Kate Elliott November 7th, 2008
Lois McMaster Bujold, at her Denvention Guest of Honor speech, talks about science fiction and fantasy as “fantasies of political agency.” She remarks that “Even the world-building itself is often a political argument. And, oh boy, are the political aspects of the fiction ever valorized in the reviews.”
And is she ever right!
Now and again I read what strike me, as a writer of fantasy, as some rather puzzling claims about fantasy.
Is fantasy an inherently conservative genre? Does it look back to an “idealized past” or represent a fetishization of, say, feudalism and aristocracy? If you write about monarchy, are you authoritarian in your heart of hearts? Are all “traditional” fantasies, or “epic” fantasies, or “heroic” fantasies, about restoring the hierarchical status quo and/or wrapped around a monolithic and absolutist vision of good vs. evil? What is up with these modern day fantasy writers who write novels set in reactionary monarchies and don’t write a story about overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a democratic government like the one they are fortunate enough to live in? Is there something *wrong* with them? Or are they just pandering to the audience that reads this reactionary pap and dreams of that happy day when they were the lost prince seeking to reclaim his stolen throne?
All the statements in the above paragraph are paraphrases of statements or reflections I have read online–nor did I have to look too hard to find them.
I’m perfectly happy to agree that on an individual case by case basis we can find examples of all the statements above within published fantasy novels. Indeed, I basically agree with China Mieville’s statement in an Autumn 2000 interview that
“If you look at stereotypical ‘epic’ or ‘high’ fantasy, you’re talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they’re likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it’s a bad kingdom…). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters–and often whole races–lining up to fall into pigeonholes with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ written on them.”
Mieville rightly goes on to point out that there is plenty of fantasy that does not fit this stereotype.
I tend to think that many of these elements, where they do appear, come about as a result of lazy world-building rather than political agency. Lazy world-building is an issue of craft, not politics.
I would also suggest that Mieville’s neat encapsulation above has more to do with the mythology of American exceptionalism (or perhaps with the fading dream of the British Empire) than with any real understanding or unreflective adoration on the part of writers of “cod-epic fantasy” of manorialism and feudalism, chieftain level societies, the early development of states, the rise of absolute monarchy, or any of the permutations in between and beyond or outside. Bad rulers vs. good rulers? Good simple folk? Pathological social threats? Moral absolutism? If you were paying attention to the recent USA election, this should all sound familiar.
And I would go further and suggest that some people make assumptions about fantasies, especially those they have not read, which may on the surface seem to fall into “stereotypical” categories but which do not fit so easily into that stereotype if they are read with a clear gaze.
The past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote (although I admit I know not one other thing about him). Writers may choose to write books set in different cultural historical political and social settings for a variety of reasons. Writers may not necessarily choose to use sledgehammer and red flags to signal their themes, but that does not therefore mean they are writing epic or traditional settings out of an unthinking embrace of an idealized past that never existed. Many of us have much more complex motivations regarding our desire to explore the history and tapestry of the human condition.