Fantasy Doesn't Need To Be A Mega-Novel To Have A Rich Imaginary World

Illustration for article titled Fantasy Doesn't Need To Be A Mega-Novel To Have A Rich Imaginary World

Author Natasha Pulley defended the need for fantasy “mega-novels” in The Guardian this week by making a rather outrageous claim:

...although I read truckloads of fantasy, and write it, it was very difficult to find fantasy short stories that don’t lean in some way on an existing corpus of novels.


What the what? Explain, please.

High fantasy of the George RR Martin kind hinges on world-building. does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters.


At its heart, high fantasy is what happens when a fairytale-style plot is sufficiently elaborated upon.


To write short fantasy is very difficult. If the usual big-fantasy detail is taken out and you only sketch a plot, you get a fairytale. If you write real high fantasy in 4,000 words, details and all, it tends to be a snippet, not a story. If it’s something set in a basically real world but with a fantasy element, it’s not fantasy so much as speculative fiction, or alternative history, or a ghost story. That means that there is an incredibly narrow taxonomical window in which short fiction can be recognised as fantasy at all. What we recognise as fantasy is long. Sometimes really long.


Okay, but no.

Though Pulley claims to read fantasy (and to write it; let’s not forget her new fantasy book coming out which may be book 1 of how many?), it seems she’s only read a narrow subset of fantasy fiction. She mentions teaching a short story writing course and her observations of the failings of fantasy in the short form seem to come from her students’ writing. Given that, I’m not sure I can even take this seriously.


She is right in one thing: writing short fantasy is difficult. So is writing short science fiction. Yes, you have to build a world or build the future in few words. And great short story writers have been doing this since speculative short stories have existed.

I bet any regular reader of short fiction can name at least three stories that prove Pulley wrong without much thought. I took a minute and came up with 20.


Makeisha in Time by Rachael K. Jones

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species by Ken Liu

Selkie Stories Are for Losers by Sofia Samatar

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

Recognizing Gabe: un cuento de hadas by Alberto Yáñez

Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley) by Rahul Kanakia


Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU by Carmen Maria Machado

Belly by Haddayr Copley-Woods

A Meaningful Exchange by Kat Howard

Mermaid’s Hook by Liz Argall

The Language of Knives by Haralambi Markov

The Stone Children By Shannon Norland

Good Hunting by Ken Liu

• Eleutherios by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring by Brooke Bolander

Breaking the Frame by Kat Howard

One Little Room an Everywhere by K.J. Parker

Sinner, Baker, Fablist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster


The Scrimshaw and the Scream by Kate Hall

And to the Republic by Rachel Kolar

And these are just the stories I can think of from 2012 to now. There are hundreds more. Give a shout out to your favorites in the comments.


K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction author and media critic. Follow her on Twitter, G+, Tumblr, or her blog.



I have three things to say to this author:

Robert Howard
Fritz Lieber
Michael Moorcock.

All built memorable fantasy realms without massive novels.