The Uncanny in Fantasy

Man. So, last week’s piece? That was a monster, huh? Seriously, I don’t know how many pages that was. And you know what? I don’t want to know. It’s been a week and I’m still pretty drained from all of that Milestone business. So when I tried to decide on a topic for this week, I was all, “Let’s do something light. Let’s just have a good time… Oh, I know! Let’s talk about the concept of the uncanny in Fantasy!”

Yeah. Cause, ya know, my brain’s an asshole. I tried to think of another topic that I’d rather write about, but my brain refused to even consider anything else. So here we are!

Again, and as always, I have to stress that I’m not yet published and these are just observations I’m making about a genre I love and write on a daily basis. So take from this what you wish with the knowledge that I don’t claim any expertise here. This blog is therapeutic for me and at best, let’s hope it’s thought-provoking for you. In particular, this post is just a collection of thoughts that aren’t meant to provide anyone with anything more than food for thought.

The Uncanny Problem: Not Too Close …

So, let’s say you’re reading a fantasy novel. And you get to a scene where a wizard and a warrior…

… Wait. Dial that back.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard goes and does magic somewhere–he’s not important (and yet, I put him in?)–and the warrior goes to the bar and orders a whiskey.

How does that feel? Did that immediately stop you–the fact that the warrior ordered whiskey? Does something seem a little… off about that?

Let’s dial that back again.

A wizard and a warrior walk into a bar. The wizard starts dry heaving immediately (because that’s just what came to mind) and the warrior shrugs (?), goes to the bar, and orders a Mike’s Hard.

Okay. That seriously must’ve stopped you. Why?

Because Mike’s Hard shouldn’t exist in this world. Why the hell would there be Mike’s Hard Lemonade?

Well, that’s what I’m talking about here today; that is, according to me, the Uncanny Problem in fantasy. In short, some kinds of fantasy (i.e. not urban, superhero, or anything else that takes place on Earth or a modern-Earth analogue) absolutely cannot introduce elements that are too close to things we have, in reality, right now or even things that are popular right now. That warrior cannot order a hard lemonade because it’s something we have right now that’s popular enough to stick out in our minds as “recent”; t’s just too current (even if it’s not). Really, the whiskey’s also too current, and seeing it immediately ties what we’re reading way, way too closely to reality. Maybe someone could argue around that–maybe someone could make a point that this is the best pub in all of… PublishSaveDraft Town (thanks, WordPress–they’ll never know the difference)–but that person would then be taking time out of their story to explain why the characters have hard lemonade.

I’m a firm believer that you could make a lot of things work if presented in the right way (just trying “sourmash” for example, instead of “hard lemonade”–or even presenting Mike’s Hard in a weird fantasy story that includes lots of modern trappings as part of its theme), but it’s incredibly easy to accidentally include elements that are too “Earth-modern” (we’ll say) in your own fantasy writing. In short, it’s incredibly easy to use the uncanny by mistake and incredibly difficult to use it on purpose.

For example, someone might put a confession booth in a fantasy world church without thinking about it, because, hey, confession booths are things that are in churches, right? But what if the society that built the church is a race of deep elves, let’s say? What if for the majority of your story, you illustrate that these elves aren’t keen on apologizing and often take opportunities that will further their goals out of principle, with no remorse? Would this society actually have confessionals in their churches? Or would churches be something practical that they use for other purposes? Would worship even be the same for this race? Do you, as a writer, feel like you have to justify these elves having confessionals for it to make sense? Is there a chance you’re just trying to justify these confessionals because they’re what you expect to be there–possibly because they’re familiar? And, maybe, easier? The answer to all of these questions probably isn’t clear immediately, but your best possible response whenever you encounter them in your own writing is always, “I should really think about that.”

It’s a slippery slope. Especially because fantasy also can’t go too far away from what inherently makes sense to us… as humans.

The… Other Uncanny Problem: Not Too Far

Okay. Just… Just try this on for size.

A blorfenlaz magic soul and a sentient… (fuck)… metal (fuck it) phase through the flesh wall of a jenmursian. The sentient metal slides through… the… the membrane–

Look, whatever. You get it. What does any of that mean? How does any of that make sense? It doesn’t. Because none of what I was thinking relates to you, as a human, at all. You’re already lost and I didn’t even get to the part where that sentient metal orders a Mike’s Hard.

Because as much as it is fantasy’s job to challenge reality, the genre also can’t stretch too far away from it. Why? Because we’re human, writing and reading human stories. I do believe the genre can push past this inhuman point, but eventually, you pass into sci-fi… or into something else that we as humans just inherently wouldn’t want to read. I’d love to see that envelope pushed as far as it could go, but that’s mostly because I’m really unsuew how far someone could take it.

I think the best anti-uncanny pushing I’ve ever read comes courtesy of Brandon Sanderson. In a lot of his writing, he pushes the boundaries of what we consider normal. But even then, those otherworldly details are tied to concepts we understand. The best example that I can think of are kandra in the Mistborn series. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that kandra are not like human beings; they’re an incredibly original, bizarre race that’s really fascinating. But, as a reader, they’re easier to accept because they prefer to present themselves as humanoids–and even beyond physical presentation, kandra think like humans. Even if this was not an intentional decision on Sanderson’s part (I’m not comfortable with making one assumption or another about any writer’s intentions here), the point is that the need to have inhuman things presented as humanoid is as much a facet of fantasy as the need to not have elements be too modern. It’s why orcs and atronachs and countless other races, no matter how weird, are still almost always “humanoids.” It’s why a fairy realm, no matter how bizarre, still has castles (or, if not, still has homes or dens or any kind of dwelling the faeries call their own). It’s why even if there’s not Mike’s Hard (and really, there better not be), there’s still–always–ale.

In short, there’s a weird balance between what’s absolutely not okay to put in a fantasy world and what’s not okay to omit.

Disciple or… Student?

It’s a weird divide. And one I have struggled with because it’s the kind of issue that can pop up for nearly any detail during your world-building. There will inevitably be the point where you think, “Well… should these forest people have bread?” and “Wait… how likely is it this other race would have large wings?”

The answer here is a resounding, “Do research.” But even after research–and on humbler issues, like the naming of a drink in a tavern–the question becomes, “What do I call this thing?”

And that’s when you have to work the uncanny scales and decide. Is your initial concept unrealistic in relation to your fantasy world? Then dial it forward or backward on the Uncanny scale until either you get something that’s both human enough and otherworldly enough to work (keeping in mind that unless you’re making a story about, say, half-orc vampire squid, it’ll probably be [inherently] easy to keep things human enough). In my experience, even just working that dial on one concept–like “student”–will eventually result in a word that might change your concept of a character or world element (in my case, I recently worked the scales on the word “demigod” and wound up with a different concept that changed the way religion works in one of my worlds).

~

Well, I think I’ll call it quits there. Thanks for reading and, as always, I hope you enjoyed the rant.

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