Why I Write Fantasy The Way I Do

Twitter recently brought a certain Ana Marie Cox’s article to my attention–that would be this one here. It was difficult for me to parse this, because many of the same factors that drove Ana back to conventional fantasy drove me away from it. How the hell does that work?

Honestly, I’m pretty sure it’s a difference in emphasis. Ana looks at old-school Sword and Sorcery novels and sees worlds where the rules are clearly laid out, where the hero’s path to victory is clear, where everything is guaranteed to work out in the end. On a surface level that simplicity appeals to her. Maybe that’s the problem: as far back as I can remember, I’ve been the nitpicky bastard who can’t just coast down the river. I always had to demand why the fish look exactly like Earth fish, and why this river is completely bereft of non-plot-related shipping.

Fair warning: this is your stop-off point before I wax dour. You’re not somehow ignoring “the real me” if you stop here. As with my more energized, happy material, this is part of the real me–not the whole in itself. We all live our own lives the best we can, and we all have to decide what we’re willing to take into them. If you’d rather not deal with my darker side, give someone else your readership for this week; I’ll be back with cheerier prose or poetry next Tuesday.

For those of you sticking with me: I promise this becomes sadly inspiring by the end. Even optimistic, in the roundabout way which is the only way I remember to find optimism.

You see, I look at those novels and see worlds where nothing can be worked out until the promised hero arrives, where everything is guaranteed to work out only after appropriately-spectacular levels of violence and all the human misery they imply, where the rules state very clearly that this world exists for the benefit of one pasty initially-unqualified fuckwit, and if you’re not him then The Management wish you a merry time on the sidelines. Try not to die?

The operative word being “try,” the connotation being, “But honestly, your efforts have no bearing on whether you succeed or not.” This is not a useful message for a young writer whose most-loved art form does not, unfortunately, mesh well with a quintessentially Autistic feeling of hopeless isolation. Sword and Sorcery novels exist so one man can succeed; every time I even think of cheering him, I see myself in the crowds past him. I see my sister, the best artist I know and yet, so far as I know, little-recognized. I see my cousin Eric, who went into Los Angeles full of dreams and left looking like he’d walked free from the plot of “Apocalypse Now.”

Then I look back to the smiling jackass in the crowd, who was literally handed the world even though he didn’t do the tiniest fraction of the things we did. We’re not fantasy heroes! We’re not facing the forces of darkness or destined for a showdown with the Dark Lord, but we didn’t need the constant adulation of friends and a string of inhumanly-wise mentors to keep us going.

This son-of-a-salamander, in this incarnation like all the duplicate throngs before it, threw a temper tantrum the moment the old witch told him he’d be more important than God. Are you shitting me with that?! And here he is, again, thinking he’s got the keys to the universe.

Unfortunately, pal, I’m writing existence this time–and unlike my counterparts, I despise false modesty. Here, my words are law, and my law says merit must win. What are you but the stolen merit of others? In this scenario, I sip a Riesling and shrug while a crossbow quarrel explodes that stupidly-perfect ice blue eye of his and he drops twitching to the ground.

He could easily have detected the assassins with gentle passive use of his ridiculous magic powers, but why would he do that when he believed causality itself made him invincible? I might’ve wept for him if he’d had some kind of actual personality–like maybe being remotely as kind as everyone is constantly saying he is.
“You,” I say, pointing at the grizzled Knight-Commander kneeling beside the fallen Boy of Prophecy. Time freezes. We make eye contact.

“You don’t look like a hero,” I grin. “You look like a warrior. Let’s give you a chance on the line and see how you do.” Then he takes a quarrel too.  Whoop, make that five. They punch through his armor because this is point-blank range and unfortunately crossbow quarrels do these things. Well, he did fail to see the ambush coming; actually, all these guards did.

Are those assassins using arbalests? Gods damn, they are! These guys came prepared! Shame they’re working for the enemy, or I’d hire them to save the world! I spare a last glance for the porcupine hero and his erstwhile escorts. This whole huge column of stupid… I snort and go find the obvious psychopath who’s shouting at her quavering classmates to keep up the volleys; she is unarmored and knocking away blunt arrows with a hurricaning practice spear.

“After all,” I laugh, “qualified people are going to be busy getting more qualified, not parading brainlessly down an unguarded street! Hey! You look insane enough you might want to be a protagonist…” She may survive this story, provided she’s not opposed to armor for real fights; there’s a significant difference between crazy and stupid.

