Fantasy and Politics: A Criticism

by Thomas Manuel

Image001In both academia and in the minds of the general reading public, there seems to be a hierarchy when it comes to fiction. ‘Literary’ fiction is (infuriatingly) deemed to be more noteworthy than genre fiction, for example. Similarly, within the supercategory of genre fiction, there are some subtle, mystifying hierarchies. Most readers identify genres as sets of tropes, archetypes and milieus and know they’re employing purely subjective preferences when picking one set over another. But at the hands of many literary theorists, thought leaders and my mother, obscure aesthetic principles are deployed to bolster these hierarchies – such as the claim that science fiction is somehow more redeemable than fantasy fiction. This has gotten my one-horned, fire-breathing goat.

Dragons and faster-than-light travel

Science fiction possesses the heady connotations of science-ness, extrapolative thought experiments and futurism. Fantasy, on the other hand, seems to lack any logical rules whatsoever and is thus relegated to the dustbin of escapism. Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, opened one of the show’s episodes with the claim that science fiction was the improbable made possible and fantasy was the impossible made probable. While framing the dichotomy as the improbable versus the impossible is cool, it’s also completely wrong. As China Miéville once wrote, “a certain generic common-sense… has allowed generations of readers and writers to treat… faster-than-light drives as science-fictional in a way that dragons are not, despite repeated assurances from the great majority of physicists that the former are no less impossible than the latter.”[i] Science fiction’s embrace of the language of science and technology makes it seem particularly rational and forward-thinking but on closer inspection, exceeding the claims of science – being irrational – is one of the key features of the genre. And that’s okay.

If this fact has to be elided over at all in the popular discourse, it’s because the benevolent dictatorship of our Silicon Valley saviours depends to a certain extent on the blurring between the idea of science and technology – that iPhones somehow take us closer to Mars. The reputation of technology as the only thing that still works in a nonsensical world that’s choking on itself is propped up by a lot of questionable assumptions. A similar situation exists with the industry of futurism. These institutions never seem to like science fiction for the complex philosophical and moral questions it raises about the world as it exists today. How strange.

While space is cool, it’s the philosophical and moral weight of science fiction that makes it such an affecting experience as a child. We definitely come for the robots but we stay for the humanity.

Less kings and more thinkings

Fantasy as a genre is often seen as conservative or regressive. This is because it’s true. A lot of fantasy (especially epic fantasy, my genre of choice) is medieval in setting as well as in moral and social outlook. The women are weak, the men are strong, war is glory and the bad guys are coincidentally darker than everybody else. While I personally feel granddaddy Tolkien didn’t fit this category, most of his epigones did. And it’s not defensible in any way. As Michael Moorcock put it, we can’t “pretend that this addictive cabbage is anything more than the worst sort of pulp historical romance or western.”[ii]

Many fantasy writers pretend that the importing of medieval morality into their fiction is somehow an apolitical choice or a fidelity to how things ‘actually’ were. This claim is fundamentally absurd in a genre where you make everything up. For those who have trouble imagining an alternative, the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Eriksen shows one way. In this ten part series, Eriksen creates a world where racism and sexism don’t exist as institutions. He does this subtly; most readers realize only deep into the books. Women join up as soldiers in roughly the same percentage as men and skin colour isn’t a point of contention or interest among characters. That isn’t to say his world is a utopia. Eriksen is a tragedian. There is pain, suffering, barbarism and inequality – just not of that kind.

There are only a handful of fantasy writers that I have read that bring this sort of critical sensibility. China Miéville’s Bas-lag novels are inherently political, in plot and setting. For this, he’s either criticized or complimented for ‘transcending’ the genre. Both are ridiculous responses. He simply writes as someone for whom “socialism and sf are the two most fundamental influences.”[iii] His city-states are simultaneously lush, richly imagined locations with monsters and magic as well as geopolitical powers with imperial and material interests. The Remade, the prisoner class of the city of New Crobuzon, are punished for their crimes by the remaking of their bodies – the addition or removal of various zoological appendages or mechanical contraptions – according to “obscure aesthetic principles of justice”[iv]. This is the weirdness of Lovecraft but with radically different sensitivities.

While Miéville speaks in a voice that might seem more combative, Terry Pratchett writes in a different register. As Neil Gaiman puts it, Pratchett’s voice is “genial, informed, sensible, drily amused” but underneath that facade is “a foundation of fury”[v] at the unfairness of modern society. His comic fantasy series, Discworld, began as a way of poking fun at epic fantasy’s clichés but evolved into satire of the highest kind. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, I recommend his novel Thud! which explores the historical basis and current trend of the racial politics between Dwarves and Trolls.


Escaping the unreal prison of reality

By far, the most pernicious criticism of fantasy literature is that it is escapist and immature. While the three examples listed above should be sufficient ripostes to the charge of immaturity, the charge of escapism as a structural feature of the genre merits some deeper digging.

In his seminal essay, “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien actually lists escape as one of the benefits of fairy stories, along with recovery and consolation. While most people don’t begrudge his opinions on recovery (of the sense of wonder) and consolation, his ideas around escape are less fondly remembered. Tolkien differentiates two kinds of escape: the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. Tolkien proposes fantasy as the former – as a method of mental liberation from the prevailing oppressive strictures of society. That’s a tall order but, as he acknowledges, this isn’t what his critics mean. They are implying the latter image – of fantasy as an abnegation of the seriousness of the real world.

But what does taking the world seriously mean? Does it mean for example that humour isn’t allowed? No, as Pratchett once said, the opposite of funny isn’t serious, it’s unfunny. Similarly, seriousness isn’t antipathetic to enjoyment or imagination.

And which parts of the world are we meant to take seriously? Is it the flora and fauna of the world or its topological elements? In which case, my unicorn-dragon-goat is in poor taste. Or is it the political reality of life on this planet? In which case, the deployment of my unicorn-dragon-goat determines exactly nothing about the seriousness of my novel.

No one is escaping the physical confines of the world through a book. All they can do explore, for a brief moment, the possibilities of an alternative physical and political reality. That is why serious people write fantasy novels. To afford us a glimpse of what could be. To make us see what is.


[i] This is from his essay, Cognition As Ideology: A Dialectic Of SF Theory, where Miéville attacks the reigning Marxist models that privilege science fiction over fantasy. While Miéville doesn’t say it in so many words, it occurs to me that the academic jugglery of genres and definitions are misguided attempts at justifying the marketing terms of publishing houses.

[ii] This is from his onslaught on Tolkien and his imitators in an essay titled Epic Pooh.

[iii] Gordon, J., & China Miéville. (2003). Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Miéville. Science Fiction Studies, 30(3), 355-373.