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Are fantasy inherently safe and reactionary?

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

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Why?

    Almost anything a person does reveals something about them, including unconscious biases and things they don't even realize about themselves. A work of fiction does the same thing. A work of fiction can provide insight or meaning never intended by the author, particularly when seen through the lens of time.
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >don't any of you read anything recent?
    That would be your cue to contribute something.

    I have to take more exception to the line about divine right. There's nothing in LotR about divine right to rule. A good many kings ruled for other reasons and justifications and there's no particular reason to select this early modern European theory as being what Tolkien meant. Chances are good, he didn't bother to think about it one way or the other. A long-lost rightful king returning to restore order to the world was exactly the sort of old European story Tolkien and his friends were deliberately trying to resurrect.

    Of course, if a person wishes to make that interpretation, then certainly can. But that's on the reader, not on the author.
     
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  3. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    starting, sure.
    but when's it going to move on?
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >safe air of escapism
    I'd be interested to know what the OP means by this phrase. What is meant by escapism here, and in what way is escapism safe? What would be unsafe? And in what directions would the OP want to push fantasy in order to reach unsafe grounds?

    Certainly fantasy in recent years has gained something of a reputation for "realism" or at least for gruesome grit. Are such works what the OP means or is it something different? Is it ok to write "safely escapist" fantasy still? And is there some third or fourth path authors might take, paths that lead neither to escapist nonsense nor to the bloody halls of grimdark?
     
  5. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I don't know, I find it odd that we are asking if it is inherently safe and reactionary, and then complaining that the example is not recent enough...wouldn't it follow that if it was inherently safe, it would lend itself to a safe example? But, I also find no useful value in a different example. If it is inherently safe and reactionary, it would be so in any example, and if its not, it would take only one to show it, would it not? To studiously answer this question, I would have to include all fantasy from Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones, so by that example, LOTR is relatively recent... I think its a fair example. If you like, I could use a different one, but if the point is only to say...yes, I see it here too, or not I don't... LOTR would suffice as well as any other. Since the arguments implies an all or nothing type of reasoning, we ought to know already that that will prove false, it will take only one exception to show that.

    I did not see LOTR taking on gay issues, for example, but I see plenty of fantasy doing so today. Is that reactionary? Was Xena reactionary? Female hero in ancient Greece...I don't think it had a lot of reactionary themes in it. Maybe... More likely, it was a mix, and probably more so leaned liberal.

    Anyway...

    The question of showing oneself in the work....

    In fact, I don't think many can make a forum post without revealing a bit about themselves. Add another 100,000 words, and I am sure it will bleed out. I have to submit that many write with a hidden agenda and hope to sneak values in. Some do so overtly, to be sure, but when one has an unpopular idea, and a medium from which to speak, it would seem ripe for saying something (high reward) in a way not meant to be noticed (low risk).

    It is certainly true that some will come to find meaning in an art form that the artist did not know was there, and I am sure upon reflection, they would find that super cool (unless it said something they did not want...). But when we are telling stories, and those stories are about the human condition, or the universe and what is true, it is bound to connect itself to things with bigger themes and bigger meanings. I don't think it can be avoided.

    If I thought I knew something that was true, and could demonstrate it, I would likely include it in one of my stories, but then I would fear no one would understand it, so it would be lost. My observation of the world is that everyone is viewing the world through filters, many seem unaware of it, and unable to understand that theirs is not the only filter from which to view. If one could adopt a different filter, the world would seem entirely different. Some can do this, some cannot, and some don't even know that its even there to look at. If I could, I would say try a different filter, and some things that don't make sense in one context, might make sense in another.

    I too am wondering if reactionary is the properly chosen word for the quote, and what they meant by it. Sadly, we don't have exact definition of words, and so this game of planting our thoughts exactly into the brains of another can never quite work. Language is insufficient.

    What would you, OP, like to see from this conversation? It seems you are not seeing it.
     
  6. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    What is interesting to discuss is current tendency towards "grimdark" in fantasy. George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is hailed as "realistic portrayal" of medieval life and politics, when in fact Westeros would be - by standards of actual Middle Ages - extremely violent, dishonourable, dysfunctional and backstabby society. Basically orcs, except with political system that doesn't really work on any level - and that is before you get into sheer size of the continent. And societies of Slaver's Bay are such carricature-ish ObviouslyEvil societies that, in real world, none of them would have lasted half a generation. You want to look at realistic society, as in, a state that could actually exist and function? Tolkien's Gondor - he doesn't go into detail, true, but what he does describe shows eminently workable and functional social and political systems at work. Except Gondor is not GrimDark, so today's audiences tend to dismiss it as an idealistic fairy tale society, when it is - in reality - none of these things. Just realistic and well thought-out.
     
