Golden age of Fantasy? The end is nigh.

Anne Rice, the lovely authoress of Interview with the Vampire, often states that we are now living in the “Golden Age of Fantasy”, speaking of the wealth of TV shows, movies, and books that now embrace the other-worldly in their themes.  There truly are too many to count, from the epic sexually charged Spartacus and True Blood to the kind of whiny Vampire Diaries and procedural Warehouse 13.  Fantasy is all over the place these days in so many forms it’s almost become hard to tell one thing from the other.  A few years ago it was, “hey, have you seen that procedural drama with the hot blond?”  “Oh, Saving Grace?”  “No, the other one.”  “One of the Law and Orders?”  “No, the other one.”  “In Plain Sight?  The Closer?”  “No, no…”

Now, it’s “Hey have you seen that new epic Fantasy thing with all of the awesome landscape shots and hot chicks?”  “Oh, Snow White and the Huntsman?”  “No, the other one…”

The problem is that Hollywood has this way of destroying the essence and potential of things.  Producers who are paid to make movies and shows that can preview well enough to raise bank without any real, you know, thought or emotion or substance will inevitably just produce really attractive looking crapwads that don’t really have any spirit.  I love fantasy and science fiction.  Not, “ooh, it’s so cool”.  I love it.  In the sort of creepy fanatical way that makes a grown woman have more capes and gowns in her closet than proper grown up clothes.  I have over 500 books in my permanent collection, after having gotten rid of 3/4 of the books I own for this move.  I adore the genre.  I adore it because through the lens of the unreal you can struggle with issues that are too unpleasant to face bare-faced.  Anne Rice’s Lestat can take you on an intense journey through the question of what is human, what is it to have a soul or be soulless, what is love and is love something a beast can feel?  Those questions aren’t questions that most people can stomach a human being exploring.  The same is true of JRR Tolkien’s epic exploration of the issues of heroism and what makes a hero.  What, you think it’s a story about short people and big expensive to shoot landscapes?  Ha, yeah.  Oh, and what about JK Rowling’s beautiful series about the value of friendship, love, and faithfulness?  Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s bold examination of how cool it is to have a sparkly boyfriend.

Oh, wait, there it goes.  The problem with most of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi being produced today is that it doesn’t hold to the traditions that make the genre so worthwhile.  You can’t take modern themes and thrust them into that world with a big budget and no understanding of the spirit of the thing and expect the same success.  Twilight isn’t what I consider fantasy- it’s a teen romance where there happens to be a vampire.  The Vampires in that story do not hold any of the brutality or potential of the species.  You want a romance with a Vampire, look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The first time she has one, her love costs him his soul and he starts killing and threatening everyone she knows and loves and nearly destroys the world.  The second time she does, he nearly kills her before he realizes that he too could truly love her, goes to hell to get his soul back, and goes insane.  There’s a storyline that examines the truth of love as well as it’s consequences, not a pile of fluff with some fangs thrown on to make it seem more dangerous.

And, sadly, most of the science fiction and fantasy hitting today’s market has the same fluffed up feeling to it.  At first, Warehouse 13 seemed like it might live up to it’s steam punk ancestry.  But, in the end, it turned out to be a procedural drama with a little kookiness thrown in to make it look like it’s forebears without any respect for it’s ancestry.  Grimm is much the same way.  You know how I can tell the difference between Grimm and Law and Order?  There are those cool quotes at the beginning, and the makeup is different.  (Okay, maybe I’m being too harsh.)  Then there’s Eureka, which lost the appeal of it’s “here’s an average guy having to wrap his head around this wild scientific craziness” appeal after a few seasons- it didn’t take long for it’s characters to become caricatures and for it to become increasingly predictable and formulaic.  And don’t even get me started on the movies, most of them aren’t even worth downloading illegally, nonetheless paying the ticket price.

