How Fantasy Literature Helped Create the 21st Century

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer track modern fantasy from post-war to pre-apocalypse

The following is the introduction to The Big Book of Modern Fantasyedited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, to be published by Vintage Books on July 21, 2020. Introduction copyright (c) 2020 by VanderMeer Creative, Inc.

Fantasy is a broad and various category that on the one hand can feature fire-breathing dragons and on the other can be as quiet as a man encountering a strange plant. As with The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, we have worked from a simple concept of what makes a story “fantasy”: any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place in a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly “fantastical” occurs in the story. We distinguish fantasy from horror or the weird by considering the story’s apparent purpose: fantasy isn’t primarily concerned with the creation of terror or the exploration of an altered state of being frightened, alienated, or fascinated by an eruption of the uncanny.

Argument over the details of this broad definition could go on for hours, days, lifetimes. Only the most narrow and specific genres can be defined with precision, and fantasy is one of the broadest genres imaginable, if it even qualifies as a genre and not a mode, tendency, tradition. But every anthology needs criteria for selection, for inclusion and exclusion. For us, the defining moment of fantasy is the encounter with the not-real, no matter how slight, and what that moment signifies. Sometimes it is the entire world and sometimes it is the slight distance from reality that allows a writer to bring our reality into focus in a meaningful way.

The defining moment of fantasy is the encounter with the not-real, no matter how slight, and what that moment signifies.

We defined classic fantasy as stories from the early nineteenth century up to the end of World War II in 1945. Modern fantasy, then, begins with the end of the war. There are practical reasons for this separation: we knew it would require two books to offer an acceptable selection of the body of work we wanted to draw from, and we wanted those books to be balanced in size and scope. However, the separation also makes sense in the context of what was happening culturally in the middle of the twentieth century.

Soon after 1945, fantasy solidified into a publishing category. In 1939, two pulp magazines were established that helped readers see fantasy as its own category, separate from both weird/horror and science fiction: Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell, and Fantastic Adventures, edited by Raymond A. Palmer. Campbell and Palmer were quite different as editors, but they created markets for stories that were lighter or less horrifying than those in Weird Tales and its imitators, and not beholden to pseudo-scientific rationalizations that grounded the science fiction in Astounding and Amazing magazines. Nineteen forty-seven saw publication of the first Avon Fantasy Reader, edited by Donald A. Wollheim, and then in 1949 The Magazine of Fantasy, retitled The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, reappeared with its second issue and continues to be published up to this very day. F&SF (as it is known) lived in the liminal space between the pulps and the commercial slick magazines, publishing writers who had established themselves in the pages of Weird Tales and Unknown alongside writers like Shirley Jackson and James Thurber, familiar to readers of The New Yorker. While the popularity of these publications varied, they had a strong effect on English-language writers in particular, creating a sense of a type of fiction called fantasy that was different from other types of writing. F&SF in particular is heavily represented in this volume.

Just as fantasy was beginning to become a recognized, separate type of writing in U.S. magazines, the postwar boom in paperback publishing opened up new opportunities for writers and readers both, creating a space for the phenomenal success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels in paperback in the mid-1960s, and leading to countless imitators, some of them also bestsellers. The next decade saw the rise of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, the conception of which was influenced not only by Tolkien but also the writing of well-known genre fantasy writers such as Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance (plus unjustly lesser-known ones, such as Margaret St. Clair). D&D would go on to influence not only the structure and content of other games (including computer games) but also many works of fiction, including television shows and movies. By the 1980s at the latest, fantasy, as a marketing category, was a significant part of most media. Today, it is arguably the dominant category of pop culture.

To some writers, fantasy is an element in a wider set of tools that can be taken out and used for a particular story or novel. Other writers are born with a worldview that skews toward fantasy or become steeped in the non-real and it becomes part of their core identity. Neither approach is inherently better than the other, but for the purposes of post–World War II fantasy it often signified a continuing widening of the breach between the real and the non-real in terms of what most general readers think of as “fantasy” and what kinds of fantasy have been most accepted by genre communities. At times, fantasy has become “that which is produced by a fantasy writer” or “that which I recognize as fantasy because of pop culture.”

