Saturday, 24 December 2011

Article | My Problem With Prophecy

Originally I had a list of suggestions for the apocalypse today - but having saved that to wish you a happy New Year, I've skipped instead to... Prophecy. It's a frequent trope of the genre, from the mainstream (like Harry Potter) to the classics, but it has some major problems. Or rather, I have some major problems with it, threatening a premature termination of our relationship. So, why do I hate prophecies so much?

Over-Revealing; or, Why Read The Book?
 Prophecy's often used heavy-handedly, and with books with a central conflict, often reveals the outcome of said conflict. But if we know the hero wins; how the hero wins; and who will die for the hero to win - why read the book? It takes away the tension - and I'm looking at you, Wheel of Time. It also has a tendency to make dilemmas irrelevant. If we know which choice is made, spending fifty pages pondering it seems pointless. This isn't to say that this type of prophecy is always bad: as always, there are exceptions. If the novel's a tragedy, the characters are trying to fight said prophecy, it's unclear, or it's simply wrong - well, those are great subversions. Played straight, though, it's one of my big problems with prophecy.

Power; or, Why Don't Seers Rule the World?
Okay, so you've got your detailed prophecy. Why do only the heroes use it effectively? If antagonists try to use it to their advantage, it's misinterpreted or mistaken (for a more mainstream example, Voldemort in Harry potter) - and everyone else forgets about it alltogether. Giving your protagonists unfair advantages every time makes them reek of unrealism - as well as a few 'author's darlings'. For that matter, if prophecy is so accurate, why are the seers living in shacks or caravans? Why aren't they ruling the world using these powers of prediction? Now, that would be a story I'd like to see...

Poetry; or, Please Take The Rhyming Couplets Away!
Most prophecy is written in poetry. Most fantasy authors are not poets. Combine these facts? Most mystical predictions sound twee at best - and if I hear another written in rhyming couplets, I will weep for humanity. I won't name any names here (I'm not that cruel), but I will point out that if you really need a prophecy, consider whether it actually requires a dedicated poem - or whether you're just sticking to tradition for the sake of it.

Cliche; or, No More 'Dark Lords'
I've already ranted about accurate prophecies - but there are problems with the vague and ambiguous predictions, too. For one, in attempting mysticism, they often stop at 'cliche' instead: wanderers, dark lords, and insane numbers of Arbitrarily Capitalised Nouns (the Sword of Power, the Teacosy of Ultimate Knowledge, that sort of thing). To be fair, this is a common problem - but the obligatory prophecy is particularly noteworthy for symptoms.

...So those are my top four qualms when I spot a prophecy. (However ranty they might seem, I have liked series with prophecies - but generally, they fall under the exceptions I mentioned. A great example is Tom Lloyd's The Stormcaller, where there's a fantastic subversion which of course a can't tall you about... Spoilers!).

No more posts for the next few days - Christmas! So I wish all you readers a merry Christmas (and of course many, many books) and a happy New Year! Look forward to many apocalyptic predictions...


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