Friday, January 25, 2013

Genre Savvy: Science Fantasy

In the bookstore, at the video store, or anywhere in fact, Fantasy is almost always merged with Science Fiction.  One might argue they have little to do with each other, I disagree.  They really do have a lot to do with each other, but not enough to really put them together.  So of course, I use the term Science Fantasy.

Why?  First it comes down to the time thing I mentioned last time.  Science Fantasy is more "futuristic," as it were.  Or at least it SEEMS like it's in the future.  We as a society can look at something and say, with reasonable certainty, whether it is from the past or the future.  Saying something looks "advanced" is our way of saying "that's future stuff."  This idea is what separates Science Fantasy from the other two and is its key element.

This futuristic look is why Star Wars is the poster boy for Science Fantasy as a whole.  Lightsabres, blasters and spaceships certainly all LOOK futuristic, but they don't mean much to the story or characters as a whole.  In fact, if you replaced those fancy future tech things with their contemporary, or even ancient, equivalents, no one would notice the difference.  Swords, guns and sailing ships could be used to tell almost the exact same story, sans the giant planet destroying space station.

It is NOT, however, Science Fiction.  The futuristic element defines Science Fantasy and everything under it's umbrella, including Science Fiction itself, but Science Fiction needs a bit more definition.  To sum up, all Science Fiction is Science Fantasy, but not all Science Fantasy is Science Fiction.  And capitalizing each of those words over and over again is making my pinkie tired.

So what makes Science Fiction what it is?  Technology.  As I said, removing all the futuristic stuff from something like Star Wars doesn't harm the actual story telling itself.  Removing that stuff from a piece of Science Fiction, however, ruins it.  Science Fiction is very much about man's relationship with his technology.  How that technology changes how people live, how people change the technology and all that stuff, for good or ill, is the essential element of Science Fiction, and without it, the point of the work is lost.  Often it can be regulated down to a key scientific advancement or technology, and everything in the story grows from that, be it cybernetic implants or time travel.

Let's go back to Star Wars for a moment and ask what is the key element of the entire series?  What one thing drives everything in the plot?  It's the Force, which is clearly not science or technology, despite the ham-fisted attempts to say otherwise.  The Force drives everything in the series, which is why the technology around them is basically unnecessary.  It's window dressing for something else.

This contrasts with the chief rival of Star Wars, Star Trek.  What is the key driving force in Star Trek?  What pushes everything forward and is the reason everything happens in every series, movie and book?  Warp drive.  Without warp drive, humanity never leaves Earth, is never visited by the Vulcans, never fights a war with the Romulans, never wages a cold war with the Klingons, never meets Q, never has to deal with the Borg and never fights the Dominion.  It is THE essential technology to everything in the series, and drives it forward, to where no one has gone before.  Now one could argue the same about hyperdrive in Star Wars, but again, remove it and the story would hardly notice, but without warp drive, Star Trek does not exist.

Which brings me to the comic examples.  On the Science Fiction end of the spectrum, there is Schlock Mercenary, which is about comedy as much as it is about technology.  The initial prime mover is the gates which allowed for FTL travel, and later the open source Teraport, which dramatically changed the very nature of the entire galactic community.  It's such a major shake up that the world the characters inhabit now is far different than the one at the beginning of the comic.  The fact that other technologies are explored, from DNA manipulation to artificial intelligence, further cements it in the Science Fiction branch of Science Fantasy.

The other example I spoiled right in the introduction article, Girl Genius.  It often gets labeled as steampunk, which is more an aesthetic rather than a genre, but it is a great example of the other end of the Science Fantasy spectrum.  The reason?  The main driver isn't a piece of technology, it's the Sparks, the super geniuses that rule, ruin and push forward the entire comic.  Remove the steampunk aesthetic and the Sparks would still be raising hell and driving the story forward.

With the Fantasy branches out of the way, it's time to start covering the over-genres, the three very powerful and very prevalent genres that they often engulf not only the three Fantasy's, but often each other.  Until then kiddies.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Genre Savvy: Urban Fantasy

As I've been thinking on these articles, the idea of time started coming up.  High Fantasy is very much a past oriented genre, as I said last week.  Science Fantasy is a much more future oriented genre.  Which means that Urban Fantasy ends up with the present.  Well, contemporary at least.

Saying "urban" seems to imply cities, but that's not strictly true.  It is more about our modern world, which is mostly city.  It can still happen in small towns, in villages and farms, but odds are it will happen in a city.  Or the suburbs at least.  The real thrust though is that it is happening in OUR world.  Not some fantastic alternate world or the distant future.  The events of an Urban Fantasy story are happening right now, in our neighborhoods or even right next door.

