In the first of an occasional series, I interview the Bing AI about high fantasy. The AI’s responses have not been edited.
What is high fantasy?
High fantasy, also known as epic fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy defined by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, or plot. High fantasy is set in an alternative, fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the “real” or “primary” world. This secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set on Earth, the primary or real world, or a rational and familiar fictional world with the inclusion of magical elements.
High fantasy stories often feature world-threatening forces, fantastic creatures, historic or unusual technologies, magical elements, and other unearthly elements. The story might also include characters from royalty and be seen through the viewpoint of one hero, an underdog.
Some examples of high fantasy literature include J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
How does high fantasy differ from sword and sorcery?
Science Fiction magazines likely displayed on the stands at ten year intervals, 1933 to 2013
Many readers here no doubt lack the experience of having personally cruised news stands, tobacco shops and underground hole-in-the-wall used book stores, through no fault of their own. Unless you can fault someone for not having been born in a particular year, which I think would be a silly thing to do.
I, on the other hand, managed to arrive on this planet at a time conducive to such things. Following a brief orientation period lasting a handful of years, during which I learned how to navigate within a 1G gravitational field and picked up a few useful tips, such as becoming proficient in one of the native languages and where food came from, not to mention the necessity of wearing clothing when out and about, I was introduced to a small, yet extremely powerful concept called “Science Fiction”.
In short order I became enraptured and the rest, as they say, is personal history.
Last year, Michael A. Burstein invited me to write a story for his anthology Jewish Futures. I accepted and began to think of the form that my story would take.
I decided to explore a future in which the Israeli government took a sharp turn to the right, both politically and religiously. This change caused an exodus of secular Jews from Israel. However, rather than having them immigrate to either Europe or the United States, both of which were seeing a rise of antisemitism in my imagined future, they would head to the east.
In 1929, the Soviet government created an area known as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast centered around the town of Birobidzhan. Despite being the first official Jewish region in modern history, the percentage of Jewish population of the J.A.O. was never particularly high and, although many Jewish writers and artists promoted the area, it fell out of favor with the Soviet government, culminating in the Night of the Murdered Poets, when thirteen Jews who had helped promote the J.A.O. at the request of the government were executed for trying to establish a breakaway region when that same government decided the J.A.O. was no longer needed.
Today, Birobidzhan has a flag with some Jewish symbolism, a menorah in front of the train station, and a ramshackle synagogue, Beit T’Shuva. Officially, it is still the Jewish Autonomous Oblast despite a miniscule Jewish population. In my future world, however, in the 2030s, it becomes an alternative home for Jews dissatisfied with the direction Israel had taken.
334 by Thomas M. Disch (Avon, October 1974). Cover artist unknown
In the last page of Thomas M. Disch’s novel 334, the family matriarch, Mrs. Hansen, has finished explaining why she should have the right to die. “I’ve made sense, haven’t I? I’ve been rational?” she asks her unseen auditor, a civil servant taking an application. “They’re all good reasons, every one of them. I checked them in your little book.” She has indeed given reasons why her life is no longer worth living, with disconcerting thoroughness, and makes clear that if her application is turned down, she will appeal. “I dream about it. And I think about it. And it’s what I want.”
What is remarkable about this scene is not the defense of suicide (which does not take place in the text — the book ends with Mrs. Hansen’s summation), but an articulated yearning for nonexistence. The three elements of this nexus — the voiced eloquence, the fiercely focused desire, and the prospect of nothingness — constitute three compass points of Disch’s art. There is a fourth, always present but harder to see, which we will come to in a moment. For now, let us consider these elements, vividly present throughout Disch’s fiction and widely remarked upon, but also widely misunderstood, especially in the SF genre, where he began his career and which he never fully left.
Harlan Ellison speaking to the audience at the Los Angeles
Science Fantasy Society, May 1982. Photo by Pip R. Lagenta
Harlan Ellison published three novels early in his career, and spent the rest of his life trying to complete another1. Despite a large and successful body of work, and the willingness of publishers to pay large advances for a novel, he never succeeded.
Returning to the novel form was important for Ellison; he announced the titles of works in progress as “forthcoming” in the front matter of his short story collections, ghost titles that would appear in successive volumes, sometimes for years, then vanish to be replaced by new ones. In 2010, when he was 76 and announced he was dying, Ellison said that he was working on a new novel, The Man Who Looked for Sweetness;2 and in 2014, shortly before he suffered the stroke that ended his writing, he returned to an earlier project.3Completing another novel was a dream he never relinquished.
