Modern schoolboys, for a variety of reasons, none of which bear too close an examination for anyone with a queasy stomach, are far more poorly educated than their fathers, and far more indoctrinated into a particularly parochial and past-hating view, which I hereby dub ‘retrophobia.’This theory of literary retrophobia explains why so many mediocre writers like Terry Brooks, JK Rowling, and John Scalzi, and even genuinely entertaining writers such as Charles Stross, exhibit such a powerful inclination for rewriting the works of earlier, more original writers, not only mimicking their styles, but downright strip-mining their works for ideas, settings, and even basic plots.
The particular quality of retrophobia is that everything about the past is despised. This includes the remote past, say, AD 50, as well as the near past, say AD 1950. Some things are despised in a condescending but admiring way, as one might look upon a child, as they are looked upon as the larval forms of enlightenment which will burgeon into the glorious present day, such as the career of Julian the Apostate, and others are despised in a hostile way, as one would look upon an enemy, or a disease which, after long bouts of fever, one has finally thrown aside, such as the witchhunts of the Reformation Era. The sole exception to the first category is that if the advance toward enlightenment was done by Christians for explicitly Christian reasons, it is either to be ignored, such as the abolition of slavery in the Middle Ages, or is to be used as an example of villainy or absurdity, as the Crusades, in which case its fate is to be not only ignored but misrepresented.
Now, logically, one cannot write fantasy for an audience suffering retrophobia. The painted savages of the Sioux and Apache do not exist in the imagination of the retrophobes, only the kindly Indians, now miscalled Native Americans, such as are portrayed in DANCES WITH WOLVES and Disney’s POCAHONTAS. The modern schoolboy has never read a Norse saga, but he may have seen HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. He has certainly never read any story where a Christian is thrown to the lions by the Romans, but he knows about gladiatorial games from Russell Crowe. Gladiatorial fighting is like a Pokemon match, except with humans!
The second generation of fantasy was not based on history, it was based on Howard and Tolkien and Lovecraft and other authors of the first generation. Those were the images and tropes alive in the imaginations of the audience. Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber are still drawing, to some degree, from first generation sources, but Kane of Old Mar is John Carter, and Fafhrd the Barbarian is Conan. Roger Zelanzy inverts the tropes of fantasy in his Amber books by having his main character be a film noir antihero straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and having him thrust into a multiverse-wide Elizabethan revenge drama.
The third generation, I can say very little about, since it was about this time that I lost interest in fantasy, or it lost interest in me. There are occasional exceptions, like THE SORCERER’S HOUSE by Gene Wolfe, or the “Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher, but, for the most part, I cannot slog through something like the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordon or THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION by Elizabeth Moon, and not because there is anything wrong with the writing or even the world building (heaven forbid I criticize authors more skilled than I at my chosen vocation!) but only because the cultural and social assumptions and axioms of their worlds are too close the modern axioms, where the assumption has no reason why it could exist. It breaks the spell of the suspension of disbelief.... the Third Wave of Fantasy, as far as I can tell from a distance, do not have imaginations filled with images from real history, as I do, but instead are filled with an earlier generation of fantasy images, Eowyn dressed as Dernhelm riding to her doom, or Red Sonya dressed in a chainmail bikini.
For example, I enjoyed The Sword of Shannara when I was in high school, for example. Yes, it was a mediocre imitation of Tolkien, but it had its moments and it was a preferable alternative to re-reading The Silmarillion for the third time. But after struggling through The Elfstones of Shannara and only making it about a chapter into the third book in the series, I gave it up. I tried again about twenty years later and didn't even make it that far.
The reason, I belatedly realized, was that without the benefit of working from Tolkien's template, Brooks simply didn't know how to write a fantasy tale capable of holding the reader's interest. He's not a bad writer; his Demon books weren't bad. But he simply didn't have any of the deep roots in history or myth that the great genre writers of the past did, and the shallowness crippled the quality of his storytelling.
Despite her vast sales success, it must be remembered that Rowling is a largely derivative writer of Wright's third generation. She simply took the juvenile English boarding school, of which P.G. Wodehouse was a past master, and inserted conventional fantasy magic into it. There is a reason Harry Potter was rejected so many times by so many publishers; it isn't a very good book and Rowling isn't a very good writer except for her ability to create fairly memorable characters. She is entirely incapable of building a coherent world, as the rules of Quidditch alone will suffice to demonstrate. None of that mattered when it came to selling vast quantities of her books, of course, but then, I have yet to hear anyone claim that Katie Price is one of the greatest living authors by virtue of having published more bestsellers than Rowling, including no less than four autobiographies by the age of 34. The increasingly inept nature of the Harry Potter series became more and more evident over time, until by the end, the books were virtually unreadable. This was no surprise to me; I expected as much after slogging through the third book. As those who read George Martin have learned, the larger the story grows, the more difficult it is for the author to keep under control.
Now, I always enjoy laughing at the antics of John Scalzi, who has been a vocal opponent of ever mine since some of the screechers in the SFWA were having a hissy fit about this WND column in 2005. But that's not the issue here, more important is the way the SFWA president is, almost literally, the poster boy for the inevitable consequences of retrophobia. Even more than Rowling, he is a quintessential third generation writer, as his works are pale shadows of Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, H. Beam Piper, and now Star Trek, of all things. He is a stunt writer; attempting to provide clever spin on X is his basic modus operandi. He doesn't even try to write anything that isn't derivative, presumably because his hopelessly PC ideology and audience combines to prevent him from being able to draw upon any ideas or events from the past that will not pass muster with all of the various activist groups and their highly prejudiced - and often competing - views of history before which he must genuflect.
But whereas Scalzi's mediocrity means that his inability to write original material is no great loss to the genre, what is more troubling is the way retrophobia cripples the careers of genuinely creative talents such as Charles Stross and even Neal Stephenson. Now, I admire both writers, I own most of their books in hardcover, and I consider them to be among the finest writers of our generation. I consider myself fortunate if I ever happen to write novels that are as good as I believe many of theirs to be.
And yet, their works are hollow at the core. There is a pointlessness at the heart of their works that tends to undermine their creative visions, a moral vaccuum that leaves even the most admiring reader feeling somewhat cheated. No amount of literary pyrotechnics or creative brilliance can entirely obscure this. They are merely very good and very entertaining when they should be great. That may be why the works of China Mieville, for all his servile Marxian incoherence, retains a certain depth and power that is more remniscent of the second generation writers than his peers; his moral sense may be warped and he may hide his forbidden influences under a thick veil of New Weird, but he is still connected to the living heart of the genre, pumping life through its mystic connections between the writer and the true myths of history.