Sunday, November 13, 2011


Sigh. I like Brandon Sanderson. I do. I seriously intend to read the last two Mistborn books, AND the new Mistborn books, and the rest of the Alcatraz books, and probably his other books at some point too. But this... has problems. In it, Sanderson talks about postmodernism in fantasy, declaring himself to be a postmodern fantasist and trying to define ways in which fantasy has been, and is, postmodern.

I only have the time and energy to point out a few of the problems at the moment. I guess my first major beef is that after stating, correctly, that fantasy was very quickly ready for a postmodern era, since it was subverting its own genre tropes almost from the beginning, Sanderson says this (in the context of his idea for Mistborn):

The thing that made me want to write it, originally, was the thought, “What if Rand lost the Last Battle? What if Frodo had failed to destroy the ring? What if the Dark Lord won?”
See. Frodo DID fail to destroy the Ring. Why is it that nobody, especially those writing criticism of Tolkien, seems to remember this? Frodo failed. The evil, the corruption, overcame him, and it is only through the influence of Gollum's greed that the ring is destroyed.

What I'm saying is, if this sort of thinking makes fantasy postmodern, then fantasy has been postmodern from its very beginning. Which essentially renders the appellation meaningless. (Actually, this sort of thing goes back farther than Tolkien. Lord Dunsany was subverting the tropes of fairy stories, and James Branch Cabell subverting the tropes of basically everything, decades before Tolkien published Lord of the Rings.)

Here's a post from Jeff VanderMeer where he says a lot of the things I thought about this post, and has much more credibility to do so. Vandermeer is one of a slew of fantasy writers I can think of off the top of my head who are actually postmodern; others include Michael Moorcock (Elric, among others); Neil Gaiman (though he claims, rather charmingly, not to know what it means to be a postmodern writer, his short stories and most of his novels are filled with postmodern tropes and techniques); China Mieville; Steven Erickson; R. Scott Bakker; Kelly Link; Jeffrey Ford; Jasper Fforde; and even George R.R. Martin. Not all of these people are writers of epic fantasy, though a lot of them are, but all of them are more postmodern than Sanderson probably ever will be. (And I do realize the ridiculousness of the phrase 'more postmodern,' since as VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not a monolithic concept of the type that lends itself well to a scale or even a continuum.)

Of course, that leaves off the writer who might be the king of postmodern fantasy (a title I am guessing he would hate): M. John Harrison. By the end of his Viriconium books, Harrison has deconstructed his fantasy world right out of existence. That, ladies and gentlemen, is postmodernism (granted, one of many possible incarnations of postmodernism); that is deconstruction. Setting a world a thousand years after the hero failed is a neat concept, a springboard for a good story, but it does not make a book 'postmodern fantasy.' (Or if it does, then the appellation would have to be defined so generically as to be useless.)

But my major problem is the point Sanderson seems to be making about Mistborn. He seems to think that the series' success came from the fact that it was a supposed postmodern fantasy; that it was the specifically postmodern things he was doing with the book that made it good. Now, there's a certain truth to this, if we go with Sanderson's definitions of postmodernism: most of the people I know who fell in love with those books seem to have done so because the story was something they had not seen before, the world-building and concepts very new, very fresh. If Sanderson got there by consciously taking epic fantasy tropes and twisting them, then more power to him. But again, he's just following in a long line stretching from the people subverting William Morris in the late 19th Century up through the reactions to Tolkien up through now. If that technique is postmodern, once again, all of fantasy is postmodern, and it's not even worth having this discussion.

The thing is, people don't fall in love with a technique, or with a form, or with a movement, when they fall in love with a book. People want good writing, good characters, and a world that they can either get lost in or through which they can gain new insight into the world, or both. Mistborn has enough of those things that it sold well, and that people fell for it.

If you want real postmodern fantasy (which, sometimes, I do), read M. John Harrison. If you want a good story with solid characters and an intriguing world, read Brandon Sanderson. Don't worry about the deconstruction, unless that sort of thing floats your boat, in which case, let's have coffee.


Robin said...

Frankly, I like much postmodern fantasy. I /do/. I like it because it's different, and while I adore my classic, high-brow, Tolkien-esque fantasy where the good guys always win, I also like it when they don't, sometimes.
I actually was writing a postmodern fantasy story a while ago, and it was getting quite good, though I do say so myself, until I realized that it was postmodern, and was put off, and stopped writing it.

In the end, I'm not sure it matters, and I hate the labels that people put on stuff like this. A story is a story, and it's good or it's not, and it doesn't matter to me if it's postmodern, just so long as it's good, and fun, and makes me smile.

Ethan said...

I agree completely. It just bothers me when, if we ARE going to apply labels, we apply them as wrongly as Sanderson did. He's no more postmodern than Charles Dickens.