides. So where Dickens, Austen, the Brontёs set their work in a contemporaneous, if fictionalised, England, the settings of their works did not need to be invented as they simply lifted complete societies, customs, economics, races, prejudices and biases from England, the real world. Not only that, but their diegetic storyworld did not have to be fundamentally altered or disguised, it could be a fairly accurate depiction of the real world. They could pretty much copy wholesale from what was outside their window. And lastly, the setting would be immediately familiar to their readers because it was not invented.
Show me a written history that makes sense, and I will show you true fiction.
Crone, Toll the Hounds
This paper was intended to be a brief look at some of the temporal anomalies that occur in genre fantasy writing and using Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books to illustrate different approaches to solving these issues.
However over the course of researching this I realised that this issue was a great deal more complicated and far reaching than I had originally thought and therefore this paper has become more of a series of questions rather than an attempt to illustrate the answers.
In essence however it is an attempt to show that suspension of disbelief is not enough, there must be a rationality and coherency present for a fantasy world to truly function and captivate. In fact a world must be internally coherent as well as rationally consistent in order for suspension of disbelief to function effectively. And the treatment of time is one of the major elements whereby fantasy fails to be rational.
What I am going to discuss today is my experience with and attempts to construct a 12 week undergraduate syllabus for the study of Genre Fantasy Literature.
So a couple of very quick disclaimers:
This is not prescriptive; this is a starting point for discussion.
This is based on my experience of teaching in the UK therefore it is a 12 week block comprised of four hours contact time each week, with a ‘reading week’ or ‘independent study week’ occurring in the second half of the semester.
The four hours are divided between a 1 hour lecture, a 1 hour workshop in which the lecture is discussed and questions answered, and a 2 hour seminar discussion group in which the reading for the week is discussed in relation to the lecture and topic.
In the UK system we favour essays over class tests so the examination criteria reflect this.
The focus is on Genre Fantasy literature, not fantastic literature in general, SF, horror, genres of fantasy, speculative fiction. Therefore this is a pretty specific remit that does not take into account mythology, folklore, faerie tale, the Gothic, Weird Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera, the Fantastic, Fantastik, Fantastique, and so on. So there are a great many texts that have been excluded or that don’t fall under the rubric for the class.
As with so many subject syllabi, this was an exercise in practical and pragmatic selection, so a number of texts were chosen for their expediency rather than their status or critical appreciation.
The class is aimed at English Literature Students, it would be an elective module, and would be second or third year undergraduates.
The module follows a thematic overview of Genre Fantasy rather than an historical perspective of the genre, although elements of genre history will obviously be discussed.
Each of the three mini-sections utilises a single key primary text, in addition to excerpts from additional texts, short stories and critical works.
Lastly, the focus of this class was to teach critical awareness of Genre Fantasy, Genre Theory, Literary Theory and to develop skills in textual analysis, and as a result texts were chosen that aided the teaching of the subject and that fitted in with the approach that I wanted to take.
So this is not a typical paper presentation. I thought I would take you through how I designed a Genre Fantasy Syllabus, and at the end we could discuss the pros and cons of approaching teaching this way.