Why, though, do we find this so fascinating?  Our world is full of wonders, if one knows where to look, and sometimes it jumps out at unexpected moments.  Perhaps it is related to the amusement park experience.  Why do people insist on riding thrill inducing rollarcoasters and other insane rides?  The safe world in which we live offers no such thrills, no dangers that even remotely comes close to the dangers we faced as we came out of the trees.  Riding some insane rollercoaster gives us a taste of that fear, that thrill, without actually ever putting us in danger.

Same goes for Urban Fantasy stories.  They put, in a very safe way, thrill back into urban life.  Even better, it puts magic back in, something sorely missing from our more technologically leaning world.  We know so much about how the world works that to a point it's removed some of the wonder of it.  Of course, the more one knows about the world, the more one realizes how little we actually know, so the magic is still there, but it's not as accessible as it used to be.  Thus, Urban Fantasy stories proliferate.

Putting magic back into the world, behind a veil we can't see through, is an important element to Urban Fantasy.  This also means, in order to maintain the illusion that it is happening in our world, that it must be hidden away.  This is the structure of the world in these stories should be built to keep the fantastic from the mundane.  It's not a hard rule, of course, and there's ways around it,but it should always be considered.

So examples, there are a lot of them.  Let's look at a pair from outside the webcomic world to show the real width and bredth of the genre.  I mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the introduction article, but I'm not going to cover that, instead I'll cover the "source" of all modern vampire based fiction:  Dracula.  Now I know this should be part of the Horror genre, and it is, but it is also an Urban Fantasy.  How?  Well, it involved Dracula moving to London.  There is a reason I said "contemporary" earlier, and this kind of thing is why.  Dracula is very much about modern (at the time) people fighting against an ancient monster.  A hidden magic that they never would have seen if it hadn't come home.

Speaking of home, one last example of Urban Fantasy before I move to the comics.  It would have been timely about a month ago, but I mention it anyway:  Santa Claus.  The magic of this fat man in red is so expansive that people don't even question his presence.  Better yet, when they TRY to take the magic out of him via television, movies or books, the result is even MORE magic.  He's very much part of collective mythology at this point, and the perfect Urban Fantasy.

Comicwise, well there's a lot of them out there.  Twilight Lady, Wapsi Square, Zebra Girl, Gunnerkrigg Court, Magic Chicks and Eerie Cuties just to name a few that fit the more classic molds, but there are also the superhero based comics, which are just as much Urban Fantasy as anything else.  Aptitude Test, Spinnerette and Superhero Girl have fantastic elements in a contemporary world.  Even dead.winter, the zombie apocalypse comic, is an Urban Fantasy story.  The list goes on and on, so I can't and won't cover them all, but know that the odds of a comic being Urban Fantasy is quite high.

Next time kiddies, Science Fantasy.  Until then kiddies.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Genre Savvy: High Fantasy

Last week, after I wrote the original Genre Savvy article but before it was published, I finally got to see The Hobbit.  I went with my sister who knows far, FAR more about Tolkien mythology than any sane person should.  She liked it, a lot, but could easily point out the parts that were not in the book, or even Tolkien's work in the first place.  It still worked regardless, and didn't feel shoehorned in as many book adaptations do.  So it's only fitting we now cover High Fantasy.

As I said in the introduction article, High Fantasy finds it's roots in Tolkien.  Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, wizards, etc, etc, all have their definition coming from Tolkien's work.  Why do wizards wear pointed hats?  Dwarves all live underground, why?  How come Elves are always so attached to nature?  Why is it that Orcs are evil?  Tolkien is the answer.

Sadly, this means Tolkien's work often becomes a template for less creative writers and artists to lay down their own stories.  There's nothing WRONG with this, of course, Dungeons and Dragons made a business of doing this kind of thing, with their own Tolkienesce universe.  At the same time, it does seem to lack the important point of High Fantasy.

It's not about Elves and Dwarves and Orcs.  It's not about magic and adventure.  Hell, good High Fantasy isn't about the STORY at all.  It's about the world, it's history and culture (or cultures as the case may be).

This is what makes Tolkien's work so powerful.  His stories are really about entertaining his kids (the Hobbit especially).  The WORLD he created, though, was partly designed to showcase the languages he was inventing, amongst other things.  He built up a mythology and history bit by bit, showing how the world came to be as it is at the time in the story.

That's something a lot of works that claim to be High Fantasy fail, they don't build their world very well.  Or at all.  History is essential, without it any story built in this genre comes off as hollow and wholly lacking.  Pull it off, though, and a great piece of fiction can come from it.

