Why I Can’t Trust the Fantasy Genre

Our writer—a comic-book fan—admits to having problems with stories that have dragons or magic

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Keith Bernstein/HBO

As friends and colleagues talk excitedly about the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I find myself awkwardly keeping quiet the fact that I’m no fan of the show. Worse: I’ve actively disliked what little of the show I have seen.

My nervousness isn’t based in that antipathy, or fear that I’d be thrown out of the Cultural Commentary Club for failing to align myself with this particular zeitgeist. No, it’s because of what I see are the basic failings of George R.R. Martin’s epic sprawl of a novel cycle (and related television series): Game of Thrones is a fantasy story, and the fantasy genre as a whole is something that I find myself unable to view with anything other than outright suspicion. Fantasy, I’m convinced, is the genre that’s constantly waiting for you to let down your guard, and pull the rug from under your feet without any warning.

On the face of it, I should have no problem with fantasy. I am, after all, a fan of science fiction, someone who grew up (and continues to grow up) reading comic books filled with fantastic, amazing tales of people who can do things far outside the reach of mortal men, whether it’s flying faster than speeding bullets or shambling through the world as an undead monster seemingly unable to remain six feet under. Surely superheroes and supernature and science fiction are fantasies? If I can accept them easily enough, why do I have such a problem with “the fantasy genre”?

The trouble, I suspect, is in the world-building aspect of each genre. Superheroes, for the most part, exist in worlds that are intentionally meant to mirror our own, with the differences becoming part of the story and out in the open. The same applies to much of science fiction; although the far future may be filled with inventions and ideas that don’t exist in our world, they, too, have to be specifically mentioned in order for them to exist and matter. There’s a sense that forewarned is forearmed.

In fantasy, I can assume that all bets are off. Fantasy stories tend to take place in worlds that are like ours, but not ours, where countries have different names, and magic — something that purposefully defies categorization, and thus threatens deus ex machina twists and resolutions — is witnessed and wielded without a shrug. As much as I appreciate imagination, there’s something about fantasy that feels too far removed from the world in which I live.

With fantasy, I remain constantly suspicious of that feeling the ended the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations: The moment of “Wait, Gandalf can summon giant birds? Why didn’t he do that earlier?” (Note to all Tolkien scholars: I’m sorry). So much of the genre is set one step away from the familiar, but the scale of that step is something that’s never quite explained: Why would anyone who’s been raised in this world feel the need to point out what is different from ours, after all? Would anyone really want to read a book filled with an author patiently explaining the many differences between where we live and their creations?

(There are, of course, exceptions; as a kid, I loved the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon because it brought characters from “our” world into fantasy, which immediately grounded it for me.)

As an audience, fantasy leaves me waiting for the other shoe to drop, unable to settle into the story. Somewhere down the line, I am convinced, something will happen that will shatter my willing-suspension-of-disbelief comfort zone. Why would anyone want to willingly expose themselves to that disappointment, I wonder?

This, I’ll be the first to admit, is a ridiculous prejudice to have against a fictional genre. I’ll put my hands up and say, yes, I know that this pop culture-blindness is robbing me of all manner of wonderful, rewarding reading, viewing and role-playing game experiences. I can’t defend it. I can’t point to one particular bad experience that brought on this fantasy paranoia, or made me shy away from almost anything with dragons in it.

Sadly, knowing that I’m being illogical and a genre snob, and being able to do something about it are not the same thing. One day, I’ll conquer this weakness. If nothing else, now I know how the rest of the world feels when I find myself talking about the genius of the Fourth World comics of Jack Kirby.

23 comments
lissame
lissame

Gandalf can't "summon" the eagles. They're their own race and not a transportation service. He asks and they come or don't come, like as Gondor asked Rohan for help by lighting the beacons and Rohan chose whether or not to answer. The internet, incidentally - not to mention probably a number of your acquaintances - is full of the answer. 

