I like the dark. I will admit it; pretty much all of my writing projects in the past have had the lights down low, assuming they had any lights on at all. It could be because I grew up in the ’70s, when spooky started to become the standard — Anne Rice, Stephen King, Hotel California, all that. I would stay up late and listen, or at least try to listen, to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a throwback to the golden age of radio drama, with its “adventures into the macabre.” Great fun.
Of course, somewhere along the way, the dark became the default. King novels and movies based on them dominated the ’80s, inspiring both imitation and parody. And, just in general, the mood of the country took a swing toward the dark through the ’70s and into the ’80s, possibly a reflection or a companion to its swing toward the political right. Conservatives enjoy and encourage a dark view of the world, after all.
Sometime in the 1980s, a thought struck me that I’m certain was not original, but it was new to me at the time. The epic fantasy genre, booming at the time, almost always followed the patterns devised by Professor Tolkien or his polar opposite, Michael Moorcock. Moorcock’s works were, to some degree, a deliberate reaction against Tolkien, in fact. The thought that struck me, though, was that both of these branches always dealt with basically fictional analogs of Medieval Western Europe. Even the sword-and-sorcery adventures of Robert E. Howard, from which Moorcock drew much of his inspiration, clearly had a flavor that would not have been completely alien to anyone who had ever read The Iliad or The Odyssey.
The thing is, of course, is that we don’t live in Medieval Western Europe anymore. A whole lot has happened since then, some pretty important stuff. Why, the present is a pretty fascinating time, don’t you think?
Of course, as I said, this idea was neither original nor terribly difficult, and better and more prolific writers than I have since gone down this path. Even so, a fantasy world based on the contemporary world has a great deal of appeal to me.
There are the Anne Rice novels, for example, which have a very distinct flavor, as does Stephen King’s work (I mention him a lot because he’s influential — I’m not a huge fan, although I’ve enjoyed a few of his works). Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels are popular enough to inspire a fairly descent TV series on the Sci-Fi Channel. There’s White Wolf’s World of Darkness role-playing game setting, now in its second iteration, and any number of other works featuring lots of dark, pulpy goodness.
Still, however, all of these works are still based in the real world as we know, just with the twist of magic being real. There certainly is a great benefit to that, of course. It’s a lot easier to write a piece of fiction set in a world that is more or less identical to the one in which most of the readers live in. And, honestly, world building is hard. It’s much easier to use the real world.
A problem with that, however, is that the real world is the way it is for a reason, and one of the reasons it’s the way it is is that magic is not real. If magic were a real force in the universe, our world would be a considerably different place. So, in order to maintain the semblance of a world just like our own, stories featuring the existence of magic in the modern world have to come up with some sort of explanation about while magic is hidden away and not all that influential.
Honestly, the excuses are generally pretty lame. The worst one, in my opinion, is the “Magic is there but it’s being suppressed by the evil forces of Science,” possibly because it’s far too close to what creationists and their sort genuinely believe. There are plenty of others, of course, all equally bad. Magic is cyclical and we’re on a down cycle right now. Magic is real but normal people just can’t see it for some reason.
It just seems to me that the excuses these backgrounds come up with to explain why this fictional world is just like ours, even if magic is real, basically make magic too weak to be relevant, at least in the sort of epic-story way that I’m thinking about for my pulp novel.
So, I come back to my basic idea. Why not create a new background that is a fictional analog for the real world with all the stuff in it that we know and love — technology, global civilization, industrial espionage, the works — and just add magic.
Of course, doing that means we have to get into a pretty weighty topic — world building.
Oh, no. Not again.