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Are fantasy inherently safe and reactionary?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Kasper Hviid, Feb 20, 2020.

  1. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Troubadour

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    I saw a few episodes of CARNIVAL ROW, a steampunk fantasy TV series with rather in-your-face political references to everyday issues like racism, war and migration.
    While the series didn’t really speak to me, I was a bit surprised to find political stuff in a fantasy setting. Not that it hasn’t been done before, but it isn’t all that common. I did a search for reviews; people writing those always love showing off their cleverness. One I came upon had the really nice title How CARNIVAL ROW Balances Political Allegory with Romantic Escapism. I’m drawing attention to that particular review due to a single sentence which really got to me:

    “Its timely social commentary felt more like sci-fi than fantasy.”

    But it’s true, isn’t it? Fantasy has always had this safe air of escapism, recycling the same Tolkien tropes over and over again, whereas sci-fi is critical and challenging with works like 1984, BRAZIL and DARK MIRROR. Possibly, that’s why there are loads of sci-fi short stories, yet practically no fantasy ones, as the short story format works better for quickly pushing some entirely new idea at your face, a bit like a fictional TED talk. On the other hand, the 4rth entry in a fantasy series will pretty much stick to the same recipe as previous entries. Perhaps the protagonist finds a magical item that is different from the ones he found earlier, but we basically read the fourth book because staying in that universe feels comfy. We don’t read it to experience anything actually new.

    The story of 1984 could easily have been told in a fantasy setting. It might have worked better in the long run. Today's surveillance society is closer to non-physical magical mechanics than it is to the dated technical solutions seen in the novel. But if fantasy can work for those kinds of stories, why is it that sci-fi seems to have this kind of monopoly?
     
  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Sci fi looks forward. It's easy for our fears for the future to be reflected in that, but it's equally easy for our hopes to be reflected there. Ah, I remember hearing something about the original Star Trek. It came out during the cold war, yet it presented an image of a unified humanity. It even had a Russian guy on the bridge.

    In the same way, every generation that has ever existed has looked back at the past as better than today. "Back in my day..." and all that. It's equally easy for that to leak into people's writing.

    Of course, there's nothing saying that's the only way. Discworld equated the first use of magic in a war to the first use of nuclear weapons, and if I remember correctly, it was easy to equate the use of mana in the book that gave us the term with the use of fossil fuels.
     
  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Science fiction comes really in two types: Visions of a great future that might be attainable if we work for it, and warnings of an awful future that might happen if we don't prevent it. Since fiction is inherently about about examining the current state of society and making extrapolations of where it might lead. (Laser guns and space ships don't make something science fiction in my opinion.)

    Fantasy is a completely different beast. While it is also set in worlds that are different from the present day world or historical environments, that is where the similarities with science fiction end to me. For some reason lots of people bunch the two together as something closely related, but I'm not really seeing any similarities. Fantasy is a completely different beast.
     
  4. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    Sci-fi also has safe air of escapism, it is just pandering to a different crowd. Just look at Star Trek.

    One question is that of timeframe. Most of the fantasy is based in our past: medieval fantasy is most common, through there is also Roman fantasy and so on. When you are discussing historical societies, it is easy to see what has worked and what has not worked. Therefore there is very little free room left for radical experimentation, novel ideas and especially novel social systems. We have used more or less everything which has historically worked... and societies which used models that did not work either changed them or fell apart.

    Sci-fi however is set in future. Future, by definition, is uncertain. We do not really understand what the hell we are doing right now, nor do we understand how technologies just being introduced are going to change the society. Even less do we know about possible developments in next few centuries. As such, almost anything can be justified - when it comes to development of society, Warhammer 40 000 is at least as realistic as Star Trek is. Anything goes.

    And fantasy is in fact highly political. It is just not up and in the face about it as sci-fi tends to be - it is far more subtle and sophisticated. Just read Lord of the Rings and think about what it says about the qualities of a good ruler, and how idealism can easily lead to tyranny (case in point: Morgoth and Sauron, both were idealists who wanted to build a better world, and both ended up as... well). And if you want something less subtle and metaphysical, you can always read A Song of Ice and Fire.
     
