Today’s guest is writer and award-winning artist Janny Wurts! She has authored eighteen novels, including the books in the Wars of Light and Shadow series, To Ride Hell’s Chasm, Master of Whitestorm, and Sorcerer’s Legacy, and has contributed to numerous fantasy and science fiction anthologies. Her books are often her own creation both inside and out since she usually illustrates her own covers (including those on the two novels shown below!).
Mediocrity, Reality, and the Merit of Erasing the Boundaries
By Janny Wurts
I am not writing this post to lie quiet, but to incite a crossfire discussion and a lively round of controversy. Many of us can remember a time when our field was considered a fringe interest. While I was a college student, engaged in earnest to write and paint fantasy, I noticed how outsiders reacted. People encountering my world of unbounded creation fell into three distinct categories. The first group viewed my imaginative paintings, glanced away in visible discomfort, then immediately dismissed them, and me, with their most obvious, hasty excuse for retreat: “you must be on drugs” to perceive things “like that.” The second batch gave the works a shallow glance and retreated behind the nearest acceptable label, “Ah, that’s like Tolkien,” end of discussion. The last group, rarest and most interesting, would stop, speechless, and examine what was before them with intense interest–and what usually followed was a focused and relevant exchange concerning the context of imagination and how the unknown related to or expanded our concept of reality. These were the people who saw the world beyond category, and were willing to engage and extrapolate.
Why is it that pure “imagination” is so often applauded in children and stigmatized in the adult? Why are some people so frightened of ideas that fall outside of their comfort zone, and whose defensive choices have defined that acceptable, boundaried mediocrity called “normality,” anyway? Why do we continue to apologize for “fantasy” when in fact, the apology might be more aptly applied to the lack of playful supposition? When did “reality” become the relatable fixation in today’s world, most of all when cutting edge physics has blown the limitations of Newtonian physics so far out of the envelope that the rulebook of “science” is still catching up? Why do we settle for a “realistic” world, when the very term has been used and reused to confine us–to draw boundaries around what is “reasonable” to expect?
Exactly when did the dry reason of “reality” replace expansive hope and the endless creativity offered by the imagination?
I attended a college at the forefront of experimental education, an institution notable for changing the ground rules by encouraging the absence of limitations and beating the drum for social and world change. And yet: I had a head butt with the college librarian over the subject of my novels that, over the years, had been stolen from the school’s collection. When I volunteered to ship replacements, the librarian told me, “Don’t bother. It scarcely matters, the books are just escapist fiction anyway.”
Which smug attitude set my hair on fire on about a dozen counts.
First: every single advance in society, technology, knowledge–anything–began with an idea. Started with the unbridled imagination, toying with concepts that were not “real” or concrete or even accepted as possible. Everybody’s experience confirms this. Imagination is what fuels change. It is the magic that lets us reassemble old ideas in startling ways, or brashly invent new ones. It is where hope and inspiration are found, beyond knowing, and where the walls around what we believe are broken, or dissolved, or escaped. It has no cost, no penalty, and no prerequisite. Everyone with the wits to think can access anything, with infinite ease.
Did I say escape? Yes. In absolute terms, that has a priceless value. Not just for the talent of invention and innovation, either. “Escape” is quite often our most available therapeutic relief from a bad day, a bad month, a difficult life change, or a toxic work place. The gift of imagination can remake or revise or vault over problems and deliver a changed experience that, proven fact, alters brain chemistry and relieves stress. It accomplishes all of this without side effects or drugs, so where do people get off slinging that word as a negative concept?
Why are some people scared of imagination (yup, you have to be on drugs or crazy to “go there”) or dismissive of it (quick, let’s give it the acceptable label, and move on, thank you very much, now we’re done).
Betty Ballantine often said that SF/Fantasy readers were among the most intelligent, inquisitive and interesting group of people on the planet. They have always been unafraid to look what is different straight in the eye, and quickest to explore beyond the familiar.
The stigma attached to such curiosity, frankly, belongs with the cynic who refuses to suspend disbelief long enough to venture into a refreshed perspective.