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Realism is overrated. <g>
     
  8. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Minstrel

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    Anyone read any of the Witcher series. I’m halfway through total and it hits quite a bit of topics. Not reactionary at all. Things like racism between humans and nonhumans (even the Unicorns seem to hate and distrust non Unicorns), gray area in politics, not so easy choices and the possible results of what seems like a pretty clear cut choice, dealing with monsters who may just end up being victims of magic. One of the main female protagonists has a sexual relationship with another female. This was all written starting in the late 80s with the short stories, then the main saga was written in the 90s.
    LOTR is always brought up, but there are far more fantasy series than just that which often do hit socio and political topics. I know the drizzt do'urden series tackles issues with him being a Drow Elf who is generally a good hearted elf, who most others see as just an evil dark elf.
     
  9. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    My perspective is that sci-fi looks outward and fantasy looks inward. You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.

    Lord of the Rings was a man examining his own heritage and history - as a Catholic English linguist.
    Myths and legends and even fairy tales have often been about people trying to make sense of their place in the universe, not to make sense of the universe itself necessarily.

    Of course, that’s IF you have to create some kind of thematic duality to them, which you definitely don’t have to.

    People who look down on fantasy for being backwards escapism with nothing meaningful to say are (in my perspective) mostly dorks who wrongfully think social commentary is the highest possible value of art.
    That’s why the jokers who wrote that article in the original post are salivating over Carnival Row - they see it as a sign that the genre is changing into what they want.
     
  10. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    It's a general development since the 90s that dismisses any genuine believe in something that is good and right as silly nonsense. There really are two main types of fiction in the present day: Either good does not exist and everyone are terrible bastards, or characters opposing evil do exist, but the story is constantly making jokes about itself to make sure nobody takes any of it seriously.
     
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  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I haven't followed this entire discussion but...Star Trek has had a tendency to provoke thought, addressing controversial (or potentially controversial) subjects. I've been re-watching, for the third time, all the Voyager episodes, and the number that address some sort of quandary relating to morality and ethics, political systems, social issues, philosophical briars and so forth is astounding. I remember similar approaches from the other Star Trek series, but many of them aren't as fresh in memory.

    Now then, two points:

    1. Possibly, Star Trek is designed in a way that allows a sort of "escapism" —into these idealistic what if situations reflecting our own world's issues. Seeing these quandaries play out there is safer than seeing them play out here in real life. But isn't this true of all fiction, all topics or subjects that might be considered, to use scare quotes, "dangerous?" If so, then every dangerous narrative in fiction is a kind of escapism; we are given a safe space in fiction to explore these things.
    2. Knowing myself as well as I do, I can safely admit that I do very much love the comfy repetition in things like comfy murder mysteries, Star Trek (which has plots so often relying on mystery), police/crime procedurals like Bones, The Mentalist, Psych, and CSI. I love, love, love these. And I also enjoy the familiarity of various fantasy tropes, story archetypes, etc., far more than I enjoy the weirdly new stuff. So I'm perhaps not the best person to comment on this subject, heh, although I hope my observations might add something decent to the conversation? I can also fall into reading about the same fantasy characters, novel after novel after novel, probably due to this love of the familiar and....safe? Well, maybe it's just the kind of safe space I recognize or identify with personally, only.
     
  12. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

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    My headline was written to grab attention with a dash of hyperbole. You know, one of those headlines where the question mark shall be read as an exclamation point. When I claimed that fantasy is “inherently safe and reactionary”, I was doing it for attention. But I do kinda believe it.

    Of course, just because a story fails to comment on the issue of racism does not make it reactionary. Lots of stories don’t focus on racism at all. Should all of those be reactionary?

    Yes, kinda.

    I remember reading a story by Wodehouse. Plenty good read, entertaining as always. Until I came upon a sentence where the protagonist good-humoredly admitted that he was “as superstitious as a coon”. The absence of race in what I had read previously suddenly came into focus. What was the author saying by not saying anything?

    Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s imagine that all stories—movies, tv serials, novels—all of them stayed clear of the topic of race. Wouldn’t that make them pretty reactionary?

    Following that thought, when science fiction has as its hallmark to delve into social issues, and fantasy has as its hallmark to stay clear of those, then the latter is, overall, verging more towards reactionary values than the former.

