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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 think, at least in the nineties or so, fantasy was considered something which existed outside the political sphere. It was part of the suspension of disbelief that this just wasn't something you had to worry about here.
    Hey, as I said, it was merely a thought experiment! If ALL novels in existence stayed clear of the topic of race, that would make them rather reactionary, right? Even if none of those novels could be blamed individually.
    Likewise, if fantasy collectively is less keen to take on various social topics compared sci-fi, then this says something about fantasy as a genre. You don't need to call that something "reactionary", you can call it something else.
    The way I'm thinking of safe and unsafe here, is how much the book challenges the reader with new stuff. A lot of the appeal of fantasy and sci-fi is the discovery of that strange new world. New stuff! But this is offset by the safety of a plethora of well-known tropes. Fantasy dealing with social issues feel "unsafe" since it doesn't allow the same escapism from the real world. Remakes are designed around giving you a nostalgic return to a piece of entertainment you had 30 years back, so high safety value here.
    Yeah, that too.
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    This was never really true, though, except maybe at the level of the most commercial fiction. Take a look at the fantasy stories of Angela Carter, for example (1970s, 80s, and early 90s). They're heavily laden with political and social commentary. It's the whole point of her stories. I'd suggest the same is true of Tanith Lee. Certainly of Sherri Tepper, though she may be better known for her SF than fantasy work.

    People debate whether Storm Constantine's Wraeththu books (1980s and 90s) are fantasy or science fiction, but they are certainly social and political commentary.

    Terry Pratchett's fantasy novels can certainly be seen a social commentary.

    And, depending on how broad you want to define things, look at books like The Black Company books (1980s/90s). The rejection of conventional good/evil morality, common now, was much less so then, so these books are a de facto commentary on conventional fantasy morality.

    As you may have guessed, I think you can go back through decades of fantasy and find plenty of sociopolitical commentary. The idea that fantasy, or any writing or art, was entirely free of such things at any point in history seems to me a fiction.
     
    AMObst likes this.
  3. valiant12

    valiant12 Sage

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    Not all sci fi.For example David Weber's Honor Harrington books are heavily inspired by real world history. Stargate is inspired by the past/mythology. Alternative history is a type of sci fi, unless it is a alternative history fantasy.
    In general sci fi is a very broad and diverse genre.
    Warhammer 40k is not inherently conservative. Warhamer 40 k is a grimdark fantasy IN SPACE.
     
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2020
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Yah, you're just trying to make yourselves feel important. <g>

    Poetry was very nearly my first literature. I think I was reading SF when I was 13, but I know it was poetry by 14.
     
  5. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    What would "new stuff" be though, and what would be considered "unsafe"? That too is individual. For a conservative, progressive ideas are "new stuff" and often "unsafe"; for a progressive, conservative ideas are "new stuff" and often "unsafe". And what if I write a book explaining how Byzantine Empire was, in fact, more democratic than most modern states? That would be "new stuff" to conservatives and progressives both, I think.
     
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  6. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Troubadour

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    AldarionAldarion: conservative ideas are something I have heard before. My brain already has neat little structures in place to categorize and archive them. So they seldom have much New Stuff to them. I will readily admit that they make me uncomfortable, but I think this is mostly for different reasons.

    This topic of New Stuff and political views reminded me of this TED talk: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

    If we imagine safe escapism on one end of a scale, and challenging New Stuff at the other end. Is this really a new idea? It sounds so basic that I would have thought there were plenty who had already named and debated it long ago.
     
  7. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    I blame reading Hiawatha at age eight for my love of both fantasy and poetry.
     
  8. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Someone above wanted a definition, or distinction between fantasy and sci-fi.

    Magic. There's no magic in sci-fi (except for a few hybrid ideas like the use of The Force in Star Wars).

    So if the presence or absence of magic defines the genres, what does that say about their political basis?

    Off the top of my head, it could mean that some people (users or controllers of magic) are special and that justifies a nomos in which they are privileged. The existence of privilege is an inherently right wing concept.

    Where there is no magic, there is still power, whether that be technological, physical or whatever, and the prevailing tropes will prefer to make the MC subject to that power - seeking to overcome that power, which is an inherently left wing idea.

    And of course these are massive generalisations.

    There are plenty of sci-fi books that I would call right wing. Most of Heinlein's work is pretty right wing - especially Starship Troopers.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    The Dark OneThe Dark One -- I agree that magic makes a work fantasy, but fantasy doesn't require magic. There are fantasy books on the shelves that don't have any magic.
     
  10. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Heilein was a Democrat for most of his life. He ran for office as a Democrat before writing ST and most of his work afterwards, particular Stranger in a Strange Land.

    In fact, Starship Troopers is liberal. It was explicitly meant to be. Most people just don’t know what liberalism actually is. Or they don’t know how ST works or what it’s actually about.
     
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Being liberal doesn't mean it's not right wing.

    The fundamentals of right wing / left wing tend to be that the right seeks to maintain the status quo (with its existing privileges) and the left is trying to change the status quo.

    Starship Troopers imagined a militarist and heavily qualified democracy in which people had to undertake military service to acquire citizenship rights. The MC struggled for advancement within that system, not to change the system so, yeah...I'd call that right wing.
     
  12. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think it's very dangerous to ascribe political leaning to a work of fiction with the criteria that if the main character seeks to change the status quo, then it's left wing. Otherwise, it's right-wing.

    I also disagree with your defining of left/right-wing and your summation Starship Troopers and its setting applies more to the movie than the book. But neither of those topics have much to do with this thread topic.
     
  13. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    Star Trek begs to disagree. It is chock-full of magic. Star Wars has magic as well (Force!), Warhammer 40 000 runs on magic yet is considered sci-fi...

