Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Fantasy, Oh, Fantasy, Where Art Thou Gone? [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The 1960s saw an explosion in heroic fantasy fiction with Ballantine's The Lord of the Rings and the Lancer Conan paperbacks. Suddenly barbarians and hobbit-like creatures were everywhere. In novels, collections, anthologies and comic books. It was a wonderful decade for fantasy readers. But by 1979, things were changing and soon a desert would be born.

What caused sword-and-sorcery to disappear after the 1980s? I believe it was a combination of things. First, publishers like Belmont were pumping out quick knock-offs to try and grab some of the riches. Books like Quinn Reade's The Quest of the Dark Lady (1969) did nothing to improve what was already seen as a limited sub-genre. Magazines like Heavy Metal (starting in April 1977) did even less, muddying the waters with a weird blend of sword-and-planet and sex. The bestseller, The Sword of Shannara (1977) by Terry Brooks also showed that even really bad Tolkien imitations could make fortunes. Why write short stories of lone barbarians when fat novels about elves and dwarves could sell millions of copies?

Secondly, the role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (1974) had narrowed the idea of fantasy, pairing Conan and Middle Earth to create a homogenized version of what should have been a genre without limits. Elves and barbarians fight side by side in Gary Gygax's game world. The younger fantasy fans were ultimately gamers and many became writers as well. These include Raymond E Feist, RA Salvatore, Garth Nix, David Langford, Michael Stackpole, and many others.

Thirdly and irreparably, was the movie Conan the Barbarian (1982). What should have been a high-water mark that propelled sword-and-sorcery into the mainstream consciousness, the film was the best of a steadily sinking list of films that are so awful they soon became direct to video. Not until Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 would another major fantasy film wave be created.

So things were pretty bad. What's a writer of heroic fantasy to do? Well, one of the few arenas left for sword-and-sorcery fiction was the gaming magazines. Yes, D&D may have caused some of the problems, but gamers still enjoyed heroic fantasy and published it alongside articles on fighting goblins and dungeon scenarios to play with your friends.

The biggest was TSR's The Dragon Magazine, which began in June 1976 and is still running in some form today. The issues of most importance are the paper ones: #1-359 (June 1976-September 2007). These were the ones that featured fiction. The list of authors who appeared is long but looking at the names I see trends:

The first is old-timers making an appearance. These included Rob Chilson, L Sprague de Camp, Harry O Fischer, Fritz Leiber, and Gordon Linzner. These stories were welcome, but not many. There were also novelists including excerpts to promote a new book: Terry Brooks (Shannara excerpt) and Andre Norton (Quag Keep excerpt). The most interesting of the old timers was Gardner F Fox, comic book veteran and now sword-and-sorcery writer with a long series about "Niall of the Long Journeys" starting in issue #2 and interspersed to #55 (July 1976-November 1981). Ben Bova, science fiction editor extraordinaire, also wrote a series on legendary heroes set in historical Britain between issues #236-311 (December 1996-September 2003).

The second group are names that have since become well-known in other publications like Asimov's, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and paperbacks. These stars of present day publishing include Thieves' World editor Lynn Abbey, Aaron Allston, Neal Barrett Jr, John Gregory Betancourt (future editor at Weird Tales and Wildside Press), Elaine Cunningham, Diane Duane, Esther M Friesner, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Brian A Hopkins, J Gregory Keyes, Jean Lorrah, George RR Martin (Game of Thrones superstar), Ardath Mayhar, Paul J McAuley, John Morressy, Joel Rosenberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (future editor of F&SF), Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Charles R Saunders, Steven Saylor (international bestseller with the Roma Sub Rosa mystery series), Darrell Schweitzer (future editor of Weird Tales), Lisa Smedman, Jeff Swycaffer, Steve Rasnic Tem, Harry Turtledove (sf and fantasy bestseller), Robert E Vardeman, and Lawrence Watts-Evan.

The third group are names we know from later days when the AD&D universe would sprawl out into paperbacks about the Dragonlance saga with its dragons and drow elves. These include Adam-Troy Castro, Troy Denning, Ed Greenwood, Tracy Hickman, Paul Kidd, Roger E Moore, Douglas Niles, Mel Odom, Jean Rabe, RA Salvatore, and Margaret Weis. Many of these books were bestsellers in their own right.

The second major gaming magazine was UK's White Dwarf, which ran from June/July 1977 to this day, but did not use a lot of fiction. The little it did feature was the humorous fantasy of David Langford (along with non-fiction by future fantasy star Garth Nix and the cartoon Conan parody "Thrud the Barbarian" by Carl Critchlow).

Probably the best magazine in terms of quality was Sorcerer's Apprentice, which ran for 17 issues from the Winter 1978 to a final issue in 1983. SA published the very best of fantasy authors with Robert E Vardeman, Charles de Lint, Tanith Lee, Janet Fox, Manly Wade Wellman, CJ Cherryh, and Fred Saberhagen. Roger Zelazny reprinted several of his Dilvish the Damned stories and even wrote a new one, "Garden of Blood" for issue #3. Karl Edward Wagner did likewise with his eternal swordsman Kane. Michael Stackpole, a future fantasy bestseller, wrote many of the non-fiction articles and acted as editor.

The last of the bunch was Ares, a magazine that focused on games besides AD&D. It ran from March 1980-1984 for 16 issues plus two specials. It featured fantasy fiction by M Lucie Chin, Jayge Carr, Ian McDowell, and Poul Anderson. The best sword-and-sorcery stories were "Inn At World's End" and "The Whispering Mirror" by Richard Lyon and Andrew Offutt, part of their Demon in the Mirror series that Timescape published.

November 1982 saw the gaming world enter the world of sf publishing when TSR, owners of AD&D bought Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback's original SF magazine. They would hold the copyright until 1996. Its new editor was George Scithers, who as a fanzine editor of Amra had been godparent to the term "sword-and-sorcery," born out of discussions between Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. He won two Hugos for his editing at Asimov's before moving onto Amazing. The George Scither years at Amazing (1982-1986) held a nice balance between sf and fantasy with stories from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Nancy Springer, Tanith Lee, Pat Murphy, David Langford, Lisa Tuttle, Diana L Paxson, Rosemary Edghill, Jayge Carr, Darrell Schweitzer, John Gregory Betancourt, Harry Turtledove (as Eric G Iverson), and Esther M Friesner. Many of these authors had appeared in The Dragon previously. Scither would leave in 1986 to re-emerge as the editor of another important magazine revival, Weird Tales in 1988, one of the last places to sell sword-and-sorcery in the 1990s.

The '80s saw a few bright flashes but over-all a dwindling in sword-and-sorcery. In paperback, the Thieves' World shared world spawned several books and there were also the Red Sonja novels by Smith and Tierney, Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomeo Gozon series, reprints of Elric, and new anthologies such as Sword and Sorceress by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The magazine markets for short sword-and-sorcery were pretty much depleted by 1980, with the folding of Ted White's reign at Fantastic and the last of Lin Carter's Year's Best anthologies. Fantasy was moving away from adventure and derring-do towards a softer, more literary kind. It also re-branded its name, no longer using sword-and-sorcery as a tag. The gamers went one way and the litterateurs another. The 1990s were coming and that desert I mentioned stretched out ahead, with only Conan pastiches and Xena: Warrior Princess left to remind us there had been a sword-and-sorcery boom twenty years before.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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