Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

Why You Need to Read: “Riot Baby”

Riot Baby

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: January 21, 2020

Genre: Speculative Fiction/Contemporary

            The look on her face, that’s what people told me today wasn’t no kind of victory. That when people joke and call me Riot Baby for being born when I was, it ain’t with any kind of affection, but something more complicated. The type of thing old heads and Mama and other people’s parents tell you you won’t understand till you get older, (II, Harlem). 

            Our world is not a utopia, but it’s not a dystopia either. Our world is balanced between the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the ugly. As humanity’s technology emerged with emphasis on the visuals, humanity preferred to use: cameras, camcorders, and videos to capture moments and/or events in life. Although technology is used for selfish reasons, it cannot be denied that we’ve used it in order to capture moments of both the beautiful and the ugly. Yet, it cannot be said that the ugly moments provided elements of truth which details moments of life for all individuals around the world. In the 21st century, this technology serves as a reminder that life is beautiful and ugly due to humanity, and that art imitates life NOT vice versa. 

            Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is an allegorical narrative about the treatment of “minorities”—specifically Black Americans—in contemporary America. I’m not going to use the sub-genre—dystopia—because it implies, “a very unpleasant imaginary world in…a disastrous future,” (p. 417). Riot Baby focuses on the present, so to categorize it in the dystopia subgenre would be an insult to the many victims of the societal practice. This novella reiterates numerous key moments in America during the last 60 years, most of which there is evidence in the form of both photos and videos. While several outlets of mainstream media and history texts continue to gloss over past and recent events, victims and witnesses know better due to the fear and the knowledge that such events: Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Colin Kapernick, McKinley, Charleston, etc., can and will happen again. Riot Baby is Childish Gambino’s, “This Is America,” presented from a similar perspective in a different format. 

            There are two protagonists, but the story starts with Ella who is around 7-years-old. She lives with her mother in South Central Los Angeles. The year is 1992 and her mother is pregnant. Ella is a very perspective child. One of the reasons for this is because Ella has ESP abilities of an empath and powers that rival Scarlet Witch from X-Men. One day after school, as the Rodney King Verdict is announced, Ella’s mother goes into labor and they have to get to a hospital. After her brother, Kevin, is born, Ella begs her mother to have them move to Harlem believing her rage, and her abilities to feel everyone else’s rage, won’t be as volatile on the East Coast as it is on the West. Several years later, Kev spends his time after school hanging out with his friends outside of a bodega on a street corner, avoiding the notice of both the police and his mother and sister. Some things are easier said than done because Ella cannot control neither her “gift” nor her rage, and Kev can’t do anything to stop himself from becoming another statistic in American society. Soon, Kevin is in jail and Ella “jumps” all over the world observing the ways other people live. The brother becomes indifferent and the sister becomes even more enraged.

            As Kev serves his (exaggeratedly long) sentence in Rikers State Penitentiary, Ella experiences rodeos in Louisiana, horse races in Belmont, the shooting of Sean Bell, the police “raid” at a pool party in McKinley, Texas and the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Kev, in his youth, becomes worn down in prison and Ella becomes so angry that she seeks advice from her mother and her mother’s acquaintances. Kev is comfortable with the “life” provided for him in prison and on parole. Ella explains to him how both are restrictive forms of freedom, and the only way to achieve freedom is to act on their anger. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers witness the events and the treatment Ella and Kev experience throughout their lives and the helplessness they feel over and over again. From Kev’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness, readers witness how Black Men are treated in America’s systematic racism from racial profiling to prison (and juvenile detention) to parole. From Ella’s point-of-view, readers experience the world beyond Black America, and moments from the past, including the ones her mother lived through. Ella’s stream-of-consciousness (and empathic powers) allows for readers (and Ella) to feel all of the emotions everyone else is expressing, which leaves her (and us) wondering why more people are not upset with this treatment within society. Given the pace and the moments in U.S. history and society, both Ella and Kev are reliable narrators. 

