I was not really much of a fan of the original Mistborn trilogy. The initial premise was to set a fantasy story in a world after the total victory of your classic mega-evil wizard. What’s it like to live in the world ruled by Sauron or Bavmorda or the followers of Naar? The first novel melds a heist plot structure with a bildungsroman (I have to google how to spell that every time), and a fairly innovative take on magic and is pretty much A+ material. All of which is utterly squandered in the second and third books, which abandon the protagonist of the first novel in favour of a bland and privileged Mary Sue, who is sent on your basic plot-coupon fantasy before the big revelation happens that it’s all based on a red herring prophecy anyway, which is a most unsatisfying bait-and-switch. Which is a shaggy-dog story kind of introduction to my reluctance to pick up The Alloy of Law despite having very much enjoyed the first “three” books of the Stormlight archive.
The Alloy of Law attempts a similar reinvention of fantasy – what if technology had advanced to the industrial age in this fantasy world? Furthermore, what if the reclamation of the blasted and remote lands devastated by the reign of the Final Emperor had given rise to a wild-west style frontier (without, of course, those pesky Native Americans whose inclusion always generates problematical questions!). Our story’s protagonist is one of those famous Western lawmen, a fantasy Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson (don’t read too much history on these guys – fair warning). As I’m wild about Westerns, a devotee of detectives, and marginally a fantasy fan, I’m on board with the premise-mashing/trope-blending. But before we delve into that, I think it’s just worth pausing to ask why not just keep in your lane? What’s the point, abstractly, of genre mixing?I think genre-bending starts to happen in a couple of different cases.
Mostly, I think genres get blended when one or other genre is feeling played-out. The intention is clearly to bootleg some energy from an alternate form of story and generate some new variations and possibilities. This is where the likes of Firefly live – the Western was very quiescent, and the wagon train to the stars was at a hitching post, so Joss Whedon grabbed both to create something new and energetic, able to pull story elements and fabula from two different sources and combine them in ways obvious when writing just one genre. Doing this allows the author to wrong-foot the audience while still basically using a set of tools that they’ve declared in advance, so it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina when some left-field event happens because it’s within genre for the other genre being used.
This is basically what Blade Runner does when it uses the hard-boiled aesthetic to explore the ideas of human consciousness and the reliability of memory. Dekard is a detective who does almost no detection, uncovers no squalid conspiracy, but who merely looks and sounds the part. The hard-boiled story outline creates the opportunity for the film to use clues as more than a bread-crumb trail to greedy people breaking the law for fun and profit. This is the real function of the photographs that the replicants, and Dekard, are obsessed with. Photographs are used to notionally push Dekard along an investigative path so that the story can keep moving. Their more important function, however, is to act as a verification for the reality of memories held by the replicants. See, this event is real, because I have a photograph of it. I think the strongest argument in favour of Dekard’s status as a replicant is not his unicorn dream, but his own precious collection of photographs. Blending genres here has allowed Scott to repurpose a staple of detection, evidence analysis, to do something else.
The second main reason for genre-mashing is one of extrapolation. It’s taking the basic premise suggested by a kind of magic and pushing it further along its track. For fantasy this essentially inverts Clarke’s law, so that rather than “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” we have “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology”. This is the route taken by the pseudo-industrial Earth Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s an uncommon take because I think what fantasy really means to most authors is protective coloration for their chivalric fantasy of dudes on a horse killing stuff that’s evil. It’s Le Morte d’Arthur with a bigger FX budget typically. There’s now a whole genre of “hard fantasy” which comprises Charlie Stross-style world-building exercises.
The third main strand is as an explicit cross-commentary on the genres. This is basically the thrust of Saruman’s industrialisation of Isengard and then the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. We don’t see so much a structural integration as in the first case, nor a full synthesis in the second, but a casual cross-contamination. The most frequent adopter of this approach was Terry Pratchett in the Discworld – in fact, the whole series exists almost primarily as a way of pointing of pointing out how ridiculous our modern world is. Twoflower’s camera is the thin edge of the wedge – it’s completely irrelevant to the fabula or the details of the action, but it’s included for comic effect. Later entries such as Going Postal more clearly use the technology for a story purpose, rather than as a commentary beat (from Robin Laws’ story analysis system).
With that bird’s eye view of the storytelling strategies in play, we can now turn to the novel itself and ask what genre elements it’s using for its juxtapositions and what effect that creates. We obviously can’t do that without spoiling the novel, so from here I’m going to be fairly specific about what happens and the interpretation I place on that.