I'm always fascinated by people who see a question raised and rather than asking for simple clarification and getting a clear answer, chose to latch on to that tiny thing and run with it as wit/insight/snark. It makes the speaker suspect in so many other ways and the rest of their contentions not worth following.


ranamae75
ranamae75

So basically what you're saying is that you have no imagination.

KevinCardinale
KevinCardinale

I don't like fantasy or horror or sci-fi or action movies or tv shows is that the writers are so unimaginative as to make the characters appear mentally challenged.

For instance: you're sitting in your living room, when all of a sudden, someone runs up and starts kicking in your door. What do you do? The first thing you would do is stand up and go do whatever it is you're about to do do stop or prepare for it. The writers in these movies make the character sit there, because they are so talentless that they cannot conceive of any other way to build tension or dread in the scene.

A gaming company was trying to make a trailer video for their upcoming game. Instead of creating a CGI video, they wanted gameplay. So they asked the beta testers to do some flimsy script they came up with. The problem was that the gamers all used their powers "all the time" and they could not get the footage they wanted.

This is exactly why fantasy and the other genres fail. They create a world, where magic exists, and the people who have the magic powers, but instead of building a proper villain or a proper scenario, instead they handicap the hero from using the very powers that they are supposed to have at will. Who cares if the villain is coming, "I've got 10th level fireball waiting for him." Who cares that the army is wading through the river and will overwhelm the north, "I've got 6th level freeze and will freeze them all in the river and destroy them."

I know, you're thinking, that would be the end of the movie, but no, with a bit more talent you'd have wheels within wheels within wheels. Remember Yugi Oh? "I've got the ultimate mummy," pulls out card. "wait one second, he's trapped for a year in the endless bog of no return," pulls out card. "Your bog is nothing with my druid of the wild that frees him," pulls out card. And so on, and so forth. 

But, apparently thinking up 12 moves in a 2 hour movie is too hard for Hollywood.

mshavzin
mshavzin

Oh and btw..Gandalf CAN"T summon giant eagles. He can ask for their help. They don't obey him, and they straight up declined a trip to Mordor. If you read the books youd know that. They show up or not on their own terms. So..maybe thats the thing-you aren't paying attention.

mshavzin
mshavzin

Let me get this straight, you don't enjoy fantasy because it might not be good...um thats pretty much true of absolutely any genre. Even of a documentary, come to think of it. However, as you dislike everything I like ( Except the Following) it probably makes sense. 

dew.mckeown
dew.mckeown

I can appreciate your skepticism of the fantasy genre if you are basing it on Gandalf summoning eagles to save them at the last minute. If it leaves you with a sense that somehow he cheated then I can see why it appears unreal to you. It did to George RR Martin as well, which is why game of Thrones is unlike most fantasy stories. I mean he killed the main protagonist in book one. No giant eagles came to save Ned Stark from death at the last minute, he lost his head instead. And if you think it was only a gimmick, you are wrong more central characters will die, both good and bad and are replaced by other characters both good and bad. In the end it is more a mystery of who will survive in the end.

fishgeekted
fishgeekted

To not enjoy fantasy because of the fear of having the glass shattered when any fantastic element comes into play could be applied to just about every other fictional medium, leaving the author with only one option for their story fix... Stare out the window. 

I felt that the article didn't really explain anything, in fact it feels more like the author is very politely taking a pretentious high ground against a popular show, only to be different.

davywavy
davywavy

I wonder why  the writer felt the need to share this?  It says nothing about the show or the quality of it, or otherwise., it's all about the writer.

Psychotherapy, perhaps?

848pack
848pack

What I love about ""Game"" is that it's unlike anything I've ever seen on TV.  Its so complex, and imaginative:)

I've never been a Sci-fi guy, but this to me is different.  Their is real human feel to it, and so far it's been totally unpredictable.

Anyway…….  

