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.