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.

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

  1. Seleneon 07 Nov 2008 at 4:59 am

    Great article! I think, in general, that reaeders are always assuming things right and left about authors’ lives, beliefs and what not.

    Put in a MC of your same gender and lots of readers will assume it’s your alter ego.

    Put in a man who beats his wife and someone will invariably accuse of you being pro-wife-abuse.

    Ditto, put in a “positive” monarchy and you’ll be considers a conservative, put in corrupt religion and you’re an atheist.

    Of course, to some extent these judgements are probably justified, since the subtexts often give hints at the author’s underlying values, especially when viewing his or her entire body of work.


  2. Marie Brennanon 07 Nov 2008 at 6:32 am

    It drives me batty when people assume that just because an author writes about a pre-modern society must mean they’re nostalgic for the good old days of feudalism or whatever.

    I don’t know about you, but I write about pre-modern societies because I’ve thought up an interesting story to tell in them.

    Sure, there’s lots of fantasy out there that suffers from “insert standard poorly-thought-out monarchy here,” just as there’s lots of science fiction that likewise suffers form “insert standard poorly-thought-out galactic federation here.” We call that bad writing. (Or, as you more accurately point out, bad worldbuilding.) I don’t think it reflects on the concept of fantasy as such, or even medieval-style fantasy.

    Me — as I’ve said elsewhere — I write about those other kinds of societies because I find different ways of living interesting, and I want to explore them from an insider perspective. This means I do my best not to present it through the lens of my own modern life. So if my characters live in a monarchy, they aren’t going to sit around thinking about democratic ideals*; in fact, they’re probably not going to think about the monarchy much at all, any more than fish think about the water they swim in. That doesn’t mean I wish I lived in a monarchy. And just because my characters don’t have a problem with their society doesn’t mean I wouldn’t, if it were real.

    And don’t get me started on the notion that fantasy is inherently backward-looking.

    *Exception made for In Ashes Lie, which, being my upcoming English Civil War fantasy, involves my characters thinking about democracy (and monarchy) quite a lot.

  3. […] and would love to lock in a room with my ms, me and a unlimited tape recorder) talks about Fantasy and Politics. It’s an amazing post even if you don’t write Fantasy. She challenges the idea of […]

  4. Evan Goeron 07 Nov 2008 at 10:55 am

    A good article — and Selene brings up good points at well.

    As You Know Bob, medieval people were just as smart and fascinating as we are but they had very, very different ways of organizing their society and solving problems. This creates a nasty trap (imagine two crushy wall-thingies). One wall is Mieville’s yucky “feudalism lite,” completely unexamined medieval fantasy. The other wall is “hyper aware” fantasy, where the author has simply inserted 21st century brains into 12th century bodies.

    The trick is to describe authentically medieval or ancient people *and* make them sympathetic and understandable to modern readers. I wouldn’t say it’s lazy writing that’s the culprit, I’d set the bar higher — only the most careful and skilled writers manage to pull this off.

  5. Constance Ashon 07 Nov 2008 at 11:34 am

    Not having heard this speech, this puzzles me:

    “….And, oh boy, are the political aspects of the fiction ever valorized in the reviews.”

    And is she ever right!

    Could we see examples or at least descriptions of novels and reviews that would show us what this means?

    Please take into account that I am very sick and thus have no brain.

    Love, c.

  6. Sherwoodon 07 Nov 2008 at 12:21 pm

    I think that some fantasies are like what Mieville describes, though I wouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss them. Their intent is usually a personal story set against fantasy trappings which I don’t see as medieval lite so much as shaped by early reading of Grimm’s fairy tales. The story about a kingdom that has a single castle (and that is not on the border, but the center of the kingdom), a boundary two or three days away usually through forest, reflects the Rhine Valley and the Black Forest of the tales the Grimm brothers collected. There is another overlay–the JRRT effect. That is, northernness: JRRT consciously used it, many authors influenced by early reading of Tolkien soaked it in and its elements shaped their fantasy. In fact, I think there’s a third level of influence here, where X grew up on Lord of the Rings and wrote stories shaped by Middle Earthj…and Y grew up reading X’s stories, and was influenced. Because Y never read Lord of the Rings, she is puzzled when she’s accused of writing a Tol-clone.

    Another thing: monarchy. Even in the 21st century, I do not think we are done with monarchy. Far from it. The twentieth century is filled with leaders who were kings, though they did not use the word, or wear crowns. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, some say FDR, were all kings, with kingly power. This has been an issue clear back when the Republic was both fascinated and appalled by Caesar, and tried to prevent what they knew was coming: kingship.

    The outward trappings of kingship were understood by kings of the 1500s and 1600s as displays of power. They knew earlier kings had to lead armies. Later kings had to lead people. That meant being attractive–looking like a leader, for people follow leaders they like. (Or obey leaders they are afraid of.)

    We can write about kings because it’s fun, but how we define kingship through the characters–how we define all the levels of personal interaction–is what makes up the story tension. We could call our kings some neutral noun, and dress everyone in subfusc, and pose our city in the sky so it can be called science fiction, which is cooler than fantasy to many–but the power issues at the heart of the story, and how they translate into human and personal terms, remain the same. Fiction has to be entertaining, and kings (and elected representatives, or dear leaders, or chancellors) are human beings, too; by exploring all these relationships through fiction, with the addition of razzle-dazzle, we can make our ideas fun to explore. Otherwise, why not just reread the Federalist Papers?

