Have you heard of The Magicians? If you’ve been browsing Facebook at all lately, you probably have, since I think they’ve sunk pretty much all the marketing budget in the world into their latest advertising campaign. I’ve never watched the show or read the books, so the phrase “Fillory with Fen” has about as much meaning to me as “Glorbalxic with Grentanthu” has to anyone, since I just made those words up. You can watch one below, it’s fairly fun:
The ad was interesting enough where it did the job of advertising and made me want to watch the show. But my time is tight since I spend so much of it on beating my head against the desk writing, so I decided to ask some friends who have watched the show what they thought about it. The following conversation occurred with my friend “Kim.” Not her real name, but privacy.
- Kim: “Oh, you’ll love it, it’s super realistic.”
- Me (Who so far only knows the show through these ads): “Realistic? How so?”
- Kim: “Well, it’s super dark and it’s an emotional rollercoaster.”
- Me: “And that’s realistic?”
- Kim: “Yessss. I mean, it’ll tear your heart out.”
- Me: “And that’s realistic?”
- Kim: “Sure? What’s your question?”
- Me (did not actually send this): “You okay?”
You get this all the time. Reality has been equated with depression, pain, misery, and death. And…why? This isn’t a new trend – it’s been going on for quite some time – but it’s pretty prevalent. Realistic is a fancy way of dressing up Grimdark most of the time. A baby was thrown to the wolves? Well, that probably happened at some point in history, so realism. Characters die randomly? That’s what happens in real life, death coming from nowhere, so realism. You want to sob nearly every episode? Welcome to reality. Except, and I don’t know about you, but my life isn’t a constant parade of misery. Sure, bad things happen, but I wouldn’t call endless bad things realistic.
Realism, to me, shouldn’t be about constant endless parades of misery. Most people have something good at some point in their lives, and even if you haven’t, even if your life has been a misery conga line where literally nothing good hasn’t been snatched from you, that’s not the norm. Yet Google “realistic fantasy shows.” I was going to pull from that list to make a point, but the website pages that came up for me made the point better than I could.
- Reddit Thread: “Looking for a dark and realistic fantasy show”
- Gizmodo article: “10 Authors who wrote Gritty, Realistic Fantasy before George R.R. Martin.”
- Bestfantasybooks article: “Top 25 Best Gritty Fantasy Books”
- And a personal favorite, a Crisis Magazine article that is somewhat against realism in fantasy by railing against A Game of Thrones that talks about the level of atrocity, “graphic and unsettling” sex. This is something I just found, but includes my new favorite quote regarding realistic fantasy. “Some may realize, for example, that they have attended more birthday parties than beheadings in their lifetime.”
Bravo making my point better than I could have, and 8 years before I did.
I’ve talked about this when I was talking about understanding the point of a story, but: realistic and gritty are not synonyms, yet we have decided that they are. And, by contrast, that means everything Lighthearted is therefore unrealistic and therefore has no literary merit. It’s the stuff postmodernists have been peddling, their unique brand of snake oil. “Reality is depressing shades of grey, and the shade is as dark as possible. Read about and be intellectual, because ignorance is bliss and therefore enlightenment is pain.”
That’s not how reality works. Reality is a mixture of the light and the dark, the happiness and the pain. What makes a work of genre fiction realistic, in my opinion, is simply this: Actions have realistic consequences. Sometimes that can be dark: Spider-Man catching Gwen Stacy after she’s fallen that far and therefore the sudden stop breaks her neck was, in fact, realistic. The fact that in a later comic, he rescued Mary Jane the exact same way and it was mentioned that this time, he’d increased the webbing’s elasticity to prevent that from happening again, is also realistic. Sometimes it can be depressing because it’s so close to reality. The policemen’s strike that lead to the banning of superheroes in Watchmen is absolutely a possible, realistic outcome for costumed vigilantes.
But sometimes, it can be hopeful as well.
In Watchmen, we see two ordinary people in a B plot to the ongoing story, a comic book vendor and a comic book reader. They develop a friendship over the course of the book, and while they come to a tragic end as a result of the story’s climax, these two have a friendship that is realistic and serves as a reminder that people aren’t are awful.
And that is why one of the most realistic superhero properties out there isn’t some grim and grimy 90’s comic. It’s The Incredibles.
No, seriously, think about it. The story has two inciting incidents. One is a man suing a superhero from whiplash incurred while his life was saved. That is absolutely something I can see happening in the real world. Another is Syndrome, the film’s villain, getting to meet his hero Mr. Incredible and having his fanboyism being brushed aside, leading to him hating superheroes, which leads to him trying to give everyone super powers so the heroes aren’t special anymore. A bit convoluted, but it’s still Mr. Incredible’s actions having a realistic consequences.
