Academic journal article Extrapolation

Fantasy after Representation: D&D, Game of Thrones, and Postmodern World-Building

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Fantasy after Representation: D&D, Game of Thrones, and Postmodern World-Building

Article excerpt

There is a vast archive of critical debate over the precise distinctions between different non- or extra-realist genres, particularly the big three: science fiction, fantasy, horror. Today it is increasingly clear that the force of these differences, and their collective opposition to realism, is a historically bounded and rather recent phenomenon. SF novelist and critic John Clute considers the ensemble of non-realist genres to be an integrated whole, which he dubs "fantastika," a common term in Czech and other Slavic languages ("Fantastika"). The eighteenth-century distinction made between the "realistic" novel and the "allegorical" nature of romance is an Anglocentric one; both forms are simply referred to as roman in French, German, Czech, and many other European languages. Whether or not one accepts this primary split, clear distinctions between the genres descended from the extra-realist genres can be hard to make. Again, history counters formalism: Michael Saler points out that science fiction, fantasy, horror, and detective fiction began as twentiethcentury marketing categories, subdividing what he calls the fin-de-siecle "New Romance" of Rider-Haggard, Wells, Stoker, and Stevenson (14-15, 84) into semi-autonomous readerships. While these audiences developed relatively independently for a time, they were cut from the same cloth, and overlapped more often than theories of genre can easily account for.1 Furthermore, the normative force of realism has been in decline at least since the postwar period-an entire system of genre has lost its anchoring concept. I contend, then, that any theory of fantastic genre appropriate to postmodernity must begin with fantasy, the fantastic genre least rooted in the epistemological concerns that inform traditional theories.

What is sometimes called our "post-genre" narrative environment was always latent in fantasy: a field of generic play at once wholly conventional and undetermined by any rhetoric of transcendence or "root logic." Because fantasy roleplaying games (RPGs) involve the generation of internally consistent "worlds" or narrative platforms open to audience participation, I turn for a theory of contemporary fantasy beyond the problematics of representation to their powerful influence across literature, film, and electronic media since their inception in the early 1970s. RPGs are the culmination of twentieth-century fantasy's self-reflexivity, and can help us to reconceptualize popular fiction as a quasi-positivist system of genres. Rather than offering a closed set of normative epistemological frameworks, a genre theory premised on multiple systems of information more or less open to one another would help critics of the fantastic understand how genre "works" in a multi-media environment long since liberated from the authority of nineteenth-century literary realism. I conclude by reading HBO's Game of Thrones as an example of how contemporary fantasy has begun to realize itself as a legitimated cultural norm. I read the series as engaged in a "game" of sorts with its audience, alternately subverting and reinforcing the norms of high fantasy in accordance with a post-representational logic. The show's counterintuitive sense of "realism" has nothing to do with verisimilitude or allegory, but rather with mastery of its adopted generic codes. So often dismissed as marginal, fantasy today is hegemonic. This essay begins to assess how popular narrative has been shaped by fantasy's example.

I. The Fantastic, Realism, and Genre Theory

It is generally accepted that the rise of modern literature, defined by the development of print and a turn toward realism in prose,2 sets fantastic genres off from their precursors in epic poetry, myth, and folklore. Roberto Capoferro gives a precise formulation of this assumption when he argues that the modern fantastic is distinguished from its premodern antecedents by its adoption of empirical rhetoric to represent the supernatural. …

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