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Fantasy and the economy

Sunday, December 14th, 2008 | Posted by Theo

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.

8 Comments »

  1. In hard times the audience is simply working on another level of Maslow’s hierarchy of need. Their taste in literature following their perceived need. Adventure fantasy scratches the right itch during downturns.

    Comment by Beau - December 14, 2008 9:15 pm

  2. This is fascinating…I certainly hope we see more outlets for fantasy adventure fiction opening up. However, publishing remains a high-risk venture. Still, a novel costs way less than videogames and movies…and provides many hours of entertainment for proportionately less. So maybe people will actually start reading again, and the demand for more adventure fiction will rise. Anyway, writers will keep on writing what they need to write.
    I’d like to send Conan up to Congress.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 15, 2008 1:01 am

  3. So how does this theory explain the rise in fat fantasy etc, in the 90s and noughties when this wasn’t happening? :)

    Comment by bluetyson - December 15, 2008 11:17 am

  4. how does this theory explain the rise in fat fantasy

    I suggest that fat fantasy is very different from Low Fantasy and adventure fiction and more akin to the fundamentally optimistic outlook of science fiction.

    What is the classic theme of fat fantasy after all? Poor lad makes good and saves the world by remaining true to himself. That’s clearly a bull theme, it’s not a bear one. Even though much High Fantasy is modelled on Tolkein, it is almost always a candy-coated, cartoonish version of Tolkein’s grim Catholic work.

    I freely admit, however, that George R.R. Martin’s books confound the concept.

    Comment by Theo - December 15, 2008 12:06 pm

  5. So which books sell might be a better barometer of the mass mood than polls. Interesting.

    Comment by Vaughn Heppner - December 15, 2008 4:19 pm

  6. > I freely admit, however, that George
    >R.R. Martin’s books confound the
    >concept.

    Yes, they do! So does Bakker’s PRINCE OF NOTHING series. High Fantasy does NOT have to be a rip-off of Tolkien, or a candy-coated version of what he did. It doesn’t have to follow any predetermined formula either. MOST of them do, yes. But most of them are lame.

    How many TRULY ORIGINAL works of high fantasy have you read in your lifetime? I can count them on two hands, or maybe one:
    Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
    Bakker’s PRINCE OF NOTHING
    Moorcock’s ELRIC Series
    Tanith Lee’s FLAT EARTH Series
    Lieber’s FAFHRD & THE GREY MOUSER series
    Darrell Schweitzer’s SEKENRE books (“Mask of the Sorcerer” and “The Book of Sekenre”)
    Lovecraft’s THE DREAMQUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH
    Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER
    E.R. Eddison’s THE WORM OUROBORUS
    Clark Ashton Smith’s TALES OF ZOTHIQUE

    That’s pretty much it…most other high fantasy follows too closely the whole “Lord of the Rings” formula (not that Tolkien intended it to be a formula, but it unfortunately became one in the 70s thanks to narrow-minded publishers).

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 15, 2008 9:55 pm

  7. To clarify: When I said “narrow-minded” publishers, I meant publishers who were interested in “moving units” i.e. selling books (rather than discovering something truly original and groundbreaking). But you can’t really blame publishers–after all, they’re in it to make money.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 15, 2008 9:58 pm

  8. Also:

    Forgot to include Tolkien’s SILMARILLION and LORD OF THE RINGS in that previous list.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 16, 2008 2:29 am


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