What Makes a Fantasy World Fantastic?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not a fan of science fiction novels, and in general I’m not wild about fantasy either; I tend to gravitate toward books that have a realistic setting. I’ve been wondering what it is about science fiction/fantasy that turns me off (and what it is about some fantasy book that I love!).

I considered the few fantasy books that I do love:

tg       lotr       awit       hp       tltwtw

For the latter three books, part of their charm (for me) lies in the way that ordinary children—ordinary in that they live in “our” world—encounter magical, hidden worlds that lie parallel to our own. These worlds become essential parts of who these children are, and the worlds benefit because of the children’s presence. When I was a kid, I read and reread Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time  and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe countless times. I was fully on board with the idea that there were magical worlds lying just beyond my perception: my dolls moved and talked as soon as I left the room. My toy dinosaurs were going to come to life—all I had to do was find the magic key and matching cupboard. I would be able to fly once I made the right mixture of cattail fluff, glitter and dandelion petals. And of course, I waited anxiously for my letter from Hogwarts when I turned eleven.

The Giver has an opposite sort of premise, where the protagonist discovers a new world outside his own, but that new world happens to be our world.

And to be honest, I can’t really say what it is that makes The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit so special to me. I think I’ve just grown to deeply love the characters and Middle Earth over the years.

So, fantasy can be enjoyable for me, if it’s done in a way that I appreciate. Save LOTR, I usually don’t enjoy books in which the characters live purely in a fantasy world, and the “real” world is never mentioned and seemingly does not exist. I like my characters to straddle the real world and fantasy world.

As for science fiction, there’s something about it that feels too sterile to me. Too inaccessible. I’m not saying that the characters or the plot are badly written, it’s just that I can’t connect with what’s happening in the book. It just doesn’t interest me, especially if there’s too much technology. Another thing that I really value in a book is the word choice and writing style; if writing style is sacrificed for the plot, it lessens my enjoyment. (I tend to enjoy a more poetic writing style, but I don’t mean to imply that other writing styles are not good.)

Do you like fantasy or science fiction novels? What are your favorites? What is it that you enjoy about them? What do you dislike about them?


21 thoughts on “What Makes a Fantasy World Fantastic?”

  1. I enjoy both fantasy and science fiction, though I wouldn’t say I’ve read a ton of either. But I like the imagination that goes into both of them, seeing the different takes that different writers have on worlds that aren’t ours.

  2. “especially if there’s too much technology.” — well, you’re just not reading the right stuff! Social SF is a major subgenre…. Explores social themes, perhaps resulting from tech but the actual tech is somewhere in the background. Also, there were entire movements to write literary SF in the 60s — New Wave. And there have always been very good stylists in the genre…. So, I recommend Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… (1976), Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), George Alec Effinger’s What Chaos Means to Me (1972), Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1966)…. etc…

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll check them out. There is definitely a lot I don’t know about the genre, so I appreciate the info! I had no idea there was even such a thing as Social SciFi.

      1. And my fiance is an English grad student and she has vetted some of them as “literary” — tehehe. Namely Brian N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (1972) and D.G. Compton’s The Unsleeping Eye (variant title: The Continuous katherine Mortenhoe) (1974)…. two of my fav SF works.

    1. That actually does sound really interesting, and reminds me vaguely of A Handmaid’s Tale (with the way it’s a recording of the protagonist’s experiences). I’ll check it out. And extra points to it since you’ve recommended it for people who like feminist lit, too. 🙂

      1. The Handmaid’s Tale is a rip-off of Walk to the End of the World — written 10 years earlier by Suzy McKee Charnas 😉 At least conceptually….

      2. Well, Joanna Russ was one of the more famous feminist thinkers… Who happened to write some SF — she died two years ago. ‘Twas really sad.

  3. To be honest, technology and I don’t mix very well, but I still adore Sci-fi books. I know it’s great sci-fi if the elaborate technical explanation amazes me instead of confuses me. I personally love Ender’s Game despite the author being a bit of a twat and War of the Worlds. In YA I’ve recently discovered Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson, it’s one of my new favorites.

    In terms of Fantasy, I can think of a lot but like you I love LOTR, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles of Narnia. Also the Percy Jackson and Skulduggery Pleasant series. I’ve recently read Shadow and Bone which I also quite enjoyed. Reading Fantasy is like the greatest treat for escapists like me. Reality Fiction bores me sometimes so every once in a while I pick up hardcore fantasy books. ^_^

    1. Ah, Ender’s Game. I read it when I was about 20, and I just didn’t like it as much as I expected I would. I really should give it another chance, though!

      1. I read it when I was really young and that’s probably the reason why I loved it (I had a major crush on Ender and I practically hero-worshiped Petra Arkanian) because you know, it’s more of a kids book than YA. But yes, you should, or you can just watch the film adaptation; I think it will be out on November 1st and I’m totally excited about that. ^_^

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