Everything But the Kitchen Sink… Oh, and the Kitchen Sink, Too!

One of the many ways you can classify fantasy and science fiction is with what I like to call the Kitchen Sink Scale.  There’s all sorts of scales for these genres (soft vs. hard sci-fi, idealistic vs. cynical, silliness vs. seriousness), basically any concept that can’t just be sorted into two binary groups.  I like my little kitchen sink scale because although most people say “they threw in everything but the kitchen sink” they mean it negatively, I love kitchen sink universes.  At least, when it’s well done.  Which, as I’ve grown out of children’s and YA fiction, has become increasingly harder to find.

Imagine, if you will, an axis with one end being the kitchen sink universes.  This is where you’ll find things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Adventure Time, American Gods, Discworld, Futurama, etc.  These are the universes with lots of different fantasy/sci-fi aspects that all exist independently of each other.  The existence of the ghosts isn’t reliant on the existence of the fairies or the werewolves, let’s say.  Or from a sci-fi perspective, there’s mecha, and faster-than-light travel, and artificial intelligence, and laser beams all in the same universe.

TVTropes (yes, I do a lot of… “research” there) explains the other end of the scale as “meta origin”, where all of these speculative-fiction aspects come from one origin.  This is most frequently seen in later superhero works, after crossovers and team-ups started happening.  Apparently people had an issue suspending disbelief that all of these superpowered people with powers from different sources could all exist in the same world (which makes me question how limited people’s disbelief is – you can believe in the X-Men, but not that the Avengers and the X-Men can exist at the same time?).

I, however, tend to look at the other end of the scale as more singular-focus fiction.  If Buffy the Vampire Slayer was really just about vampires, and not any of the other crazy things happening, for example.  The most basic, straight-forward fantasy and sci-fi, the things that basically amount to “our world + 1 other thing” all belong on this end of the scale.  I tend to place Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy here (hey, our planet is the same, it’s just that we’re completely unaware of the rest of the universe’s weirdness), along with things like the early Artemis Fowl books (although later ones moved further and further down into kitchen sink territory), the Thursday Next books (our world + Bookworld), the TV show Heroes, etc.  I admit I have trouble thinking of good examples of this end just because I tend to prefer the other end of the scale.

I’m reasonably certain that my introduction to fantasy kitchen sinks was the children’s/YA book series Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica by James A. Owen.  I got the first book I think pretty much as soon as it came out in 2006, so I was like, 12-13.  I have a very vivid memory of finishing it while sitting in the living room, and then just turning around and staring slack-jawed at my brother like I had seen god.  My thought process was something like “oh my god, there’s dragons and King Arthur, and elves and trolls and dwarves and goblins, but also Captain Nemo and Peter Pan and it’s all in one place!”  Of course the best part is that at the end of the first book, it’s revealed that the four main characters are in fact JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and HG Wells.

Later on I found other kitchen sink series that I came to love (although have since grown out of, I think) like The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott, and Everworld by KA Applegate.  But these are all targeted at younger audiences, which maybe ties in with the willing suspension of disbelief I mentioned earlier.  I think the general idea is that as people get older, they are less credulous or just less willing to pretend credulousness for the sake of fiction (which, for the record, I don’t think is true).

Over the last few years, though, I’ve found myself naturally transitioning from the YA section of the library to the mainstream sci-fi and fantasy shelves.  I never intended that to happen, but when I look at some of the things targeted to YA now, they just seem very juvenile or derivative, and I just have better odds of finding things I want to read elsewhere.  That’s not to say I’ve given up on the kitchen sink, though, far from it.  It’s just that it’s gotten harder to find good kitchen sinks.  The aforementioned American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a phenomenal sort of mythological kitchen sink where every god and every belief system is, to a degree, real, and is one of my all-time favorite books.  Discworld is also up there, although to a less noticeable degree, I think because the different fantastical elements don’t interact much between books (if you’re reading a book about the witches, it’s mostly just about the witches, and won’t have as much plot relevance assigned to the dwarves and trolls, or the magical industrial revolution that’s been taking place over decades).

But I’ve been trying to branch out and there’s two particular examples I want to bring up.  The first is Empire State by Adam Christopher, which I’ll cite as an example of a good adult kitchen sink (I just started the sequel, no spoilers please!).  The other is the Jackelian series of books by Stephen Hunt, starting with The Court of the Air, which is… less good.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s a bad book, but it could have been the beneficiary of better editing.

The main plot of Empire State is a noir superhero alternate reality.  That’s already looking pretty sink-y, and then there’s also robots, and a missing woman, and a mysterious war, and spooky magic fog.  Also the protagonist is named Rad, which is pretty rad (I’m sorry, I had to!).  I’ve seen some reviews, mainly on Goodreads, that complain about how convoluted this is, but I look at this the same way I look at people who complain about how complicated and confusing Inception was – slight derision towards your inability to pay attention or make educated guesses or just follow the thread of a story for more than five minutes (okay, I’m a snob, I’ll admit it). 

The Court of the Air on the other hand… I read it twice and I’m still not sure what the hell the main plot was supposed to be.  There’s like eight subplots, and it’s 500-something pages, and even I couldn’t keep track of it all.  To quote from my Goodreads review, “Let’s just say that the final battle is magical Aztec Stalin vs the king of the voodoo robot people and the robot-goddess-street urchin and the magic radiation mutant outlaws in a steampunk London with at least 2 different shadow organizations/governments, and what I’m pretty sure is evil!France.”  I think that covers everything, although I’m not sure since it’s entirely possible I missed things.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure why these books strike such different notes with me.  I know part of it is just editing, or lack thereof, and different writing styles, which is fair.  Like I said, I think The Court of the Air could have been a much better book if it had been given due justice by an attentive editor, and I probably will read the second book in the series in the hopes that the author learns with time.  But looking at my own synopses of them now, I realized what the difference is.  Empire State has all of these various speculative-fiction elements, but most of them are in the background, allowing you to focus on the main plot without a lot of distractions.  The Court of the Air, on the other hand, tries to force all of these aspects to equal prominence, pushing everything to the forefront, which just results in a confusing mish-mash of too much happening all at once.  This is a huge problem with two kinds of targeted fiction I’ve found: with modern children’s/YA literature, the kind written by authors who don’t believe in the attention spans of their readers, and authors who try way too hard to emulate JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin (and I’ll write more about them another time).  The Court of the Air felt like a blend of the two, like someone wanted to tell a story with the same scale as Lord of the Rings, but who still felt like they needed to condescend to their audience.

At any rate, I’m still on the hunt for good adult kitchen sink fiction, and even though I keep my eye on the YA section, it makes me a little sad when every book I pick up there makes me feel old.  I admit that I’ve spent the last year or two in a total re-reading rut, where I’ve just been re-reading all the books that I already know and love.  But now that I’m getting back into finding new reads, it’s unfortunate to think that the general consensus is that my preferred sub-genre is “immature”.  One Goodreads reviewer points to the works of Adam Christopher and A. Lee Martinez (another great kitchen sink author) as “bro fantasy”, as if smart people can’t like amalgams of speculative fiction standards, or enjoying just one aspect at a time automatically makes one more serious.  But I say, so be it.  If other people want to look down on things I enjoy, that’s their problem. As long as the stuff I like is still getting published, I’m happy.

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