The power of pop culture to familiarize readers with the fantastical cannot be overstated. Inherent to popularity is a tendency to render key elements familiar and conventional, even safe. Marketing categories let you know what to expect. (While this can create cliché and generic qualities, they also allow subversive and genre-defying material to reach a wider audience, by allowing “mimics” of a kind to infiltrate the mainstream. The cuckoo’s egg that cracks open to reveal a fairy.)

After 2001, pop culture and fantasy were nearly synonymous.

In a purely technical sense, until recently, sophistication in movie and television versions of fantasy has lagged behind the sophistication of even the most generic Tolkien-derivative fantasy. Thanks to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, the year 2001 has a mythical science fiction meaning, but the actual year itself proved to be one of the most important in the history of pop culture fantasy, because it was at the end of that year that the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies were released, having an effect on the popular imagination of fantasy comparable to the effect of Star Wars on the popular idea of science fiction in 1977. Before 2001, the influence of written fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons made it a major source for much pop culture; after 2001, pop culture and fantasy were nearly synonymous.

Yet to this day, despite any amount of commercialization of fantasy, the short story remains a wild and unpredictable delivery system for unusual and bizarre fantastical ideas, images, and  characters. Sadly, the depth and breadth of this wildness often remains half-unseen. The post–World War II split between fantasy and literature, while hardly as deep as that between science fiction and literature, effectively rendered certain types of writing invisible to large groups of readers. For instance, The New Yorker’s long history of publishing fantasy stories has often been obscured by the magazine’s reputation for publishing slice-of-life stories. Even in the 1980s, when the craze for “dirty realism” was at its height among the English-language literati, all but the most puritanical literary magazines and journals still published stories with fantastical elements (often calling them “surrealism,” “fabulism,” or “magical realism” to distinguish them from genre fantasy). These days, we’re used to seeing fantasists such as Steven Millhauser and George Saunders appear in both The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The New Yorker.

Because of the opposing poles of ubiquitous pop culture and literary movements like Magic Realism in Latin America, “fantasy” as a concept found favor in the mainstream, encouraging many writers who didn’t identify with the fantasy genre, or had been scared away from the fantastical by its genrefication, to employ fantasy as a device or idea in their fiction—including and up to a point where it is fascinating to discover that some stories that are clearly fantasy, coming from the mainstream side, have been ignored or dismissed as “not really fantasy” by the genre side. Conversely, on the “mainstream” side fantasy is often seen as referring solely to some bastard child of Harry Potter and Tolkien, with Borges or Calvino, for example, not fantastical at all—ironic, since Borges appeared more than once in F&SF and had little patience for the division between “popular” and “literary” fiction.

The post–World War II split between fantasy and literature rendered certain types of writing invisible to large groups of readers.

As ever in our anthologies, we seek to repatriate these “sides” because they are, in fact, closely related on the page, as opposed to their position on the map out in the world. That a kind of not-seeing occurs in both directions might best be exemplified by our experience of a major SF/F editor calling Jorge Luis Borges, derisively, “small press,” while the editor of a major mainstream literary market for fiction once in front of us fiercely denied that Borges and Calvino contain any trace of fantasy. Fantasy was wizards and, oddly, zombies.

In The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, we introduced the concept of “the rate of fey” as a barometer for fantasy, providing for fantasy what “sense of wonder” provides for science fiction and “the uncanny” provides for the weird—the fey is an otherworldliness, a strangeness emanating from the kinds of associations generated by elements like fairies, elves, and talking animals rather than from ghosts or monsters. With popular culture making many elements of fantasy so familiar as to be clichés, rates of fey diminish, just as in science fiction the sense of wonder diminishes with the umpteenth invocation of a conventional faster-than-light drive. The ubiquity of fantasy throughout post-1945 culture provides different challenges to writers who seek originality and otherworldliness. That struggle can be productive. For the period we cover in this volume, 1945 to 2010, readers will find a wonderful chaos of different approaches from writers with vastly different points of view and heritage, and often they will find those writers extending and wrestling with traditions and creating unpredictable new styles from old.

Organizing Principles and Process

Modern-era fantasy fiction poses a challenge related to organization, in that the wealth and variety of material can make a mockery of process. Indeed, most such collections trend toward the realm of “treasury” rather than “anthology.” The material, in a sense, demands it, because too narrow or too tight a focus risks leaving out many treasures. Whereas with our anthologies The Weird and The Big Book of Science Fiction there were definitional exclusions that made the task easier, in fantasy the wild, broad nature of the fiction makes that impossible. However, we have come to accept over a career of editing anthologies that no anthology can be perfect and that the best way to come close is to let your reach exceed your grasp (as Angela Carter liked to say).

