Thursday, 28 April 2011

Article | The Fantasy Monoculture

There's a set of problems that many fantasies share - though thankfully that trend is being broken - and its roots can be aptly described by a single term: monoculture. So, what do I mean by this? (Or have I just been testing how long it takes for the number of fantasists in my Petri dish to double?)


When I say 'fantasy monoculture', I'm referring to two main problems: firstly, that the world is monocultural in inspiration and existence, and secondly, that each nation, culture, or group is. I'll explain each of these further.

Symptoms of a Monocultural World:

You've been reading (hopefully, otherwise you should probably start now): and you've realised something. The last seven fantasies you've read were all set in a version of quasi-Medieval or Renaissance Europe. They were populated by nations differentiated only by name (and perhaps governance - and even that didn't change much. Monarchy, theocracy... Whatever happened to being picked by enchanted primates?). Their mythologies, legends, values and rituals were all based on those of Europe - with a token dash of familiar Egyptian. Their magic was based around tried-and-tested techniques - or European historical ideas: alchemy and hermeticism, maybe? (Without a twist: though a couple of Rothfuss' - and others' - magic systems might fail in this respect, his success at the other criteria, I think disqualifies him from a 'monocultural' label by far!). And you've realised the problem.

Many fantasies simply rely on the genre's established base and tropes, which in turn are rooted further back: mainly in Tolkien's own inspiration, such as Anglo-Saxon myths. But there's a problem: this one asexually-reproducing source has led to quite a multitude of stories sharing the same inspiration, and it's time to look outside - and outside our familiar landscape as well. (For extra points, please don't characterise one culture as an enemy: try something transformative instead, such as Mark Charan Newton's encroaching ice age!). Think about Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven. Brandon Sanderson's alien, storm-swept landscapes of Roshar. David Anthony Durham's confederacy of nations under Acacia. There are plenty of fantastic examples of this in modern fantasy, and I wholly recommend you sample a few.

Symptoms of a Monocultural Group:

You've realised something else as well. In the fantasy you're reading, ostensibly populated only by variety, there are only as many different characters as there are nations: David Eddings was probably the worst offender here. One or two characteristics were selected for each nation, then every resident shared those traits. Every Sendarian was solid and practical. (And probably described in those same terms). David Eddings did one thing right in this, though: residents of your fantasy world are going to have preconceptions. They're going to have national stereotypes - as Eddings did. But then what you have to do is break this stereotype. Show me that there are different factions, different cultures, different traditions within your group. (And before you do any of that? Show me that there are different people). I'm criticising mainly after the fact here: this trend has largely been deserted, and for good reason. Nevertheless, it's something that I think should be avoided.

So there you have it. What monocultural fantasy is, what it isn't - and why you should read such excellent exceptions -, and why I want to see fantasy inspired by different cultures. Indonesian fantasy, anyone?

(And regarding my second question. Yes, and 15 minutes)


  1. I guess you don't have your FF post up yet, but I am here to let you know I am your newest follower! Woo! I'd appreciate it if you followed me on my blog too. Thanks. :)

    -Sandra from

  2. New follower here! Would love for you to follow me back. Yay for the blog hops and follow fridays! Blackberry Summer is my upcoming release I want to read and I listed my shelter books on my blog.
    Judith Leger - Paran/Fantasy Romance
    w/a L.J. Leger - YA Fantasy
    w/a Jadette Paige - Erotic Her

  3. Stopping by from the hop. Great to see a male blogger and someone with the same tastes in books that I have. New follower.

  4. Hello. I also found you trough the blog hop! I'm a new follower. I definitely need some new tips of Fantasy and Science-Fiction books. :)

    Rebecca @ kindle fever

  5. An excellent point. Even though the situation is improving, I still feel like a majority of fantasy relies on the old-world traditions that have dominated the genre for so long. One of the reasons I admired Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death (even though I did not love it) was because it set its fantasy world in the African tradition, eschewing the standard mold of English-language fantasy.

  6. @Sakura Sandra: Great blog! I'm following you back.

    @Judith Leger: Yes, they're certainly interesting - I'm following back.

    @BookMarc Blogpants: Same - your review of the Kindle 3 was actually very useful for me. I've been considering purchasing an e-reader (though I doubt it'll ever replace reading one in physical form for me). I'm following back!

    @bex: Great site - I'm following. Well, if you just scroll down a little on the main page, you'll find my 'Best of Character-Driven Fantasy' list, if you're interested. Otherwise, some of my favourites are listed:
    I'm following back, and look forward to hearing your opinions!


    I haven't read Who Fears Death, but I'll look out for it: fantasy eschewing the tradition of western European inspiration is a welcome change for me. Luckily, we're beginning to see a change in the trend. Thanks for commenting and the recommendation, and I look forward to seeing your thoughts on future posts (or possibly rants) :P.

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