            The style Tochi Onyebuchi uses for Riot Baby is a social commentary of recent events told with the lenses of speculative fiction. The mood in this novella is rage from mistreatment and oppression in a society. The author makes several references referring to race relations in the U.S.: Rodney King and the L.A. Riots, Sean Bell, Charleston, McKinley, Spike Lee, Black women and childbirth, George Washington Carver, the Confederate Flag, hoodies, neo-Nazis, music—particularly rap, etc. The tone reflects the way one should feel about all of the mistreatment Ella learns and that it is okay to feel anger towards this mistreatment, the same mistreatment which converted her brother into a docile servant of American society. Using superpowers, the author illustrates what will eventually happen if these practices continue.  

            Riot Baby will appeal to fans of both speculative fiction (i.e. comics, manga and graphic novels) and history (i.e. social commentary). Systematic racism continues to be an issue throughout the world, and fans who want to read about this issue in a different style of writing should read this book. Anyone who has read: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the MARCH Trilogy by John Lewis will appreciate the themes and the message found within Riot Babythe most.  

            Riot Baby is a parable (“a very short narrative about human beings presented…with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience,”) about systematic racism and its practices throughout America (p. 9). Both the story and the title emphasizes that anger continues to build up due to mistreatment, oppression and fear and it’s all felt by one and many. Tochi Onyebuchi presents a believable story about the risks society takes when they ignore the harsh practices and restrictions of a group of people. Riot Baby uses the concept of mutant powers in order to deliver another approach to contemporary American society.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                                        Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Tenth ed., Wadsworth, 2005. 

Choose: A Movie Based on a Book or Your Religious Beliefs

With The Hobbit movie trilogy ending and with one more The Hunger Games movie left to be released, the public awaits the other movies within the same genre (Book to Film): Insurgent, Fifty Shades of Grey, Child 44, etc. (I will discuss comic books and their media adaptations in another post). While movies based on books are nothing new (i.e. The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs), we have been seeing more of them since the turn of the century. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Twilight (it makes me cringe to mention that one) are some of the franchises that were the most successful and saw all of the books in the series adapted into movies.

Children’s books are always popular for media adaptations. And, the same can be said bestselling novels. Fans and audiences of both books and movies are always curious as to how the movie will look and how true to the book the movie will be. This is the main issue people often see in media adaptations, but it is NOT the only one. Recently, there have been complaints as to why there have been series in which there is only one movie, and then the rest of the books in the series do not receive the same translation.

Now, with franchises that have had more than one movie adaptation, audiences are wondering whether or not the movies will ever be completed. The Chronicles of Narnia saw three out of their seven books get translated into movies (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). However, the actors were also signed to doing an adaptation of The Silver Chair; and, as we figured out, the movie never got made.

Ironically, the situation surrounding The Chronicles of Narnia was not just about public and studio interest, but also about the religious overtones found within the remaining novels. The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle all contain allegories and allusions to Christianity. C.S. Lewis, the author of the series, also included some mockery of the Islamic faith in those same novels. Many of us who have read those books as children and/or adolescents did not even notice the insult within the pages. However, as adults you tend to look at what is written into children’s books more intensely. I will admit that it was a pastor I know who pointed out to me what was really taking place in the pages of those books. He is a fan of C.S. Lewis, but he said that those insults should not have been placed in a children’s book. Given the fact that there is still a religious war within the Middle East, one can quickly understand why filming those books into movies would be an issue.

On the opposite end, there was the planned movie trilogy based on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy. The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights was a success in North America and Europe, but due to the anti-Christian themes found within the books, the movie was met with several protests. While Phillip Pullman is an atheist, the trilogy is a retelling of the classic work Paradise Lost. Plus, the author is a professor at Oxford University—just like C.S. Lewis was—so there are more allusions within the text that readers might have missed during the first reading.

