Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hard Fantasy

If you'd like to read some snippets of For Want of a Piglet, I have two up on Unicorn Bell: first page here and the first meeting with the antagonists here.

One of the critters at Unicorn Bell asked what Hard Fantasy is. Fair enough -- it's not a well defined genre. Once could argue it hasn't been defined at all. I'm going to refer you to this article at Tor again because I think it's a good place to start.

We all agree on what Hard Science Fiction is, yes? Hard SF adheres to known laws of physics (and solid theories) as much as possible. It accepts those limitations and works with them -- no convenient "artificial gravity" and no "inertia dampeners" to let people accelerate at bone-crushing speeds. The genre has a history of spending more time on the gadgets than the characters (which is unfortunate.) Exceptions are sometimes made for alien technology or harnessing wormholes. The line between Hard SF and other science fiction genres is blurry -- all genre lines are.

Realism doesn't have to be a liability.
Courtesy of the SCA. Photo by Ron Lutz.
Hard Fantasy is the equivalent. I would argue that Hard Fantasy adheres to the known laws of physics and whatever exceptions are allowed for magic have their own rigorous laws, limitations and (importantly) consequences. I would also argue that magic will probably keep a low profile in the story. There may be magical animals, but they will obey the rules too.

Hard Fantasy is also aware of economics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, and is built accordingly. These are, admittedly, far more flexible than the laws of physics. Geology, climatology, and ecology should come into play too.

When I was thinking about this post, I went and looked up Poul Anderson's "On Thud and Blunder" (which everyone should read.) It was written a long time ago and I think that in general writers have gotten better about doing their homework -- with the internet at everyone's fingers there is little excuse anymore. But it's still an excellent evisceration of tropes and an argument in favor of Hard Fantasy, I think.

Examples of Hard Fantasy: like all genres, it's going to blend into other genres around the edges and there's nothing wrong with that. A fantasy novel could be "fairly hard" except for those fire-breathing dragons or whatever major exception the writer made. (A hard-science fire-breathing dragon is tough to build. I've only seen a few attempts.)

George R.R. Martin' Song of Fire and Ice comes to mind, of course -- dragon exception and all. Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series comes to mind. L.E. Modesitt's The Magic of Recluse has been mentioned, but I don't think I've read that.

Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy is on the hard side, though magic does come into play.

What comes to mind for you?


Anonymous said...

Harry Potter is full of hard fantasy and kids love those books. JKR did a wonderful job, of starting off kids to reading. May be they will get into GRRM once they get a little older ( in their twenties. The sad thing is that I saw R.R. Martin's books in a dollar store. Hi this is Munir over here at Focus. I am hoping that reading never gets out of style.

L. said...

No, I'll have to disagree on that. Harry Potter isn't hard fantasy. Plenty of physical laws get flouted and the "parallel" world of magic was poorly integrated with reality.

Good books? Absolutely. But not hard fantasy.

MKHutchins said...

Hmm. How I've heard "hard fantasy" defined differs from what's here -- I'm used to using it to describe a book with a "hard magic", i.e., a magic system that Asimov might have described as an "exotic technology" with understandable limits, rules, consequences, etc., often as a large and integral part of the story. Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson, to me is the golden example of hard magic.

I've usually heard "soft fantasy" as referring to those books with little to no magic/fantasy elements, and would stick George R.R. Martin in there.

David Powers King said...

Excellent rundown of the genre! I certainly agree. One of these days I'll have my hard fantasy drafted up. For now, I have too much magic to work with. :)

Michael Offutt said...

I don't know if I agree with you on George R.R. Martin being hard fantasy. He's pretty much broken out just about anything that he's needed to when he's needed to. It's apparent that the Mountain (for example) has been raised as an undead perhaps even with the Red Viper's head and is unkillable. It's also apparent that Lady Stark after having been dead for THREE DAYS was resurrected back into life (that's pretty major). Additionally, you have Daenery's dragons (as you've said) but not only that you also have the strange blood magic of Mirri MazDur basically saving Khal Drogo's life but turning him into a vegetable. You also have the Horn of Winter which with one sound, will destroy the great wall of the north. And then who knows what the White Walkers are. Plus the elves (errr Children of the Forest) have the ability to move in and out of trees and into animals (calling it skin changing). So yeah...I think George R.R. Martin's world can pretty much have anything in it that he wants and it won't seem out of place at all. I think you just might be confused because of the length of his books. I mean it can be two thousand pages before something happens and all you see is Tyrion sitting around eating grapes and figs.

L. said...

It's easy to confuse grit with hard fantasy, too, I suspect that's what I'm doing. Probably would help if I re-read the series -- haven't touched it since the long wait began.

But given that any fantasy will have something that's not "real"... how close can the world cleave to reality and still be fantasy?

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