When I was an undergraduate over a decade ago, my creative writing professor argued that The Hobbit was a better piece of writing than The Lord of the Rings because it was self-contained, had a tight cast of characters, and a clear plot.
I hadn’t yet heard of McGuffins and the Hero’s Journey was as yet a vague notion in my mind.
But the intellectual seed he planted slowly took root. What makes some stories worthy of the epic label? What about those stories that are self-contained, with rather simple plots, and a tightly focused cast small enough to fit into a mid-sized bus.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has become the standard, replacing to some degree LOTR, when it comes to stories bearing the “epic” label. Casts of (tens of) thousands, with scores of named characters, dozens of locations, complex and interweaving character arcs, and for those under the “grimdark” heading, morality that is anything but black and white. (1)
The last two novels that I read seem to fit on opposite ends of the established scale of epicness. Kameron Hurley’s Empire Ascendant fits the genre of epic fantasy rather clearly: secondary (that is, not-Earth) world, mysterious and often unpredictable magic, a conflict that will bring about great and cataclysmic change to the entire world–well, worlds in this case. The Empress Kirana destroys worlds and crosses between them to find a safe place for her family and the Tai Mora people.
Lightless by contrast is all about microcosm. C. A. Higgins tells the story of one experimental spacecraft with a crew of three on a secret mission to the outskirts of the solar system. Far in the background are the fragile human colonies and the oppressive System government that funded the Ananke‘s mission.
Then two intruders appear and cause havoc then a government operative shows up with her own agenda. What is going on in this cast of half a dozen characters is gradually (and often unreliably) revealed to the reader. Althea, the Ananke‘s mechanic, just wants to fix the damage that the intruders caused to her ship and move on with her mission.
So we have macrocosmic and microcosmic points of view. Both are equally suitable to telling compelling stories. Hurley and Higgins both immerse their readers in the worlds that their characters inhabit. Characters exist in both novels that can destroy lives and worlds just about at will; likewise, both books explore the more optimistic side of human existence, with characters who work against forces beyond their control and that they do not entirely understand to create and build and conserve good things.
The contrast between the two modes of storytelling, such as they exist, is a matter of scale. They are both epic stories. Setting off in a spaceship powered by a magnetically contained black hole: how can that not be an epic adventure? They are both stories about individuals who make choices that impact (often inadvertently) masses of people in order to protect what they value most in the universe.
For Althea, it’s her ship. Whenever what makes Ananke unique, an individual, is threatened she must choose. Does the ship that she helped create matter more than her loyalty to the System? What will she give up to protect the ship that she has come to think of as a unique, living creation?
For Kirana, it’s her family–her wife, her daughters–for whose welfare the destruction of multiple worlds and almost all their inhabitants is not too high a price to pay.
Science fiction and fantasy as a genre has the power to put us in situations vicariously where we can ask big questions that might be difficult to pose otherwise. There are myriad ways to approach what we really want to talk about. From the top or bottom or sideways. With thousands of characters sprawled over multiple planes of existence or just a handful of people contained in one space. We need both ends of the scale and all points in between. We need self-contained stories and those that go on and on.
What matters is that the questions are fundamental human questions and whatever their answers are, that they be solved by complex characters in whose vacillations and tribulations we can see a reflection of ourselves.
1 Tolkien wrote grimdark, too, avant la lettre. Check out The Children of Húrin and other stories in his mythos like the tale of Beren and Luthien.