One of the more interesting aspects of the intriguing would-be science of socionomics is its concept of art and entertainment themes as an approximate measure of social mood. This is a sophisticated variant of the well-known inverse relationship between skirt lengths and stock prices which postulates lighter themes being more popular in expansionary times and darker themes dominating during economic contractions.
As the news of massive frauds and corporate failures filled this week’s headlines, I found myself wondering if perhaps the socionomics concept can reasonably be applied to genres and sub-genres as well as themes. There’s little doubt that the existence of Black Gate notwithstanding, the adventure fantasy has fallen upon relatively hard times; while many SF/F authors readily acknowledge their debt to Jules Verne, Robert E. Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, relatively few truly consider themselves to be writing in that tradition today. Even the spiritually related Western genre of which Louis Lamour was once king sells but a small fraction of the numbers it used to command.
It is a fairly well-accepted idea that science fiction is an expansionary phenomenon. Its Golden Age is not only simultaneous with the great American economic expansion of the 1950s, but its general theme of onward and upward combined with its ardent technophilia and utopian politics is entirely in keeping with a bullish mindset. Indeed, the very construction of the vast space fleets and galaxy-spanning civilizations inherently assumes massive economic growth exceeding anything that has ever been seen before in the entire history of Man. Most modern fantasy is of a similar bent, in that it tends toward the utopian, the progressive, and the economically expansive. The world of Harry Potter, for example, is a peaceful and wealthy one in which children are viewed as economic burdens and the source of sub-normal consumption capacities rather than as the productive resource that they have historically been considered in less fortunate times.
It is interesting to consider, then, that Burroughs published both his Tarzan and his Barsoom novels during the pre-war recession of 1912-1914. Howard published the first 18 Conan stories in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and John Norman’s Gor novels hit the height of their popularity during the extended economic morass of the 1970s. Both Tolkein and Lewis, of course, published their classic works in the 1950s, but they did so in a post-war England that was not enjoying the manufacturing boom that was taking place in America at the same time.
This suggests that there may be a silver lining in the dark economic clouds looming over the world, at least for fans of adventure fantasy. The socionomic perspective suggests that it’s less the desire for escapism, and more the general recognition that the world is not progressing inevitably towards a shiny happy future but is instead an uncertain and even dangerous place, that lies behind the mass appeal of adventure fantasy.