There are, though, a few shows which pay homage to the depth of thought that makes the fanatics all fanatical.  Spartacus is more than really attractive abs and gratuitous sex.  It takes a look at loyalties, what makes something worth giving up your life or taking the life of another, and the value of each human soul, which is strongly pounded into the audience with each slit throat and growling glare.  There’s still good old fashioned superhero romps like the Avengers to remind you that sometimes it’s about having fun, too, although they don’t let you forget that it’s also about redemption.  Not a one of the characters in that film get to walk onto screen without dragging a loaded past behind them.  (Well, except for Captain America, hence his reputation as a bit of a snob.)  And there are more worth watching, and more worth reading as well.

But I fear for the genre, because more and more there’s little I’m even motivated to pay attention to.

So, what are your thoughts?  What is there worth the time and money?  Are there any geeks left at the helm, or has Hollywood made the genre it’s whore?*

*Ahem, Joss Whedon.  But other than him…?

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23 thoughts on “Golden age of Fantasy? The end is nigh.

  1. Okay. Movies are rarely good. That’s my mantra. When I see a good movie I’m delighted because there are so few of them any more. Lawrence of Arabia is probably the most memorable movie I’ve seen in the last year. it felt like a fantasy. There were a few good ones that poked their head up. Your Highness was brilliantly irreverent. Attack the Block was great on many levels, and of course Avengers was great. But beyond that movies these days just aren’t much good. TV has a lot more to offer. American Horror Story ended it’s first season with some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered. True Blood is getting long in the tooth *snicker* but it’s not horrible. Game of Thrones delivers a formulaic perfection, but it doesn’t have a lot of soul.

    To maybe contribute a bit to what you’re saying I’ll offer an anecdote from my RPG world. People tend to get obsessed with a style to the point where they mistake it for a genre. Steampunk is the best example of this. Steampunk is a style and a look but it is not a genre. When media attempts to use it as a substitute for a genre it inevitably feels hollowed out. There are dozens of steampunk RPG’s being published, but only one of them in my opinion is any good. Victoriana. It’s first edition was invented before steampunk was a thing and it happens to be a fantasy version of the world in 1863. Where a host of angels exist in heaven instead of God. It examines fantasy tropes through the microscope of the British class system which it segregates unapoligetically. Sure, it has clockwork creatures and the occasional airship, but it is SO MUCH MORE than that stuff, and that’s what makes it great.

    Maybe the problem these days is that back in the 70’s and 80’s it was easy to tell what the trashy stuff was. If a book said Harlequin Romance on it, you knew what it was going to be. It wasn’t going to be on the NYT bestseller list even though housewives all over the world read them avidly. These days the signal to noise ratio is so high that we can sometimes mistake the thing that makes the loudest noise as the signal.

    Or maybe fantasy novels were always trash and maybe it’s just your taste that’s maturing… 😉

    • Great comment, man. I can just imagine my dear John letter to popular fantasy… “it’s not you, it’s me…”

      I agree with the idea of stylized writing being mistaken for Genre. These days anything with clockwork and leather gets tagged “steam punk”, but it comes from a style within something else. The same is true of cyberpunk. And vampires, too, honestly. It’s like wearing a cummerbund with jeans and claiming its formal wear. The uneducated eye may be fooled but anyone with any taste can tell the difference.

  2. Lindsey, I think that the whole Twilight franchise is a big, big part of the problem – because it attracts teens and adult women and they spend money. Lots of it.

    And it’s badly written.

    So: the big publishers and H’wood know there’s an audience for junk as long as it’s served up in a way that seems attractive to a certain demographic. All sparkle, absolutely NO substance. [not yelling; just being emphatic!]