    That however would still depend on nature of magic - is it biological inhertiance, or is it learned? And again, in (leftist) sci-fi you also have special people - just look at Star Trek, again (Vulcans, Betazoids, Wesley Crusher). Starfleet is an extremely powerful and extremely privileged organization, essentially a state-within-a-state, and Starfleet officers have huge influence on Federation politics and policy. They are likely the most privileged military seen in any pseudo-democratic state. In fact, it kinda reminds me of Soviet Union.

    And when it comes to "overcoming power", I would not say it is inherently left-wing idea. Lord of the Rings is all about "overcoming power".

    Also, I am not certain I would define Starship Troopers as right-wing. Personally, I define "left" and "right" in regards to their approach to tradition, and Starship Troopers would be centrist at best, I think.
     
  14. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    That's a bit of an over-simplification of my massive over-generalisation.

    My L/R wing definition is fairly standard in academic circles.

    And I think it's a perfectly legitimate part of this discussion. Reactionary forces are those that seek to deflect, dilute or disarm progressive forces; ie those forces seeking change.
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Star Wars and Warhammer 40k are not sci-fi at all. They are straight up fantasy with lasers and space ships. Space along is neither a required, nor a sufficient defining elements of sci-fi.

    Star Trek is simply bad sci-fi. :p

    Lord of the Rings is certainly about overcoming power. Overcoming the wrong power and restoring the right power. Returning things to the good old days before "progress" (a very loaded term in itself) messed everything up is certainly not a progressive theme.
     
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  16. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    Indeed. In fact, if you look deeper, Lord of the Rings is highly conservative, but also highly anti-authoritarian work. Sauron is bad not only because he is emissary of a Satan, but because he wants to take away the free will. In fact, I would say that traditionalism makes authoritarianism unnecessary, as common culture, identity, tradition, origin etc. means that society can function without government controlling every single aspect of life. It is only multicultural progressive societies which require authoritarian/totalitarian governments, as multiple cultures and mentalities present, along with disrespect for tradition, mean that you have to have somebody (government) force a set of rules onto society, instead of rules being something self-understandable.

    Just to give an example, Croatia is (for now) still a fairly traditional and homogenous country. I can, without shame, say that I am not familiar with a single law or regulation passed by the government; yet I have never had any problems.
     
  17. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I don't know. Aragorn and Galadriel seem to be praised to high heavens with everyone of their subjects loving them. There is no indication of the people having any participation in government, which makes them come across as absolute monarchs.
    But it is alright because they are good and the people all love them. There is no need to use force when the people are inherently obedient. When the people know their place and are grateful for their lot in life.
     
  18. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

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    Hardly. We do not see enough of their rule to know how it works in practice. What we do see, however, is significantly anti-authoritarian. Denethor consults a council before making decisions. People had no problem rebelling when they did not like a monarch - hence Kinstrife. Now, it is true that Numenor and its successor kingdoms had no legal limits to monarch's powers, but that does not mean there were no customary limits. This is much like Byzantine Empire of Middle Byzantine period - absolute monarchy in theory, republican monarchy in practice. Gondor in particular had highly decentralized system of political power combined with highly centralized system of political authority; that is, king was supreme in theory, but in practice his subjects had a say - again, rather Byzantine system. You can see this from its military organization. In Arnor, both political power and political authority ended up decentralized, hence its division.

    And this is before we get to non-Numenorean systems. Shire - which is Tolkien's "ideal society" or as close as it gets to one - is a representative republic; not a monarchy at all. Mordor is a totalitarian theocratic dictatorship, as are its dependencies, Angmar and Melkor's state. So overall, I would say that Tolkien did not like absolute monarchy - but he also was aware of difference between political system and political process. Monarchical political system does not prevent you from having democratic political process, and likewise, having democratic political system does not mean you are actually living in a democracy.
     
  19. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Well that's an interesting take on Tolkien, but it does ignore the plain and obvious fact that much of TLOTR was about restoring the divinely appointed system. The rightness of the king's return was based in a mystical magical force for good. That kinda trumps mundane things like representative government.
     
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  20. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Perhaps it can be that multiple things are true at once. I think it is that the Shire was supposed to be ideal, and the only one portrayed as not sharing power was Suaron.... Anyway, I am not sure Tolkien was really trying to show any of that, or make a timeless statement on the divine right of kings (I suspect he would not have supported the divine right of kings...). Could be that it is just the consequence of the story he was telling, and not his hidden aim. Many stories seem to contain more than the authors intended, and perhaps some authors would be surprised at the stuff people see in their works. If the story is very well done, and shows a diverse world, I suspect it will capture a lot of ideas. I thought the overall point of LOTR was something like Evil unchecked will grow, and good people must stand up to it. Which to me, has always been the principal value of fantasy, that it can move philosophical concepts into tangible entities, and ask big questions about it. In the real world, there really is no Sauron on Mount Doom, issues are less black and white. Stories, and particularly Fantasy stories, let us get to imagine such things, figure out what they would mean, and help us to define ourselves by them.

    I always saw LOTR in the light of WWII, with Hitler being the dark lord, and the allegory of good peoples (shire folk) being affected by it and everyone having to unite to stop it. The good people will regain their power, but must be ever vigilant.

    Anyway, it is neat that people read the story and come to such different conclusions about it. IMO, that makes it a better story than most, because it means things much differently to individual readers. I am left to say what a rich piece of work that it can lend itself to it. It also seems to provide us with a microcosm of the world, as so often reasonable people see the same events and walk away with very different impressions of them. It brings me back to the filters we use, but...timeless works seem to have this effect. LOTR seems to be one of them.
     
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2020
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