Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Problem of Rivendell--Or, Utopia isn't Very Interesting...Except when it is

I've been thinking about utopia scenes in F&SF and thought I'd share the process here.

One of the legacies the Lord of the Rings has left high fantasy is the trope of the sylvan utopia. Rivendell, Lothlorien, and to a lesser extent the Shire itself and the house of Bombadil are all manifestations of the beautiful rural/sylvan idyll.

As a reader and lover of the Lord of the Rings these places are dear to my heart. As a reader and writer of things not the Lord of the Rings, their legacy all too often causes me distress.

Even the most skilled of writers, a Tolkien say, has to handle moments of downtime like those in Lorien or Rivendell very carefully. This is as true of technological and other future utopias of science fiction as it is of the sylvan sort in fantasy.

One reason for this is that long descriptions of utopia have a tendency toward the boring. Another is that they all too often come at the expense of other things, like plot and character development. Finally, one person's beautiful idyll is another's trite fairy tale is a third's description of techno-naptime.

This is especially true at the front end of a story when reader interest is at its weakest. Starting out with even five pages of utopian idyll instead of conflict is very likely to result in the reader putting down the book and never picking it up again.

Now, there can be very good reasons to start out slow, most often the desire to show the reader all that the lead character is about to lose when the raiders come and destroy everything important (Piper's Space Viking), or when the protagonist shoulders a burden to protect that very idyll (Lord of the Rings), but it's something to be approached with great caution, or so it would seem to me.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on the subject? I'm still trying to formulate a general principal for dealing with F&SF utopias, and I would welcome input.


Tim Susman said...

I think you hit on it with your comment about the protagonist's burden being to protect the idyll. Often you'll get those utopian scenes at the beginning, but something wrong creeps into it, and either that sets the hero on his/her way, or provides additional motivation.

Tolkien used Lothlorien in another way, as I see it: the appeal of inaction. The elves had great power, but chose to use it in defense of their home rather than, as the Fellowship were doing, going out to confront Sauron. Utopias are by nature very static, and that doesn't usually sit well with the fantasy hero, who should be pretty active if you want a good story. :) Your hero can appreciate the area, but say, "I can't just sit around and hope he never grows strong enough to invade this place. I have to go do something."

You can also use that very conflict to introduce a melancholic element, where the hero can never really be part of the utopia because it IS so static.

Kelly McCullough said...

Nice analysis, Tim.