Victorian and Victorianish fantasy is big these days, isn’t it? I’ve heard a variety of theories as to why, my favorite of which is probably the one postulating that, just as the bucolic world of the Shire was the just-outside-living-memory past Tolkien looked to, so the height of the Industrial Revolution is for us. I don’t know if it’s true, but it implies we might have Depression/Dust Bowl fantasy as a big thing fifty years from now, which is an intriguing idea.
Anyway, my personal theory for why we’ve got so much nineteenth-century fantasy these days goes like this:
The Victorians were crazy.
Not in the medical sense of the word, at least not by our current standards. (Hysteria, bah.) But very much so in the “what the blazes were you people THINKING?” sense. More than any other time period or place I can think of, the nineteenth century in Britain, America, and certain parts of Europe lived in the happy delusion that they could do absolutely anything if only they tried hard enough. And sometimes, through sheer persistence and luck and lack of self-preservation instinct, they succeeded. As a result, the period is chock-full of amazing achievements and larger-than-life personalities -- which makes for a really fun narrative environment to play in.
It’s especially fun given that the Victorians were often so rational about their irrationality. Not only did they have ludicrous quack medicine, they dressed it up in pseudo-scientific advertisement! Not only did they have rampant belief in spirits, they assured themselves it was all quantifiably true! (Did you know that a wee Charles Babbage once tried to summon the devil? True fact, at least according to his autobiography. It was for science, you understand, not for personal gain; he was attempting to verify the existence of said entity.) They willingly -- nay, eagerly -- threw their lives into peril on the chance of making new discoveries. That push and pull, the yin and yang of rational organization and irrational enthusiasm, is a tremendous engine for telling stories.
Of course, both of those things have their dark sides. The enthusiasm drove things like imperialism, and science provided a justification for it. I’m an anthropologist; I know what my intellectual ancestors were doing with their skull measurements and other quackery. That’s something modern Victoriain’t fantasy (hat tip to Elizabeth Bear for the term) has to deal with one way or another, whether it grapples with the historical reality or imagines a better alternative.
But I’ve never been much interested in settings where everything is rosy. I like the shining top and dark underbelly of the nineteenth century: technological progress and its human cost, new discovery and the loss of old things, the collision of different cultures and the problems that result. The tension between those things is fascinating. My take on it in A Natural History of Dragons and the sequels is more light-hearted than it was in, say, With Fate Conspire, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still being driven by the same interest. What happens when fantasy runs face-first into a banner era for scientific inquiry? The space in between those two things makes for a very intruiging playground.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com, on Twitter, and on Goodreads.
Thanks to Marie for today's post and thanks to the folks at Tor for setting this up! I've still got my own review of A Natural History of Dragons to come as well, readers!