Which brings me to the comic that most exemplifies the High Fantasy genre.  It should be pretty obvious that Errant Story is that comic.  History flows through this comic, not only due to the main plot point, looking for ancient supreme power, but through every action taken by both protagonists and antagonists.  Here's the funny thing though, as Poe reposts each page of the comic, a clearer view of how the comic developed, and the history was NOT done before the comic started going.  Like any good work, the history evolved as the comic did.  Allowing wiggle room to grow is probably what made Errant Story so damn great in the end.

But there is another comic out there that fits this model:  Prophecy of the Circle.  I haven't been following this comic since I did the original review, but it was obvious from the get go it was a High Fantasy comic.  I mean, look at this page.  That's history, culture, the world all there and ready for the taking.  And not an elf, dwarf, orc or wizard in sight.  Hell, there aren't any HUMANS in this comic, yet it is a High Fantasy comic.

High Fantasy is a very past oriented genre and not having a past or history is where a piece will fail to live up to it's standard.

Next week kids, Urban Fantasy.  See you then kiddies.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Genre Savvy: Introduction

Getting Guild Wars 2 is an interesting experience for me because, well, I've never played a traditional fantasy MMO before.  Hell, the last fantasy game I played was Final Fantasy 6, so it shows how long it's been.  That said, it did bring up the issue of genre, the category into which a story, game, or in this case, comic is set into.  There are a LOT of genres nowadays, more seem to be created every year, so the real trial is narrowing them down into a few categories.

Which is what I'm going to do.  Another series of articles going into the details of what an author/artist should be trying to emphasize if they're building a particular genre piece.  The first step, however, is defining these various genres I'll be covering.  As I said, there's a lot of them out there, but we'll focus on a few.

Now these are generalized genres, so one term can, and will, cover a great deal of territory.  As such I'll be covering only 6 genres total, and there's a bit of wiggle room on what goes where.  In fact, 3 of these "genres" are so broad as to actually cover the other 3 all on their own.  But for the sake of sanity, I'll leave them separate.  Each genre has a particular tone, mood or series of ideals they need to follow in order to to fulfill the requirements of the genre.  What those are, we'll get to in the next few weeks, but for now, let's just get some rough definitions.

High Fantasy - My inspiration for this was Guild Wars 2, which is a member of this genre, but the real "root" of the genre is J.R.R. Tolkien.  His main books (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) are the backbone of the High Fantasy genre.  Everything from Dungeons and Dragons to, well, Guild Wars, finds it's source with Tolkien.  So much so, the term "fantasy" is almost synonymous with his work.  We'll get into what this actually means next week.

Urban Fantasy - The first two things that come to mind when I think "urban fantasy" are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter.  The core here is taking many of the High Fantasy elements (magic and monsters typically) and translating them to a contemporary world.  "Urban" would seem to indicate city, but here it's just a reference to our more modern world, nothing more.  True, Harry Potter doesn't run around with a cellphone, but he COULD have one with it really being an issue.

Science Fantasy - Okay, I know:  "don't you mean science FICTION?"  Well, no.  Science fiction falls UNDER the umbrella of science fantasy because this covers a lot more ground that standard sci fi.  As a kind of spoiler (depending on your definition of spoiler), Girl Genius, the steam punk inspired comic, falls into the Science Fantasy category, but wouldn't necessarily be considered science fiction.  Star Wars is famously described as Science Fantasy, and while they try to find roots in actual scientific knowledge, Star Trek often just makes stuff up that sounds cool.  All three are about fancy technology, but go about it in different ways.

Horror - Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, even many slasher flicks come with this genre.  This is one of the 3 "over genres," whose power is so great that the others COULD fall under it given the right circumstances.  Buffy could EASILY end up here, if it was actually scary.  Fear and suspense are the core ideas here and while they can influence or seep into other genres, the really scary stuff is reserved for horror.

Drama - This one is a touch harder to nail down because as an over genre, it is the most over of them all.  Everything except the last one (Humor) falls under genre at some point in its life.  And that's really what drama is about, life.  Everyday life across social standing and gender, country and religion.  It's so large a topic that when the Greeks were writing their plays, they were either Dramas or Comedies.  There was nothing in between.

Humor - Speaking of comedy, I call this Humor because, um, because I've used the term enough when talking about comics.  From sit-coms to parodies, humor is the last over genre that can have it's influence felt throughout.  It follows the "rule of funny," also known as if it's funny, it happens.  Potent, nonsensical, and completely subjective, it is also the one I think I will have the hardest time writing about.  We'll see.

That's a start.  Next week, we'll go into what makes High Fantasy, well, High Fantasy and seek out a few comics that follow this genre.  Until next time kiddies.