Perhaps the most important idea in compiling this anthology was simply to make sure that no matter how surreal the fantastical elements, they are present throughout the story. These elements might be quite normalized or presented as normal, but whether it’s a person transformed into an animal or the effects of magical systems, the story is permeated by the fantastic.

We also found it worthwhile to think about organization in terms of how writers draw ideas from each other. The networks of influence linking many of the writers through this volume are not always predictable or well-known. For example, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges stand out as having helped stimulate creative energy in many different writers, including writers on both sides of the post-war literary/genre divide. Borges, for instance, reoccurs as a clear and stated influence in the work of Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, and Antonio Tabucci, to name just three. Often, also, fairy tales and folktales provide the foundation from which these writers launched their stories, but not in any simple way—the various crises, technological developments, and social changes of the twentieth century ended any possibility of serious writers just reiterating the tales of the past. Instead, for example, we get Abraham Sutzkever using a kind of folktale idiom to express what realism feels wrong for: his experience of the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto. Fantasy becomes something of use to a writer to make a political or social statement. It’s not just a mode, it’s a tool allowing conversation with predecessors and conversation with an often bewildering and sometimes horrifying world; it’s no surprise that absurdism and surrealism arose when they did. While in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, we found few out-and-out surrealist stories that fit the book’s goals, with this volume we find numerous and diverse writers claiming surrealism as an inspiration as a movement and a valuable technique for writing about life when the “real world” feels far from real.

To select the stories in this book, we sought out previous anthologies to analyze existing canons—canons seen as “literary” and canons seen as “genre,” canons national and international. We evaluated individual stories in those canons to see how they held up for us as readers today. We looked for stories that seemed to use fantasy in ways that transcended pastiche. We looked for productive connections. We did not worry overmuch about including any particular individual writer, but sought more to show the diversity of approaches possible.

We chose a rough end date of 2010 to maintain the decade-long “exclusion zone” we feel is important for objectivity, and which we have used in our other anthologies. Several anthologies, including various annual best-of-the-year collections, already cover the past ten years in fantasy fiction. But this exclusion did mean that some emerging writers of note from the past decade had only published a few stories by our cutoff date and could not be included herein.

On a higher level of hierarchy, our process and thought process was informed by, as previously noted, ignoring where a story came from or how an author self-identified (genre or mainstream); repatriating the fringe with the core (turning a spotlight on forgotten writers); articulating the full expanse (including non-Anglo stories).

International Fiction

English-language modern fantasy could itself fill a five-hundred-thousand-word volume. For this reason, we have included fewer translations than in some of our prior anthologies. However, we have still provided a robust selection of international fiction, much of it little known or in English for the first time.

We, in English, still cannot see the entirety of world fantasy, which is both depressing and a challenge for future editors.

First-time translations include bestselling Swedish author Marie Hermanson’s “The Mole King,” Polish writer Marta Kisiel’s “For Life” (a writer never before published in English), Mexican writer Alberto Chimal’s “Mogo” and “Table with Ocean,” and the amazing “The Arrest of the Great Mimille” by French author Manuela Draeger. Other highlights of translation include Silvina Ocampo’s major long story “The Topless Tower,” Abraham Sutzkever’s “The Gopherwood Box” in a new translation, Czech writer Vilma Kadlečková’s “Longing for Blood” (her only story in English), and Intizar Husain’s “Kaya-Kalp,” rescued for this volume from obscurity in a long-forgotten journal from the 1960s.

It is worth noting that if an English-language modern fantasy volume could fill five hundred thousand words, then so, too, could, for example, “Latin American women writers of fantasy,” if only more was available in translation. We, in English, still cannot see the entirety of world fantasy, which is both depressing and a challenge for future editors to rectify more fully.

Emphasized in This Anthology

Whereas our prior classic fantasy volume featured many fairy tales with actual fairies and general uses of magic, this volume focuses more specifically on dragon stories. Something about the ferocity and versatility of the idea of “dragon” appears to have allowed these beasts, once at risk of extinction, to flourish into the modern age of fiction. Or, perhaps, we as editors were just much taken with them. (Certainly, here in Florida the proliferation of iguanas and other giant lizards due to climate change can have serious and important effects on one’s subconscious mind.)

