A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

When people ask what I write, I usually say “fantasy.” From there, people ask if it’s like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, and I would go “Ehh, kind of.” I can name some of the books that influenced me, like Mountains of Madness or Wizard of Earthsea, but they aren’t good comparisons to what I write now. So I’m coining a new phrase: “neo-fantasy.”

I use the term “neo-fantasy” because nothing else seems to fit. The stories I’m writing are mythopoeic, but the label ‘high fantasy’ doesn’t work because these are the stories of individuals, not of empires, quests, or battles between good and evil. Dark themes like cannibalism, murder, and even outright horror appear in my writing, but don’t define it, like dark fantasy. Moral ambiguity and grittiness are often present, but my stories don’t rely heavily on them, like grimdark. Slipstream’s blending of science fiction, fantasy, and literary elements seems right, but the emphasis on cognitive dissonance and confrontations with reality doesn’t.

“Neo-fantasy,” as I see it, is a kind of hybrid between mythopoeic fantasy, literary fiction, and something like cyberpunk. These are some of the characteristics:

  1. Comprehensive worldbuilding. It is set in a secondary world with a fully developed history, cultures, magic, and setting. The realism, depth, and verisimilitude of each of these elements is especially important—the worldbuilding must be thorough and comprehensive.
  2. Magic is crucial. The use of magic is usually connected to the conflict of the story, and is often its solution. Magic is generally handled in a systematic, analytical way comparable to computer programming, but has a metaphysical dimension to it: magic usually represents a conduit to meaning, truth, or a greater reality. It is not reducible to a ‘science’, however.
  3. The conflicts in neo-fantasy always have a personal element. Emphasis is placed on internal struggles and an exploration of the characters.
  4. Neo-fantasy is essentially humanist. Humans are empowered to shape their lives and the world around them, and there are no limits to the power or understanding that humans may achieve. There are beings more powerful than humans, but they are either derived from humans or able to be surpassed.
  5. Neo-fantasy’s primary goal is to explore the sublime. ‘The sublime’ represents the extremes of wonder and terror within life. Reverence, awe, and despair are also key themes.

My short story The Crownless King is a good example of neo-fantasy: the story takes place in a world with a strong history and magic system, and the central conflict is whether the protagonist, the wizard Samal, will save his apprentice Iz or let the weight of his past crush him. They key themes of The Crownless King are despair, horror, and death, but against it all stands the small hope that the human spirit can survive.

The term “neo-fantasy” may never come into general usage, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as having a term that I can use to unite all of these thoughts under one umbrella and articulate them to people who haven’t read my work. Everyone wants to be part of something new, avant-garde, and fashionable, but the wars over genre and theory matter less than the stories themselves.

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

The Nokizi: A Fictional Necromantic Manifesto, Part 1

I was playing through TES III: Morrowind recently, and I came across three books in a necromancer dungeon: Darkest Darkness, Arkay the Enemyand N’Gasta, Kvata, Kvakis. I remembered these from years ago, and was excited to see them again: these are necromantic books you can actually read in-game–they’re short, and they give you a bit of insight into the beliefs and ideologies of the black mages you’re going up against. My favorite was A Game at Dinner, which was a sort of epistolary novel from a spy to their dark lord.

I’m writing a new story about the necromancer Yute, who I spoke about in my last post about the psychopathic mind, and one of the main plot points of the story is his own manifesto, The Nokizi. The Nokizi is meant to be a book similar to Arkay the Enemy: something to be passed around and read by the initiated members of the necromancer community.

But ever since I first conceived Yute, I wanted his necromancy to be at odds with the popular ideas of the day–I imagined him as an unorthodox figure, a radical other necromancers would be wary of, like Malcolm X or Timothy Leary. As soon as I imagined him, he needed an establishment to rebel against.

The Nokizi is Yute’s critique on the current state of necromancy and the major figures whose work has influenced it. These figures include Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail, all three of whom have achieved a different kind of immortality and huge followings of acolytes. These three are sort of like Hindu gurus who promise their followers eternal life and enlightenment if they follow their teachings. Yute, meanwhile, is based off the Bodhidharma, the iconoclastic founder of Zen in China.

I imagined that Yute brought all of his new ideas before the gurus first, expecting to gain praise and recognition from the masters and cement his position as a new master. It would be a sort of “look at me, I found a new path that is undeniably better than all of yours, and now you must admit it.” Instead, he was laughed and jeered out of their temples and abodes and derided by all their students, one after another. Yute, not one to take humiliation well, devised his Nokizi as a critique of the establishment that rejected him, and a manifesto for his new method and philosophy.

The actual critique is a blend of mathematics, paradoxes, parables, German philosophy, and Rinzai Zen, with the goal of showing that 1) Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail are all going about immortality in the wrong way, 2) the current conception of time and the self are wrong, and 3) that immortality seekers should employ mathematics, not body-modification or other techniques, to achieve immortality.

At the very end of the Nokizi is an encrypted portion, along with the promise that anyone who solves the cipher will gain the secret to his new method. The idea is that, though the necromantic community rejected him before, he is willing to allow converts into his new method if they are clever enough. But it’s all a trick–the insanely complicated cipher encrypts only a bunch of gibberish and nursery rhymes, as a giant, spiteful fuck-you. “You had your chance to be my acolytes, and you laughed me down,” is Yute’s internal reasoning. “So I’ll show you what you’re missing, offer you my secrets, then laugh at you.”

Yute’s a twisted kind of character.

You can read the first part of the Nokizi here.

The Nokizi: A Fictional Necromantic Manifesto, Part 1