Monday, April 20, 2009

Colonial Fantasy

Yesterday, while I drove down to Palo Alto to teach, I listened to PodCastle #47, Bright Waters, by John Brown, a giant hour-long episode. I recommend this story to everyone. It's a touching, funny, magical realist fantasy love story set in a Colonial New England (probably somewhere in what is now upstate New York) where Iroquois magic really works and with its help, a great, grumpy bear of a dutchman finally finds a mate. The characters are very believable and sympathetic, and I found myself totally wrapped up in the story.

In addition to simply being a brilliant story, I'd never experienced anything quite like Bright Waters before. Science fiction dealing with culture clash and colonialism, sure; these are staples of the science fiction genre, except that the natives are aliens instead of Iroquois. However, I'd never before read (or heard, for that matter) anything that took theose themes in a more fantasy-centered direction.

Magic doesn't have to be explained in the same way that science does, which does something for colonial fiction that science fiction can't. In a science fiction story, giving the natives some kind of special biological or technological resource usually means explaining it, which tends to suck that mystery out of it. This isn't a criticism of science fiction in general - many people, myself included, read science fiction when we want to marvel in the scientific cleverness of the author - but one of the themes of colonial fiction is often the sense of wonder and mystery experienced by natives and invaders when faced with each others' ways. Fantasy helps maintain that mystery. The main character of Bright Waters never discovers how the magical tattoo works, the fact that it does work is all the story needs. In my mind, this is the primary strength of Bright Waters when compared to similar treatments of the same themes.

I was also fond of the way Bright Waters dealt with all the baggage of colonialism. The story neatly sidestepped the bloodiness, the oppression, and the death and misery caused by colonialism by focusing on the characters. The people involved with the story were basically good, interesting, and sympathetic people. For them, life was about living and surviving, which meant coexisting with each other. The future that chokes us up, here in the present in the real world, was unimagineable to them. Freed from the weight of history by the fascinating characters, I was able to relax and enjoy the story.

Finally, Bright Waters passed the ultimate test: it got me thinking about what I want to write next. Remember how I posted a while about how bored I am with traditional fantasy races? This story got me thinking about how much fun it might be to write a fantasy story with nontraditional species, telling my own tale of magic, culture shock, and characters embroiled in the struggle for love and survival.

It will have to wait a while, though, as I'm currently embroiled in a short story based on this grumpy post from last month.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Bright Waters is a great story and you should all listen to it, and also everything else on PodCastle.

* * *

  • Where else can I find cool colonial fantasy?
  • What colonial fantasies have you read, and what did you think of them?
  • Are you listening to PodCastle yet? Why the hell not?


Anonymous said...

There's the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card, which I never did manage to finish.

Ben said...

I mentioned a book here a while back, which I hadn't read at the time, but which I've since read--and it turns out that it's colonial-type fantasy. The book is Cartomancy by Michael Stackpole (actually book 2 of a trilogy--I can't remember the name of book 1). He has created a unique setting, but it's based on colonial times. Unfortunately, I can't recommend it unreservedly. I didn't like it enough to finish.