Monday, January 10, 2011

War on BAUF

Hard to admit I fought the war on BAUF
My hands were tied and the phone was... BAUFed.


BAUF is an acronym of my own devising for a thing that I would like to see eradicated, or at the very least reduced: Business As Usual Fantasy. I'm sure you've heard me ranting about BAUF before, when it comes to fantasy species, and the prevalence of BAUF themes was my main criticism in a recent podcast novel review.

Now let us define our terms: what us BAUF?

In my opinion, the fantasy genre is plagued by a tendency to include fantasy elements for their own sake, rather than because they serve the story or contribute to the setting. It's the kind of logic that leads to elves somewhere in the world - it's a fantasy, after all - even if there are no elves or elvish works in the story itself. Worse, this is the kind of lack of thought that leads to the presence of elves even when the elves add nothing to the story.

For a relevant counter-example, check out science fiction. In science fiction, story elements are generally well-considered and weighed out, included because of what they add, not simply because it's science fiction. Space ships are usually only present in science fiction stories that need space ships - because the story takes place on an alien planet, or the social and economic effects of space travel help drive the plot, or whatever - and are absent from stories that don't. There are warlike cat-people-aliens in Larry Niven's Known Space - a seminal work of science fiction - but there aren't warlike cat-people-aliens in Carl Sagan's Contact. That's because Carl Sagan and Larry Niven both thought long and hard about what was needed to drive their stories and only included those elements that were needful.

Just to be clear, I've got nothing against orcs and dwarves, dragons and spellcasters, when they are necessary to the story. I've even gotten over my elf rage (mostly). I'm even writing a novel that includes elves as a major plot and setting piece. What I have a beef with is the practice of including these elements when they are totally extraneous. Business As Usual Fantasy. Fantasy elements that are included for no reason other than that they are expected.

So, I've explained what I mean by BAUF. But what, you ask, is the problem?

The problem with BAUF is that it's fat, pure and simple. Although I'm not always good at it - just ask everyone who critiqued The Dead of Tetra Manna in its earliest incarnations - I believe that slim and focused writing is a virtue in and of itself. Unnecessary and extraneous elements don't belong in a tightly written narrative. Readers shouldn't be distracted by stuff that doesn't need to be there. Everything you include takes attention away from everything else you include, so include as little as possible (without rendering your story completely sparse) and spend your narrative energy on what matters.

Let's keep it positive - I don't want to condemn specific works as BAUF here. Rather, let's take a little while to talk about a couple of works that are definitely not just Business As Usual.

  • The Guild of the Cowry Catchers (and The Prophet of Panamindorah, which I have never spelled correctly the first attempt), both excellent podcast novels by Abigail Hilton. The world of Panamindorah (I got it right!) is completely free of BAUF, and quite compelling besides.
  • N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is exactly what I'm talking about when I ask for tightly written fantasy that only includes what it needs and excludes what it doesn't. In addition to being a tightly-written novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms takes place in a truly unique setting that is lean, mean, and evocative.

I'd love to see more examples of BAUF-free fantasy in the comments.

Until next time, folks, remember: go not to the elves for council, for they will say both yes and "zeppelin!"

Frickin' elves.

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