    Most fiction has some sort of dark underbelly. Being aware of it doesn’t mean that one can’t enjoy the stuff. I remember someone who claimed that zombies were a substitute for the foreign other. He actually made a compelling argument. At least I bought it. Still love zombies!

    I should probably mention that I love escapism. I love to delve into this little safe universe, like FTL or the PSYCH tv serial, and let reality slip away. Fantasy has a potential for escapism that surpasses anything else. It digs right into the D&D nostalgia and there is a sort of safety in letting the story take place in an alternate version of a time long gone.

    My status as OP grants me some kind of wacky authority, but look, I just recently got sure enough that this cleft between sci-fi and fantasy was a thing, and found it worth sharing. I’m just pointing at something, saying “Look at that.”
     
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    The cleft is very, very interesting. I often have pondered it, but I'm not sure I've ever felt confident enough to state anything definitive, heh.

    For me, the cleft has always looked like this:

    Science Fiction: Progressive, Politically "Left"

    Fantasy: Conservative, Politically "Right"

    Heh. This is sure to cause controversy. In fact, I'm not married to this distinction, not at all. It's just one of the things that pops into mind when I think about them, particularly when I think of fantasy and wonder what it is about the kinds of fantasy I like...It's removing all the politically correct stuff and just beating a group of bandits into the dust, heh. Oh, they're poor? The system sucks, forcing them into this lifestyle? Meh, stop whining; just pound them. Take them back to the castle and hang them. Of course, if the MC is a member of the bandit group...well, yeah, there are inequalities in the system...but, we're not going to become activists trying to change the system, pointing out the inequalities, protesting....heh. Nope. We're going to attack the nobility. Pound them into dust. Might kinda makes right; it's Darwinian social justice, Ayn Randian, Libertarian, if the MC is the outcast fighting back—but if the MC is the prince or princess fighting the bandits, its ye old dreams of meritocracy wedded to aristocracy, so another kind of conservatism.

    There are so. many. features of fantasy, at least the medieval-ish varieties, that just feel "conservative" to me. Just for a couple more examples, the way religion is handled and the way families—particularly, "family values" if that term can be stomached here—are depicted. And I'm not particularly politically conservative myself, in real life. But I do love the...regressive, safe space, of going back to a time when the world was "great," using fantasy to make the world...great again! (Sorry. Can't help it. But yeah, it's relative here.) Of course, the world never was that great, and these fantasy worlds are escapes into a particular sort of idealism. Our modern world has so many hoops we must jump through, so many real hindrances toward accomplishing anything; why can't we just pound our problems into the dust with our bare hands? (Or, with magic. Or, with many hands in the form of a fellowship, or a bandit clan or an army or whatever.)

    Naturally, there are examples of "conservative Sci-Fi" and "progressive fantasy." This is one of the reasons I can never stop at that dichotomy above, why I'm in no way married to it. But....I can't entirely dismiss it either. And this irritates me.
     
  14. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Not quite sure if I would call fantasy inherently right wing (for a certain perception of what the right is), but it is quite definitely very conservative as a whole. It's an almost universal notion in fantasy that "the old ways are the right ways" and that all the problems and conflicts come from something having changed the old ways, and things will be set right again when everything returns to the old ways.
    In pretty much every case, the past was always much better, and even if whatever evil is threatening the world is defeated and the old ways are being restored, it will never be as good as it used to be originally.

    And this really comes down almost entirely to two people: Tolkien and Plato. Tolkien with his ever declining ages of Middle-Earth, and Plato with his concept of the great Golden Age of the past.
     
  15. Gospodin

    Gospodin Minstrel

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    Having skipped all the prior posts…

    Inherently? No. But I do feel like Fantasy offers some “safe rooms” in its grand house that are not so easily accessed in the House of Science Fiction.

    I also think we have to really know what flavors of Fantasy are being invoked in this question? Are we going with the common man’s assumption that it’s all just The Adventures of The Five Races in Faux Northern Europe, or are we including other deployments such as Urban Fantasy, which is much closer to home and often makes use of The Masquerade trope, which requires the presence of muggles, regular folk, with all our foibles? Perhaps the South American/German tradition of Magic Realism is also in the mix? Magic Realism has, as part of its basic narrative toolbox, the expression of a particular cultural facet (real world culture, mind you) that the author is asking be engaged in a sympathetic light. In the year 2020, “please engage my cultural facet sympathetically” feels like a silver Troll Whistle made by PRADA. Not very safe at all these days.

