Learning From The Summer Tree – Art in Genre Fiction

Posted: May 7, 2015 in writing
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In talking about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree I mentioned the use of arts within the book. It’s an area I find fascinating. The role of art in society and its power to stir emotions are often overlooked in fantasy fiction. What makes it so useful?

For me, there are two obvious points.

Firstly, showing a society’s culture adds depth. It shows that there is more to people’s lives than the struggles they currently face, the wars and intrigues that are the backbone of so many plots.

Secondly, it helps us connect to the characters. We all know what it feels like to be stirred by art that touches something within us. For me, that can be listening to Jeff Buckley’s Lover You Should Have Come Over, watching Lost in Translation or reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You’ll have your own examples, because while the feeling is universal, it’s triggers are seldom the same.

So who else makes good use of culture in their writing?

  • Tolkien uses songs and poems to explore the past.
  • Iain M Banks has games in The Player of Games.
  • John Scalzi’s Redshirts, while taking a different angle, at least shows TV as a prominent part of life.

Who else is there? Which writers do this, and especially do it well?

And what are the cultural experiences that really stir you?

Share your thoughts in the comments. I’ve mentioned a couple of my favourite things, and I’d love to hear about yours.

  1. C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. Little descriptions throughout of what a character wears, or an heirloom tea set — tea is a big deal with the atevi — or those porcelain lilies that get smashed up by assassins, thus causing a politician to change sides on an issue because he’s angry at his allies who sent the assassins. (These novels are a real treat for anyone who enjoys “anthropological” science fiction.) Traditional theatre is references several times.

  2. glenatron says:

    Music is quite common in this respect, particularly as a way of describing a character I think of Kvothe and his lute, Lol Robinson with his songs and his old guitar or Holmes and his violin. It can risk the Charles De Lint cliche of his characters always being excellent musicians, but it still casts a character in a particular light and an exploration of the music they play can tell you more about the society as a whole.

    I like the use of art in the New Sun books where Severian describes things in the terms of his time and sometimes you get a glimpse of a familiar piece of art that has somehow survived as far as his future or of a story that has almost but not quite survived, although the latter of those often commingles so many layers that you would have to be a genius to understand it on the levels it exists on. What you notice is how much has made, fallen away and been forgotten- the whole thing is in some respects an extended gyre on Shelley’s Ozymandias.

    • I like the way that music plays a central part in Kvothe’s life, and we get to see art not just as something for its own sake, but as a way for someone to get by in the world. Though that suffers a bit from the ‘Kvothe is awesome at everything’ side of the book.

      • glenatron says:

        I think the strongest critique of The Name Of The Wind simply described Kvothe as the ultimate Mary Sue.

        It’s actually a bit of what I enjoyed about it- he’s a hero who is actually heroic in skill and ability which stands out when most heroes are a baffled everyperson out of their depth in a dangerous world. But he still makes bad decisions because he’s smart but he’s young and inexperienced and there are still dangers around sufficient to present serious danger to him.

        It reminds me a little of the way that Captain America stands out by being a clean cut honourable nice guy in a world where all the other superheroes are defined in gritty shades of grey.

        When absolutely everyone is rebelling against the cliche, sometimes going back and exploring it again is a fruitful endeavour.

        • You’ve got a good point, and I still enjoyed reading about Kvothe because he was so well written and managed to make mistakes. But I’m not sure I’d have been so impressed if I’d read more big fantasy novels. I suspect you’ve read more of those than me – is the perfect hero not as over-done as the flawed one?

          The Captain America comparison is an interesting one, and there are definitely similarities in that they stand out amid imperfect worlds. I feel like Cap should be more interesting because his apparent flawlessness is about moral decision making, whereas Kvothe’s is about capability. One creates difficulties, the other solutions. Yet Rothfuss’s writing somehow avoids this.

          Hm, might be time to go read that second book.

          • glenatron says:

            I can’t think of any perfect hero stuff I’ve read recently – I guess that normally ties in to the old coming-of-age trope where maybe someone like Garion in David Eddings fits reasonably well, but you don’t see it a whole lot because it is such an obvious trap and writers are conscious of it now.

            I was thinking the same about The Wise Man’s Fear, but as I don’t currently own it, I’d be breaking my 2015 reading rule, so I guess it will have to wait…

            • Maybe we could plan to both read Wise Man’s Fear around the same time, sometime next year? It would be good to have someone to discuss it with.

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