The noble warriors of light can go die.
Fantasy sucks. Mostly. There are always exceptions to broad brush statements like the one I just made, but fantasy mostly just sucks. Compared to its sci fi contemporaries, fantasy books, games, and movies, lack originality. Fantasy works are tied to popular models of the past that haven’t evolved in interesting ways in years. Characters, storylines, and settings all feel like warmed over copies of previous works that were themselves warmed over copies of their predecessors. If the genre is ever to grab my interest again, it’s going to have to change.
Ditching the medieval setting would be a good step. Fantasy authors have tied dragons, magic, and powerful artifacts together with low technology, feudal kingdoms, and English accents for so long that it’s easy to forget that none of these elements ever have to be related. By assuming they’re joined irrevocably, fantasy creators reinvent the same stale worlds that hold no wonder for experienced (or even amateur) audiences. There is little joy to exploring yet another high fantasy world with castles and wizards. Alternatively, consider some of the most successful fantasy works in the modern age: Harry Potter and The Magicians. Both import fantasy into modern times and take great pains to integrate magic into more familiar settings. These are fun worlds to discover because they feel fresh to the reader. They also give their authors more flexibility in creating new characters and situations. By making magic the purview of a select, secret group, Rowling and Grossman create magical microcosms where they can both delve into their unique magical worlds, but also show how they interact with a largely magically ignorant society. Dropping the medieval from fantasy opened up creative space in a way that keeping the old setting never could have.
The traditional fantasy races could use an overhaul as well. By sticking to elves, dwarves, dragons etc, fantasy also limits the kinds of adventures and concepts it can explore. These races are well known quantities that offer few new experiences. Having a greedy dwarf who is good with an axe or a wrench is about as uninteresting as it gets. The traditional races are so overused that even new takes on them don’t feel new. Bioware’s Dragon Age made elves the downtrodden poor of their fantasy world and it still felt too similar to the usual treatment of Elves as the highly advanced guardians of a declining civilization. Flipping traditional elements of well-established tropes can be a good source of creativity, but not when the trope is so well worn that even the juxtaposition of old and new still feels too familiar. Fantasy needs genuinely new races that use elements of the style in interesting, unexplored ways to break out of the samey rut it finds itself in.
Magic, one of the key elements of most fantasy, is another place to innovate. As one of the defining features of the genre, magic serves as the lynchpin of a lot of fantasy worlds. It manifests as an otherworldly force wielded by highly skilled individuals drawing upon mysterious forces. There’s no reason why magic can’t be something else. It could be a power source, a corrupting influence, or a gift from fickle gods. It could be the foundation of a society until it’s discovered that magic comes from killing cute babies (Soylent Magic is made of people! It’s made of people!). Magic can be anything we want it to be, so there is no reason to keep it penned in to old dudes with pointy hats. The medieval setting is the most limiting problem of fantasy, but magic has the most potential for interesting scenarios.
There are a number of creative ways to break fantasy out of its rut. One potential solution is to encourage fantasy artists to create more high concept works. High concept works adapt a genre’s style to explore an idea outside of the genre’s usual focuses. For example, Blade Runner used androids as a vehicle to explore the nature of life and sentience and how it differs (or doesn’t) from the naturally occurring version. The advantage of high concept works is that they force a genre to look outside of their usual tropes by prioritizing the message. Parts of the familiar tropes that don’t work are removed and the remaining bits are adapted to serve a radically different narrative. There’s nothing wrong with fun adventures, but they rarely innovate in such a way as to establish who new worlds and ideas to explore.
The solution is simply that fantasy must innovate. Fantasy creators need to look at the very foundation of their genre and revaluate whether every brick really is as important as it seems. When the genre does innovate, it succeeds (see previous examples). Furthermore, the recent success of superhero movies suggests that elements of the fantasy playbook already work in the mainstream (replace science with magic and The Avengers is a game of D&D). There is considerable potential in fantasy so there is no reason why it should be sci-fi’s boring cousin. I’d love to see something new.