  7. Lois Tiltonon 07 Nov 2008 at 12:38 pm

    For most of human political history, the kingdom has been the default mode of governance, once a society reached a certain size. The fact is that, historically, populations did not rise up and replace their corrupt monarchical rulers with democracies; they replaced them with a different set of monarchical rulers.

    We have thousands of years of history under monarchy; the current state of relative universal kinglessness is only a century or so old, and may not last.

    An argument could be made that this form of government is the best suited to human societies. Even in those atypical cases in which republics have been established, there is a tendency for them to revert in time to a monarchical pattern, eg, Rome.

    For an author intending to invent a human history, looking at the only historical record we have, the obvious choice for a representative political system is monarchical.

  8. Mark Tiedemannon 07 Nov 2008 at 12:54 pm

    This is by virtue of its brevity an oversimplification, but…

    To my mind, 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.” The failures of Fantasy to properly deal with politics are a result of Fantasy being essentially uninterested in them. Fantasy often, probably usually, assumes there is a core identity (both heroic and evil) which are as they are regardless of social conditions.

    Science fiction is exactly the opposite insofar as it is concerned with the effects of systems on people and that is fundamentally political.

    This is not to say that SF has a particularly good track record in building self-consistent or deeply-conceived political structures, either, but because of its central concerns it should.

    Both Fantasy and Science Fiction that pays closer attention to the structure of their world building, particularly in politics, deliver better narratives. But it seems to me to be an added benefit for Fantasy where it is an essential element in SF.

    My two cents.


  9. Ilanaon 07 Nov 2008 at 1:30 pm

    This was an amazing article, first of all.
    Second, I agree so sincerely with your dismay at so many critic’s opinions of the nature of governments in fantasy novels. There is more to writing about a kingdom than a belief in monarchy. There are so many novels with “outdated,” as it were, systems of government where it is painfully obvious that there is an irony to the author’s words, to the descriptions. It’s so sad that so many people decide to ignore the obvious for the sake of finding “shocking” criticism.

  10. Stacyon 07 Nov 2008 at 2:11 pm

    This is a fabulous post for someone fighting through writing an novel starring King Arthur!

    Many writers spend a lot of time in English classes and not so much in history, anthropology, etc. (or write during class instead of paying attention, especially during math . . .) The Norman French monarchy of England has a huge legacy in the US – and we learn next to nothing about the Chinese imperial bureaucracy in school. If “Guns, Germs and Steel” were required reading more writers would understand that there are more options available to them when worldbuilding and how to use them correctly.

  11. bellatryson 07 Nov 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Actually, IMO romance – in the bodice-ripper sense – is the most deeply conservative genre. I don’t mean just in, or even primarily in, gender relations: I mean in the sense of accepting the Status Quo and all extant heirarchies of power in the Western World, namely the USA, and retconning them on all history too. There are no recusants, no Cathars, no followers of John Ball and his ill-fated attempt at Liberation Theology in the medieval bodice-rippers, nothing even so subversive as a Master-maid and a Miller’s Youngest Son shaking up the aristocracies. And a rich man no matter how brutish is always going to be a good match for a woman – they actually make Pamela look progressive. This is true whether set in the 12th century or the 22nd.

    I’ve found a few exceptions. I think the stack is up to 3, and some of those are shading into “gothick thriller” territory.

    Ironically, I think that Mystery is the least conservative overall, the most existentialist, of genres: there you will find the most undercutting of social norms and mores, the most rejecting of the Status Quo on a regular basis, the most questioning of the intrinsic rightness of the PTB, and it’s been like that since at least the ’30s.

    (No, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically conservative about SF or Fantasy – I do think that politics is more evident – of whatever sort – since SFF books tend to address political themes and theories more explicitly than any other genre than Political Thrillers, and often even more than they, which take positions for granted and don’t necessarily debate them in the context of the story. But most of my liberal inculturation/conservative deprogramming thru fictional means as opposed to reading out-and-out political dialectic came via SFF: I encountered challenge of gender norms and force-as-the-solution-to-everything in SFF long before I ever read Mill…)

  12. Sarah Beachon 07 Nov 2008 at 2:38 pm

    What makes the criticism of the use of monarchy in fantasy even less effect to my mind is the fact that “monarchy” is not some sort of monolithic institution. It works differently in different cultures, and is passed on differently.

    Certainly the standard expectation is that the first-born son of a king inherits from him. But even that is not historically consistent.

    In Britain, you had the Anglo-Saxon lords electing their kings, yes, usually from set blood-lines, but even so, they were making a choice of who should lead/govern them. Likewise in Scotland, where for quite some time the kingship alternated between (I think) two bloodlines, neither one of which was “more legitimate” than the other. In Japan, yes, Emperor was an inherited title, but for a goodly length of time, particularly the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Emperor had no effective governing power. In modern Saudi Arabia, the inheritence of the kingly title was passed from brother to brother (there being a very large selection of them), rather than father to son.

    Choosing monarchy for a fantasy world does not, therefore, necessarily imply a more “conservative” outlook on the part of the author. The author’s intent may have to do with something other than governance structures.

