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[personal profile] mirrorshard
Now that makes me think there should be a Church of the Subgenre. Though the term "subgenre" seems to me to imply a semi-exclusive category rather than an arbitrary slice through a continuum, which is a better term for the kind of books that sparked this particular idle, bootless reflection.

It occurred to me earlier that one thing a lot of my favourite books - I'm confining this to the fantasy genre for the moment, or as [livejournal.com profile] nou refers to it "pixie shit" - have in common is that they are to a greater or lesser extent books about Stuff. Now, I realise almost all books have Stuff in them to some degree (and now I'm trying to think of some that don't) but the ones I'm thinking of are solidly grounded in real things, items and architecture and landscapes, going into symbolism and craftsmanship too.

It looks like time for some concrete examples, so let's see what I have handy in the way of inductive reasoning.

  • K.J. Parker's books, starting with 'Colours in the Steel' get very detailed with the engineering and workmanship, but not in a mystical glamorous way - this is real engineering, dirty, sweaty, and messy, with kludges and finicky precision and industrial accidents.
  • Charles de Lint's 'Trader' is about a guitar-maker, and the whole idea of making, building, carefully acquiring your skill over years and making something real and lasting, is central to the plot.
  • George RR Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' books make a great deal of heraldry and insignia, probably as part of the whole "picking sides" theme. It's good to have that symbol, though, rather than just the names.
  • Terry Pratchett, of course, uses clothing and armour as signifiers for what sort of person someone is. Cf. "shiny armour" passim.
  • These two might be more coloured by my early readings, I'm sure I had a more vivid imagination in those days, but Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley - Pern and Darkover are still two of the most vividly realised imaginary worlds I've been in. Bradley's certainly very good at the material differences between her cultures, and Dragonsinger has, again, a lot of crafts ideas.
  • Honourable mention has also to go to Kipling, passim, despite not fitting into the genre restriction.

Mind you, from a few of those randomly selected examples, it could just be a preference for grown-up writing, which is sadly not as common in the genre as it should be. And - particularly if you extend it a little too far into SF - you risk falling into the trap that leaves so many people, even grown men, writhing and thrashing as they moan, "Oh, god, it does what? Ahhh... gravity laser... proton torpedoes, proton torpedoooooooooooes... AH AH AH FULL AUTOMATIC!!!11!!"

I do think, though, that it's an identifiable theme and philosophy in fantasy & SF writing - that Stuff, ordinary nonmagical nonsupertechnological nonpsionic Stuff, is important and has a meaning and power all of its own. It could be that it's a reaction against the older fantasy paradigm of magic rings and powerful artifacts (seriously, when was the last time you saw a magic sword in a fantasy novel published in the last decade? Most of the supergizmo crap comes from people who totally misunderstood Tolkien's worldview anyway) and fits in with the general postmodernist trend of denying the importance of individual heroes and kings, and pointing out the value of mass movements, socioeconomic ideas, and ordinary people doing their thing. Now, if only someone could pound a stake through Goodkind's heart... we'd have to resort to something else for our point-and-laugh fodder, but that's not such a bad thing given the advantages.
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