The Fantasy Problem

I’m in the middle of the fourth Dresden Files book and I’m trying to figure out why it bores me. I liked the first book, but every book after that has taken a lot of effort to finish, without much reward. The annoying thing is, I don’t even dislike it – I never take issue with the plot or characters as I’m reading it. They’re good books. I just don’t enjoy them very much.

Maybe part of the issue is that it doesn’t make sense. But wait, it’s fantasy – it’s not supposed to make sense. And I’m a massive fan of Harry Potter. So that can’t be it, right?

Here’s the thing about fantasy. The idea of “supernatural” is only about a century and a half old; before that, it was just… well, natural. People who burned witches were pretty certain that witches could exist. Fairy tales and romances involved spectacular and fantastic events, but no one said they were impossible. Wikipedia dates the origins of fantasy, in the modern sense, to the late 19th century. This chart makes me think they aren’t lying. Fantasy couldn’t exist until it was, you know, fantasy.

So how do you write about magic for a world that no longer believes in it? I’ve categorized fantasy stories based on how they overcome this hurdle.


Type 1: The Tolkien Method. The story takes place in another universe, without ever acknowledging that fact. Most High Fantasy is this. Most shōnen anime are also this. Too many examples to list; this might be the most popular method.

Type 2: The Narnia Method. Magic exists in another universe, but characters travel between the real universe and the magical one. Though I haven’t read it, the His Dark Materials series apparently uses this method. Bleach, and a few other anime, partially qualify (depending on the arc). Oh, and The Wizard of Oz. And maybe Alice in Wonder Land, if you ignore the whole “it was just a dream” thing.

Type 3: The Hogwarts Method. There’s a magic world within the real world – the two settings exist in the same universe. Artemis Fowl comes to mind. I guess Peter Pan qualifies. I think C.S. Lewis sort of killed this method, with help from Tolkien, because it still isn’t very common even after being used by the best-selling series of novels in history. Part of Harry Potter‘s success might come from the sweet spot it hits between Types 2 and 4, taking the appeal of both.

If the story doesn’t make a distinction between “world” and “universe”, Type 3 can easily blend in with Type 2. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but it sounds like it’s basically Type 2.5. Also, a Type 3 story will almost always have a sprinkle of Type 4.

Type 4: The “Fuck it” Method. The magic is in our world, and we just haven’t noticed because… um, don’t think too hard about it. Basically anything with vampires, werewolves, etc. will be this. Extremely popular; perhaps even more popular than Type 1.

4A: They’re hiding from us. Vampires don’t want us to know they exist, after all – our ignorance makes them safer, and allows them to catch us off-guard. Harry Potter fits this whenever muggles get involved, which, thankfully, is not often.

4B: They don’t make much of an effort to hide – we’re really just that oblivious. Examples: The Dresden Files, American Gods, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Type 5: The Old Fashioned Method. Magic exists in the real world and people have noticed and never even doubted it. This includes Historical Fantasy and… nothing else. Seriously, I can’t find a single example of this method being used for a modern setting. That’s a little disappointing – but on the other hand, you’d have to completely rewrite the progression of society from the scientific revolution onward, so I understand why no one wants to make the effort.

Technically, almost all fairy tales are Type 5, but they were written before “fantasy fiction” was a thing. In fact, any work written before the Victorian era that has been retroactively labeled “fantasy” will probably be Type 5.


But let’s go back to Type 4. For a few good reasons, some stories rely on this method. One reason: symbolism. The magical elements exist to demonstrate something about the real world – which is why the story must be set in the real world. Often, the symbolism is about the past vs. the present – how would the present handle ideas and myths from our past? Neil Gaimain loves playing around with that question. Even Dracula has some of this (…apparently. I haven’t actually read it.) Buffy has more mundane symbolism about growing up. The second reason, and perhaps the most popular: fear. Magical monsters are scarier if they’re dropped in a setting where they aren’t supposed to exist, or even be possible. This reason’s confined to the horror genre. Besides symbolism and fear, other reasons to use Type 4 probably exist, but I can’t think of them. Teen Paranormal Romance is trendy right now, but fuck if I have any idea why. Something to do with falling in love with outsiders? Or like, is it a gender-swapped version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope? I don’t have a goddamn clue.

