Alan Scherstuhl | Longreads | July 2019 | 19 minutes (5,080 words)
“Hic sunt dracones,” the 500 year-old Hunt-Lenox globe warns travelers off the coast of southeast Asia: Here be dragons. In the half millenium since that mysterious Euro-centric globe’s construction, dracones have evolved, in the popular imagination, from representatives of a dangerous, fantastical unknown to something like just another of the familiar beasts populating what we might call the Fantasy-Industrial Complex. Through big-budget TV and movies, video and pen-and-paper games, and hundreds of novels and short stories each year, fantasy rules like never before. Dragons reign over much of our pop-culture globe, not just one patch.
Diverse and often self-reflexive, today’s fantasy fiction varies wildly in quality and approach. Writers like N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria), Ann Leckie (The Raven Tower), Kameron Hurley (The Mirror Empire), Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant), Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf), Steven Erikson (the Malazan Book of the Fallen series), and many more have in recent years spun dazzling, forward-thinking variations on a genre that has at times been accused of wallowing in repetitive stories, simplistic good-versus-evil conflicts, and an inherent conservatism.
Now, with the publication of The Big Book of Classic Fantasy (Vintage), anthologists Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (she’s a Hugo Award-winning editor; he’s the bestselling author of the Southern Reach trilogy; and together they’ve edited The Big Book of Science Fiction, The Weird, and other collections) are declaring that fantasy has always been weird and wild, thoughtful and delightful. The Big Book covers a diverse array of fantasy fiction from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of World War II. It opens with a German fairy tale (Bettina von Armin’s “The Queen’s Son”) about a queen whose son, immediately upon sliding from the womb, is stolen by a she-bear; it closes, fittingly, with J.R.R. Tolkien, whose tale “Leaf by Niggle” concerns nothing less than an artist’s act of world-making. The almost 800 pages between these offer almost 90 stories from around the world, from the expected writers of fantasy (Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, L. Frank Baum), many unexpected fantasists (Zora Neal Hurston, E.M. Forester, W.E.B Du Bois, Edith Wharton), and a host of surprises from lesser-known writers. The Vandermeers approach is expansive. Half the stories in The Big Book are works in translation; fourteen have never before been published in English; few concern monster-slaying. Read more…