You’re probably giving me the squint-eye right now, since you are a convenient straw man for my argument and, admittedly, that last point is somewhat flimsy. However, I can prove it with one of the best remembered bits of that movie is Edna Mode’s entire rant on “no capes!” But what is that speech really saying? Well, it’s saying if you were going to go out and fight crime, a cape is a rather stupid accessory to has that will only get in the way. It is saying capes are unrealistic. Realistic superheroes wouldn’t wear capes because the consequences of capes would be disastrous.
You know what doesn’t happen in The Incredibles? Torture, genocide, sexual assault, maiming, or someone being fed to dogs. It’s realistic without being depressing, because those two aren’t the same thing. It’s a fun, lighthearted movie that still has a message and manages to be realistic.
Ignorance is bliss, but bliss is not ignorance. I can think of a dozen times this week where not knowing something has been more stressful than knowing is. Post-modernists love to equate the two, but the original quote even discredits their own argument: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Coming from Thomas Gray’s poem, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, this makes it clear that the ignorance/wisdom happiness/folly dichotomy is entirely situational. Yet we, as a culture, have decided that to be happy is to be dumb.
In genre fiction, I know exactly why this happened to. A huge amount of fantasy, science fiction, superhero fiction, and other genre fiction revolves around action set pieces. And in an action set piece, it is realistic that people would die. In the real world, Batman doesn’t dive through the roof, flip through the hail of bullets, and throw knives shaped like bats into the hands of bad guys. In the real world, Batman gets multiple lacerations breaking that skylight, snaps his ankle when he lands, and then gets shot. Like, a lot.
Except Batman still has plot armor. You’re never going to see the above terrible fate befall the caped crusader, even in “realistic” Batman stories. You know that scene in the warehouse in Batman Vs. Superman: Death of Franchise? You know, the one good scene in that movie that wasn’t obscured by bad lighting and worse CGI? Yeah, in a realistic scenario, Batman vs. a dozen dudes with guns results in Batman joining his parents. But even the “realism is gritty” crowd understands basic narrative flow, and how that would leave audiences upset and angry.
Because. It’s. Called. Fantasy.
Realistically, dragons could never have evolved, let alone flew. Realistically, millennia old elves would have forgotten most of their knowledge, not be founds of wisdom. Realistically, Luke Skywalker misses the shot on the Death Star. Realistically, any superhero that isn’t bulletproof is a corpse, and those that are die from supervillains which always outnumber them. There is no magic, faster than light travel doesn’t seem possible under known physics, and a man in a cape that jumps off a roof is a tragic news story and a discussion on how we treat depression. There’s no portal to another world in your closet waiting to be discovered, light sabers require too much power to function, and a bald man in a wheelchair showing up saying he wants to take you somewhere you’ll finally fit in probably warrants a call to 911. Yes, even if he looks like Patrick Stewart. He is not Patrick Stewart.
And that is why genre fiction becomes depressing when it goes realistic. Because the underlying message of genre fiction is “what if something unbelievable happens”, and realism, of the post-modern variety, reminds you that it never will. It doesn’t break the suspension of disbelief, it just reminds you that these fantastic worlds you visit are just figments written on clouds, and after the wonder has passed it’s back to your office job or school or whatever your mundane life is.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead, we should have more genre fiction where the realism comes from cause and effect. What realistic impact would dragons have on human society? If we did have faster than light travel, what realistically would we do with it? If there was a world in the wardrobe, what would a child with modern-day knowledge realistically be able to do here? If a man could fly, how might we react to him as a society? And sure, you might think the answers to this are depressing – dragons would eat people, we’d use it to colonize and enslave aliens or be colonized and enslaved ourselves, we’d throw stones at the flying man because we are jealous of him, and the modern child would just moan about lack of smartphone reception before going home and playing video games.
But those don’t have to be the answer.
Why can’t we tame the dragons and have them as pets? Why wouldn’t FTL give us the same sense of awe and collective will towards science the moon landings caused? Why can’t the child show the people of that mystic world the wonders of basic chemistry? Why can’t the flying man give us hope that one day, we too could reach the sky?
Those options are still realistic. Wolves are predators but we made them our beloved companions, and cats basically decided to domesticate themselves. We did look up at the moon in awe and wonder during the space race. Children have come up with amazing inventions. We look at the talented not with contempt and fear, but admiring their accomplishments. As long as the effect flows logically from the cause, you still have realism, and consequences of actions don’t always have to be the worst case scenario to be real.
So, can we stop treating it that way?
No good segue to the self promo today. I wrote books. They definitely have realistic elements, but they’re not depressing.