I’m not trying to paint myself as a great visionary or even a decent person. I think that, fundamentally, my handling of fantasy comes from a deeply ugly place. It’s a genre stuffed to the brim with male protagonists from my same ethnic group who are usually–though not always–more handsome than me, born to a more certain future than me, more socially successful than me, yet about as skillful and intelligent as the paper they gallivant across.

And as a lifelong romantic, you can imagine how much it stings that they cannot fucking breathe without encountering their soulmates and both of them experiencing an intense mutual attraction that is signposted from here to hell’s gates. Rand al’Thor of The Wheel of Time meets THREE soulmates, and has the gall to act all tortured about it! Then the plot doesn’t even have the grace to make the whole sister-wives thing a legitimate mess as it nearly always is in reality!

I’ve hated these feckless vermin since high school, and I won’t deny it any longer. I’m not saying that this is a pretty sentiment, that they deserve it, or even that I would do better. Though with so many authors hinging everything on Ex Machinas, neither you nor I would have to try very hard to meet that bar. I know these sentiments are hideous ones, but I didn’t start out this way. I used to believe in these heroes, to like them, until the exact moment I realized that their worlds are full of people just like me–all just props for their prancing.

What lessons do they have to teach? “Everything will work itself out?” That fell through pretty fast on my end. “Anything is possible with a little help from your friends?” If you’re reading this, congratulations: you’ve surpassed the engagement of all my purported friends (by Facebook’s lights, anyway) in my work for well over a year. You might think that cynical tirades like this were the cause, but it’s been a year and a half since I posted anything like that on Facebook. For someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder, that’s a miracle of willpower and self-discipline that (with love for all of you) I’m fatally certain none of you can properly comprehend.

If you’ve been here awhile, you should be able to guess that I use the adverb “fatally” with full awareness of its connotations and definition. Let me explain to you what an Autistic obsession actually is, because I think much of my bitterness towards conventional fantasy–and it is bitterness, I no longer mind confessing that–flows from this same source.

Neurotypical people often describe our obsessions as “intense interests,” or something to that effect. This is roughly accurate in the same way as calling the supermassive black holes which (probably) underpin most galaxies “hard to escape.” And yes, I am fully aware that using the largest possible spatial phenomena to refer to one’s emotions is usually a warning sign. Here’s a better one for you:

My obsessions have always mattered more to me than my own breath and beating heart (a phrase I use with full consciousness that it echoes a line from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). That’s what these things are.

“Interest”–something you notice, appreciate, and may decide to delve deeper into. An obsession latches on, pulls and tears and demands and consumes. All of you use this word, but I know just from watching you–even the artists among you–that few of you know what it means. That’s not a slight on you. There’s no glory behind a true obsession, unless you brutally rewire your mind to shore it up against the constant frustrations and mind-rending disappointments that inevitably come with it.

I have done this. It makes things far easier, but we’re discussing the difference between being set on fire and “just” being scalded. Anytime I put aside my obsessions, I feel them lurking at the back of my mind, gnawing, creeping, seeping into my insecurities. “If you’re so good at this,” a little voice demands, “why aren’t you doing it right now?”
“Because it doesn’t pay for itself. Yet.” I answer.
“And why do you suppose that’s going to change?” it asks.

No matter what answer I make up, it’s a lie. I don’t believe it will change. But being Autistic means that the raw psychological trauma–and it is trauma–inflicted by not pursuing my obsessions leaves me no choice. The agonies come either way: from suppressing the passion, or watching the world ignore it wholesale. At least this way, I pull something new from the fires.

I know all this sounds outrageously dramatic; that’s life on the Spectrum. This has been me from Day One. So, how am I supposed to appreciate or relate to protagonists who get to bypass all this? What solace can I draw from a world where the rules so clearly write me out of the equation? Even I, blandly Caucasian and brunette, am too psychologically in-depth to be the protagonist (though I offer the slain-hero fantasy above as an argument that I could be a damn good villain). These worlds offer no escape for me–they only repeat the format I know from this one.

I wasn’t born wealthy enough for that to carry me. I don’t have enough friends to promote my work. I’m not pure or innocent enough to be the subject of prophecy. I’m twenty-six but I feel seventy, jaded and worn down and tired. My fractured psyche births an unending tide of ideas, some truly remarkable, and drives me to refine their delivery endlessly.