    That said, I admit that I do get irritated with fantasy novels set in pseudo-medieval cultures, and yet demonstrate that the author doesn’t really have a grasp of how such cultures operate.

  13. James Engeon 07 Nov 2008 at 2:53 pm

    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.”

  14. Alan Kelloggon 07 Nov 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Nice summary, where’s the article?

    Where history is concerned keep this in mind; the Soviet Union was never the Soviet Union.

  15. green_knighton 07 Nov 2008 at 4:26 pm

    I think the point about many positive monarchies is that they function like the current European monarchies, give or take – they don’t interfere very much. Or else they provide plenty of plot points in manner that non-corrupt democracies don’t.

    Then there’s the question of verisimilitude – if you want a society that’s fair to all comers (or at least theoretically so) you need to world-build it so that it becomes plausible. Setting up a tribal or semi-tribal system, with many smaller lords warring against each other until someone gains the upper hand and builds a territory – that is a mechanism that has happened the world over. Democracy, on the other hand, is a rare beast, seldom spotted in the wild. You’re much more likely to get Athens (only a small class of men could vote, and oh, my, the tyrants) than modern-day-America, and at some point, ‘monarchy’ becomes a handy short hand for the varying systems that could be called thus.

    If you wrote Bush Junior into fantasy, he’d probably end up as a king – he’s the son of a previous ruler etc etc.

  16. Marie Brennanon 07 Nov 2008 at 5:40 pm

    My first comment has finally escaped the moderation queue, but in the meantime, other people have said many fascinating things I want to respond to.

    Lois: right on. If you had some sort of chrono-spatial map of human existence, and threw a dart into it at random, you’d probably hit some low-level band/chiefdom-type thing — think the Wolfriders in Elfquest — because we spent an order of magnitude more time as nomadic hunter-gatherers than anything else. But if you limit yourself to state-level societies, probably with agriculture and writing (as most fantasy does), then your dart will probably hit a monarchy.

    But of course, as Sarah points out, “monarchy” (rule by a single person) means a LOT of different things. English constitutional monarchy is very different from the Anglo-Saxon kings, or 18C French absolute monarchy, or pagan Irish kingship, or the Japanese emperors, or Mayan kings. The philosophies underpinning their authorities, and the political mechanisms by which those authorities play out in society, vary wildly.

    I would say it’s a fair cop to accuse fantasy of not exploring that more widely, though.

    I disagree with Mark about fantasy being essentially uninterested in politics, but what I said once on a panel was that it does much better when it concerns itself with underlying universals, rather than specifics. That is, a fantasy which attempts to make itself a commentary on (frex) George W. Bush’s presidency in America is probably going to feel flimsy and shallow and become dated very, very fast. But a fantasy which attempts to explore the abuse of power, or the abdication of power by the people to their ruler, or something else more timeless, may do very well. This is more true of secondary-world fantasy, of course, since anything set in the real world is going to automatically comment on our history, even if you make up a President for the U.S. But I think fantasy can deal with politics just fine, though of course it does not always choose to do so.

  17. Lois Bujoldon 07 Nov 2008 at 10:47 pm

    A note to Constance Ash, above: the full text of the WorldCon speech is under the link in the first line.

    The good sound bite taken out of context isn’t quite the same thing as what I had to say in context. Note it’s an observation, not a recommendation nor, gods forfend, a prescription. Though I do note with bemusement that it’s definitely the *political* part of the comment that the skiffy crowd seems to grab and run with. More data for my tentative hypothesis that the readers of this genre are politically obsessed…

    I take this train of thought one stop further in the Barcelona speech later this month, which I’ll post when I get home after Thanksgiving.

    Ta, Lois B.

  18. Maryon 07 Nov 2008 at 10:50 pm

    One problem I have taking the complaints about the political structure seriously — is that the complainers generally have an axe to grind. They don’t lay it out, but it’s fairly obvious that they consider the question of what is the best form of social structure pretty well settled, in matters still under considerable dispute.

    Indeed, I have heard someone asking why writers tend to base their Revolutions on the American rather than the French. As if there were anything marvelous about that! There are in fact, plenty of stories based on the French Revolution, but sooner or later your sympathies have to go counter-revolutionary because you can not praise the Reign of Terror. No matter how deeply engaged you are in the ancien regime‘s horrors, you can not praise the Reign of Terror.

  19. Marie Brennanon 07 Nov 2008 at 11:09 pm

    Mary — I agree about the axe-grinding. It’s one thing if I write a feudal-style fantasy where the peasants are all happy and well-treated; then I’m whitewashing reality, and probably not for any well-thought-out reason. That, I think, would deserve criticism. But if I’m writing a court-centric feudal-style fantasy whose plot never gets outside the castle and into the fields, then complaining because I don’t show the oppressed peasants doesn’t seem entirely fair. Why should I show them? It seems to me that the people making analogous complaints usually do so not because that’s what the story requires, but because they would prefer a story that highlights their own political views (involving the oppressed working class or whatever).

    Or maybe what I’m really trying to say — putting myself in the reader-position rather than the author-one — is that after reading a China Mieville book, I feel kind of like I’ve been beaten with the Socialism Stick, and it tends to put me off the story.

