It is always interesting to read good non-fiction books about SFF&H, and when it happens to be an informed reflection on a genre as complex as fantasy, it’s definitively a treat. This is the case of latest AJ Dalton’s non-fiction work The Sub-Genres of British Fantasy Literature recently published by Luna Press. The underlying philosophy here is that, as much as each period is distinct in terms of culture and history, its respective literature is likely to bear, and reflect, certain distinct features. Fantasy is no exception.
As specified in the introduction, the book analyses “the sociohistorical context of the development of each of the various sub-genres of British fantasy literature, moving from the ‘high fantasy’ of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, through the nature-based fantasy of the 1960s, to the ‘swords and planets’ sci-fi crossover subgenre of the 1970s, the ‘epic fantasy’ of the 1980s and 90s, the ‘urban fantasy’, ‘flintlock fantasy’, ‘steampunk’ and ‘comedic fantasy’ of the new millennium, the ‘dark fantasy’ and ‘metaphysical fantasy’ (the latter established by my various novels) of the mid to late 2000s, to the ‘grimdark fantasy’ and ‘dystopian YA’ of the 2010s.“
Dalton knows what he’s talking about, being the author of many internationally acclaimed fantasy novels (see more about him here). After having set the stage, he proceeds to analyse the different typologies of fantasies, in particular ‘grimdark fantasy’ and ‘metaphysical’ fantasy, which, more than the previous kind, better reflect our troubled times.
I have to say I really enjoyed this reading, even though I didn’t always agree with Dalton’s views. An example is when he compares (British) SF with Fantasy in the 1960s “where, however, British sci-fi continued to describe an apocalyptic anxiety concerning technology ‘in the wrong hands’, in the hands of those with an alien ideology and philosophy, British fantasy continued to offer hope in describing the moral virtues of self-sacrifice and self-knowledge, exploring our shared origins and values, and proposing a redemptive love of those who are different or who have wronged us” (Dalton, 2017:20). [I believe SF is inherently more progressive and optimistic than fantasy, even at its darkest, for many reasons too long to explain in this post. But this is the personal view of somebody who definitively leans more toward SF and science in general than other genres, and therefore biased by default.]
No matter what your own tastes (and opinions) are, however, The Sub-Genres of British Fantasy Literature is a well-written, engaging and compelling book that I recommend to all speculative fiction readers. I look forward to something in kind for different genres.