“I’ve been thinking,” says Nige. He pauses. Takes a long swallow of his lager. It’s eleven-eleven, and he has two more pints waiting after this one. Ordering three just before last orders is a hang-over from when it was always eleven in the Tavern. These days, it’s difficult to know when the place will close but Nige, despite his elastic thinking at times, is oddly ritualistic where drinking is concerned.
His paint-splattered hair is a little American Indian tonight and his eyes indeed have an eagle-watching distance to them. I sense a builder’s stream of consciousness may be ready to erupt into the Monday night calm of the Tavern, like psychedelic Dulux from a paint gun.
“Apparently,” he continues, “we’re all surrounded by our own unique microbe cloud, Tel. Our germs and bacteria and various poxy particles make up a signature that’s as distinctive as our fingerprints. Which means if the police could find a way to measure said cloud they’d be able to track down criminals dead easy.”
“Don’ they already have fingerprints?” I say.
He sighs. “Yes and villains have gloves. But you can’t slip a latex sheath over your microbe cloud can you? But crime-fighting isn’t what I was thinking about, as it happens. For bleedin’ centuries, people could only tell what’s what about other people by their physical manifestations. Because we couldn’t measure or even know sod all about microbe clouds, we could only spot obvious, and often un-germane differences between folks. In other words, we’ve never got in the habit of looking for the stuff about other people that you can’t see.”
I resist the urge to remind him that in fact many people over the centuries have claimed to be able to see the invisible emanations we apparently make, and to interpret what they mean. One reason I don’t is that while I more or less believe such emanations exist, I’m not convinced that many people are very accurate at interpreting them.
“For a start,” he says, “I reckon the most distinctive invisible stuff we all give off is the fantasy cloud. Everyone spends the vast majority of their lives fantasising in one way or another. They picture themselves with muscles they ain’t got and high cheekbones which are actually obscured permanently by McDonald’s blubber. Blokes are constantly picturing women without their clothes on; and running through a brilliant speech they’re going to give their boss to destroy the bastard’s hold over them and leave him a whimpering wreck. And the fantasy cloud is self-perpetuating; it feeds back into our brains so we actually come to believe it, to the point we think the real world is just some bleedin’ intrusion into our real reality.”
As he talks, I look around the room. In one corner is a table of regulars. I can’t hear what they’re talking about but their expressions, eye-shine, confident tone says that they believe they’re right. But almost certainly they won’t be. Maybe Nige is on to something: our fantasy cloud is self-infecting.
“As you know,” he says, “I’ve been trying to help you teach self-deluded writers how to write fantasy.”
“I didn’t say they were self-deluded,” I say.
He picks up his pint again, shaking his head pityingly. “Unless a writer understands his own fantasy cloud, he ain’t got a chance of producing anything that won’t read like Wayne Rooney’s auto-bleedin’-biography. And if he’s writing fantasy, then the unconvincing distance effect is compounded.”
“I ain’t no teacher, Tel, but the first question I’d ask a fantasy writer is: what’s in your characters’ fantasy clouds?”
I laugh and take a long swallow of my expensive craft beer. I don’t understand exactly what he means but the authentic noise of it is like a great resounding bong on the Rank Movies gong of truth.
“Let me have go at this,” I say. “Us real world types are surrounded by fantasy clouds, so it’s logical to assume that characters in fantasy novels will be surrounded by reality clouds.”
“No, that’s false logic, mate. Characters in fantasy novels are real to their world. They won’t have clouds around them that reflect our world; they’ll have clouds full of fantasy what pertains in their world.”
“Okay, so what would be in Gandalf’s fantasy cloud?”
“Good question and possibly unique in the history of Lord of the Rings fandom. So, what does the most famous wizard in fantasy history fantasise about?”
“Being a hobbit,” I say, “settling down with a nice hobbit woman and drinking beer in a hobbit tavern, philosophising with his hobbit builder/decorator mate about what David Copperfield fantasises about?”
He ignores my attempt at circular irony. “I reckon he would fantasise about being a better soddin’ bloke, actually. I mean, he’s all beard and meaningful looks but that won’t cut it with a wizard chick. She’s going to respond more to creative humour and a manly strength that’s so confident it can open a window of vulnerability for her to see the true him through, what contains more real magic than anything his wand can ever summon up.”
“Well, now you may of course be alluding to the author’s own fantasy cloud and his unconscious suppression thereof.”
“You’ve hit it, Tel,” he says. “The fundamental problem with modern fantasy.”
“Hang on, let me get my notebook out; this is going to be a real scoop.”
“Until a writer is proper au fait with his own fantasy cloud he’s never going to produce characters with believable fantasy clouds. The bleedin’ reader doesn’t need to know what exactly these characters’ clouds contain, of course, but he has to sense their presence, and that takes the form of characters who don’t look and sound like they just switch off when they’re not in a scene and get hung up in the author’s various mental closets called ‘Wise But Boringly Dead Pan Wizard Unless He’s Slapping His Thighs At A ‘Joke’ That The Reader’ll Never Get Because Frankly It’s Not Very Funny’, or ‘Ballsy Princess Who Nevertheless Carries Around An Impressive Pair Of Knockers’ or ‘Villain Who Never Changes His Underpants’. If both author’s and his characters’ fantasy clouds was fully operational you could have your villain, I don’t know, just watching Panorama and looking like he’s a bit lost in big issues, and he’d be even more villainous for it.”
“If all this is true,” I say, “how come millions of readers seem to enjoy fantasy with cloudless characters?”
He looks sad and swallows two thirds of his second pint in one hit. “You’ve now hit on the other fundamental problem with modern fantasy.”
“Where did I put my pen . . . ?”
“The fantasy novel is the reader’s fantasy cloud, at least while they’re reading, or attending conventions or whatever. It prevents them having to try to understand their own real fantasy cloud.”
“Okay,” I say, “so, we’ve got authors who are not sufficiently aware of their own fantasy clouds, writing characters who don’t actually have fantasy clouds, for readers who are escaping their real fantasy clouds for a collective cloud made of the author’s subconscious cloud and his characters’ missing clouds, which together approximate a fantasy-fantasy cloud that by existing in a fantasy setting allows the reader, and probably the author too, to believe they are actually grappling with a legitimate fantasy cloud but in fact they’re just avoiding real fantasy?”
He nods, a little smugly it has to be said. “I knew you’d get there eventually, Tel.”