But still, modern fantasy can work under the right circumstances. I’m just not sure those circumstances apply to The Dresden Files.

Take Harry Potter as a counter-example. The series is full of unanswered questions. How does magic even work? Why are wizards and witches so adamant about staying secret? (Hagrid basically shrugs off the question in the first book, and it never gets asked again.) Why aren’t these kids learning math or literature – or hell, science? Actually, why is everyone in the magical world ignoring science, even though the muggles have used it to surpass them and pretty much make magic obsolete? Well, not everyone. Arthur Weasley notices, and he gets mocked every time he points it out. Arthur Weasley is the smartest wizard in the Harry Potter universe. Also, what’s up with the “moving” paintings? They don’t just “move”, they seem to be freaking alive, which is a little unsettling when you consider that a lot of them are of dead people.

Everyone knows about these issues, and no one – myself included – cares. The unanswered questions don’t harm the series because they’re also unasked questions. Those problems just aren’t what Harry Potter is about. You can leave holes unfilled if you know you’ll never have to walk over them. It helps that Harry Potter is a Type 3 fantasy; I did feel a bit awkward every time the muggle world and the magic world interacted. But that’s not the main reason; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Type 4, and its list of unanswered questions is even longer (don’t even get me started). And, just like Harry Potter, no one cares, because the questions never need to be asked.

All Type 4 fantasies, and many Type 3 fantasies, have one common issue: how the hell have we not noticed all these magical shenanigans going on all around us? There is no good answer. If, as too many stories (including The Dresden Files) do, you justify it with some version of “people refuse to notice things they can’t explain”, then your story is inhabited by the exact opposite of human beings. People don’t ignore the abnormal; we look so hard for the abnormal that sometimes we ignore the normal. Any story that claims the opposite is putting a huge limitation on itself – it can’t do too much world-building or else people might notice that the world is kind of bullshit.

The first Dresden Files book throws a whole lot at you without expecting you to think too hard about it. It’s a fun book. Every book after that (at least, the ones I’ve read) focuses more intently on certain parts of the Dresden universe and attempts to build it up further. And then I stop caring.

Part of the problem is that this is a mystery series – its genre is all about finding the truth. Mystery heroes from Sherlock Holmes to Gregory House have defined their genre by explaining the inexplicable and disproving the paranormal. Harry Dresden is an anti-science wizard whose profession is to get to the truth of matters; and I don’t see the series playing with this contradiction in any interesting way. Actually, I have a theory: mystery, hard sci-fi, and stories that rely on world-building (including certain types of fantasy) all appeal to the same parts of the brain. They’re logic puzzles; they challenge you to consider how things work, what goes where, whether X necessarily means Y. The Dresden Files, because it’s set in a universe that ignores a crucial aspect of human behavior, can’t adequately accomplish this; and the more it tries, the less interested in it I become.

This problem isn’t unique to The Dresden Files, which may explain why sci-fi seems to be on the rise. If your plot needs a lame excuse, “Science did it!” (The Dr. Who Method) is so much easier to justify than “Magic did it!” Just like old-time fairy tales and romances, we know such things don’t exist, but we don’t think they’re impossible. That’s fantasy’s real problem: science fiction can take the appeal that stories about magic once had and re-fit it for the modern world. Harry Potter saw unparalleled success, but I think that’s a magic trick that can only be performed once. I predict fantasy will lose a lot of ground to science fiction in the coming years.


Twitch Simulates History

If you’re not into Pokémon, this post will seem silly at first, but stick with me; I have a point.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Twitch Plays Pokémon, you’ve heard about the Helix Fossil meme. Before the Helix, though, there was the Moon Stone. Because the Moon Stone was at the top of the item list, and because thousands of people were fighting for control, Twitch kept selecting it; the madness inherent in TPP made people decide that the Moon Stone was some sort of spiritual guide. But the Moon Stone can be tossed. And in TPP, if something can happen, it generally does. So Twitch accidentally tossed the Moon Stone on the second day, just as gaming blogs and websites were beginning to notice the stream. Some arguments followed about whether to worship the Nugget or the Helix Fossil, but then the Nugget got tossed, too. And so the players worshipped the Helix Fossil as a god, and still do.