What does any of that matter if no one reads them?

But I keep fighting regardless, because I don’t have a choice. I suffer either way. Frankly, at this point I’d rather the stakes were higher. I’d rather I had some reason for feeling this way beyond a mental disorder. I wish there were battles and bloodshed involved, or dark magics, or an alien invasion, and I hate myself for wishing these things because all of them entail the suffering of others just so mine feels less out of place. Something, anything, so that I wouldn’t have to feel so childish for feeling so alone, so useless, so irrelevant.

And with all that, somehow, I’m expected to identify with protagonists who get everything I want by sitting on their asses and leaving the work to others. I cannot. I am sorry, but I’m not that pure a man; I haven’t been the innocent boy who believed in that for a decade.

I cannot escape into conventional fantasy. I can’t escape, period. To be Autistic, at least as I am Autistic, is to be hounded by your own mind for all your days. You fight, or it destroys you. Medications, ironically, often target the weapons which you need to survive. Abilify was my worst; it’s supposed to stop “perseveration” (my mother’s term)–constantly thinking about the same things. And it does! Except, those thoughts were never the issue: they were my salvation. I found it actually shuts down my higher-level thought processes enough that I can’t use them to distract myself from the oh-so-real problems in my life. Abilify stops me from retreating into the depths of myself.

And I do that frequently, because there I can envision a different world. Not one in which my victory is guaranteed–that just becomes the same useless mirage as all the other fantasy books. It’s simply a world where I’m not guaranteed to lose because of things decided before I was born. It’s a world where fighting always achieves something, even if it’s only your opponent’s respect when they cut you down at last. Because that fleeting recognition, to be vital to someone even for the space of a single stroke, is one thing I’ve always needed and never managed to earn.

This is absolutely the reason for the constant themes of dueling and worthy opponents in my work, of course.

Despite my best efforts, every friend I’ve ever had sooner or later drifts away. No matter how long I keep in touch, eventually depression saps my energy just long enough that they forget about me. I know that sounds implausibly tragic. Please believe me, I do. I don’t mean it to. It’s only fact. It’s only the pattern that repeats itself for me, year by year. I can leave it unspoken, as I have up to now, or admit it, but I won’t deny it for you.

If I could be valuable to others–as a writer seems the most obvious, since it was my skill with words that first earned me praise as a child–if I could be valuable to others, if I had some purpose, that would be all I need to cast aside depression and self-doubt. I’ve held this stalemate alone for years–just imagine what I could do if I had one person I always knew needed me to keep fighting!

Maybe I don’t deserve it. But whether I deserve it or not, I doubt more every day that I’ll ever receive that feeling. Yet, this other world taught me something: the warrior who still fights has not been defeated. You do not lose until you’re cut down, or surrender.

That’s what I write towards. That’s my fantasy. A world in which everyone has a chance, however minuscule. A world where anyone could take the day. A world where someone, somewhere, can always take up the sword anew and continue the fight, and no insipid prophecy or proverb-laden sage has the right or the power to stop them. A world where you can always make the struggle mean something.

If you still prefer prophecies and rules and incanting sorceresses who, no matter their power, one day become accessories to the hero, I understand. You’re not me. You may not be on the Spectrum or have the same kinds of obsessions to grapple with even if you are. Maybe you don’t always have to fight, and if so, I’m glad for you. Or if you do, maybe you draw strength from seeing people who don’t have to fight as hard. No matter what your answer is, relish it–so long as it’s right for you.

But, like any writer, my books have to be written for myself before they can be read by anyone else. I cannot write the worlds full of fate and divine empowerment and magic swords which you seek; this would be its own surrender. I’m writing for a pale, portly American kid who learned at ten years old what spleens are, and that rupturing them can kill you.

Because there will always be another prophecy. But there’s only the one me. And if my contribution to the field is that I’ll be one of the unsung legions marching stolidly against the genre’s inevitable will, against the nebulous whims of agents and publishers, and if in this lifeless onslaught of torn banners and desperate, futile hope I must become just another corpse, another query letter discarded…

…I’ll make sure I fight my fate longer than the rest. And maybe, just maybe, some other writer shall pass me by, and take up the sword from my cold fingers, and call the charge anew:
To victory or death, and unto Void!

Say something, darn it!

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