Thursday, May 28, 2015

High Fantasy: The Long and Short of It

Natasha Pulley, writing for THE GUARDIAN, maintains, "Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction." Huge novels in multi-volume series, according to this blogger, aren't a cynical marketing ploy but a necessity of the genre. When satisfying high fantasy short works exist, in her opinion, they tend to be spinoffs from established fictional universes.

Imaginary Worlds

She makes a valid point in proposing that the "mega-novel" is "the natural format for anything so sprawling as a fantasy universe." I don't dispute that fully developing a secondary world (in Tolkien's terminology) requires time, space, and many thousands of words. However, the claim that a satisfactory imaginary world can't be built in a short story—that "If you write real high fantasy in 4,000 words, details and all, it tends to be a snippet, not a story"—goes too far, in my opinion.

While that task might be an insurmountable challenge in 4,000 words (and I don't necessarily accept that to be the case), a short story can go up to 10,000 words or so, a novelette or novella considerably longer. Surely the realms of fantasy and SF offer plenty of counter-examples to disprove Pulley's claim. Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild" immediately leaps to mind. This classic short story gives the reader a vivid, three-dimensional picture of an alien planet, its dominant intelligent species, and the role of the human colonists in that world. No doubt a novel would tell us much more about that world, but we know all we need to know for the purposes of the story, which is complete in itself, not a "snippet." In high fantasy, Marion Zimmer Bradley's SWORD AND SORCERESS anthology series offers dozens of stand-alone tales to refute Pulley.

I can't help wondering whether she deliberately exaggerates for effect in her defense of multi-volume sagas, in order to provoke just such a discussion.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. I think "for purposes of the story" is the important qualification. Of course, a story whose setting is an imaginary world need not be long, as long as the reader is more interested in the story than in the imaginary world. But there are some readers who read books for the atmospherics rather than the story, and those are the ones for whom genre classification is most important. For such readers, maybe a fictional work set in an imaginary world has to be really, really detailed, because they want to read about the world, and they care much less about the story.

  2. I can identify with that. I love S. M. Stirling's PESHAWAR LANCERS (I wish he would write more in that world) and his entire Emberverse series (beginning with DIES THE FIRE). And although story elements in those novels are important to me (all characters need goals, conflicts, and something to do), what fascinates me most are the worlds, not the specific events of the plots. Some fans, for instance, are deeply invested in the military facets of the novels and want more battle scenes. Those are exactly the parts I skim over.