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Fantasy and Science Fiction: It’s Never About the Dragons by Joe Murphy

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Joe Murphy

Joe Murphy

I miss Game of Thrones. Monday night. Kids in bed. On comes the theme tune DOO DOO DUH DUH DUH DOO. Little clockwork castles pirouetting up out of the CGI map. Cue an hour of sex and death and twists and turns and betrayal.

And that’s the thing. The success of something like Game of Thrones is grounded in the same matter that’s sprouted compelling stories for thousands of years. Shakespeare wrote about this. So did Sophocles. The primal urges that drive people now have always driven people and, no matter how technology advances, it seems they will always drive people.

A lot of writers start off reading fantasy and science fiction. The Hobbit, Harry Potter, in my case 2000AD comics. And when writers first put pen to paper, they tend to come up with fantastical worlds and events. And then they stop. They get real.   Of course, writers develop all the time. Youngsters with a flair for language tend to be very wordy and that continues on to the first few things they write. What happens then is they gradually become aware that it’s the quality of the verbs and nouns, not just the grasp of adjectives that deliver the punch. The Road I think, is the perfect blend of poetry and prose.

When I was younger I was seriously into fantasy, science fiction and horror. And, although I’d like to come across all mature and sophisticated, I really still am. I’d love to write a science fiction or fantasy novel. There’s something about the freedom it affords you and the fact that you can create something really epic without having people look at it through slitted eyes whilst asking how true-to-life it is or whether the research is up to scratch.

And here’s the thing. Fantasy and Science Fiction, good Fantasy and Science Fiction, deals with the same things Sophocles was dealing with. The same as Shakespeare. Donne. Hopkins. Joyce. Beckett. The BIG themes of existence. Universals.

In fact, I would argue that Fantasy and Science Fiction allows for a much more focused interrogation of the timeless issues confronting humanity than some of our more bleeding edge forms and narratives.

That, I realise, needs some explaining.

Imaginary worlds unfold at the hands of their creators. The clacking of the keyboard is their Big Bang event. All rules are laid down by their authors. Of course, the reader brings certain suppositions and expectations to the table but, and here’s the important bit, the engagement between reader and text is predicated on the rules laid down by the author. It’s one of the reasons so many Fantasy and Science Fiction books are forced to include pages of exposition at the beginning. They need all that  exposition so that the reader is planted in the text’s reality and given some sort of imaginative scaffolding before the story whisks them off.

This allows the savvy author to explore the big, universal stuff with exhaustive rigour.

Writing fiction set in the 21st Century and exploring, say, the theme of Romantic Jealousy is easy. But to do it you have to include a lot of white noise – jobs, friends, phones, social media etc etc. The best thing to do is include them and let them feed into the theme. But in so doing you start diluting your original idea. For example, you start straying into an exploration of the power of social media. And, unless you’re very careful, you start losing sight of what your original aim was.

On a purely ‘mechanical’ note, phones and social media and TV and radio are often a pain in the behind to work around as an author. If you’re writing a thriller or something psychological you often have to find some way to rid your characters of their mobile phones. Otherwise, they’d just Google the answer to some all-important question or simply call the cops when in trouble.

Hence so many TV shows, like Stranger Things, being set in an age without social media or mobile phones. For a writer, they get in the way. And often getting them out of the way seems clunky and contrived. We’re all familiar by now with the sudden and unfortunate mobile black spot that deprives our hero or heroine of their phone signal just when they need it most.

Creating an imaginary space to set your story in allows you to circumvent a lot of this awkwardness and focus solely on exploring your themes. You can basically set your imaginary world up to magnify whatever theme you wish without having to filter it through the obscuring chaff that the real world throws up on a day-to-day basis.

And what the imaginary spaces of Fantasy and Science Fiction allow you to explore best of all is the idea of Identity.

I was once described by a well-known publisher as, ‘looking more like a footballer than a writer’. I took this as a compliment. I played in goal for years. The happiest times of my teenage life were standing ankle-deep in mud willing that forward to go ahead, shoot. Because I had this. I was young and fit and confident in my own ability to deal with whatever was sent my way.

Deep down somewhere, I’m still that teenager. That’s my identity. But it’s now buried under a slow avalanche of here-and-now issues. Important, real issues that absolutely need to be dealt with. Bills. Children. Taxes. Grown-up stuff. Stuff that gradually changes who you are. I know I’m a different man to the kid that I once was. However, to write such a profound but incremental change is difficult whilst maintaining realism.

Fantasy writing allows the exploration of identity because they are not real spaces and do not operate by real world rules. They are instead liminal spaces.

Firstly, what is a ‘liminal space’?

The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin ‘limen’, which means ‘threshold’. A liminal space is a ‘crossing over’ space – a space where something is left behind but the transformation or journey into another space has not quite been achieved. It’s a space of transition.

The Wild West, and Fin de Siecle European society are considered liminal spaces. Liminal spaces have long been used by writers and artists to allow for shifting notions of identity and personality. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is a prime example of this. Seamus Heaney uses bogs to explore notion of shifting identity in a uniquely Irish context.

Fantasy texts are set in liminal spaces that allow the identity of our main characters to experience perpetual flux. Arrakis in Dune is neither savage nor civilised, it is somewhere in between. This mirrors Paul Atreides’ identity. It also reflects The Boy and the Man in The Road. Like America itself, they are trying to find who they really are and what path to follow, the one that has led them to disaster or is there another ‘road’ to follow? In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the end of 19th century Victorian society was synonymous with hypocrisy and double-dealing. Debauchery took place behind closed doors but was lambasted in public. Wilde’s experience at the hands of this hypocritical and judgmental society obviously informs the conflicting sides of Dorian’s identity – the surface versus the interior. Wilde was pilloried by a society who viewed homosexuality as a crime but which was itself rotten to the core.

This is the key aspect of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the freedom it gives to create liminal spaces and to use those spaces to explore ideas of identity or love or hatred or jealousy.

Your characters might carry magical swords or laser guns. They might ride warhorses or fly X-Wings. But they’re just the details. Fantasy and Science Fiction is about people.

It’s never about the dragons.

(c) Joe Murphy

About The Taking of Colum Pyke:

Mark Usher is a small-time journalist with big-time ambitions. Unfortunately for Mark, it seems like his ambitions will always go unfulfilled. Until, that is, he meets Colum Pyke. A strange little boy from a strange little family. A boy who just might provide Mark with the chance he craves. A chance to shape a story, not just report on one.

And then the killings begin… A series of savage murders provide Mark with a unique opportunity. Each body is elaborately mutilated in a way designed to echo sacrifices and executions from Ireland’s ancient history. And Mark thinks he knows who the killer might be. James Pyke. Colum’s father. A man haunted by his past and brimming with murderous potential.

Could this be Mark’s shot at the big-time? But what might Mark be willing to do to keep his story alive?

And why does he find himself drawn more and more to Colum Pyke and Sarah, his mother? Why does he feel more and more like a protector? A father-figure? A daddy to this little boy with the soulless eyes.

The Taking of Colum Pyke is a novel that blends the gothic and postmodern. It asks the question: Can we believe anything we’re told? And, perhaps more importantly: Can we trust those doing the telling?

Pre-Order your copy of The Taking of Colum Pyke here.

About the author

Joe Murphy studied English at UCD, where he received a scholarship to complete an MA in Early Modern Drama. He works as a secondary school teacher.
He has written three other novels, 1798: Tomorrow the Barrow We’ll Cross, Dead Dogs and I Am in Blood.
Joe Murphy has been hailed by The Sunday Times as “an impressive talent” and The Irish Independent described his writing as “cinematic”.

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