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Oz

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Taking a quick break from magazine stuff for a journal entry:

I was thinking about Oz today, and it occurred to me that the Oz books were really original.

I'm mostly talking about worldbuilding here. Four countries, different colors, different occupants, surrounded by a trackless desert; magical creatures; an emerald city! (Which wasn't really emerald at first, but that idea was dropped later.) Gnomes, and clockwork people, and the powder of life. A Gump! A bit of transgender stuff, silver shoes, a road of yellow brick. A wizard who isn't really, and witches who really are. A living scarecrow, a man made of tin, a girl made of patchwork, monkeys with wings. And so on.

And there's been a great deal of work derived in one way or another from the original: forty canonical books, another ten by the authors of those, one famous musical movie (and a few other less-well-known movies), another musical reimagining of that, a variety of comic books, and innumerable parodies, spinoffs, reworkings, and so on.

And that's all great. But the main thing I was thinking about all that is that I don't see many authors even trying for that level of newness in worldbuilding these days.

An awful lot of fantasy is set in a world much like the real world--and don't get me wrong, I love that, I'm a big urban fantasy fan, I'm not objecting to this. And a whole lot of other fantasy is set in invented worlds that are more or less derived from an idealized version of medieval Europe, either directly or via Tolkien or D&D games; often (though not always) these worlds are thoroughly worked out, with detailed histories and geographies, and plenty of depth and verisimilitude. That's all great.

But sometimes I want something that's new and different, that cuts its own pathways through the vast jungles of the imagination. Give me a world that isn't like anything I've seen before, and you'll get my attention.

Doesn't necessarily mean we'll buy the story. I'm sorry to say we've turned down plenty of such stories, when the plot or characters didn't work for us, or even when the worldbuilding just felt too off-the-wall or surreal. But it always makes me happy even if we don't take the story, to see someone doing something new.

(Insert, of course, your favorite explanations of where all the elements of the Oz books came from (thus making them not so original after all), and the fact that there are only n different stories to tell, and the bit about mature poets stealing, and commentary on how derivative Shakespeare was, and so on. But I'm trying not to get bogged down in details about who's the originalest. My point is that I like it when fiction takes me somewhere I've never been before.)

3 Comments

Well, and one thing that the Oz books (particularly the later L. Frank Baum books) can do is plop a main character down in a "world", sketch out that world really quickly and with however much wildness he liked, and then be done with it and go somewhere else. Often that world (I put it in scare quotes because there were lots of settings (isolated mountain villages, small kingdoms, underground cities, etc) that were cut off from Oz proper and which were effectively different worlds where totally different rules applied) (I should really control my parenthetical asides better) existed as a brief joke, or even as a pun, and that was it. So the structure helped with the originality in that way.

There may well be books with that kind of structure around these days, but I think it's out of fashion. Not that I'm an expert on current fashions in fantasy literature...

Thanks,
-V.


There's plenty of that kind of worldbuilding. You just find it in George Saunders and Aimee Bender and Kelly Link stories, not in verisimilitudinous epic fantasy novels.


Frank Baum used to make up stories on the spot for the children that came into his shop, and that's how the first version of the story was created. However there is a long scholarly debate as to whether or not The Wizard of Oz was a political allergy of his time (1890's). Some say many of his images and symbols were (ahem) borrowed from common images and symbols in the papers, cartoons, and media of his day. But most agree that, even if this was his intention, it flavored his story without controlling it. Here's an article that gives a review of the arguments for and against: http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?issueID=40&articleID=504.


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