“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” 


traciloudin
traciloudin

This is the first time I've seen someone actually articulate why they don't like fantasy. Most people just chalk it up to "taste," and can't really put their finger on why. So kudos to you, for being able to divorce yourself from your subjective reality long enough to explain it to those of us who do love fantasy. I enjoy both fantasy and science fiction, but your dislike of fantasy seem perfectly legitimate to me. 

technocracy
technocracy

Graeme - Your author bio lists you as having been raised on Doctor Who episodes and some other things.  In Doctor Who, Deus Ex Machina is practicaly the primary plot device for every show. Doctor Who is about the seemingly unresolvable being suddenly and I dare say - magically resolved. I think this article was written for lack of anything else to write on your part. Therefore, I encourage you to go out, find a story worth writing and then sell that to your editors instead of this mindless drivel.  This article isnt assertive enough in trying to convince us of your stance, and it certainly isn't useful in any way. Im not trying to be mean, but the article quality on TIME has been seriously decreasing recently.

biglyleezy
biglyleezy

Gandalf never summoned the eagles, they just came. You suck.

biglyleezy
biglyleezy

Gandalf never summoned the eagles in the book.... They just came....

sgold615
sgold615

Have some imagination man.

eskimo
eskimo

I live in a household of fantacy fans.  I find it irritatingly juvenile and do not understand how anyone with any degree of intelligence can invest time is such banality.  Oops, I better look for another household.

jenish5688
jenish5688

game of thrones is more like everyday life and politics of medieval time. classifying it as die hard fantasy is insult.

easttexassux
easttexassux

Read the books...the characters and their development are really well done, better than most fantasy novels, which is why it was made into an HBO series... honestly I've seen too many people talking about how they don't get the show...that's because they dint read the books...having said that, maybe they wouldn't like the books either and if so, fine, no need to write hundreds of words about why you didn't like it lol

Poppersci
Poppersci

Graeme, can I say that this piece and your dislike behind it are odd? Science Fiction does not take place in our world; it may be a variation but it has aliens--some beings we haven't seen--and dystopias that might not ever happen to us. We're not going to be ruled by one giant head. SF has technology that may exist in the future, or may not at all, so it wouldn't be in our world. And it has technology that is magical. You used to blog about Warehouse 13 which defies categorization in that there are no rules to that world. Anything can happen because the artifacts are magic. But that doesn't mean the show can't feature realistic relationships--the great chemistry in the leads has been mirrored here with a great group of friends. As long as any story is about people, it can reflect our world and teach us about it or how to live better lives, like Roger Ebert's ideal for a movie.  


Game of Thrones has dragons and the undead but it also is about: power politics in relation to doing the ethical thing, and how that can cost you; the fierce love of mothers towards their children; gender politics that are reflected in our own treatment of powerful women and women in general; characters changing their minds and growing; lies, betrayal, envy, trust, love--all of the above we have in our world.


I don't read fantasy that often because every book is part of ten book cycle and there's only so much I can read before I die. But just because  the genre has magic in it doesn't mean that it can't be art, art being a comment on our world and humanity.

anon76
anon76

@davywavy Getting all the page hits from GoT fans while not having to pretend to like it (or make any interesting argument about why he doesn't like it) is my guess.

mshavzin
mshavzin

@traciloudin Really? I don't know why he doesn't like Fantasy. He just said he doesn't like it because it might not be good. What does that even mean? 

ChrisMankey
ChrisMankey

@eskimo  
"I live in a household of fantacy fans"


I bet it's the intelligence difference between them and you!

Poppersci
Poppersci

As for your other objections, I don't really follow. George RR Martin doesn't like in a dual translation have what he thinks the problems of Earth are on one page and the corresponding Westeros treatment on the other.  We think of our world because we live in our world and Martin has written the book so that we think about our world. That's not a lesson but just the human imagination: everything is gonna remind us of our world because we live in that world. And in other worlds, as long as there are people, or aliens, we need to identify with them as heroes of the story, and problems with humanity are everywhere including made up worlds. When you pick up a fantasy book, your willing-of-suspension-of-disbelief goes out the window because by definition, this is a fantasy.