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Legends

edited by Robert Silverberg

(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 380 pages, paperback; published 3 April 2000.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

This hefty anthology of eleven previously unpublished novellas set in the most popular worlds of the most famous contemporary writers of fantasy fiction is in many ways the commercial validation of a brand of fiction that has in the last thirty years grown from a neglected genre into a bestselling phenomenon. Its selection of authors--especially in view of their collective and individual impact on the field--defines the genre and how it is perceived.

In the introduction to Legends, editor Robert Silverberg likens fantasy fiction to the great epic poems of antiquity--Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, etc.--and speculates that a timeless tradition of fantasy storytelling stretches back to the time of our cave-dwelling ancestors and finds its modern avatar in bestselling fantasy series. While it's true that fantasy fiction has mined antiquity for its raw materials--Silverberg's own 1984 novel Gilgamesh the King being a great example of how effective this source material can be to create powerful and pertinent contemporary works of art--it's anachronistic and ethnocentric to presume that these ancient texts fulfilled the same function as fantasy does today, that their composers had the same motivations as authors of fantasy novels or, especially, that ancient peoples experienced these texts as fantasy. Great gulfs of time, culture, and consciousness separate 20th-century Western fantasy from these ancient texts. And while these ancient texts have over time infiltrated our consciousness to attain the mythic resonance of legends, it is presumptuous and pretentious to bestow such a status on the literary creations of contemporary fantasists--regardless of their quality.

The editor also uses the introduction to sketch out a brief history of English-language, particularly American, fantasy publishing. This history places the anthology in its proper context. In the golden age of pulp magazines, where every genre--including aviation fiction, sports fiction and many other minutely specific categories--possessed its own magazine or magazines, fantasy never took hold. The first inkling that there could indeed be a wide audience for fantasy fiction was the phenomenal success of the 1960s American paperback reprints of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the floodgates had yet to burst. Sure, old fantasy tales by the likes of Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, A. Merritt, and Clark Ashton Smith found a new home between paperback covers, but few were successful publishing ventures (Howard's Conan tales being a notable exception). Silverberg neglects to mention that most of these stories would be unrecognizable as fantasy by its 1990s audience. In the late 1970s, the monstrous success of the Tolkien-inspired Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game pointed to the formula that would finally, in the 1980s, secure fantasy's position on bookshop shelves and bestseller lists.

Fantasy, a word that connotes unbridled imagination, has ironically come to represent a very specific type of conservative, derivative fiction that is characterized by its strict adherence to a limited set of props and settings. Basically, what publishing refers to as fantasy now is an ever-growing collection of what might as well be apocrypha to The Lord of the Rings. This brand of fantasy romanticizes the medieval world as a type of lost golden age, ignoring its excesses of cruelty, bigotry, oppression, disease, and intolerance. It glorifies the birthright of royalty. It juggles clichés in a predictable sequence to conjure time and again the same story devoid of social, psychological, or literary relevance. Some defend it by calling it entertainment, but I fail to find anything entertaining in its offensive politics and its tedious adherence to formula.

Not all contemporary fantasists plunder the world of Tolkien's imagination. Writers such as Rachel Pollack, Christopher Moore, James Morrow, Bradley Denton, and Garry Kilworth are producing vivid texts teeming with the fantastic, creating metaphors and stories that illuminate the human experience. However, as much as such authors have gathered awards and accolades, their work falls into a publishing limbo--not fantasy by commercial definition, not mainstream because of its fantastic content. It's often considered unmarketable and market conditions make it difficult for it to reach its potential audience.

Legends, to be fair, makes it clear that its intention is to showcase bestselling writers who have created popular worlds revisited time and time again in their respective authors' own lengthy series. Of the eleven tales, three stand out. The best story is Stephen King's, a novella set in his Dark Tower sequence. Its ingenious combination of western, science-fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions fascinates and intrigues, titillatingly implying much more than it reveals. Orson Scott Card's contribution is set in an alternate past where the American revolution never took place and magic, especially in the New World, is quite present. Card is an excellent prose stylist with great ideas. His story definitely shines in comparison with most of the other texts in this anthology, although it was too pat to be completely satisfying. Terry Pratchett is a satirist whose Discworld is a setting on which he lets loose his very love-it-or-hate-it "British sitcom" sense of humour, as exemplified by his story here. The rest of the book is a sad, unimaginative foray. Two stories, the ones by Robert Silverberg and Anne McCaffrey, are technically science-fiction, but belong to the sub-genre of planetary romance, where, once on whatever far away planet the adventure is set on, the trappings of commercial fantasy assert themselves. Most of the book--the six stories by Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Raymond Feist, Ursula LeGuin, Tad Williams, and George R.R. Martin--unabashedly and boringly revisit Tolkien, albeit with some minor variations.

Legends is a commercial construct that will doubtless reap financial rewards for all concerned. Unfortunately, for the most part, it celebrates the derivative and shallow nature of most of today's bestselling fantasy. It is a testament to how, ironically, imagination and relevance are considered incompatible with fantasy in the publishing marketplace.


Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday 13 Feb 1999; reprinted in Montreal OnLine.

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