Whither Portal Fantasy?

Rachel Manija Brown’s recent blog post on the apparent unmarketability of YA portal fantasy has gotten nearly 200 comments and is still going strong. There’s some interesting discussion of portal SF, immigrant stories, and other related topics. If you’ve noticed the distinct absence of Narnia analogues from the YA shelves of late, it’s worth a read. I think the link to immigration is particularly interesting; in both cases, the driving question of the plot is “What would drive you to leave behind what you know and seek the unknown?”.

I’m still too jetlagged (and neck-deep in catching up on work) to make a strong connection between “agents won’t rep books about people leaving the familiar to explore the unknown” and Paul Kincaid’s “the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion” essay, but I feel like there might be a link there. Kincaid’s conclusion:

This one story illuminates the exhaustion that seems to have overtaken SF and fantasy, the sense that the future is something to be approached wearily because we have already imagined it and rubbed away anything that was bright and new.

He speaks of the future as though it were a secondary world once glimpsed through a portal; and now we have come through the portal and are “living in the future”. The secondary world has become the primary world. Might this lead to general disenchantment with secondary worlds?

Is it in any way useful to think of SF’s oldest fans as immigrants into The Future, the mysterious 21st century so frequently imagined in the 20th? They have certainly taken a long voyage from one to the other and learned that the streets on this side are not in fact paved with gold.

For that matter, is alternate history the new portal fantasy? The whole world has gone through a portal from The Past to The Future, only it’s a different portal than our world went through. I’d count a lot of urban fantasy in this camp, incidentally, since much of it relies on a premise like “then magic returned to the world” or “then we discovered supernatural beings have been living among us all along”.

Maybe what we’re so tired of, so skeptical of, is the idea of a single step through a single door changing a single person’s life.

I don’t know; I’m rambling. But I think these things are worth thinking on. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

21 thoughts on “Whither Portal Fantasy?

  1. James Davis Nicoll

    Doesn’t Card have an ongoing YA portal fantasy series? The Mithermages series? But the rules are different for BNAs.

    1. Amanda D.

      I’ve always been a fan of urban fantasy. I like the idea that magic (or aliens or whatever) are hidden in our parks, our neighbors or ourselves. The simple act that changes our hero’s life forever is simply noticing something they’ve previously taken for granted. Of course, Homeward Bounders starts this way, and it’s definitely portal fantasy. Connie Willis writes some excellent time travel portal fantasy.

      Maybe the slush pile readers have a point in that the standard portal fantasy plot isn’t fresh anymore. It’s hard to get away from comparisons to Wizard of Oz for example. Neverwhere includes nods to Wizard of Oz. Heck, so does Stargate SG-1. It’s hard to take that premise and say something new unless you can put a new spin on it. Connecting the other world to our world somehow is a commonly used twist that gives the other world a different emotional relationship to our hero.

      The last YA portal fantasy I read was Stravaganza, I think. Pretty good. I also read “The Wizard, The Witch and Two Girls from Jersey”, but I remember that book for the vacation I was on at the time, not because it was especially memorable.

      1. James Davis Nicoll

        Maybe the slush pile readers have a point in that the standard portal fantasy plot isn’t fresh anymore.

        If agents are rejecting everything that’s not fresh, this is in no way reflected by the books I am sent to review, whether it’s ‘jaded detective solves crime’, ‘woman who gave up big city career to return to small town where she has found new love, possibly adopted or fostered a kid, opened a business and solves crime*’, ‘the quest to find the plot thingie’, ‘that time two Great Powers fought it out In Space!’, ‘Mercenaries are neato-keen’, ‘person with special powers fights monsters in modern world’, ‘actually the author lost track of what their sprawling fantasy series was supposed to be about several books ago’, ‘zombies: not the cuddly pals the Cuddly Pal Zombie Company claims them to be’, and so on and so forth.

        * Yes, that does seem kind of specific for there to be several examples. But there are.

  2. Meredith

    What bugs me about portal fantasy is that so often the person who steps through the portal is totally ordinary at home but the savior and/or ruler of an entire world as soon as they step through the portal. A world which would go to pieces, it is implied or stated, if left to the devices of its actual inhabitants. It borders on “what these people need is a honky” syndrome.

    I would be a lot less irritated if they stepped through the portal and continued being someone of no particular importance on the other side, except perhaps as the discoverer of the portal.

    Or if there was an implication that anyone with the science and knowledge of the other world would do, as opposed to there being something unique/special/destined about this particular earthling. But even there, it tends to be awfully condescending to the culture they’re assisting/destablizing/invading, to swoop in with new technology from afar, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court style. I’d like to see the sequel with all the new problems it creates.

    That said, I’m a big fan of LeGuin’s The Beginning Place, which is a portal fantasy.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Well, Narnia–not the first portal fantasy by any means, but a major one that inspired most of what we now think of as the genre–was very much “What these Talking Animals need is a Son of Adam!”, and it can be surprisingly hard for genres to move away from their origins.