  20. Lizzie Newellon 08 Nov 2008 at 12:57 am

    I write science fiction rather than fantasy but I ended up with a king and a queen. I tried coming up with other words for these positions but it ended up simpler to use the familiar words even though they aren’t exactly what I mean.

    I think if we could look at complete record of human existance we would find the extended family as the primary social structure. It would not be monarchy as we normally think of it. The leader of the family could be male or female, but probably the passage of power from one to the next was informal.

    I have read some writing that leads me to believe the role of king/queen was originally religious rather than political. I must have gotten the idea from reading The Greek Myths by Robert Graves or maybe a book called Bread, Blood, and Roses by Judy Grahn. The role of a king/queen is to act our an arctypal human need, to preform a ritual that brings people together. Clearly presidental elections are in this catagory of ritual.

    When we write about kings and queens I think it is because we are addressing the archtype, not that we wish to have a feudal economic system.

    If kingship/queenship is viewed as ritual position then we see that the Pope and the Dalie Lama are kings.

    fantasy falls flat when the author fails to understand the difference between the necessary archtypes and extranious medieval trope. Feudalism gets used because the author assumes that feudalism goes along with kings/queens. An author might have kingship pass from father to son because she has never considered alternative inheretance patterns.

    Kate Elliot is right, such problems are worldbuilding craft issues.

  21. Madeleine Robinson 08 Nov 2008 at 1:43 pm

    I think perhaps I am, um, in the non-cod-Fantasy camp as a writer, and yet many of my fantastical settings are historic, which means that I’m dealing with kings, peerage, hierophants and grand high wombats. The thing I like about worldbuilding in a politically hierarchical setting is that it gives me a place to play with what status does, what happens to someone who defies status, which characters can “float” between strata, and what the costs are to such a system as well as to the people who live in it.

    It is interesting to me, though, how many readers immediately take to a class system in the same way that some women take to, say, the idea of highly corsetted and restrictive clothing. They’re not thinking about the discomfort, the pain (yes, Keira Knightly is right, or the weight of layers of clothing. They’re looking at the pretty. In the days when I was writing Regencies, I would occasionally run into someone who gushed about how much she’d like to live back then. They were looking at the pretty, assuming that they would be the duke’s daughter or the earl’s fiancee, rather than the barmaid, the whore, the goose-girl dying early of something disfiguring. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with reading for the pretty, but I know that it’s limiting, and that I’d rather flip the pretty over on its back and see what is under its shell, and what the costs of pretty were.

    I have to admit, of course, that I love historical costume. I’m just very very glad I don’t have to wear it all day long.

  22. Anjaon 08 Nov 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Wonderful post and great comments! Thanks. Oh, I hate it when fantasy literature (and their writers) is accused of being backward-looking, conservative, pro-monarchy, *fascistic* even — like the encyclopedia near my desk does, no kidding!

    > The past is a foreign country

    Ah, but only someone who has actually lived in a foreign country for at least a year — and I mean really lived there, among the people, learning their language and customs — could appreciate what this means. Most people who have never been outside their country (except on vacation) naturally assume that their way of living is the best. If only the whole wide world adopted their lifestyle, or so many of them seem to believe, everyone would be happier and better off. This kind of narrow world view makes me grind my teeth.

    “We live in the best of all possible worlds,” says the optimist. The pessimist agrees, “I fear that you are right.”

    As a reader, I like to explore other worlds. I like fantasy, some scifi, historical novels, and mainstream set in countries I know little about. My favorite mainstream novels are set in Belfast, Scotland, and Siberia (their authors being from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Siberia respectively.) My favorite YA novel is about a British girl moving to Brazil (and going native.)

    As a writer, I prefer to write fantasy because I’m really interested in history, and I love the research involved. I don’t write about countries I know little about, because, err, I just know too little about them. And I don’t write historical novels because:

    1. I would have to research every last detail (I’m a perfectionist with a pathological fear of readers pointing out embarrassing mistakes, such as: OMG, she doesn’t even know that potatoes wouldn’t have been available in Europe at that time! OR: Her characters’ attitudes are way too modern.)

    2. Even worse, I would be very limited as to the role of women and the role of religion, among many other things. (Which would be the just as bad if I wrote in the real world of today.)

    3. The accusations (conservative, etc) would probably be the same if I wrote historical novels. (Though I have to laugh at them, especially if they come from people who don’t believe health care should be affordable for everyone.)

    4. Also, I laugh at many thrillers. The bad guys are always (depending on the current fashion): Germans, Russians, Italians, Arabs… rarely Americans (or British, if the author is British.)

    You know, like Hans (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard.” In the dubbed German version, he is called Jack, and his henchman, who speak — rather heavily accented ;o) — German in the original, speak Italian. haha.

    Anyway, with fantasy, yes, I still have to beware stereotypes, but at least I can have different nations at war or bad guys from a different country without having to worry about reinforcing existing xenophobic stereotypes.