As in classic fantasy, there are also many stories involving quests and swordplay. How could there not be? The people involved are not the typical heroes, however, and their atypicality seems more emphasized in these stories than in the classic tales. We also see more heroines, as in Joanna Russ’s story “The Barbarian” and in Jane Yolen’s “Sister Light, Sister Dark.” And unlikely heroes, such as in Fritz Leiber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and Jack Vance’s “Liane the Wayfarer.” Leiber is featured in the classic volume with his first Grey Mouser tale from the 1940s, and it is striking to see how the earnest innocence of that yarn had given way to an altogether more realistic and jaded view of humanity and of our two heroes in “Lean Times.”

In 1939, Unknown and Fantastic Adventures magazines sought to bring more lightness and humor to fantastic fiction, and that effort had a lasting effect. Humor plays a large role in many of these stories, from David Drake’s “The Fool” to Terry Pratchett’s “Troll Bridge,” showing the versatility of fantasy as a genre. Sometimes, this humor has a satirical edge, as in our excerpt from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (which we chose to place by its date of translation into English, given the novel was still very relevant to the Soviet condition at that time).

Fantasy has long been associated with kingdoms, and in this volume you’ll see that royalty, and attitudes to it, has changed in fantasy stories after 1945. For example, in “The Mole King” by Marie Hermanson, the reluctant King would prefer to live underground, like a mole, rather than face up to any royal responsibilities. In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Winged Creatures,” a sad little kingdom is undone by plague, and love is thwarted by time and chance. The prince in Intizar Husain’s story “Kaya-Kalp” decides he likes being a fly, after the princess changes him nightly in order to escape detection by the evil giant who has imprisoned her.

When reality itself often feels unbelievable, fantasy may allow the most perceptive portrayals of the real.

Metamorphosis is a subject of fantasy going back at least as far as Ovid, and perhaps best represented in the twentieth century by Kafka’s famous story. Modern fantasy features many highly unusual transformation stories. Qitongren’s “The Spring of Dongke Temple” includes a protagonist who wishes to become a bird, like the monks that preceded him. Stephen King’s “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” is a transformation story of sorts, in that Mrs. Todd becomes younger and younger each time she takes that shortcut. Gabriel García Márquez celebrates an old man’s transformation in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”

As urbanization has progressed, fantasy has also accommodated it, leading to inanimate objects as sentient beings, such as trains, sheds, and even cities (Sara Gallardo’s “The Great Night of the Trains,” Victor Pelevin’s “The Life and Adventures of Shed Number XII,” and Tanith Lee’s “Where Does the Town Go at Night?”). Even in urbanized modernity, talking animals abound, not to mention the talking plants and insects in Edgar Mittelholzer’s wonderful and newly discovered “Poolwana’s Orchid.”

Also, in a definitely modern and “relevant” vein, fantasy with a social message has flourished, allowing the distance from reality to be effective and sometimes biting. Examples include Alasdair Gray’s “Five Letters from an Eastern Empire,” Rachel Pollack’s “The Girl Who Went to the Rich Neighborhood,” Haruki Murakami’s “TV People,” Shelley Jackson’s “Fœtus,” and Sumanth Prabhaker’s “A Hard Truth About Waste Management.” When reality itself often feels unbelievable, fantasy may allow the most perceptive portrayals of the real.

The Gray Lands

We would like to end this introduction on a rare personal note. For more than thirty years, we have each of us edited fiction magazines and anthologies. We have had successes and discoveries beyond our wildest dreams. Our joy has existed in championing new and unjustly obscure voices, and, somehow, this quixotic quest has been rewarded beyond hope. It is unbelievably satisfying, but it also takes a toll. As importantly, we believe it’s vital to make space for the next generation and to encourage the upcoming, diverse future of anthology editors. For these reasons, The Big Book of Modern Fantasy is our last anthology together. We hope you enjoy it, and we hope you understand how much we love fiction and how much we love storytelling, and what satisfaction it gives us to present some new gems to readers that were once lost to the world.

Thanks to Matthew Cheney for his contribution to this introduction and our invaluable conversations about the history of modern fantasy.

Thank you for reading.

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