How Much Magic is Too Much/Not Enough?

Wow — book launches, weddings, babies; my fellow Magic Districtians have been up to so much cool stuff lately! (Congrats to all!) My own recent projects are pretty minor by comparison, but I guess I’ll talk about them anyway.

I experimented with voice acting recently, doing a reading for the fantasy fiction audio ‘zine PodCastle. I read the excellent story of fantasy writer Alaya Dawn Johnson, called “Shard of Glass”, which first debuted in Strange Horizons; check it out. Doing the reading was a lot of fun, although apparently the sound quality is a little iffy and my voice is too slow/soft. (Sorry ’bout that. My first time.)

Anyway, in reading the forum discussions about the episode, I was intrigued by some folks’ comments about the amount of fantasy in the story. Basically, some people felt the story wasn’t fantastic enough, and/or that the fantasy wasn’t essential to the tale. The fantastic element could even have been removed, some people asserted, and left a solidly literary story about a young girl and her mother fleeing from family secrets.

Now, I’ve also been reading Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy* lately, and there’s a name for this kind of fantasy, according to her: intrusive or intrusion fantasy. To quote the book:

In intrusion fantasy the fantastic is the bringer of chaos. It is the beast in the bottom of the garden, or the elf seeking assistance. It is horror and amazement. It takes us out of safety without taking us from our place.

I’m going to add my own spin to this by also pointing out that the fantastic is also removable in intrusive fantasy, in that the fantastic element barges into a perfectly-established, fully-formed millieu that was doing just fine before the fantasy showed up. If the fantastic is removed from this setting, the world will ostensibly return to its former state of order. So for those who were pointing out that “Shard of Glass” could’ve functioned as a story without the fantasy — well, yes, this is true. That pretty much goes for all intrusive fantasy, though. The Harry Potter books — which started out intrusive before becoming immersive** — could’ve functioned just fine as the coming-of-age story of a stepchild mistreated by his family. But when the fantasy element intruded on the story in the form of letters from Hogwarts, it disrupted and transformed Harry’s life. The same goes for Johnson’s story, IMO. The fantastic element in this case is a piece of magical glass, and the possibly-magical ability of the members of a particular family to use that glass to see into the past. When the protagonist — an unacknowledged member of this family — receives the glass, her life too is transformed, as she and her mother go on an odyssey across the world to escape their hunters.

Thing is, both the glass and the Hogwarts letters also have value as metaphorical objects — the former as a representation of the racial secrets that dog many American families; the latter as a symbol of Harry’s hidden tragic past, and future potential. Other devices could be used to accomplish the same metaphorical tasks. Say the executor of Harry’s parents’ estate showed up and revealed that his folks were geniuses who left him a massive trust fund. I imagine that after Harry’s deprived, working-class upbringing, getting used to the world of the wealthy and privileged would be just as disorienting as getting used to the wizarding world. He might even have a nemesis just as scary as Voldemort; say, some ruthless financial power-player out to destroy the global techno-industrial complex, with his cabal of Bill Gates-ian techies. Not as much fun, for those of us who like fantasy, but not all that different a story.

But just because it’s possible to remove the fantasy from an intrusive story and still have a functioning tale, does that mean the fantasy is unnecessary? Does that then mean all intrusive fantasies are somehow fantasy-deficient, because the fantasy isn’t absolutely crucial to the story? Consider the many urban fantasies set in worlds like our own, with the exception of vampires or elves. Replace those with secret societies like the Masons or Templars, and replace the magic with some other form of power (e.g., political, economic), and you’ve got… well, The DaVinci Code.

But doesn’t that smidgeon of the speculative make a difference?

I would submit that it does. Just as the inclusion of a single herb can completely transform a complex dish in cooking — with paprika it’s jambalaya; use saffron instead and you’ve got paella — I think any element of the fantastic is powerful enough to transform fiction at the moment of contact, adding that all-important “sensawunda” that makes an ordinary story into fantasy. I submit that the frustration some people have with this — their complaint that the fantasy is removable, or insufficient — stems from a mismatch of expectations. They want an immersive fantasy, maybe of the epic/adventure fantasy kind, or one that emulates their experience of playing D&D. To someone with this expectation, an intrusive fantasy is the equivalent of wanting a lobster dinner and getting jambalaya with crawfish instead. Those crawfish might look and taste like teeny lobsters, and the overall dish might be complex and delicious, but if all you wanted was a big Maine beauty on a plate with some butter, you’re not going to be happy.

(…It occurs to me that I’m hungry, as I write this.)

Anyway, back to the point. Have you ever read a story and wanted more/less magic? Do you think your frustration stems from the mismatch of expectations that I’m positing, or are there some stories that really just don’t have enough magic to merit the label “fantasy”, period?

*(I highly recommend Mendlesohn’s book, BTW — it’s dense and chewy, and will change the way you think about fantasy.)

**Immersive fantasy: again quoting Mendlesohn: “The immersive fantasy invites us to share not merely a world, but a set of assumptions. At its best, it presents the fantastic without comment as the norm both for the protagonist and for the reader… a sufficiently effective immersive fantasy may be indistinguishable from science fiction: once the fantastic process becomes assumed, it acquires a scientific cohesion all of its own.”

2 Responses to “How Much Magic is Too Much/Not Enough?”

  1. June 25, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I second the rec for RHETORICS OF FANTASY.

    This post is also nicely chewy. I shall ponder it further.

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