Science Fantasy – Dying Earth

Dying Earth* is a very emotional subgenre for me – though, the story itself may be written as overtly devoid of emotion. As the name suggests, Earth is no longer the lushly green planet we know. Because of some sort of catastrophe, be it a literally earth shattering war, the Earth getting hit by a massive meteor, humans simply using up the Earth’s natural resources or a myriad of other apocalyptic events, nature is destroyed (or very nearly destroyed).

Stories may take place on Earth itself or on another planet, because earth is now dead or dying. The main focus may be on the fact that Earth can no longer sustain life (or in the very near future) or it may be a background detail.

This is a flavour that pulls at the heart strings of every tree hugger or nature lover out there.  Being one of these individuals, I can honestly say that this genre is in one breath demotivational, heart wrenching, beautiful and very inspiring. Avatar, the movie with the large blue cat people, makes me want to recycle my neighbour’s trash as well, blat polluters over the head and become an amazon every time I watch it.

*Note that the planet in question is not necessarily Earth, it may be another planet or moon…or whatever the people of the story call home.

 

Examples include:

  • A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  • Dark Sun (the Dungeons&Dragons books and role playing setting) – set on a fantasy world
  • Dune books – Frank Herbert – set on a world where the introduction of verdant life destroys arguably the most valuable source on the planet
  • Avatar  (movie)
  • Waterworld (movie)
  • Princess Mononoke (animé movie)
  • Mad Max (movie)
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Science Fantasy – Other Planet

Science Fantasy is any form of fantasy that does not exclude technology as a whole. This means that it can be set in almost any time period (meaning, the setting can appear to be mostly mediaeval like Melanie Rawn’s The Ruins of Ambrai or it can be in a futuristic setting like Frank Herbert’s Dune). There are two main subgenres under this banner: Other Planet (this post) and Dying Earth (next post).

In Other Planet stories, the story takes place on another planet and may or may not include in-your-face technological advances. I originally thought I wasn’t entirely sure that I’ve encountered this kind of fiction, but, as I sat down to think about it, I realised that I have books by different authors and even some movies on DvD that are set on other planets – but are still fantasy.

To be fair, the Dying Earth stories often spill over into Other Planet stories. So, these two subgenres are really not typically used in exclusion of each other.

In a purely Other Planet setting, humans have typically ventured into space and have started colonising other planets, though humans may have been forcibly taken to the other planet(s) by alien races. Humans may or may not be taking colonisation overboard. There may or may not be other races/alien races. In some stories, the fact that it is a planet other than earth hardly ever come up as a theme. In others, the fact that Earth is the original planet the humans come from is part of the normal facts and it is often referenced.

Examples of Other Planet in literature include:

  • Melanie Rawn – The Exiles: The Ruins of Ambrai
  • Anne McCaffrey – The Dragon Books (there are many)
  • Frank Herbert – Dune

And in the movies:

  • Titan A.E.
  • Pitch Black
  • Avatar

Bangsian Fantasy

Bangsian Fantasy

Bangsian Fantasy, in my experience, is not a very widely-spread subgenre. It can be set in a whole range of realities, from our reality as we know it to a reality very close to ours, to something that is purely a flight of the imagination. It’s one binding characteristic is the featuring of a historical figure from our reality.

Since I really can remember reading only one series featuring Bangsian elements, I will have to use it as my basis here. Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker books don’t actually focus on the historical figures, but they do feature here and there. These books use a version of the world where things have happened a little different to what we see in the history books. The description you usually see on his books refer to “a magical America that might have been”. Napoleon Bonaparte specifically features in these books, having the ability to make people adore and obey him – yes, a maaaagical ability.

Now that I think of it, I’m fairly sure you are likely to find Bangsian elements in Steam Punk books and movies…also in Dark Fantasy.

Wikipedia gives a few examples of Bangsian Fantasy I have never read, so, you might want to check that out too.

Wuxia and Magical Girl

Before I started this blog, I had never even heard of these two genres. But as I read about them, I realised that I had actually encountered some of it before. Maybe not so much in literature, but certainly in movies and animé.

Wuxia is a mostly eastern fantasy subgenre where a character or a few characters have martial arts skills that border on magical abilities and sometimes frolick merrily in it. I’m not sure I can really elaborate without repeating myself more than a few times, so, here are some examples: Naruto (manga and animé), The Forbidden Kingdom (a movie from a few years back) and Kung Fu Hustle (a spoofy movie from the East).

Magrical Girl, as far as I have been able to glean from scanty Internet sources, is an animé fantasy subgenre (fairly popular, I might add) that revolves around a female main character who has some sort of quest or ability that sets her apart from her mundane peers. She might dedicate her entire life to it or may even practice only after school hours. Examples include Elfen Lied and Sailor Moon. I honestly haven’t seen much of these…though I have for some reason encountered the reportedly less common “magical boy” shows – BleachKekkai Genkai and Evangelion.

