The Rise of the Backdoor Fantasy Story

One of the best books I read this year was a fantasy novel that wasn't a fantasy novel, called Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Written by Robin Sloan, it's about a secret society devoted to translating a mythical book about immortality, and features several long passages devoted to the awesomeness of dragons. But the dragons were all part of a fantasy series within the novel itself. And the mythical book? Well, let's just say that it's no more or less magical than Google's computing power. Which is sort of the point. When our everyday lives are full of devices and discoveries that feel magical, it's time for fantasy to reinvent itself. And it has, in a new form you could call backdoor fantasy.

There has, of course, been a more longterm shift in fantasy toward what is variously called "hard fantasy" or "fantasy realism." Game of Thrones is the most obvious example. Though the books and series have some elements of magic, they are not central to the plot. Instead, the story is about the all-too-nonmagical world of human power struggles. Meanwhile, authors like Richard K. Morgan and Joe Abercrombie have popularized fantasy storytelling that reads more like hardboiled noir than The Hobbit. Even more popular than hard fantasy, though, is urban fantasy ā€” a subgenre that arguably dates back to the 1970s with Fritz Leiber's classic novel, Our Lady of Darkness. Variations on urban fantasy, from supernatural romances to Satanic detective stories, have catapulted fantasy from ye olde land of gnomes to the gritty streets of our contemporary cities.

The backdoor fantasy owes a lot to these changes in the genre, but it's also something else. In Mr. Penumbra, for example, we are drawn into the mystery of an ancient book just the way we would in a typical urban fantasy. But instead of drawing us deeper into an alternate world of magic that seethes just beneath the city, ala Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, it draws us deeper into the real world. We meet computer programmers who are fascinated by analyzing data, whether it comes from mystical books or search terms. We discover that secret societies gain power not from eldrich horror but by suing people for copyright infringement. The weirdness of our everyday world is revealed the same way the weirdness of the supernatural would be in a pure fantasy story.

Horror has of course always played at this backdoor game. Recent indie movies like The Last Exorcism and The Innkeepers scare us with the threat of demons and ghosts, but never let us forget that humans are perfectly capable of conjuring evil without any recourse to magic at all.

What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can't be explained by science. This year's winner of the Nebula award for best novel, Jo Walton's Among Others, is a perfect example. In it, we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton's protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy. One could say the same about Life of Pi, a novel recently adapted for the screen, in which our shipwrecked protagonist fights a very realistic struggle for his life ā€” but also briefly enters a realm that could be magical, or could just be the product of his fevered imagination.

Though Connie Willis' great 1992 novel Lincoln's Dreams could be classed as a backdoor fantasy, I think she was ahead of the curve. This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn't mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.

Related: Megapolisomancy, or Why All Cities Are Haunted