(I picture something much more like a haycart, actually [or possibly a manure cart], with high wood-railed sides and a few dozen genre writers and editors and critics waving from the back, trying to haul as many aboard as possible before the cart really gets started down the bumpy slope. There are ruts and pitfalls along the way. This thing has no shocks. Every so often, it THUMP-bump!s into a big old gully and somebody goes sailing over the side, flailing like a slapstick comedian tossed by a bull. "Whups! There went Jay! Well, maybe space opera will pick him up. For Christ's sake somebody get ahold of Tim Pratt!")
Anyway. There's an old trite saying that you railroad when it's railroading time, and suddenly everybody seems to be talking about "hard fantasy." I don't know where the meme started, but in recent days truepenny has blogged it, and I note, in submitting my Worldcon panel selections, that there is in fact a panel on hard fantasy listed as one of the potentials.
I'm pleased. Because I seem to recall that three or four years ago, when I was telling people that I tried to bring roughly the same rigor to my fantasy as to my SF, and that I didn't approach the process of writing them in significantly different ways (SF, to me, is fantasy with more rigorous starting conditions), they made little circles next to their temples and avoided eye contact.
...okay, I overstate. *g* But then, we do that here. (Be alert for understated sarcasm and excessively dry wit: blogger is one quarter Swedish and all Yankee, and believes with Ben Jonson that if it's funny, it doesn't necessarily have to be true.)
Which leaves aside the question of what exactly is Hard Fantasy? It can't just be what some call "high-mud" fantasy (where the mud is euphemistic; see manure cart, above)--which is to say, fantasy that attempts to deal with some of the ickier problems of premodern life. (Some of this takes it a bit far; not taking full-body baths, for example, doesn't mean you necessarily don't ever clean yourself. See Rochester, Earl of, for hygiene advice for lovers. Important to figure out what the standards of any given period were, and how they were applied. And to remember that current American standards of personal cleanliness are actually kind of freakishly OCD, even by modern world standards. *g* [conveniently, I get kind of a gimme on the Elizabethans, seem to have been considered a bit weird in their standards of personal hygiene for the day. Their streets, on the other hand, were disgusting.])
Anybody who's ever lived in a cold water flat or a house with a broken water heater can tell you that a bath is a pain in the tuchus when you are boiling water in pots.
...but that awareness does play into writing hard fantasy. Rigorous fantasy. (See? You thought I was digressing.) An awareness of the problems of sanitation, of bringing water to a city of 100,000. Of economics. Of bringing food to that many people, and finding places for them to sleep. Of drilling a militia, because it's expensive to support a standing army. Of public service, enforced or volunteer.
There are ways in which a fantasy can be "hard" in one respect and less rigorous in others. Tolkien gets us hard fantasy in a linguistic sense; perhaps less so in other regards. Except, and but also, the ways in which The Lord of the Rings is epic are also hard; they are based on Tolkien's research and knowledge into the tropes of Norse and Germanic and Anglo-Saxon legendry. It's hard fantasy in the sense that it's rigorously researched, and founded solidly in those traditions. (And for all the guff he gets for his handling of class issues, it remains true that he does in fact show the common folk going about their daily tasks, and the impact of war on everyday life.)
There's that whole nasty, brutish, and short thing to get past, too. Along with the noble savages thing. (Yanno, your typical hunter-gatherer has a pretty pleasant life, between famines. And much more leisure time than agriculturalists. Or, I might add, us. What he ain't got is modern medical technology.)
There are a lot of cultural myths we tell ourselves, in other words. Some of them are rooted in the medieval perspective, and some are rooted in the Victorian worldviews. Actually, the Victorian influence in fantasy is kind of excessively pervasive. The lingering influence of Victorian narrative romanticization alone is enough to gag a maggot. And lemme tell you, if there was ever a literary tradition that was all about putting skirts on piano legs, it was that. (Actually, the skirts on piano legs thing also appears to be calumny. However. I present you with the bathing machine.)
See? Cultural myths.
To me, it seems that what hard fantasy is is an attempt to get past the trite, overused tropes of too much heroic epic fantasy (and one for the dork lord upon his dork throne) and into something a little more honest. A little more like life.
I'm not sure I write particularly hard hard fantasy. (But then, I don't write particularly hard hard science fiction, either.) And it's not like hard fantasy is a new thing; John M. Ford's been doing it for years. But what I do try to do is head back to root causes, and use what lingers of my anthropological training to question my own assumptions. To look stuff up. To imagine the practical applications of things. (Okay, so I'm living in a hut with a thatched roof and a rammed earth floor. What do I do to make it comfortable?)
We are mammals. Anybody who's watched a dog sneak up on the sofa knows we do not live in discomfort by choice.
And that questioning extends to genre tropes, as well. (This also ties into the recent discussion over on glass_cats about The Gay Mage, and so on.) Does hero bed heroine and good triumph over evil? Or does something more complicated happen? (I have Roger Zelazny to thank for demonstrating this insight to me, by the way.
Again, nothing new under the sun.)
So, yes. Hard fantasy is fantasy that thinks about the consequences. The prices. If you grow up to be King, what does it cost you? If you're a crown prince, can you go out gallivanting around the countryside? Or is there paperwork? (lots of paperwork) Is being in charge really all that much fun, your majesty?
If you're a sorcerer in a medieval court, how much of your time is taken up by stupid committee meetings? Who takes care of the horses? If there is a dragon in that nearby mountain, why the heck are you staying there? Why are the trolls suddenly coming down out of the mountains in waves? If you're a college professor and you suddenly go off gallivanting into Faerie, who covers your classes? Is it a little creepy if magic keeps choosing artists and poets, and they are Deserving? Why do the Faeries need to have a mortal with their company "when fighting or hurling"? Who pays the bills? Who trucks the shit out? Where does that fish come from? The wine? The language?
God, who is making the clothes?
Why isn't the universe more fucking unfair?1
Hard questions = hard fantasy.
1: (Steven R. Boyett does a lovely riff on this in Ariel, where Ariel the unicorn first meets Shaughnessy and Shaughnessy gives her what-for. "Where were you when I needed you?")