January 5th, 2009

peeking out

In defense of dual-world fantasy

sartorias made a comment yesterday in the what-would-you-see-me-write thread. She said, "I'm sure this is utterly way off, or totally repellent, but it's occurred to me more than once that if Narnia were to be reborn with a new story arc, but echoes of the old, you would be the one to write it."

Heh. Well.

Not Narnia, exactly, because the fella is gone, and what he left us is what he left us. But my first two books (one a sequel to the other) were what I'm calling dual-world fantasies: people from our world dealing with a separate fantasy world. (There may be some other term for this, but I'm not remembering it at the moment, and a quick look at my Clute Encyclopedia of Fantasy is not helping.) And I have another one that keeps demanding bits of me from time to time, though I'm trying not to write it next. It's an older book than the first two, and...maybe not darker. But higher-contrast? Sharper? More starkly lit?

I'm trying not to write it next for several reasons. One of them is that I have the impression that a lot of people are a bit scornful of dual-world fantasy. I have been told by more than one agent that it's harder to sell, that it is not currently fashionable, and that "everybody" is "burned out" on it. This makes me a little sad.

Sure, it can get old. Of course it can get old. "Oh, look, the portal is in her cousin's guest bathroom this time, how creative. That sure does make the king/quest plot feel more original." But I feel pretty sure that some of you are like me and really, really wanted that coat closet to open into Narnia, once upon a time. And I feel pretty sure that some of you know exactly what you'd do if there was a portal to another world, just there behind the copier at work, or off the alley next to your favorite coffee shop. There is nothing wrong with letting some of our escapism be literal, and a good dual-world fantasy does it better than just about anything else: here is someone like you. Really like you, down to the sneakers. Ta da! Flowing cloak. Hey presto! Magic staff. Admit it: isn't that just the tiniest bit awesome? Wouldn't you go? Of course you'd go. It's that taste of a book that said, "Things don't have to be this way. Things can be different. Things can be wonderful." For a lot of us, the first book that really said that--just when we needed to hear it, just when the rest of the world was maybe not so sure of us--was a dual-world fantasy.

It's cheesy. Of course it's cheesy. You like cheesy. I like cheesy. Somewhere under our highly polished, sophisticated exteriors*, we all have weaknesses made of pure cheese. I think what we're really tired of is not dual-world fantasies, but dual-world fantasies done shoddily. Dual-world fantasies that color inside the lines. Dual-world fantasies that make us wonder why we are not rereading The Silver Chair, since that gets us away from school bullies and features Puddleglum.** But look, everybody was sick unto death of dragons, and then Naomi Novik came along and said, "Yes, but Napoleon!", and we went, "Ooh!", and Robin McKinley said, "Research station!," and we went, "Tell me more!", and Mole and Bear said, "And look, not quite dragons, but about that companion animal thing," and we squinted sideways and said, "I never thought about it that way. Or else I did and you're totally right and I am so glad somebody finally said it."

Maybe the dual-world fantasy isn't your cheesy weakness. Maybe yours wears mirrorshades or can always get through to troubled children with a kind word that erases all life troubles. Some of us don't like vampires much; I'm not trying to claim that the dual-world fantasy is or should be universally beloved. I just don't think it's quite done yet, and I'm not sure it ever will be. Slipping away between the cracks to find something completely magical is not an urge that looks to me like it's going anywhere any time soon.

*I am currently wearing a nightshirt, a bathrobe, my glasses, and slipper socks with grippies on the bottom. The difference between me and other people who haven't yet had their workout and shower is, of course, that I wear them elegantly, and with a certain panache.

**I have recently become aware of how much Puddleglum is an iconic figure in my life--how much more than anyone else in those books, in fact. Reshpectomrissle. People have been going around declaring the Year of This and the Year of That for themselves, or picking words for themselves, and I wonder if picking iconic fictional characters for particular years might not be a better approach for some folks. Make 2009 the Year of Lady Alys Vorpatril. The Year of David Audley. The Year of Number Ten Ox. Whatever gets you going, really.