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  5. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    I don't think it is, nor should it be, safe and reactionary. Speculative fiction - fantasy, sci fi, and horror - are all opportunities to explore powerful what-if's. From The Lord of the Rings, which spoke out against the perils of industrialization after Tolkien's traumas during WWI to the Star Wars franchise, which can be seen as a discussion against imperialism and totalitarianism, to the horror movie Get Out, which is a discussion of race relations, speculative fiction has always carved the way through the social issues of their time. It is both a reflection of our now and a rumination on our future.
     
  6. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Though going by my intuition, I do agree that a great number of fantasy fans and writers are very much interested in "more of the same". They see something like Lord of the Rings, see some superficial aspects that they really like, and want to have more of it, or make their own version of it.
    I believe this is much less happening with science fiction because sci-fi usually lakes the romantic pathos that much of fantasy has. Sci-fi tends to be more cerebral in nature, and sci-fi that lacks originality and some degree of depth is simply boring. When fantasy is unoriginal and shallow, it can still have some success as kitsch. Something that doesn't make you think, but simply triggers and automatic emotional response. Even when there is no substance to think about, the emotion by itself can still feel good enough to keep sticking to the story.
     
  7. AMObst

    AMObst Dreamer

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    This is a very interesting thread indeed. I find myself drawn to fantasy stories where the author is using the setting to ask questions about our modern world. That can potentially lead to some very dark and "unsafe" stories. This usually works best in fanstasy set in other worlds where you can play with history and social development.

    For example, Kate Elliott, who in my view is a superb world builder, has written fantasy stories that deal with fairly big issues like racial tension, political power and refugees/mass migration, as well as imagining some matriarchal rather than patriarchal social structures.
     
  8. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    That person isn't really up on fantasy if they think that. If you're reading up to date fantasy by newer novelists, it's up to the eyes in timely social commentary.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Animal Farm. The Conan stories (Howard was a sharp critic of modern civilization). Others.
    True, much of modern fantasy is dreck without social or political commentary, but 70% of everything is dreck without social or political commentary.
    I just made that up.

    I dunno, I see plenty, mostly of social commentary, especially in the last decade or so. I'm not sure it means much. There's not a lot of social or political commentary in detective novels or mysteries or romances (there's some, of course). It's fine. The best place for such critiques, imo, is in realistic or literary novels that actually take place in the world they are critiquing.

    As for SF, that genre grew up in a world that was rending its own flesh with war and a new-found ability to destroy everything. Literature will always reflect something of the world around it (e.g., Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, both of which were affected by the Black Death), and SF did that. There was more short-form SF simply because there were more magazines where a writer could get an income than there are today. Today, Book 4 is like Book 3 not least because a series generates income better than standalone novels.

    I saw Brazil cited, a movie I love, but I'll reply with Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, and The Fisher King as examples of social and political commentary done in a variety of fantasy settings. And that's just choosing from the same director.
     
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  10. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I think it is a very effective tool to be able to combine things together, in this case political commentary and fantasy story telling. I have not seen Carnival Row, but I have seen many many shows, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or otherwise, that use the backdrop to make commentary. I dont know that I feel Fantasy has been reactionary, most commentary I see seems more centered around progressive/left leaning principals, but its been that way my whole life, so...

    I think it might be fair to say, traditional fantasy, like many things traditional, tends to look back. Fantasy of course, does not have to look back, but if you are looking at a world with princesses and knights and dragons, it does kind of point towards something feudal and from the past. Scifi, of course, tends to look forward at where our Technology might go, so its not hard to envision 50 or 200 years of more progressive thinking might lead to less traditional stuff and more social change having had occurred.

    All of these stories are products of their times, and are reactions to, or building upon, the culure and values the authors are participants with. So, I dont know that Tolkien could have written Game of Thrones, per se, he did not have Tolkien to build upon... I think the real trick with stories is to try to capture something about the human story over all and something along the lines of universal truths to break out of today, and speak beyond our own time. There are not many who pull that off.

