Bewildering Stories

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A. R. Yngve writes...

about the “Tolkien Bubble”

Dear Editors,

Your article "Writing Beyond the Sky" was the smartest, most lucid explanation of the nature of science fiction I've read in a long time. (The example of Mad Magazine was also encouraging — who'd have thought a "crummy magazine" could be so influential? The influence even reached Scandinavia, where I live. :-)) You managed to express in a few paragraphs the strengths and inherent problems of the genre.

Most people (and most readers) don't seem to understand (or care about) the distinction between SF and fantasy... and there is, like you say, a great deal of hair-splitting.

I've also read Kevin Ahearn's recent letter in Science Fiction Weekly about the dying SF writer... very sad indeed. I can't express the many things I feel when I hear about an aging, formerly well-known writer whose work is now ignored or overlooked. It is easy to react with fatalism, but I don't want to do that.

We're living during a great boom for Generic Fantasy, which I see as the antithesis of Science Fiction. If I were a cynic, I'd suggest that SF writers who can't sell their work now write Generic Fantasy just to pay the bills... until times change. (One day we will refer to this period as "The Tolkien Bubble")

Generic Fantasy cannot offer the things SF can — if SF is a challenge to the imagination and the intellect, then Generic Fantasy is a security blanket and a pacifier. I have a hope, though: maybe Generic Fantasy could be infiltrated by SF from within, by novels that superficially appear to be medievalistic fantasy but actually is SF (Mary Gentle's book Ash does something like that).

Well, gotta stop writing this... I have a half-dozen SF novels and stories to finish, and I'm not getting any younger. Keep up the good work.

Visit my website! and read my SF stories and novels for free

Thank you for the kind compliments, A. R.! And we invite our readers to bookmark your link and to visit your website; it is colorful and very attractive. We wish you the best of luck, and we hope you’ll send something to Bewildering Stories.

The “Tolkien Bubble”? Now that’s an interesting idea. And it may be controversial. I hope our readers will write to us and let us know what they think about it.

I like to cite a British author — whose name I’ve forgotten — who was interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on CBC radio’s “Writers and Company.” The author said she considered the “successor” to Tolkien to be not J. K. Rowling but Terry Pratchett. I mentally applauded the author’s bold iconoclasm but added a snort: “He’s no successor; Tolkien was Terry Pratchett’s precursor.”

The reason is outlined in Kevin Ahearn’s discussion in this issue. I tried reading Tolkien once. After twenty-five minutes of rewriting whole pages in my head, I went on strike: you couldn’t pay me enough to read him; I’d have to do as a reader all the work he didn’t do as a writer. And despite the high quality of the film versions, I find his stories boring and imitative; Terry Pratchett’s imagination shines like a nova in comparison.

I saw the film version of Harry Potter. Harry who? I keep forgetting, because the secondary characters are interesting while Harry himself is a wimp ! Where would he be if people weren’t always doing things for him? The school’s headmaster bestows an honor upon him at the end, but, I thought, quite arbitrarily. As a North American was I experiencing British culture shock? Perhaps. But I see Rowling, too, as part of the “Tolkien Bubble.”

Let’s say that Tolkien represents the genre of “generic fantasy” and Rowling, that of the fairy tale. Where does that leave Terry Pratchett? If pressed, I’d have to say “satirical fantasy,” but I really put him in a class by himself.

Will the “generic fantasy bubble” burst any time soon? It’s come and gone in various shapes and sizes for a long time. In Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World, the episode “Brother, Can You Spare an Eclogue?” contains two hypertext notes on the emergence of the realistic novel; they deal pretty savagely with the “generic fantasy” of previous centuries and suggest an ominous socio-political comparison with the genre’s popularity today.

For a surprise, go back to the great beginnings of the fantasy genre. Two examples in particular come to mind: the Odyssey and the Arthurian cycle. The Odyssey we all know. The story of King Arthur is purely literary: it originated in France, not in Britain. Three of the best known among the earliest stories are Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide (a novel of courtly manners), Yvain (a comic spoof on courtly love and Breton superstition), and Perceval (the spiritual calling of the courtly knight). Like the Odyssey they all shine with humor and rationalism.

Homer and Chrétien were the science fiction grandmasters of their day.

Copyright © 2004 by A. R. Yngve and Bewildering Stories

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