    5. Oh, and I do love magic.

    6. And being able to create my own world, free of restraints. (Well, almost free.) The mythology, religion, politics, history, countryside, people, nations, customs…

    Conservative? Don’t know. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I’m not. I hate such categories. Besides, what’s conservative over here would be considered dangerously socialistic in America. ;o)

    Anyone making this sort of sweeping generalisation about fantasy writers obviously lacks what little imagination is necessary to realize that different people have different motives (not to mention different tastes). If someone rejects out of hand any opinion (or taste) that differs from his own, it matters little whether he calls himself conservative or progressive.

  23. Constance Ashon 08 Nov 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Just because I can’t think clearly, re the Miéville name, there’s a Sir Eric Miéville, who played an under-administrator role in the end days of the Raj; he was Secretary to the Viceroy, Lord Mountbattan, who presided over independence + Partition.

    Is there a family connection, one wonders?

    This isn’t really off-topic, because this is part of the discussion of the commonality >!< of royalty, noblility, etc. in Fantasy. Royalty remains in the world. Which is one of the many elements I've so enjoyed about Lois Bujold's Sharing Knife series, by the way. The SK world isn't organized this way, but more on a North American, "New World" model. An additional note re the comment about "loving magic ...." I have lived extensively among people for whom 'magic' and very strong practicioners are a norm. There are many, many drawbacks to living in that world. I've come to the conclusion that magic, if it exists (and I've seen some things ...), is never pretty. And certainly not 'nice.' Or 'clean.' Even when wielded for positive ends. By this I'm speaking of manipulations of people and the world. Scrying -- is that magic? is quite different, it seems, or can be. For instance the process and capacity to read Ifá is elegant, and even beautiful. Particularly if the gift of blood must be made and it is done correctly. (Of course, an attendant must be on hand to immediately clean up -- though if done quickly there won't be too much mess -- and whisk the blood giver out of sight -- which also may need to be 'read', also 'off stage,' so to speak. Don't mind me -- I have no mind left from no sleep because of the endless coughing. Love, C.

  24. Anjaon 08 Nov 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Oh. Eh. When I said I do love magic… I only meant magic in fantasy novels. Or RP sessions. I’m not a practitioner. I don’t call myself a witch. I don’t even celebrate midsummer. The greeting “Licht und Liebe” doesn’t cross my lips.

    Count of telepathic experiments conducted: 1.
    Count of shaman’s vision journeys to underworld (listening to a Shaman Drums CD): 1.
    Did the telepathic experiment work? — Yes.
    Was the transmitted thought breathtakingly complex? — No.
    Did I meet my soul animal? — Yes.
    Did I find it a fitting symbol for my personality? — Yes.
    Did it talk to me? — No.
    And if it had, I’d have consulted a doctor, to see if I suffered from multiple personalities.

    So while I do find these things interesting, I prefer to keep both feet on the ground, because I know I don’t have a head for heights.

    Blessed be ;o)


    P.S. @ Constance — get well soon!

  25. Kate Elliotton 08 Nov 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Mark writes:

    The failures of Fantasy to properly deal with politics are a result of Fantasy being essentially uninterested in them

    There’s elements in what you say in the rest of your post that I can find some agreement with, since I do think fantasy can speak to a sense of identity in the world (thinking of the fairy and folk tales almost all children hear when they are young).

    But I would not go so far as to say that Fantasy (big F) is uninterested in politics, since a fair bit of fantasy deals to a greater or lesser degree with politics. Just as certain types of SF deal with identity. But what I might identify as a focus on identity might appear to a different reader as a focus on politics.

  26. Kate Elliotton 08 Nov 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Stacy – yes, I’m researching some of the cultures in West Africa right now and discovering just how stunningly ignorant I am, because none of this was ever ever set before me in any of my schooling.

    Your point reflects directly also on what Marie and Sarah say about how monarchy (just to pick on monarchy) is not a monolithic institution throughout history.

    In fact, between them, Sarah and Marie stole my next post!!! Which was to make an extended point about what a great variety of . . . oh, never mind, just reread their posts.

  27. Kate Elliotton 08 Nov 2008 at 5:02 pm

    James and Mark, I’d really like to see you guys, here or elsewhere, expand on this idea of fantasy being about identity symbols rather than politics, because I’m not entirely sure I fully understand what you’re meaning when you say it, and i think it’s an interesting avenue for exploration.

  28. Kate Elliotton 08 Nov 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Lois, it was a fabulous speech and I’m sorry I couldn’t excerpt the entire thing because it is about much more than “political agency”, but you are right that one does — in a post like this — tend to grab stuff and place it out of context to support one’s own ends (in this case, my ends). And in this case, I like so much what you have to say because it seems to me to reflect that it isn’t just the writers who may have writing fiction of political agency but readers who are reading it through that filter.

  29. Marie Brennanon 08 Nov 2008 at 5:10 pm

    West Africa? Heck, from the viewpoint of my basic schooling, the entire continent consists of ancient Egypt and then the slave trade. We never seemed to make it through the twentieth century *anywhere*, and as for Africa’s past? Pffft. Clearly it doesn’t have one.

    <bangs head against the desk for a while>

    I wish I could find the article that inspired my story “Kingspeaker,” though, since it was a riff on a practice in some African culture or another, but I can’t remember which one. Hey, Kate — if you come across anything about people whose job it is to repeat what the king says, could you let me know? I’d like to know more about African kingship in general.