We, the readers and creators, all can agree that the vibrant concepts in fantasy and SF literature, film, comics, and poetry hold the power to tear down, build up, alter, and transform. Our drive to experiment, and to thrive on, changing ideas and turning the predictable inside out and upside down offers an infinite dimension to explore concepts beyond daily life.
Time to kick the doors of complacency and throw down the gauntlet in challenge. Because we are given the power to imagine anything, to redesign every single limitation considered immutable–why is there currently such a surging trend to revel in the apocalypse? Now that fantasy and SF have gone “mainstream” and “geek is chic” have we, as a community wielding the cutting edge potential of unfettered imagination, fallen in bed with the cynic and forgotten to wake ourselves up?
Are the problems in our world today not created by the mass failure of creative imagination? Isn’t falling back again and again on what’s already been tried the surrender of our very human (and underappreciated) power to envision solutions outside of the historical record? Creativity is infinite. And yet, we are told and told over, “reality” says otherwise. Why do we listen? Defined, the cynic is someone who has forgotten to question the restriction of their own fixated beliefs. The socially applauded “snark attitude” that grants us the pack permission to laugh off sincerity, in cold truth, applauds nothing. Instead, it encourages us to build ourselves into lead lined boxes, that are also ideas, so sadly nailed shut by the platitudes of our commonly accepted assumptions.
It is a mass hypnosis, or lazy thinking, that imagination by its very nature can blow out of the water, no question: but at the risk of ridicule and “being unrealistic.” When did it become “normal” to pan hope, to give up building a positive vision, and instead create “cool” scenarios of bleak wrack and ruin? Why do we have so many bestselling stories that run the gamut glut of “totalitarian society” VS the “badass rebel” and since when has that bitter world view claimed the forefront of our field? Since when has the cynical take eclipsed the unlimited vista of modern SF and fantasy?
Not every book, not every film, but admittedly a lot of material topping the charts colors the picture pretty heavily in one direction. The imbalance has become so prevalent, one must look to the fringes to find the exceptions.
If fiction is the posited exploration of beliefs, the living mythscape of our times, have we at the forefront of imaginative creation forsaken the gift of outstepping our boundaries? Have we become “uncomfortable” with the concepts of beauty and hope to the point where such things now seem an immature embarrassment?
This piece is not intended to define or condemn the field as it stands today, but rather, to stimulate conversation in earnest from the standpoint that exploration of the ‘hell in a handbasket’ scenario seems to be claiming the lion’s share of the attention. Fantasy and SF have “gone mainstream” in ways I could never have imagined, when I started out with the career dream to paint and write. Our literature and our films are no longer so casually labeled or dismissed, and our worldwide impact is no longer regarded as the accidental byproduct of a drug culture. My question, placed at large for the purpose of stirring discussion in the community: have we, in fantasy and SF in our turn, bought the mainstream picture of using imagination to stay inside the box? Have we joined ranks with the deniers who blindly denounce the full spectrum offered by true freedom of thought? Has the modern trend to extol the algorithm created the perfect storm where pop culture at large has bought into the ultimate lie of defending the cynic’s picture of limitation? Has Fantasy and SF garnered the widespread numbers only to lose the fringe benefit of challenging the status quo? And if it has, are we comfortable?
I’m not. Let discussion commence.
||Through her combined career as an established professional novelist and her background in the trade as a cover artist, Janny Wurts has immersed herself in a lifelong ambition: to create a seamless interface between words and pictures that explore imaginative realms beyond the world we know. Best known for the War of Light and Shadow series, with nine volumes published of eleven, her titles include standalones To Ride Hell’s Chasm, Master of Whitestorm, and Sorcerer’s Legacy; the Cycle of Fire trilogy; and the Empire trilogy written in collaboration with Raymond E. Feist.
Her paintings and cover art have appeared in exhibitions of imaginative artwork, among them, NASA’s 25th Anniversary exhibit, Delaware Art Museum, Canton Art Museum, and Hayden Planetarium in New York, and been recognized by two Chesley Awards, and three times received Best of Show at the World Fantasy Convention.
Story excerpts, announcements, and print shop can be found at www.paravia.com/JannyWurts