    Grimm: I watched a few episodes and thought it was a generic Shiny Nice Guys Chase Bad Guys deal, with a very thin veneer of “scary Supernatural” on top. It’s ridiculous – for one thing, how is it even possible that there are so many homicides in Portland?! Nah, it’s more of a “Put a bird on it!” kinda town, no? (And I’m not even a Portlandia fan, but still… ; ))

    Back in the 50s and early-mid 60s there was a wave of junk – “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Catwomen from Mars” – even “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” (Which you might have seen, along with “Plan 8 from Outer Space.” There’s a story – apocryphal or not – about the 12-year-old-ish Octavia butler watching one of the Evil Women from Space movies and declaring that she could write a better story than that. Which, of course, she did… but she’s not a Name, for multiple reasons. (Woman, person of color, writer who tackles very uncomfortable issues, etc. etc. etc.) She seems to have been planning to put her own twist on vampire stories, judging by her final novel, which is about color and species prejudice (and addiction, and slavery, and sexuality) as much as anything remoptely Dracula-like.

    So, I;’m rambling, but three more thoughts before I do:

    1. I am so NOT a Joss Whedon fan. I couldn’t even make it through the entire 1st episode of Dollhouse, for many reasons, and I think he needs to take a break and regroup. Seriously. (And I’ve tried to like Buffy – i really have, but it seems kinda corny to me… even though there are a lot of good ideas in it.)

    2. Nobody will bankroll series that make people think… there was no reason that BSG had to be ended when (or in the way) that it happened. And Caprica was killed before it even had a chance to get off the ground; ditto for the BBC’s Outlanders, which had real potential. (And a cardboard-cutout villain, but that could have been fixed.) I think that the fact that all 3 series raise some painful questions about prejudice, etc. has a *lot* to do with why these series were canned.

    3. True Blood: 1st season was very good, but since then? Yikes! I had to stop watching it because of the gratuitous violence (and sexual violence at that).

    I know I said 3 thoughts, but here’s a 4th –

    4. ever read anything by N.K. Jemisin? I just zoomed through all of her books – five, to date – and think she is a breath of fresh air! Am especially fond of books 2 & 3 of her “Inheritance” trilogy… hoping to hear back from you on her work.

  3. Oops! “… three more thoughts before I close” is what I meant to say above.

    oh, and – have you read any of Neal Stephenson’s books? (Am betting you have but it can’t hurt to ask!)

    • I’ve missed your comments! Thanks so much. I agree with most of your first one, although I’ve always been a big Buffy fan. I don’t mind the corniness since it’s very self-aware corniness, and I love Angel and Firefly, too. Dollhouse seemed forced, I could never get as into it.

      I think you’re right about Twilight, too. There’s always been a market for romance dressed up as something else, there’s a ton of bodice rippers on the market… I think Twilight being pegged to a younger audience and cutting out the explicit bodice ripping part somehow made it more palatable and “okay” to take pride in having read it. I tried to read it when I was working at the shelter because a lot of our guests were fanatically into it. Sadly, I think most of them bought into the “true love” thing and projected Edward onto their controlling and emotionally abusive partners. I could write scads on how damaging I think that series has been. I don’t even remotely like it.

      I’ll have to look into Jemisin, thanks for the link! And as for Stephenson, I do really like his stuff. I’ve only read a few books but hope to find time to read more.

    • Oh, Boo! I wish I could read the longer, awesomer version of your comment! I used to be willing to cut a lot more slack. I guess as I find I have less time to spend pleasure reading and watching movies and TV, the more demanding I’ve become. When I was pretty young, anything with pointy ears and swords in it was totally awesome to me. Nowadays I really want to be moved, and I get deeply irritated when I don’t get anything but fluff. There is so much potential out there- not just in the fantasy genre, but in the media in general. Yet that potential often goes completely untapped for cardboard cutouts and flashy camera work. It’s just *sad*.