  30. Kate Elliotton 08 Nov 2008 at 5:10 pm


    this is deliberately meant as an introductory post. My fellow bloggers are now supposed to come along and agree or disagree or expand or contract in subsequent posts. Me, too, actually.

    But – seriously – can you suggest some further questions? Angles of discussion? One thing about this specific discussion is that I think it never tends to go very far. People toss out a few vague generalisms (such as I just did) and then sometimes they get piled on and sometimes agreed with and everyone makes merry, and then life goes on but the deeper issues get left dog paddling in the pond.

  31. Kate Elliotton 08 Nov 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Also, thanks for all the fabulous comments. I’m going to reread again.

  32. Quivoon 09 Nov 2008 at 12:35 pm

    RE: Marie Brennan

    Being a Nigerian with some hazy remembrance of my history classes growing up, I want to suggest trying to get hold of children’s books by Nigerian (and, really, African) authors and the like, if you haven’t already. I remember some stories ending up with audiences before the king or regional ruler.

    Take, for example, the story The Passport of Mallam Illia. Illia ends up involved with (iirc) the king’s wife, and…gah, I can’t quite remember. But authors like Cyprian Ekwensi are a good place to start, if you can get hold of their work.

    I wish I could be more specific than that–I remember adoring that story, along with others he wrote: The Drummer Boy, The Leopard’s Claw (again, iirc).

  33. Maryon 09 Nov 2008 at 4:07 pm

    some women take to, say, the idea of highly corsetted and restrictive clothing. They’re not thinking about the discomfort, the pain (yes, Keira Knightly is right, or the weight of layers of clothing.

    Actually, my sister refuses to watch Pirates of the Carribbean because she knows that scene is wrong.

    She herself regularly dresses up in period clothing including corsets, and goes dancing.

    Which, to drag it back to politics, is something that can also be overlooked. Your immediate reaction to something unfamilar doesn’t say what it felt like to people who lived in it.

  34. James Engeon 09 Nov 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Hey Kate (and anyone interested):

    My response about this identity-symbol stuff got a little wordy, so I posted it to my blog, rather than swamp the comments thread here. Comments welcome, here or there.

  35. Maryon 09 Nov 2008 at 6:16 pm

    It’s one thing if I write a feudal-style fantasy where the peasants are all happy and well-treated; then I’m whitewashing reality, and probably not for any well-thought-out reason.

    OTOH, you’re probably also white-washing the peasants by not showing how immensely provincal, hidebound, xenophobic (and strangers came from mere miles away), pig-headedly ignorant, uncurious, etc. that they are.

    Oddly enough, we seldom get complaints about that, but it’s still true.

  36. Marie Brennanon 09 Nov 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Mary — good point. :-)

  37. Mark Tiedemannon 09 Nov 2008 at 10:18 pm


    (Sorry, I’ve been away from home the last three days and didn’t see all this till tonight.)

    The example I am about to give is old and shop-worn, but it still persists (I do book reviews now and I’ve been receiving quite a few recent fantasy novels, despite having told the PR people not to) and it goes directly to what I’m talking about in a symbolic way.

    That’s redundant, because it is symbolic.

    The One True King motif of epic fantasy. You know, the guy who goes through the whole book, often not knowing who he is, but discovering at the end of the quest that he is Destined To Be King. The motif is strengthened by the conceit that everything in The Realm is chaos and madness because the Right Guy isn’t on the throne.

    To lesser degrees, you can go down the list of special talents. The one with the power, the one who can wield the magic ring/sword/crown/etc.

    The thing these all share is that they are based on the individual as solution by virtue of birth. In the case of the One True King, it clearly renders all other politics pointless, because no one can get it together.

    I think largely this is a consequence, in contemporary work, of writers dealing with things they conceive as outside of common politics. Morality is supposed to precede politics and ethics is supposed to be “above” it, so these sorts of stories in one way or another sort of brush politics (among other things) aside as being inadequate to deal with the central story problem.

    In SF, while certainly many examples of The Special One abound, the solutions are not something outside the bounds of human systems, i.e. politics. Even those SF novels and stories about the failure of politics are about the failure of a specific system of politics.

    In Fantasy, I have found, implicitly or explicitly there is the prejudice that as long as The Right One is wielding the power, everything will be fine. Politics becomes largely vestigial.

    (I admit at once that there are fine exceptions—in my view, the exceptions are fine because they eschew this model. I think China Mieville is an exception, but I actually have a hard time seeing his work as Fantasy in any traditional sense.)

  38. Lois Tiltonon 09 Nov 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Mark, in my post above this one, I suggest another explanation for this phenomenon.

  39. Kate Elliotton 10 Nov 2008 at 2:38 am

    It’s interesting, Mark, because I find SF stories with the idea of the Special Individual (a very American conception) to be perhaps as widespread as in fantasy. I won’t even get into Ayn Rand, who has always struck me as a peculiar type of sf. Rambo is another of this type. It’s almost as if there’s a bizarre blending of what I would call the Victorian medieval sensibility melded with the maverick individual myth of the USA.

    I do think it depends on the fantasy, though. I have read politically aware and politically driven fantasy that is not about The Right One wielding the power, and I read a fair bit that hews relatively closely to what you describe above in which the solutions are about the essentialist morality of the players and not really about the systems or the acts.