Don’t take me as the authority on this, though. As I said, I’ve really only dipped my toes in these two subgenres. Check out Wikipedia and do a Google search to get a better feeling for this.

Dark Fantasy

Horror, romance, comedy, action...

Dark Fantasy is a well-established subgenre, though you might not recognise the name. It is seductive, thrilling and sometimes down right cheeeeeesy. What is it? Vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches, demons and all manner of  nasties hiding in the dark. But, it’s not just scary stories… It comes in the form of horror, action, comedy, romance and more.

Most recently, the world has been abuzz with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Half the fanbase is violently upset and revolted by her take on vampires and the other half (most of which has only recently discovered this genre) are rabidly fanatic about it.

The basics are (usually): The story is usually set in the present or (starts off) in recent history; the basics of history and reality as we know it sets the background; and vampires, werewolves and all the other things that go bump in the night are the flavour that draw in the readers (and viewers) of this subgenre.

Some authors seduce their readers with the grim (and sometimes rather watered down) aspects of a romantic relationship with a dark lover. Some authors prefer to stick to keeping these dark creatures the Threat. Some authors pick at all the possible flaws in the myths and legends surrounding these beasties to make us laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Examples you are likely to have encountered include: Anne Rice’s vampire and witch novels, inlcuding Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned; Brahm Stoker’s DraculaDawn of the Dead (movie); H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and other novels….

Often, all the different nasties and beasties come together in the same stories…think  Underworld (movie); Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Vampire Diaries; TruBlood; this list really does go on and on…

Steam Punk

So, Steam Punk…I must admit that I have little exposure in this specific subgenre literature-wise. The general gist is: It is usually set in the Edwardian and/or Victorian eras or in a reality similar to that, but a few individuals in this setting possess technology is not quite historically…um, there. This technology is generally steam-based and is heavily associated with cogs and wheels and nuts and bolts. You can expect brassy finishes and mad scientists or loony inventors.

How can I so happily rant on about this without having read much on it? Well…there are a lot of movies and even some TV shows that feed you Steam Punk without you even noticing. In Wild Wild West, a movie featuring Will Smith and a few others, you encounter a giant mechanical spider that may have taken you by surprise. In Hellboy, there is the clockwork german assassin. In Warehouse 13, there is the inventor lady, HG Wells, with her freaky corset thinger and all kinds of other inventions… In the new Sherlock Holmes movies, you get a taste of the tech again. In an episode of Castle, there is a whole murder mystery revolving around a Steam Punk society (in modern times, of course).

In short, it’s a fantastic flavour that adds glam, whimsy and general awesome to an otherwise dull or normal background.

Mythic Fantasy

A lot of people confuse this subgenre with fairy tales. See, mythic fantasy uses characters and heroes and themes from myths and legends as a base for a fantasy story. Think of all the various Arthurian (King Arthur, Lancelot, Gwynevere, the Holy Grail) stories you’ve seen movies and series of, think of the comic books that borrow from Norse Mythology (Odin, Loki, Thor, Valkyries and the like). This subgenre is quite prolific. Back to the confusion between fairy tales and mythic fantasy – depending on how you look at it, the confusion is actually totally understandable. Some fairy tales (those with actual fairies and elves) use elements from Irish and European mythology.

One thing that originally set these stories apart was that mythic fantasy really targeted a teenage to adult audience (as opposed to children). Though, admittedly, the line is blurring more and more. Mythic fantasy also tends to be more on a more epic scale – you know, gods and kings making and breaking the world.

I’ve encountered a lot of mythic fantasy since I started reading. I don’t own all of them…and I think it’s because I read most of it when I was still borrowing books from the library rather than buying too many and just filling my shelves to their breaking point.

Examples include:

  • Wilbur Smith’s The Seventh Scroll, River God  and others (Egyptian mythology)
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradly (Arthurian legend)
  • The Forbidden Game by LJ Smith (Norse Mythology)
  • The TV shows like Hercules, Camelot, Merlin, Robin Hood and Spartacus
  • Movies like Arthur, First Knight, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, The Mummy, Thor and many, many more

Fairy Tales

A fairy tale collection

At last! A genre almost everybody knows! Fairy tales. Those that your parents and teachers probably read to you as a child. Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm and a few others have brought us a vast array of stories that have seen many iterations and variations. Though these tales started off as far more grim (no pun originally intended) and sombre, the (usually) Disney versions we know today have formed our perception of the “fairy tale” to something far shinier and friendlier.

In the end, it really depends on you what you make of fairy tales and you are entitled to your opinion. Half my friends would skin me if I sold you the fluffy, happy version of fairy tales as the definition for fairy tales. Their argument is that the original fairy tales were cautionary tales to teach children about the not so shiny aspects of life. Little Red Riding Hood being about not talking to strangers (see, Little Red Riding Hood didn’t survive in the original story, the wolf did), The Little Mermaid being a tale about…heck, I have no idea…but in the original story she ends up not married to the prince, but floating on the surface of the sea as lifeless foam. You catch the gist?

