modern science fiction and the gimme part 5 – on modern fantasy and the gimme

Es­ti­mated reading time is 5 min­utes.

IF I SAID that all ‘modern’ fan­tasy can be traced to one au­thor and one story, J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord Of The Rings, few would argue. While afi­cionados and his­to­rians can make ar­gu­ments for the in­flu­ence of Lord Dun­sany, James Branch Ca­bell, and others, al­most all the well-known fan­tasy ti­tles of the past four decades can be traced to the tales of the Bilbo and Frodo Bag­gins and the One Ring.

Of course, defining “modern fan­tasy” may be a wee bit more slip­pery than one might as­sume, and I am not going to at­tempt to. But a working de­f­i­n­i­tion could be all fan­tasy in­volving other worlds filled with fairies, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc, written since and in­flu­enced by The Lord Of The Rings.

(For more on this topic, refer to the sec­tion “Fan­tasy or heroic fan­tasy” in Part 4 of this essay.)

Ac­cording to Merriam-Webster On­line, the pri­mary de­f­i­n­i­tion of the word fan­tasy is “the free play of cre­ative imag­i­na­tion.” What con­cerns us here is a ter­tiary de­f­i­n­i­tion: “imag­i­na­tive fic­tion fea­turing es­pe­cially strange set­tings and grotesque characters.”



Pub­lished without Tolkien’s au­tho­riza­tion in 1965, the Ace pa­per­back se­ries were the first Amer­ican edi­tions and fea­tured won­drous covers by sci­ence fic­tion artist Jack Gaughan.

Modern fantasy and the gimme

In fan­tasy, the gimme rule is not so im­por­tant: if the story takes place in a world where magic ex­ists, that’s the gimme—the mag­ical world. The au­thor may use dif­ferent types of magic, such as nat­ural, sym­pa­thetic, tal­is­manic, etc.

He may jumble dif­ferent mag­ical beasties: dragons may co-exist with lep­rechauns who share space with fairies, etc. This could be con­sid­ered mul­tiple mini-gimmes.

The one BIG no-no in this genre has tra­di­tion­ally been that ad­vanced magic and ad­vanced sci­en­tific knowl­edge and tech­nology CANNOT co-exist in the same world.

That is, a world in which magic ex­ists might see hu­mans de­velop knives and swords and sim­ilar tech­nology, but once hu­mans dis­cover that things can be ac­com­plished with magic, tech­nology would cease to progress. 

The well-known adage that “Ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion” would never need to be in­vented in a so­ciety founded on magic. There would be no need for ex­plo­ration in sci­ence and me­chanics if a spell could ac­com­plish the re­quired end.



One ring to rule them all

An ex­treme ex­ample of a mag­ical world is J.R.R. Tolkien’s TheLord Of The Rings, where the gimme is the very ex­is­tence of the Middle Earth. And I use “ex­treme” in the sense of lit­erary in­ven­tion: Pro­fessor Tolkien spent years map­ping out the ge­og­raphy of his world and it peo­ples and creatures.

He care­fully crafted their his­to­ries and their cul­tures, in­cluding written and spoken lan­guage and song and po­etry. The back­ground de­tail in the LOTR ranges from fas­ci­nating to ob­ses­sive and set an un­nec­es­sary stan­dard for less ded­i­cated writers to at­tempt to emulate.

Once you ac­cept the ex­is­tence of Middle Earth, every­thing else fits into place with an in­ternal con­sis­tency and logic. And tech­nology halted at ap­prox­i­mately our world’s Steel Age: steel weapons and tools exist, wagons and wheels have been in­vented, etc.

But that’s where it ended: no cannon or ri­fles, no telegraphs or tele­phones, no au­to­mo­biles or air­planes, no cell phones (yay!) or video games (yay!), etc.

The un­prece­dented suc­cess of The Lord Of The Rings in the ’60s and early ’70s—due in no small part to the de­voted read­er­ship of dope-smoking heads and hip­pies and their fellow travelers—opened the flood­gates to a seem­ingly un­ending stream of heroic fantasies.

So all-encompassing was Tolkien’s ef­fect on the field that many young au­thors not only em­u­lated his style and feel, but they wrote them in books of three, as though the word “trilogy” would add some magic of its own to their work. 

A less ex­treme ex­ample of world-building but just as enjoyable—and much more adult—is Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, where can be found the in­trepid giant Fafhrd and his nimble com­panion the Gray Mouser.

A mere sketch of a world com­pared to Middle Earth, Lankhmar nonethe­less leaves the reader with a sense of its world­ness and that is more than enough to get on with the nar­ra­tive. (And in Fafhrd and the Mouser’s case, the nar­ra­tive often me­an­dered around drinking, wenching, thieving, and gen­eral carousing.)



Swords and sorcery

There are many other forms of fan­tasy, the most fa­mous and suc­cessful being Robert Howard’s tales of Conan the bar­barian. Written for the pulps in the 1930s, these short sto­ries are ar­guably the foun­da­tion for the modern swords and sor­cery genre. There is also Jack Vance’s tales of the dying earth and the dragon mas­ters, ar­guably the most so­phis­ti­cated of all such fan­tasy writing.

Gimmes here are usu­ally the set­ting: Conan lives in a world where swords and spears exist along­side evil wiz­ards and not much else in the realm of the fan­tastic. Vance’s gimmes are de­cayed so­ci­eties far in the future.

But I be­lieve that I have come to some sort of conclusion—at least I have re­garding my orig­inal im­petus for re­searching and writing this essay—and will end it here with a final note that is pe­riph­er­ally con­nected with the theme(s) of this essay.



Ar­guably the most iconic cover art of the ’60s, Lancer’s Conan The Ad­ven­turer (also pub­lished in 1966) in­tro­duced a new gen­er­a­tion of readers to the Cim­merian bar­barian. Not only did this book es­tab­lish Conan as the de­fin­i­tive sword & sor­cery anti-hero, it made artist Frank Frazetta the most sought-after cover artist in the business.

Cast a deadly spell

For a movie which dis­penses al­to­gether with the gimme no-no (and does so with panache), I rec­om­mend Cast A Deadly Spell from 1991. Fred Ward (sci­ence fic­tion movie buffs know him from the Tremors se­ries) plays pri­vate de­tec­tive Phillip Love­craft in a post-WWII Los An­geles. Brought back from the mys­te­rious East by re­turning GIs, ma­li­cious magic mucks up every­thing ex­cept Love­craft, who re­fuses to touch the stuff.

The movie is a comedy, if very dry, that pays homage to H.P. Love­craft and his Cthulhu Mythos and film noir. It also nods to­wards con­tem­po­rary horror craze: zom­bies are used as cheap labor!

This HBO movie co-stars the ever-excellent David Warner and an al­most unknown—and ever yummy—Julianne Moore. Find it, watch it, enjoy it. This is the end of this essay. Or, as someone once fa­mous once said, “That’s all, folks.”





FEATURED IMAGE: In 1966, Bal­lan­tine se­cured the nec­es­sary au­tho­riza­tion and halted the Ace pub­li­ca­tion of the Tolkien books and brought out their own trilogy in 1966. The art at the top of this page is the orig­inal art by Bar­bara Rem­ington for the first Bal­lan­tine print­ings of the three books in 1966. These re­mained in print for years and are the defining im­ages for most Tolkien afi­cionados over a cer­tain age.


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