      For books where mostly well-meaning people from the future fuck up the past in rather glorious style, check out Beth Ciotta’s Her Sky Cowboy, in which activists from the 1960s go back to Victorian England to try to prevent 20th-century war and end up completely destabilizing society, and Eric Flint & co.’s Ring of Fire series, in which a small 20th-century Virginia town is transplanted wholesale into 1631 Germany just in time for the Thirty Years’ War.

      1. Kevin A. Lewis

        With regard to Rachel’s observation about YA portal fantasy, it’s a kind of a cyclic thing from where I sit-the last YA portal project that made any noise that I recall was Katherine Applegate’s Everworld series way back when MTV was still running music videos; how about reversing the ion current on the whole portal idea and have Something Else come into our world rather than vice-versa? Doesn’t have to be Lovecraft, it could be an antique collector from the dystopian 22nd Century looking for kitschy stuff from our time or something. I’m busy working the real-time side of the YA street, so this is an ore outcropping somebody could run with-gatekeepers tend to be trendsurfers so getting any kind of a new concept off the ground can be tough, but there’s lots of potential in this idea if you tweak it a bit…

      2. Alana Joli Abbott

        Speaking of Narnia as source material, does this conversation completely exclude Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King? It’s utterly disillusioned portal fantasy filled with unhappy people (I’ve described it before as Narnia meets On the Road) — but it’s still portal fantasy. And while it sticks close to the roots in some ways, it’s completely subverted in others.

        Of course, it’s also not YA, so maybe that’s why it hasn’t come up. I’ll go over and read the full post. :)

        1. YaelTiferet

          I love that book so much. It basically addressed like 90% of the bad feelings Harry Potter and Narnia left me with.

    2. YaelTiferet

      Homestuck is my favourite YA portal fantasy, but it’s a webcomic…and I don’t think you’d like it because everyone who survives gets to create the new universe.

  3. Laer Carroll

    There are tides in publishing as in high and low fashion and many other areas of human endeavour. But every time the sea goes out it comes in again, sometimes as a tsunami.

    Children’s books were backwaters. Then came Harry Potter. Vampires were getting a bit stale. Then came Twilight. Stories about Greek gods were stale. Then came Rick Riordan. And you can doubtless think of dozens of examples.

    Professional authors are alert to all the trends, but we can’t let them rule our creativity. It has its own tides and tsunamis, and those are the ones we must cater to.

  4. Andrew Porter

    I’ve felt since 1984 that I’ve been living in the future; that year was the unattainably far future for so many years that when we got there, there wasn’t much beyond it to capture our imagination. Except maybe 2001…

  5. Mary

    After decades of reading, I suppose it is understandable that someone might grow tired of portal stories. However, it seems far more likely to me that because SF and fantasy lovers are always hungry for more, that publishers do publish less fresh material than they might otherwise. If you look at other popular genres, I think you would find the same problem. If I were to tell my students not to write something because it had been written before, they might have trouble finding a theme or idea such as “portal” stories and that would be a shame because every new writer does bring their own experiences to the table.

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  7. James Davis Nicoll

    In G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, the People of the Smokeless Flame have their Empty Quarter, which does not seem to be easily accessible by the children of Adam. But I don’t think that was published as genre fantasy.

  8. Agent0fN0thing

    I can think of a few things that might be contributing. First of all, Lev Grossman’s Magicians novels simultaneously perfected the genre and at the same time delivered a devastating deconstruction of it. Furthermore, the many of the tropes have been remixed and used in different ways from the traditional portal fantasy. For instance, Bill Willingham’s Fables graphic novel series is a sort of reverse portal fantasy, where beings from a world of magic travel through a portal to our mundane world. Matt Stover’s Acts of Caine novels take a distinctly darker look at what might happen in a portal fantasy by positing a future where the first through the portal sought to exploit the looking-glass world rather than simply escape it. I think in this day and age, it exists, but you might not recognize it.

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  13. YaelTiferet

    I would have to say that if we’re tired of the idea of portal fantasy, Homestuck would not have been able to raise $2.5 million (and counting–after Kickstarter they took Paypal submissions) to produce a video game. Homestuck is a webcomic (there are also graphic novels) but it is HELLACIOUSLY popular with the YA audience (seriously, being over 30 at a Homestuck meet can be a mortifying experience, especially when the parents arrive to pick up the teens, or when you realise that a teenager is assuming you’re one too, and hitting on you) and it’s pretty much the ultimate portal fantasy. In point of fact if I were trying to sell a portal fantasy to an unimpressed agent/publisher, Homestuck would be the first thing that I would bring up, because it’s basically a story about 4 teenage internet friends who unwittingly pick up and play a new MORPG that destroys their universe and forces them to fight a battle in another one, then create one for themselves. And then they meet the 12 other teenage internet friends from a different universe whose session their mistakes have messed up, and things get incredibly complicated.

    I don’t know why publishers and agents aren’t into portal fantasy right now, but if kids didn’t want it, then there would be more grown-ups at Homestuck meets; Homestuck wasn’t really intended to be YA, and in fact has a decidedly nostalgic feel–a lot of the younger fans weren’t around for the 80s and 90s games and musical tech that it references.

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