Most people simply don’t like dealing with this kind of reality in a fairy tale, so they tend to side with the happy happy kiddies versions you get in stores and Disney movies these days. In fact, I believe people often actually say stuff like “life isn’t a fairy tale, you have to deal with the facts”. I think these people are really missing the original point.

You can tell which side I’m also on, can’t you? Lol Whoopsie.

Anyhow, modern versions of fairy tales can be found in a lot of Urban Fantasy stories, like The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams, Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Of course, all of these focus a lot more on the…scary (or should I say “realistic”?) side of fairy tales in a much more “adult” way.

High, Low and Epic Fantasy

Some Examples

When someone says that they read fantasy, what they typically mean is that they read high, low and/or epic fantasy. These three have some common denominators (though the rules may be bent for some of the other subgenres): The story is set in something akin to mediaeval times or the dark ages, there is an element of magic involved, there is a main hero, heroin or band of heroes leading the storyline.

High Fantasy

In a High Fantasy setting, you typically get a lot of magic and magical races. Think Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien), The Sword of Truth (Terry Goodkind) and the Diskworld books (Terry Pratchett). There are magical races everywhere and almost every second character is either of a magical race or possesses some kind of magical item or ability. Magic and magical races often even determine the culture and societal dynamics of the worlds the stories happen in. Dragons might be overlords or a slave race. Orcs may be a powerful ally in the subterranean reaches. Elves and men may have formed an alliance (when don’t they???).

Low Fantasy

In a Low Fantasy (or Hedge Fantasy) setting, magic and magical races are rare. These books often use the one magical being as the main character or have a magical object at the core of the plot…because the magic is so rare. These worlds are typically more ‘realistic’ and often based more closely on actual mediaeval day-to-day realities. Some Low Fantasy stories even follow the mundane lives of unimportant people (though they often have important roles in the bigger picture). The Farseer Trilogy (Robin Hobb) and A Song of Ice and Fire (George R Martin) are good examples.

Epic Fantasy

In an Epic Fantasy story, the level of existence is often upped to a new level. Your main character may be a demi-god or a similarly powerful creature. The story will revolve around a battle of the gods or kings and other great rulers shaping the very world and reality of others. Some examples are: The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien), The Belgariad and The Malorean (David and Leigh Eddings) and The Rose of the Prophet  (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman). Naturally, Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy often get mushed together with great success.

***

Something that may be important to remember is: Each story is a unique blend of different subgenres. No subgenre stands purely alone. Only successful blends in subgenre ever make it big out there, though.

The Mystic

A pair of quicksilver eyes flicked dismissively over the breathtaking view of EL Tianne’s Enchanted Valley. Pherr had been there a myriad of times before, searching out the Fairy Queen’s help. He waited silently as the minute sentinel, who had spotted him only moments earlier, whizzed down into the mysterious depths of the Charmed Forests. Impatience stirred within him. His fingers felt like tightly wound springs, ready to uncoil. His muscles tensed in anticipation of the Portal to the Hendecagon. It felt as if the time was racing out of the hourglass. Clouds moved by swiftly.

***

EL Tianne, queen of the Fairy, tapped her delicate fingers on her armrest. The Lifeglass before her was emptying far too rapidly to her taste. What is taking Pherr so long? she thought impatiently. The Fairy Queen chafed at the circumstances that forced them to use other means to get him into her domain. He had explained it carefully to her the last time he had come: he would not be able to open the Eleven Gates when he brought the New One through. His power would be sucked dry… Her sentinels were all instructed to report any sign of the Mystic’s arrival.

A miniature bolt of lightning flashed in the Lifeglass. The Sand was becoming liquid. Blue-silver.

She felt her sceptre’s smooth surface. The Seven Keepers channelled their awareness of the imminent commencement of the Hendecagon through the connection she had cast on it. Their combined forces pushed readily against her magic.

The large doors of the throne room burst open. A haggard looking fairy plunged through the entryway.

“The Mystic has arrived, O Queen!” she cried and fell to the floor.

EL Tianne reached for her sceptre and opened the Eleven Portals to the Hendecagon. The Seven Keepers released their combined force. The air began to shimmer and waver. The light bent at peculiar angles, making the air appear to be liquid.

Calmly, a dark figure stepped through the Portal.

“We must hurry,” his voice whispered into the turbulent air. He reached out his dark hand to the Fairy Queen. Blindly she thrust the Lifeglass into his open palm, their hands touching briefly. The glass shuddered in his hand. More lightning flashed across its surface. The liquid Sands were almost entirely gone.

Pherr glanced once at EL Tianne’s face, her violet eyes told him what would come.

He stepped back into the Portal. It closed behind his back – the familiar simultaneous pressure and release reassuring him that he would make this jump. He could see the eleven planes, their portals’ glowing incandescence. His hand was clamped securely around the fragile Lifeglass…the Sand was no longer in sight.

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<<This is a short story I wrote when I was 17. It was for a Junior City Council competition. I won the Prose division.>>