For instance, “dæmons” are not based on present day society’s belief of “demons.” The former comes from Greek and Roman mythology. They were invisible beings assigned to every individual—masculine for men and feminine for women—who acted as guides for the duration of that person’s life. These dæmons sound more like angels, consciences, etc., not the “evil demons” we have transcribed them to be in modern society. I believe Phillip Pullman used these ancient deities within his novels to point out how much Christian mythology twisted other mythologies to where we forget the actual origins of them. To be honest, I am a little surprise that Rick Riordan did not mention dæmons in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series. Those books were perfect to include such a reference.

This is the scenario that Hollywood has had to deal with, adapting books into films regardless of the backlash they might get due to religious institutions. His Dark Materials halted the series after one movie because too many people called the first movie “anti-Christian” while The Chronicles of Narnia films was halted because people feared that the Muslim community would be offended by them. Other movies have poked fun at religion regardless of the protests and the backlash from society (i.e. the Catholic Church with The DaVinci Code). South Park has mocked all religions for several years (18 seasons), but the creators saw protests when both Islam and Scientology (Isaac Hayes, who voiced “Chef,” quit the show afterwards) were parodied.

Throughout history, many challenged religion with “new” knowledge and these people were either threatened or executed (i.e. Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, etc.). However, it seems that the bigger concern within the religious powerhouses are how they are portrayed in within society, and it appears that the “new” threat is coming from children’s books. While some of the religious themes will most likely be glanced over by younger readers, it is the adults that make something as trivial as messages within a book to be a big deal. The Harry Potter series, while not religious, was met with several protests throughout the world because the books were about a school of witchcraft. Ironically, all seven books were adapted into eight movies, and those novels contain more lessons on morals and ethics than other modern children’s books. The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials also contain choices involving morals and ethics, but remain somewhat controversial as well. When you think about it, there is not really that much of a difference amongst these children’s literary series.

Current events within society have allowed us to witness what happens when there is no balance between literacy and religion. Boko Harem and Al-Qaida are doing everything they can to limit knowledge within their communities (especially amongst women). However, we cannot want every popular book to become adapted into a movie. At the same time, we cannot protest against every movie and/or book with influences to religion due to fear that a mob might be opposed to what is written in the text.

My question is: how many of these “protestors” take the time to read the book? Many people go by what they “hear” about the book instead of reading it. Also, it is known that media adaptations are not always similar to the book! Yes, Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code are books that go against organized religion. However, they are also great stories with interesting information. And yet, I did NOT see any petitions for the continuation of The Chronicles of Narnia movies! Protests work both ways!

To me, it looks as if we must choose between literature and their adaptations and our religious beliefs. No decision needs to be made because not many people want to do one or the other. Movies are straightforward, you either want to see them or not. Religion on the other hand, contains more layers. There are the devout, the spiritual, the ones who take part in it a few times a year, etc. Those who are leaders of these foundations assume the worst before they see what happens. Thus, everyone suffers because of it.

To prove my point further, the novel The Satanic Verses is (supposedly) an excellent work of literature (I just started reading it). However, the amount of backlash the book received upon its publication (1988) and the number of death threats its author, Salman Rushdie, received makes the book sound too dangerous to read. And yet, the book has been read and translated into languages all over the world. Unfortunately, no one has tried to make a media adaptation of the book because everyone is afraid of protests from the Muslim community. Has it ever occurred to you that some of them might have read the book and want the same thing as the other fans/readers?

We should not have to choose between the two because both of them have more in common than we know. Both The Bible miniseries and The Red Tent were successful adaptations based on religious texts. However, we also got Exodus, the visually acclaimed, but historically inaccurate adaptation of the story of Moses (Egypt has refused to show the movie for obvious reasons). There should not be a choice because everyone—even if they are in the same religious community—has a different way of interpreting a work of literature. As long as it is done appropriately, no one should have to choose. Plus, the author almost always includes a personal belief within the pages of their book.