  4. When I was pregnant with my son, I read the whole Twilight series. I made my husband drive nine month pregnant me to Walmart at one in the morning so I could buy Breaking Dawn and I read it in the bath. I even made him watch the first Twilight movie with me. Then, when my son was three months old, I attempted to read the books again and I made it to the third one before I threw it across the room and began tirading about what utter shit it was and how angry I was that my preggo hormones tricked me into thinking Stephanie Meyer had talent and how I wanted my money back.
    Maybe something similar can explain what’s been going on with Joss Whedon…

    • Oh, thank you thank you for your comment! I know a lot of people with an epic geek loyalty to Whedon. Perhaps it’s just because he’s a geek himself? It’s almost tribal, the way that people band together out of love for comic books and fantasy novels and D&D dungeonmasters and ComicCon and all of that, it’s like saying anything bad about Whedon is like letting someone get away with dissing your mom.

      He’s just a guy, with good ideas and bad ideas. And like certain other beloved icons of the industry, he’s capable of producing super bad stuff if not kept in check…

      And as for the hormones and Twilight… Yeah. I get that. I know a lot of people who were into it because they were emotional and it was like a salve. But its still bad medicine, and I’d love to give Meyers an earful about how many people she duped with her pretty lies about the nature of love. Not that she’s any worse than your average bodice ripper. It just never should have been trotted out for 16 year old girls who don’t know it for what it is.

      • You do know that Meyer is Mormon, right? (Not to slam mormons, but I think that explains a *lot* of her ideas.) I can’t read her, and find Edward repellent, not least for his stalker-like behavior.

        Now… have you ever watched the TV series Avatar: the Last Airbender and its current sequel, The Legend of Korra? That’s some seriously wonderful fantasy (with comic twists).

        Maybe my age is showing to some degree – I read Tolkien when I was in either the 4th or 5th grade (during the 60s) and haven’t been able to take 99 & 9/10th % of what’s come after, since almost all of it – to my mind – has been pretty derivative and doesn’t even begin to come close to what he achieved. (Flawed though it is: that business about “pure blood” re. the Numenoreans is horrifying to me now.) I don’t mind that the people on the quests in his books are all male – I grew up with brothers and didn’t see any real reason why I wouldn’t have been allowed to go along on adventures in Tolkien’s world. If anything, he made it very clear that – as in our world – almost nobody went on adventures, regardless of their gender. (Though I mainly wanted to go to Rivendell and Lothlorien and get to stay there for a while… wouldn’t mind a vacation at one or the other now, come to think of it! ; ))

        Re. Dollhouse, that 1st episode made me sick re. the sexual exploitation and the clearly implied (though not dwelt upon) S&M aspects of the man who is shown with Eliza Dushku in the opening sequence. I wanted to give Whedon a chance, but …

      • I had heard that Meyer is Mormon. I have mormon friends whom
        I deeply respect, so I’m reluctant to make a judgment based off of that. If the psuedo abusive aspects of Edward and Bella’s relationship stem from her religion that’s just a shame.

        I felt the same way about the exploitation in Dollhouse. It was so badly done. Whedon can make awesomely powerful female characters, he really missed the mark with that one.

        And as for Tolkein- I never thought that he wasn’t empowering to women. Arwen and Eowyn kicked some butt and took some names. They may not have been the primary characters- but I don’t think that detracts from the story at all.

      • 50 Shades of Grey kinda proves that 30 something women don’t know what it’s for, either. Love these days has been confused with total submission to a penis, so we women are freed from responsibility and blame in their own lives. True womanhood involves making hard choices and taking the heat if it screws up, learning skills that actually contribute to the value of life (ours and those of others), and facing the big scary things in life, like bills and giving birth, without screaming and fainting. Seeing as this standard of behavior has been one we as a gender have been running from screaming so we might fall headfirst into the arms of unequal rights but special treatment (chivalry being an excellent example), I’m not real shocked to see the pattern of girlish immaturity continuing. Still pisses me off, though.
        And as far as Whedon goes, I love everything he does, until I listen to the man explain his creative process and whatever metaphysical concept was the inspiration. Like the commentary on episodes of Firefly. The man makes a show that showcases all sorts of common sense values and Christian principles, but on the commentary he’s going off about existentialism and the absence of meaning in life. I haven’t been able to watch Firefly since, and this was years ago. And I was a big enough Firefly fan to consider naming my son “Mal”. Heartbreak city, lemmie tell ya.