    I think the idea of essentialism has to be examined in this context. We see it in certain religious systems and subsystems; we see it–as I mention in the post–in American exceptionalism. If such stories are not about systems, then they’re not actually reactionary in that sense — that is, they’re not really about monarchy (I think you argue in your original comment that this isn’t about monarcy).

  40. Kate Elliotton 10 Nov 2008 at 2:39 am

    Quivo, thank you for those recommendations.

    Marie, I know I’ve run across that, but I don’t know my material on any level well enough yet to dredge back up where I ran across it, if you see what I mean.

  41. Kate Elliotton 10 Nov 2008 at 2:42 am

    Mary, I think that to portray all peasants as simple good hearted souls is as erroneous as portraying all of them as incurious pig-headed xenophobes. For me, the key is to know one’s setting and the limitations on any given group of people (your point that many people in ancient days literally never saw any land beyond a day’s walk from their village is an important one often overlooked by writers who aren’t thinking through their landscape), and then recall that they are, as we all are, human and therefore variable.

  42. Marie Brennanon 10 Nov 2008 at 3:57 am

    Mark — my thoughts on that are too long to fit here, but I think it may tie in with a tangential argument I made once, that the dividing line between magic and science is the personal element. If achieving an effect requires, somewhere along the line, someone with an inborn ability or pure soul or highly-developed will or whatever, then it’s magic; if the effect can be done by anybody who follows the steps regardless of who they are, then it’s science. (That’s the short form of the argument, mind you.) So fantasy, because it tends to involve magic, tends to also involve the kind of identity element you’re talking about.

    Having said that, while I think the trope you cite is common in a certain kind of fantasy (generally a kind that needs better development), there’s obviously a lot of fantasy that doesn’t involve the One True King motif. My impression is that you meant that to be a single example of what you mean by “identity,” but I’m still not sure I agree with the general statement. A “core identity,” to my mind, translates to essentialism — the notion that a thing (a person or race or whatever) is inherently X — and that’s something I find pernicious, but by no means universal or necessary to the genre.

  43. Kate Elliotton 10 Nov 2008 at 4:25 am

    Marie, I’m agreed with you about essentialism.

    I think Mark is getting at this in his comments, even if he’s not necessarily phrasing it this way. Or I may be wrong!

    I wonder if some of the critics who call fantasy “reactionary” or “fetishizating feudalism” or overly reliant on pure good vs pure evil aren’t sometimes missing the role of essentialism, which strikes me as one (to continue beating this horse) very prevalent in our modern American discourse whether we are often aware of it or not. Certainly I see it in the political zone. I do think there is much more of modern american manichaeism in fantasy than a “reactionary” love for monarchy.

    I note that in your Warrior and Witch books you specifically deal with a nuanced and ambivalent view of what (or who) is good and/or evil rather than using essentialism. Or that’s how I remember it.

  44. Anjaon 10 Nov 2008 at 4:32 am

    > The thing these all share is that they are based on the individual as solution by virtue of birth. In the case of the One True King, it clearly renders all other politics pointless, because no one can get it together.

    Oh. That’s one way to see it. Another might be that this theme of the OTK is a very very Christian motif, of the one man, son of god, who will come and save us all.

    A theme connected to the OTK that I can’t stand is when the story is all about prophecy. Yawn. If it says “prophecy” on the jacket blurb, I put the thing down.

    There’s exactly one fantasy novel on my shelf with the OTK motif, but it’s about a woman trying to reclaim the throne stolen from her by an usurper, so I can’t see how this motif should be so widespread as to reflect on the whole genre. But then, I prefer to read a small selection of authors I have come to trust in that their writing isn’t good vs. evil but holds interesting moral dilemmas for the protagonist.

    OK, one might say there’s OTK in Lord of the Rings, but the Steward of Gondor is doing just fine without him (if it weren’t for Sauron and his orcs), and the story isn’t really all about him.

    OTK is only one aspect of a related, bigger problem: that often the antagonist is evil without cause and cruel for cruelty’s sake. He loves to kill, torture, rape, lie, kills his own generals when they fail in some small way, is cruel to animals, AND steals sweets from children. That’s just poor characterization, and is neither inherently nor exclusively a fault of the fantasy genre.

    Take Robin Hood. (I LOVE Robin Hood stories.) But not one of the authors who write about him end their story thus: And then King Richard got himself killed in France, and King John reigned happily ever after (for 17 years, and he wasn’t any worse than other kings, including brother Richard. It was the taxing that made him unpopular, yes, except that he didn’t tax the peasants but the English barons.) Still, this sort of villification happens all around us even today, so one might argue that fantasy is — if not dealing with — at least reflecting timeless issues. ;o)

    A related motif (or the underlying?) to the OTK motif is the Unwilling Hero. (It doesn’t always have to be a king, and it doesn’t always have to be the whole world he’s saving.) This is a favorite motif not just in fantasy because reader sympathy for the character is almost certain. We love to see the underdog succeed! What we don’t like is someone who usurps power/authority telling us, he’s the man for the job, the only one! Who is intelligent and tells us so! Who is good at something, better than us, and knows it only too well! But the unwilling hero is put in the situation through circumstances and has to rise up to them. (If in the end he turns out to be the OTK, that’s only a bit of a lame twist.)