    I am not suprised by the comment above, about the commentary making something feel more like Sci-Fi than fantasy. At first blush, a statement like that, I would imagine, would ring true to many, its just after a moment there is a--but on second thought--aspect to it as well.
     
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

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    How annoying. I am writing an essay at the moment that touches on some of this, so the essay will not quite have the impact it may have had otherwise.

    Never mind.

    There is no reason fantasy (set in any comparative epoch) can't deal with socio-politics.

    There's also the notion that people writing in a particular milieu can't help but reflect somewhat of their own nomos/superego (for want of a better word). Tolkien was very revealing of the values and prejudices of his time and while he says in the preface there is so hidden meaning to the work, it's pretty obvious to scholars that there is a meaning, even if it was hidden from Tolkien himself.
     
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  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    If the author says there's no hidden meaning in a book, then there isn't. If a *reader* finds meaning there, then that meaning is hidden within the reader. They are seeing patterns and parallels, not meanings hidden within subtext.

    To put this another way, different readers will find different meanings from the same book. Therefore, the meaning isn't within the book itself, it's within the reader. If, otoh, an author says there's an intended hidden meaning, then there is.

    Which raises the question, how exactly does an author go about hiding a meaning? The words are right there on the page. I've tried to stuff things between the lines, but I just end up making new lines. <g>
     
  13. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

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    Well, maybe Tolkien didn't think the manifold interpretations of his work were hidden.

    What I was really talking about was the (almost) inevitable reflection of aspects of a milieu in the literature it generates. Often these things are easier for historians to see than the writer and his/her contemporaries.
     
  14. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    I would (somewhat) disagree with that. We are shaped by our experiences and beliefs even if we are not ourselves aware of them. Tolkien himself was quite open about how both himself and his work were shaped by a) his Catholic beliefs and b) his experiences in First World War. But that may not be obvious to the readers, and will thus acquire the status of "hidden meaning". Conversely, Tolkien himself may have included some aspects within his work on a purely subconscious basis.

    Hidden meaning I think is all about patterns. Just like history is all about patterns - yet humans ignore these patterns and make all the same mistakes of their predecessors in their ultimately idiotic belief that they are somehow smarter than their ancestors.
     
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  15. I think you will always see something of the writer reflected in the work. But that doesn't mean that something should be interpreted as a hidden meaning, just that that is the reality from which the author is writing. In lord of the rings for instance, there is the master-servant relationship between Frodo and Sam. For me that was always just something that reflected a reality from around the time Tolkien grew up. But you could see it as some commentary on how Tolkien views what the ideal reality would be like.

    I'm also wondering where you draw the line between an author simply using a reality as a starting point and the author hiding some meaning in his work. Terry Pratchett is an interesting case study here. Many of his works take an everyday situation and magnify it into the absurd. There's everything from gender roles in Equal rites and Monstrous regiment to the effects of technology on society in Moving pictures and fake news in the Truth.

    But they never read to me as having a hidden meaning that the author wanted to get across. It simply used an existing situation as an interesting premise.

    We might be getting at a definition issue here. If a hidden meaning is so hidden that the author himself doesn't see it, is it then still a hidden meaning?

    For me, for there to be a hidden meaning, the author must actively want to make a point. Otherwise it's simply the story. Even more so for a work to be a commentary on some issue. For a work to be commentary on some issue, the author must have intended to make it a commentary. Otherwise it is a reflection of society (as almost all writing is), but not a commentary.

    It reminds me of a story a friend once told me. He had a literature class in high school where they were discussing some literary work. The teacher had found all kinds of meanings and hidden story lines in the book. My friend knew the writer lived close to him, so he contacted him to discuss the book. When my friend told the writer about all the meanings the teacher had found the writers reaction was something like "Do people really find that in there? Cool. I must use that next time someone asks me about my book. It makes it look much more intelligent and deliberate that way."
     
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  16. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

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    But what writer actually sets out to hide a meaning?