The funny thing is, the Helix Fossil wasn’t even the item that we accidentally selected the most. A few days in, the Helix Fossil got deposited in the P.C.; although it was quickly withdrawn, the order of items got mixed up, and thus the S.S. Ticket was at the top of the item list far longer than the Helix. Later, the Lift Key was at the top of the list, and thus “consulted” the most often. But neither of those things became “gods”, and the Moon Stone was mostly forgotten about. (Even people who didn’t like the Helix used the Dome Fossil, its counterpart, as their idol, rather than any item we actually possessed.)

Watching the Twitch Plays Pokémon community evolve was like watching the growth of civilization on fast-forward. Yes, it was all kind of a joke, but that doesn’t make it less fascinating. Why did the Helix become so symbolic when it was neither the first item we “consulted”, nor the item we consulted most frequently? Because it was around at the right moment. When TPP’s popularity was skyrocketing each day, the Helix Fossil was at the top of the item list.

Historians have long debated the Great Man Theory of history – basically, the idea that history moves forward due to the actions and decisions of a small number of “great” men. I hold sort of a temporal version of this; I suppose you could call it the Great Moment Theory. Some sort of abstract social energy (for lack of a better term) arises in certain moments – due to a population surge, or technological change, or the fallout of a war, or some other reason. These Great Moments bring about change – change that’s hard to dismantle or rethink until another Great Moment comes along.

I saw several instances of this in Twitch Plays Pokémon. The community often assigned nicknames to their Pokémon, but which nicknames stuck depended on when they were assigned. “Bird Jesus” the Pidgeot was not seen as a savior until four or five days in; and toward the end, Zapdos surpassed him in power. Also, at one point, his in-game nickname was changed to aaabaaajss (if you think that’s a typo, you aren’t familiar with TPP), leading many to call him Abba Jesus; but that didn’t really stick. He had become Bird Jesus during the stream’s Great Moment, when the view count was at its peak, and so that’s what he stayed. A similar thing happened to “Lazorgator,” our starter in Crystal Version; he had moves with lazor-like animations at first, but they were quickly deleted. Still, he had been named Lazorgator at a time when views were around 80,000 (Crystal Version ended with only about 20,000 viewers), so the irrelevant nickname stuck with him for weeks.

Institutions that arise from Great Moments become more powerful when the moment has passed; they carry with them the social energy of a more dynamic time. During TPP’s peak, people tried to keep up with it and organize information in various ways. A popular Google document kept track of the team’s current status, while a live updater reported on events as they occurred. I remember watching, fascinated, as the people in charge of these became vastly more powerful when the view count dropped. Before, the community was so noisy, so productive, that the organizers answered to them; now that the community’s quieted down, they’re practically at the mercy of the organizers. Our Espeon got nicknamed Burrito mostly because that’s what the Google Doc said he was named (weird story). The subreddit was always the most popular place to discuss TPP, but now it’s practically the place to discuss it.

You might think it’s a stretch to compare this to real history, but I don’t. Actually, I’ve noticed the same kind of pattern occur in history all the time. The rise of Christianity was a Great Moment that defined religion in Europe for about a thousand years, until the invention of the printing press allowed for another Great Moment – the Protestant Reformation. China’s philosophical foundation comes from the bloody and dynamic Warring States period. More recently, Google’s prominence comes from its widespread popularity at the outset of the web’s mainstream use; other search engines exist, and are being created constantly, but it’s very hard to compete with something that became a part of people’s lives at just the right time.

This may seem redundant if you think I’m saying “change happens when change happens,” but that’s not what I mean. There are certain moments when change becomes more feasible than other moments – and when we’re not in such a moment, it is very, very difficult to override the change that arose from previous Great Moments. I’m not nearly learned enough in history to know all of the factors that lead to such moments; but I’ve already mentioned population bursts (see: the Baby Boom), technological change (the printing press and the Internet), and major wars (pick one).

What specific change occurs during these moments is largely random. So this isn’t a deterministic view. Still, changing the course of history at the wrong moment – at any moment devoid of a mass societal feeling that it’s time for change – is very hard. Before, I compared this idea to the Great Man Theory. I stick by that comparison. Neither theory requires a clear distinction between the people, or moments, that matter, and the ones that don’t. But some moments clearly matter more than others.