  45. jewellon 10 Nov 2008 at 4:38 am

    just a quick comment on historical costume – I used to love the Narnia books when I was little, still do on some levels – but coming back to them as an adult I am always driven to distraction by Lewis’s solution to the clothes, which is basically to say “they are magic and wonderful and never uncomfortable.” I find that really, really annoying…

  46. Marie Brennanon 10 Nov 2008 at 5:33 am

    If by “nuanced” you mean I never gave a single thought to Evil in the archetypal sense, then yes. :-) That series — like almost everything I write — has no villains. Instead it has antagonists, who wholeheartedly believe, for reasons that from their perspective look entirely correct, that they need to act in a certain way for the good of all. I happen to think they’re wrong, which is why the protagonists have a plot to advance, but I don’t think they’re evil. At worst, they have a hard time accepting new ideas — which is a flaw we all have, at least on occasion.

    Good and Evil in the archetypal sense bore me stiff.

    Hell, if asked somewhere that wouldn’t involve me publicly airing spoilers for Midnight Never Come, I could even tell you why I think Deven was wrong, and Invidiana wasn’t evil. She wasn’t good by even the most energetic stretch of the imagination — she did evil things — but I would not essentialize her as evil.

  47. Anjaon 10 Nov 2008 at 5:38 am

    > But – seriously – can you suggest some further questions? Angles of discussion? One thing about this specific discussion is that I think it never tends to go very far.

    And why is that? Because in the end, it’s a matter of taste. You couldn’t persuade me to read a Dan Brown novel, or John Grisham, or Ken Follett, or Michael Crichton, or any novel praised by these people …

    No argument in the world could persuade anyone so deeply prejudiced against fantasy to change his view. We are all very fond of our views, tastes, and misconceptions.

    > The failures of Fantasy to properly deal with politics are a result of Fantasy being essentially uninterested in them

    I think a lot of people wish they were reading more “important” books. More classics, say. More literary novels. More biographies of important people. But when they look at their shelves, they see (pick according to taste) thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, historical novels of dubious historical value …

    So, to soothe their conscience (say, after yet again failing to read Balzac, Flaubert, Goethe…) they defend their own choice of the trivial by pointing fingers at a genre they don’t read or like, saying: but at least THAT is even more trivial / stereotypical / whatever than what I read.

    So I don’t think it is possible to change their opinion (and I’m doing the same injustice to thrillers and mysteries.)

    As for fantasy being about identity … You strip away all technological gadgets that take up so much of our time we barely have a moment to interact with real people or to reflect on our lives or find out what really matters; you take away the whole support structure that makes life relatively cozy and relieve us of a lot of responsibility for our own lives: school, a (non-corrupt) bureaucracy, police force, self-help groups for almost any problem, Samaritans, shelters for beaten wives etc; you take away the unbelievable wealth and rampaging mass consume addiction of our western world — and you look at what’s underneath all that, what is left when all the make up is gone, what really defines humans. You try to imagine that there’s something more fundamental to life. More meaning in death, perhaps, which our modern way prefers to completely ignore. Something that makes it worthwhile after all. Some purpose. Some reward. Some deeper truth. Some intrinsically benevolent force. In fantasy, we don’t have to believe, we KNOW that there are gods.

    Of course, some authors just want to spin a good yarn in a world where there are still heroes. ;o)

    P.S. Speaking only for myself, but hey, the KING in my trilogy (even though he has only three scenes) was the character that was most FUN to write! Talk about roleplaying. It’s just fun to imagine your way into the head of someone who’s so totally different from yourself. Trying to get into his character. Ha!

  48. Mark Tiedemannon 10 Nov 2008 at 8:44 am

    , because I find SF stories with the idea of the Special Individual (a very American conception) to be perhaps as widespread as in fantasy. I won’t even get into Ayn Rand, who has always struck me as a peculiar type of sf. Rambo is another of this type. It’s almost as if there’s a bizarre blending of what I would call the Victorian medieval sensibility melded with the maverick individual myth of the USA.

    Well, my short response is that those stories are either badly done (badly conceived) or they’re striving to actually be fantasy.

    The examples of fantasy I find most appealing would be in the vein of John Crowley’s Aegypt series or Emma Bull’s most recent one, Territory, or Tim Powers’ novels. In the sorts of fantasies with which I have difficulty, there’s an unmistakable element that the Universe is a moral participant, that it somehow cares who wins. In those I cited that’s not really the case.

  49. Seleneon 10 Nov 2008 at 9:26 am


    I think I must be reading very different fantasy novels from you. :-) In fact, I think I wouldn’t be reading much fantasy at all, if most of it had the characteristics you describe…


  50. Constance Ashon 10 Nov 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Can we separate politics from economic, or at least financial gain for particular groups? Particularly since wealth = power.

    Power so often depends on wealth.

    Which may be one of those appeals of Fantasy and the OTK, etc. Many readers and writers, or hope-to-be writers believe that in a time when heroes and kings and maybe even Majik are present, economics and finances do not matter.

    However, even in worlds in which the most powerful unity is the war band collected around a Hero — the Hero better come up with lots of gold torques and wristlets and so on to give to his men, so they can drink and fornicate to their hearts content in the off-season.

    Love, C.

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