    But again, I don’t think it’s about inhereintness, which sounds almost like inevitability. I think it’s just that the range is there to divest oneself completely of attachment to real-world concepts. That’s not the same as saying you can’t engage real-world concepts in Fantasy. Of course you can.

    ETA: And I do feel the sentiments raised by prior respondents that Fantasy's tendency to reach back in time, where Science Fiction reaches forward, would seem to be an intuitive route to Fantasy being more invested in conservative (reactionary) concepts, where Science Fiction reaches for progress and change. The opposite of reactionary is radical, and in truth I don't necessarily feel that either genre is so extreme in approach. They can be, but it's certainly not obligatory.
     
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2020
  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Tolkien is a prime example of people seeing what they want. All of art is that way. The movie Patton was filmed as anti-war flick but military units will watch the flick cheering and see it as inspirational bad assery. My books have absolutely nothing to do with modern immigration and refugee issues, but oh yeah! People see it and have conflicting interpretations... it’s actually more Tral of Tears and Moses... and the end of the series I’m writing right now will no doubt be said to reflect on modern issues, and I suppose it will, but that was never its real intent. It’ll be funny when two sides of a single issue like the same ending.
     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I find these recent comments interesting because they don't align with my experience at all. I'm happily left-wing radical, but I've never read fantasy as inherently anything this way or that. The field is too broad, the range of authors too wide. Fantasy to me has always been a genre focused on the individual, anyone from Conan to Rand al'Thor to Arya, and running them through a series of fantastical gauntlets.

    The bit about what if fantasy never mentioned race is a straw man. Fantasy does in fact address race, along with other issues, so at most one can say this or that particular author does or doesn't, but it doesn't imply anything intrinsic to the genre itself.

    >Fantasy has a potential for escapism that surpasses anything else.
    And I have to disagree with this. How about romance novels? What about Westerns? Thrillers are pure escapism. I've said earlier I'm suspicious of the word itself and think it either is irrelevant or at most that it must be applied to all forms of literature and indeed all forms of art.

    I will repeat a question I asked earlier. If fantasy is inherently safe, what form of literature would be called inherently unsafe? And what does "unsafe" mean in this context?
     
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  18. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Unsafe is anything that includes ideas about society that you don't agree with. Anything that dares to suggest that your believes might be wrong.
     
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  19. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

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    Poetry. We poets aren't trustworthy at all. Or so we like to think. :)
     
  20. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    Your perspective may be different, but I have always found Star Trek to have been unrealistically optimistic... especially The Next Generation (DS9 less so, and I really lliked it for that). For one, it rarely shows consequences of a problem of the week, though there are exceptions. Second, Federation is shown as kinda-sorta utopia, with only rarely exploring issues such as 1) what does it take for such utopia to function, and 2) what are unintended consequences? I remember thinking, in some episodes, "wow, everyone must be on drugs here". Many of the problems which Star Trek does explore are external to Federation, which is a shining beacon in the galaxy... and as I said, the price of creating such a beacon is rarely explored.

    I think that neither is fantasy inherently conservative nor is science fiction inherently progressive, but they do tend to align, for simple reason of mentality. Consider:
    • Conservatism: humans are inherently flawed, and even the best system will not solve the problems inherent in human nature
    • Progressivism: humans are inherently good, problem is the system which forces them to be bad

    • Fantasy: past is worth preserving because future is uncertain; as often as not, future is one of loss and decay, in large part due to flaws inherent to humans
    • Sci-fi: humanity will not go extinct in next few hundred years, and will in fact continue to progress; technology will solve many of our issues, and humans themselves will overcome their flaws
    Personally, I am definitely on conservative/fantasy side of the divide - humans became as successful as they are because we are psychotically violent apes who murdered all competition. Big brain was just an enabler. But back to topic, this is not actually a clear divide: the above is just a trend or tendency. But you will find a lot of conservative-mentality sci-fi, and a lot of progressive-mentality fantasy - Warhammer 40.000 for the former camp, A Song of Ice and Fire for the latter camp. And that is fine, though I personally have trouble reading progressive-camp works (according to the divide outlined above), especially sci-fi, simply due to their tone. But on the flip-side, conservative authors tend to protray the past as excessively rosy, while progressive authors tend to portray it as excessively bad (George Martin, again); but this tendency is not as pronounced in fantasy as it is in sci-fi, since we actually do have data on historical societies, so playground is automatically narrower.
     
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