I would rather read a book, but I listen to a LOT of audiobooks. I listen to them in the car (fewer work commutes with the Pandemic); and often during my work day. My mind is wired so I can listen to an audibook/radio play and still concentrate on something else. I’ve had friends and coworkers tell me they can’t do that at all, so I feel fortunate. It lets me ‘read/re-read’ a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t have time to get to. I use the Overdrive App to get them out of the library, and I do Audible.
Many a night, I fall asleep to an audiobook (not a problem when you sleep alone. Sigh…). Usually something I’ve read or listened to before and know reasonably well. Like Max Latin (Norbert Davis), Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler), or Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie). That way it doesn’t matter if I doze off.
Of course, If I REALLY like the book, or author, I tend to favor the narrator more (unless they are screwing up my book!). But I’m pretty objective in determining whether or not I’m glad this person is doing the narration. Today I’m gonna talk about some who I really like – and plugging some authors I like as well!
It’s always a good time to talk about Terry Pratchett! He was, simply, brilliant. Pratchett, who passed away in 2015 from Alzheimer’s, wrote the terrific fantasy series, Discworld. He gets my vote as one of the great satirists of our time. And he used classical fantasy tropes to do it! Did I mention, ‘brilliant’?
I re-read (and listen to) Pratchett books throughout the year. I got in the mood again recently, and did a mini-binge. Discworld is fantasy world, with the entertainingly horrible city of Ankh-Morpork at its center. Parody, homage, satire – they are fantastic books. Pratchett pokes fun at our world (especially, society) though these books. If you Google search, ‘Terry Pratchett quotes.’ you will get some absolutely terrific ones. Most are from his books, but real-life ones can be pretty hilarious, too. The man was just incredibly funny. Add in being very observant, and a good writer, and you have the ingredients of a great author.
It started when I decided to listen to a Pratchett audio book during the work day last week. I’ve read the series a couple times, and I can miss a bit here and there as I work. Jingo is one of the City Watch books. There are several ‘sub-series’ in the Discworld series, involving central characters. My favorite is the one with Sam Vimes and the City Watch. They are essentially very entertaining police procedurals, in a fantasy world. They’re a blast.
R is for Rocket (Bantam, 1965, cover by Paul Lehr), The Golden Apples of the Sun
(Bantam, 1970, cover by Dean Ellis), Long After Midnight (Bantam, 1978, cover by Ian Miller)
June 5, 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest speculative fiction writers of all time. It’s fair to say that no author has positively affected my path into reading, and subsequently writing, to the extent that he did. Through this four-part series, I hope to convey some of the joy and wonder that Bradbury instilled in me and so many others, by revisiting a selection of his short stories that have continued to resonate with me throughout the years. Disclaimer: I don’t profess that my selection are his greatest tales, no matter what your definition of the term, but they hold a special place in my pantheon of stories, and I hope they will be worthy of your time.
Please to remember the 5th of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.
It’s November 5th, and in Great Britain, it’s time to roll out the sparklers, hot dogs, and burning effigies. For those unfamiliar, November 5th traditionally celebrates the capture of the villainous (and Catholic) Guy Fawkes and his crew mere minutes before they blew up the House of Lords with King James in situ, over 400 years ago. As a foreign import to these fair isles, Bonfire Night has always held a strange fascination. What was this peculiar celebration, which took precedence over Halloween, where small children gathered with their glowing wands and unhealthy snacks in the shadow of a large, flaming ‘Guy’?
Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine Books, June 1973). Cover by Gervasio Gallardo
I’m the age Proust was when he died, and Lin Carter books are my Madeleine cake.
The covers transport me to the sunny afternoon garage sales of my teens. Picking up one — they’re tiny compared to today’s paperbacks — and riffling the yellowing pages, and I’m thirteen years old, on a hill-walking holiday in Wales, rummaging in a small town charity shop while the rain rattles the dirty glass window. And later, playing Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D was my edition!) in a stuffy teenage bedroom in a Victorian house where the hundred-year-old window slammed down and nearly took off the DM’s leg as he was smoking a roll-up while perched on the ledge…
And like the D&D games of my mid teens, Lin Carter’s books never quite lived up to the potential of the promised exoticism. In our case, we were teenagers with limited life experience. We did very well, as far as it went, and our DMs were patient and I argued too much. Lin Carter, several times married, a Korean war veteran — the Vietnam sequence that kicks off the Callisto books reads very authentically — cosmopolitan New Yorker, experienced editor, has less excuse.