    I could point to a book like my own Straight Jacket which is certainly full of texture, but that doesn't mean meanings are hidden. It just means they require a bit of work by the reader. And I know readers will find meanings I never intended. That's just the nature of literature. Applies to me the same as it applied to Tolkien
     
  17. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Fiction can reveal quite a lot about writers that the writers don't see themselves. People do it all the time. Every time something begins with "I am not racist, but..." you know it's racist even though the person denies it. Or people who believe they are devoted to a religion based on love and forgiveness but constantly spew hate and call for violence. They don't see any contradiction there.
    It's normal for people to not really know what they are thinking. The human mind is a funny accident of evolution, that is just good enough to have avoided going extinct so far. Human thinking does not have to make sense or be consistent.

    Whether Tolkien was aware of it or not, The Lord of the Rings is apologetic for the divine right to rule. It's basically a story if the white man's burden, except that in this case it's the noble whites having a duty to protect the common whites who don't have the mental capacity to care for themselves. If left to their own devices, those commoners in Gondor and the Shire will only be corrupted and seduced to do evil because they don't know any better. What they need is the Noldorian master race to rule benevolently over them.
    "The Return of the King". If you just put someone of superior breeding in power, everything will be alright again.

    Of course I see these things based on what I believe and think about the world. But it's still based entirely on things that Tolkien chose to put into it in the believe that it makes a good story.
     
  18. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    Not just religion. That sort of behaviour is normal for any political ideology, especially those who preach things such as universal love, human rights et cetera. Reason, I think, is simple: if you believe that your beliefs are or should be universal and universally applied, then anyone who believes anything different from your own beliefs is automatically a threat. If you do not, then you will be happy to live and let live.

    That just goes back to what I wrote before: We are shaped by our experiences and beliefs even if we are not ourselves aware of them. This means that humans will not just have different opinions and conclusions, but also different patterns of thought. Therefore, same input will produce different output. Which means that two perfectly sane, logical individuals may reach completely opposite conclusions.

    Actually, it is not. I am planning to write about it someday, but in fact Gondor is the only state in Lord of the Rings where you have "divine right to rule" - and even there, it was Stewards, not Kings, who led Gondor through its times of greatest tribulation.

    And your entire thesis about Lord of the Rings being "story of white man's burden" is also completely incorrect and based on wrong premises. I will just list all the things you misinterpreted in a bullet point list, it is easier that way:
    • Noble whites (Numenoreans) who have the duty to protect the common whites are only noble because they were given "promised land" shaped by God, and taught things by Valar and by Eldar.
    • Common whites are time and again shown to be not inferior to said "noble whites" in any ways that are inherent to humans, as opposed to coming from external source. Rohirrim do just fine without input from Gondor, even before they come to Calenadhorn. Earlier, Edain reached elves on their own.
    • Numenoreans have been repeatedly shown to be no more resillient to corruption than normal men - perhaps even less so, in fact, as all the gifts they had been given made them much less willing to accept death. Three out of Nine Nazgul are Black Numenoreans, while on the other hand majority of population of Gondor has absolutely no Numenorean ancestry. So much for "commoners" being inferior.
    • Noldor themselves... oooh boy. In fact, the entirety of First Age can be described as "how Noldor screwed up, and then screwed up again". Noldorin "master race" had been repeatedly shown to be worse than humans on their worst. The only difference is, Noldor live for basically forever, so they have thousands of years to reflect on and learn from their mistakes.
     
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  19. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    I'm scratching my head over the fact that the question was, "is fantasy inherently safe and reactionary?" and the response of the forum was to talk about a story that's old enough to collect a pension.

    don't any of you read anything recent?
     
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  20. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    Lord of the Rings essentially codified High Fantasy, and High Fantasy is the most visible - and common - form of fantasy today. And many other forms of fantasy are themselves spawned from High Fantasy - such as Grimdark Fantasy. Even Martin cannot escape the Shadow of Tolkien. All of this means that Middle Earth Legendarium is a logical starting point for such a discussion.
     
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