I first came across the term Hard Fantasy in a reference to Michael Swanwick’s essay “In the Tradition,” which may well have coined the term. (I tracked down a used copy of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Eighth Annual Collection, which reprinted the essay.)
Swanwick’s own definition of Hard Fantasy as presented in the essay is unclear. He refers to the stories within this nebulous genre as “those strange and shaggy literary creatures that have no ilk or kin.” He sees their role within fantasy fiction as akin to that of hard science fiction within the broader s.f. genre and in opposition to styles such as High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (though some of the authors he cites seem within the realm of Urban Fantasy). The essay itself is very eloquently written and references many books I’d never heard of before and for the most part still haven’t found the time to read.
The very term Hard Fantasy was a helpful jumping off point for my own ideas about how to go about writing in the fantasy genre. The analogy to hard science fiction suggested the application of rigor and logic grounded in scientific principles to the realm of the fantastic. In other words, unless otherwise specified, the laws of science as we know them apply. More critically to me, the principles of social organization and cultural structure that we see apply.
The best examples I can think of for what I’m getting at are three short stories by the incomparable Ted Chiang: “Tower of Babylon,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “Hell is the Absence of God.” These are all collected in his wonderful short story anthology “Stories of Your Life and Others.” In each story the social, personal, and physical ramifications of a central fantastic conceit (it is possible to build a tower that reaches all the way to the vault of heaven; the principles of kabbalah can be combined with philology to animate inanimate matter; the world is regularly visited by old testament style angels, terrible in their wrath and beauty) are explored with relentless insight.
Hard Fantasy for me is an approach to the creation of stories and settings as much as a method of writing them. It is a sort of mental alchemy by which I try to transmute my modern sensibilities into a perspective that can encompass the fantastic and the magical without losing my bearings.
You might think that by trying to define the fantastic in rational terms one would rob the resulting stories of the essential elements of fantasy. For me, at least, these are the ability to evoke a sense of mystery, fear, and awe/wonder in a reader. Things need to be a little unbalanced, with the unexpected waiting in the dark woods. There is a lot of darkness in the human past, a certain brutality to the old religions and fairytales that is often lost in the present. (Today I heard a wonderful interview on the radio program "Fresh Air" with Spanish director Guillermo del Toro that touches upon some of these points.)
Personally I also think magic should be a bit frightening, chaotic, and unpredictable. But it can still function according to certain principles, or be seen (perhaps with fingers crossed) to follow those principles. And you can extrapolate what sort of society would develop from a reliance upon and/or a fear of such a means of manipulating reality.
But the logic used to define the parameters of a setting does not have to be embraced by the characters and cultures who inhabit it, nor explicitly stated to the reader. Consider how many different interpretations of natural laws existed in ancient cultures around the world. So a “hard” perspective on the principles of fantasy can be the hidden scaffolding for the rest of the setting.
I’m interested in depicting the essence of ideas like faeries, goblins, werewolves, and vampires without necessarily worrying about being true to any particular interpretation of the folktales that have grown up around them. I want to think about what it would mean if they could and did exist in real ecologies and societies that last, as well as what they mean psychologically.
But I’m not so concerned with trying to explain why a vampire might, say, be unable to enter a home without being invited. I want to think about what a vampire or an elf represents as a cultural concept. Why are they fascinating? What reactions do they evoke in “mundane” people? How would that change if they were more commonplace?
Most critically, how would such beings see the world around them? Why would they act as they do? How are they being misinterpreted? The same holds true for concepts ranging from druidic worship to mushroom eating to cannibalism to Dionysian rites to visions of archangels blazing with holy fire in the desert.
I’m not suggesting that other people haven’t done this sort of thing. It’s just what drives my own interest. The intersection of my interests in anthropology, history, cognitive science, literature, mythology, and science, I suppose.
Why think about writing Hard Fantasy as I’ve struggled to present it here, as opposed to Hard Science fiction, “Soft Science Fiction” or “Science Fantasy?” That’s a subject for another post.