      • Lindsey, I think Meyer’s religious beliefs are a delicate subject and I want to tread with care as well – however, I still do think that her background comes through very clearly in those books.

      • @ Maemurray: I’m so glad I didn’t listen to those, then. That’s sad. I wrote an essay on Buffy and the way in which she is treated in that show which exposes a lot of his hypocrisy there, but I’m able to enjoy the show anyway. I would hate to lose Firefly, because It speaks to a lot of things for me. My youngest narrowly escaped being named Inara. 🙂

        As for true womanhood- I can’t believe the way that flighty prettiness without substance is worshiped, and it especially makes me ill with things like Twilight and 50 Shades of Shallow. The women in those novels bring almost NOTHING to the table, and their blankness and willingness to be molded like clay is praised as somehow being better than all other women. It makes me ill.

        Women can, and should, be more than that. I can lift and carry and dig and refinish floors and build decks with any guy, because my dad never taught me that I need to be fanning myself on the sidelines. I can also be beautiful and mysterious and a mother and an artist, because being one thing doesn’t prevent the other. And I can be giving and change myself for the sake of my spouse, too, because I am strong enough to CHOOSE to change out of love. I would bet that it means more to him than if I was weak willed and in need of his molding hand and muscles. Sheesh.

      • @ E2thec: You may be very right. Belief in true love and souls being made to live together for an eternity… all I can say is that I’m glad in my own life that I didn’t think like Bella, because if I had my husband wouldn’t be the man that he is today nor would I be the woman that I am. True love should never be mistaken for romance, and abuse should NEVER be involved with love or glorified as such. Glodly submission doesn’t come at the end of a stick, but that’s probably all I should say about that right now.

      • I wrote an essay on Buffy and the way in which she is treated in that show which exposes a lot of his hypocrisy there…

        Which I would very much like to read – just sayin’.

    • thanks so much – excellent paper, btw!

      You hit on many of the things that bother me about the show. thank goodness you didn’t have to write about Willow, too – I really do NOT like what was done with her character and think that she, too, was punished for being powerful in some ways but essentially powerless in others.

      Gotta say that I could only stick it out through 2 eps. of firefly; there were things that bothered me, though I’d have to go back and see them again to be able to tell you what those were. (Other than Whedon’s trying to do a mashup of sci-fi and Westerns – I thought the way that the latter played out was kind of ridiculous.)

      • I actually wasn’t assigned a topic, the assignment was to draft a proposal having to do with an issue in the media (using a certain book as a source with essays on about 30 different things) and I chose the way women are portrayed on TV. I thought about bringing Willow and Tara and Dawn into it, as well, but was pretty severely constrained by the length of the assignment and the amount of time I had. I was supposed to do a 7 minute presentation and turn in 5000 words, but overshot it by quite a bit.

        Fortunately my teacher was impressed, I got better than 100% 🙂

        I hated what Joss did to all of the girls in the show, and it’s themes that show up across everything he’s done. Women are punished for their strength, they are humiliated. It’s so, so sad, because he claims to be a feminist. I don’t know if he does it on purpose because it’s how it is for so many women in the real world, or if it’s just sublimated aggression. Either way it sucks for women on TV, I’ve yet to see a strong female character get a good shake.

      • I think – as you do – that Whedon isn’t nearly as enlightened as he thinks he is… Dollhouse being a case in point.

        Yes to your comment on women in media as well. (Unless, of course, they’re housewives, and even then…)

      • You forgot to mention Darla – after all, she’s EVIL. Almost the exact opposite of Buffy.

        And (per 30 Rock’s Jenna), Darla “uses her sexuality” to lure boys to their deaths.

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