My Fantasy in Light of a Speech About Fantasy at Pembroke College

An excellent speech about fantasy – and esp. faerie-tale based fantasy – by Terri Windling.  It’s rather long, but well worth listening to.

As the speech progressed, I found myself thinking of my own writings in her terms, and I think they match well.  I’ve long maintained that the setting, natural and social, is one of my characters.  Indeed a friend said some years ago that she thought I was a milieu writer, and others have since agreed. And that seems to me to be the heart of her message – the mystery of place, the ability to find oneself in the quest into unknown lands.

Now, unlike her stated preference, I build no mystery into magic. I’m a scientist at heart and the magic in my worlds is as rationalistic as any science.  However, that being said, the consequences of that magic can be strange and bizarre, as mysterious as any other.  I see beauty and mystery, even the sublime, in Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, in theoretical quantum mechanics, the shimmering northern lights, and yes, even in the understanding of how they come to entice.

Moreover, in all my stories I try to use the mystery of place, of the forest, of the ancient ruins, the vanishing mountain valley, even of the decaying concrete city.  Indeed, all my longer works are about people who are questing for a place in the world – their small haven, literal, spiritual or emotional, in the wide world of the unknown.

Ms. Windling also spoke of preferring the intimate fantasy – not the world-saving epic.  I concur on that basis also.  I also prefer to cast a bright light leaving shadows in the corners, and enjoy reading that type of story.

Having many dark shadows (either exciting or terrifying, or both) is easy in a short story that focuses on only one person for a few hours or days at most.  However in my first multi-novel sequence, David and Fiona – and yes, I much prefer the ensemble cast no matter how unpopular it might be today – are confined to one (admittedly large) island while they struggle to return home and journey to discover what home and life means to each.

Some writers giving advice to new writers say that the larger, the grander, is better.  I don’t agree.  One of my goals was to create the sense that they are two dots in the much larger, and to them, unknown world.  They are insignificant except to themselves and their personal friends and foes.

On the other hand, my Tower stories start rather like Orwell’s 1984, the brutality, the invasive technology augmented with mind-stripping magic.  However, during the arc of stories, the world itself undertakes the quest back to towards the unspoiled rivers and large forests that Terri Windling spoke of desiring.  In each successive story, the focus narrows, either in place or in character while the mysterious dark margins grow and the remaining technology decays away.  So, that sense of loss she spoke of in LotR is there too (I hope), a longing for the old world. In this case the old world is the global pre-apocalyptic civilization, so it’s like the yearning that dark-ages Europe had for Rome.  Indeed, the Carolingian empire was one of my inspirations.

I hope my stories speak to modern life and our issues the way Terry Windling calls for us to create.  Among other things, I write them to be about finding oneself, the power of community (for good and ill), depression, the need to belong, the need to be true to oneself, religious freedom, sexual identity, bigotry and racism, the dangers of the modern world (yes even in a fantasy setting), and the fear of death and insignificance.

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