Thursday, February 2, 2012

Transcendent fantasy, or politics as usual?

My Black Gate post this week is not a review, nor an essay proper, but a question: Is it possible for fantasy to move beyond the political? Or because it is written by authors of a particular time and place, must fantasy—however fantastic its subject matter—forever remain trapped within the circles of our own world?

China Mieville and others say that no, you cannot read fantasy except through the lens of politics, and that there is no escape. In this interview from 2000, Mieville says:

The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical–but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.
I think that as we’ve grown more secular and rational fantasy is following suit. Led by writers like George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, fantasy has become less whimsical and more historical, less hopeful and more gritty and pessimistic. Many “fantasies” now actively grapple with issues like racism and misogyny, or conservatism vs. liberalism, which lurk beneath the veneer of strange secondary worlds that in other fundamental ways closely resemble our own.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.


Michal said...

Excellent article, Brian. You already know my stance on this.

David J. West said...

Great post Brian.

I agree with LeGuin and Bakker(still need to read his stuff) and while I enjoy some historical points and refrences in my fantasy-it sure doesn't have to be there.

REH and Lovecraft always have the rascist card thrown at them-and I've heard way too many people gripe about the Haradrim too.

With fantasy sometimes your paradigm and judgement just needs to go out the window. Enjoy the story for the stories sake.

Anonymous said...

The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you.

Only true if you invite it... or are too incompetent, uncomfortable, or afraid to offer the seat to fairer company.

Your unfortunately accurate observations about modern fantasy reveal that this disability is no barrier to publication.

Andy said...

My general feeling on this stuff is that you get out of it what you bring in with you. A person that is incapable of seeing the world outside a political spectrum will always insist that everything is "really" political, while a person that only likes fantasy because it's "mere fun with no greater point" will probably just think it's way cool when Conan kills the wizard and hooks up with the hot chick.

I like Ursula LeGuin's quote.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the all comments.

I put the LeGuin and Mieville quotes up as food for thought on both sides of the debate; as is usually the case I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I'm not sure if it's even possible to eliminate politics and personal beliefs from a story that a human being creates. But I also believe that some people are hell-bent on applying a political/racial lens to everything they read, even as far as shoehorning and bending text to fit their agenda.

The LeGuin essay is particularly interesting. She says that fantasy offers something uniquely different from mainstream literature: the chance to step outside ourselves, to "restore the sense--to regain the knowledge--that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life." According to LeGuin, fantasy "offers a world large enough to contain alternatives, and therefore offers hope."

Tim Mayer said...

It has always amused me that the "personal is political" crowd will quickly make an exception to the their own persons.

Dave Cesarano said...

Of all people, Bakker, in my opinion, has a right to claim "realism is irrelevant" because he sat through all the same pseudo-philosophical mental masturbation I had to AND THEN SOME MORE because he was getting a PhD (I only got a lowly MA). His statement was steeped in irony and deliciously delicious irony at that.

The fact is that George R.R. Martin would rather go to Middle-Earth than heaven when he dies. I haven't read Mieville but I predict he's going to be somewhere on the B-list of fantasists from the late 20th-early 21st centuries. You're absolutely right about LeGuin's observations about Marxist and neo-Marxist fantasy. That's why Mieville is going to end up as curiosity but not a mover or shaker. He'll be remembered but his influence will be less than Martin or (gulp) Robert Jordan (shudder). Marxist ideologies despise the sentimental and always have--watch Dr. Zhivago and if you take a shot every time a Commie says "the private life is dead" or disparages the eponymous doctor's poetry as being too personal or sentimental, you won't be able to walk upstairs to bed without someone to guide you.

Mieville sounds like he falls into that camp. Well, good for him. But not for me. Sorry, I like privacy and the sentimentality of the private life and personal experience. Fantasy requires sentimentality. Without it, you get.... historical fiction set in a make-believe world? That depresses you? Because life sucks?

Yeah, that's alright in small doses. I don't make a habit of reading that stuff by the pound, though.