Archive for November, 2008

Introducing Book View Café

November 19th, 2008

I’m formulating my thoughts on this whole politics/class/fantasy thing–an issue which fascinates me as a writer and a human.  But (as with many fascinating topics) every time I write something I realize I need to think a little more.  So pardon me while I think, and I’ll be back to the topic in a day or so.

Meanwhile, I want to let you know about a new venture started by a group of women writing in SF, fantasy, horror, mystery, and romance: the Book View Café.  Writers such as Ursula LeGuin, Vonda McIntyre, Irene Radford, Katherine Elisska Kimbriel, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Sarah Zettel, and, well, <i>me</i>, are putting up screenplays, stories, poetry and even whole novels.  Right now it’s all read for free, while we’re in the shakeout period.  Thereafter some of it will be free, some will be free if read online, some available for download for a nominal fee. 

The idea is to make a place where we can get our work before readers in a new way–stories that are out of print, experimental, or otherwise unavailable.  There’s also a blog with posts by the site’s various authors–updated daily, and as diverse as we are.

Looking for something good to read?  Want to check out a writer you haven’t tried before?  Check out the Book View Cafe.

Caliban and His Mirror: a Guest Post by James Enge

November 11th, 2008

Commenter James Enge posted a rumination on fantasy and politics on his own blog, and I received his permission to repost it here for your reading pleasure (or for you to take issue with–we’re equal opportunity).

Herewith:

Caliban and His Mirror: Fantasy and Politics (or not):

by James Enge
Deep Genre has had a couple of interesting posts lately about political values in epic fantasy–specifically the old “SF Diplomat” question of whether fantasy is inherently reactionary. The first was (by Kate Elliott, and the next by Lois Tilton; both have provoked interesting comment threads, and with luck there may be more posts to come.)

In the comments to Kate Elliot’s piece, Mark Tiedemann (a sometime Black Gate writer, among other perhaps more notable things) suggested that fantasy was not necessarily interested in politics–he described it as an “added benefit” for fantasy but not essential. “Fantasy is not about systems but about the essentials of self, and the problems of the given story are designed to reveal those qualities of character which are outside of or beyond ‘politics.’”

I was going to just comment with something like “Word!” or “True dat!” but my experts tell me that no one says that stuff anymore, and they also refused to tell me what people do say. (“For your own safety,” they keep insisting, as if that arrest for misuse of “groovadelic” in mixed company hadn’t been expunged from my record years ago.)

So instead I wrote

Great post and fascinating comments. I especially like Mark Tiedemann’s point. Matters of governance in a fantasy novel are rarely about politics; they’re identity symbols. This can be bad (in an Iron Dream sort of way) or good, but it’s not necessarily advocating reactionary political values. It has more to do with the Freudian “family romance.”

Kate Elliott wondered, in a very civil way, what the hell we were talking about. I can’t speak for Mark Tiedemann, but here’s what I was talking about.
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On Fantasies and Kings

November 9th, 2008

In addressing the charge that genre fantasy displays a reactionary political bias by setting so many of its works in genre-medieval kingdoms, Kate Elliott aptly points her finger at lazy worldmaking instead. To which I would add the pernicious influence of the publishers’ marketing departments, who find it easiest to sell what they have sold so often before.

The question still remains, however: What is it about monarchy that seems to be so attractive to fantasy authors? Or conversely, what is it about fantasy that seems to find monarchy so attractive?

Fantasy is the oldest kind of story, rooted directly in myth, the tales of gods and other wondrous beings who did wondrous deeds at the beginning of time. Moreover, fantasy continually revisits its roots, seeking to revive and capture that primal wonder.

It is for this reason that there is always a backwards-looking strain in fantasy fiction, usually not because of any reactionary political leanings of the authors, but because this branch of fantasy seeks the divine, the numinous, the wonder of those times when myth was alive.

There is a limit to how far back we can go. Our species has lived on Earth for about a hundred thousand years, but the historical record covers only the most recent five percent of that time, and that incompletely. We know from the finds of archaeology that our distant ancestors had religious beliefs, that they entertained hope of an afterlife, that they probably had invented gods and worshiped them. But we can only conjecture about the actual content of their myths, the stories the people told about their gods. This is the realm of the imagination, the realm of fantasy.

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In the wake of the USA presidential election, Deep Genre is thinking about politics, class, and fantasy and science fiction.

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.