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Transcendent Fantasy, or Politics as Usual?

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012 | Posted by Brian Murphy

My Black Gate post this week is not a review, nor an essay proper, but a question: Is it possible for fantasy to move beyond the political? Or because it is written by authors of a particular time and place, must fantasy—however fantastic its subject matter—forever remain trapped within the circles of our own world?

China Mieville

China Mieville

China Mieville and others say that no, you cannot read fantasy except through the lens of politics, and that there is no escape. In this interview from 2000, Mieville says:

The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical–but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.

I think that as we’ve grown more secular and rational fantasy is following suit. Led by writers like George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, fantasy has become less whimsical and more historical, less hopeful and more gritty and pessimistic. Many “fantasies” now actively grapple with issues like racism and misogyny, or conservatism vs. liberalism, which lurk beneath the veneer of strange secondary worlds that in other fundamental ways closely resemble our own.

But other writers don’t agree. Ursula LeGuin in her essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” writes in stark opposition to Mieville’s assertion, observing that:

The habit of reducing text to political-economic terms prevents many Marxist and neo-Marxist critics from reading fantasy at all. If they can’t read it as utopian, dystopian, or of clear social relevance, they’re likely to dismiss it as frivolous. They see kings, and assume reactionary politics; they see wizards, and assume superstition; they see dragons, and assume nonsense.

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula LeGuin

LeGuin’s interpretation seems to ennoble and elevate fantasy, allowing it to transcend reality and provide the reader with the opportunity to explore new vistas and possibilities. Or to embrace a past that, while admittedly is in some cases idealized, is on some level more “real” than the highly specialized but detached and compartmentalized professions and lifestyles endemic to 21st century living. Fantasy fiction seems to offer the ability to transport us beyond the boundaries of our normal lives — including our biases and convictions — and enable us to view the world from a new perspective. But is this just wishful thinking?

A related question is, is fantasy required to mirror our own reality? Can it be something different? For example, should quasi-medieval fantasy settings be criticized for not conforming to the tech level and cultural norms of Northern Europe circa 1350? Do they have to, if they are fantasy? Is creating an evil race of goblins or orcs a subconscious affirmation of an author’s racism or fear of the “other,” or might he or she simply be using his or her powers of imagination to play harmless make-believe (if orcs lack an innate morality, and are therefore irredeemable, can they be slaughtered without compunction)?

Are Robert E. Howard’s giant f-ing snakes just snakes?

Are fantasy authors “obligated” in any way to create fictional realities that meet with current social contracts, or does a fantasy setting with otherworldly characters free them from these bonds?

These questions touch on unsettled debates about authorial intent, whether stories have objective meaning, or whether interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Fantasy calls into question the creative capacity of the human mind, and whether it can truly create, or merely replicate in different shapes and forms the existing world around it.

These thoughts were sparked while reading a recent post on the blog of fantasy author R. Scott Bakker, “Misanthropology 101”, in which Bakker is defending himself against charges of misogyny based on a reader’s reaction to his portrayal of women in his fiction. I have not read anything by Bakker and cannot comment on the specific issue, but at one point Bakker in exhaustion states to a commenter “When are you going to give up on this. Realism is irrelevant.”

Is it? I don’t have the answers, I just thought it was an interesting question. What do you think?

33 Comments »

  1. “I think that as we’ve grown more secular and rational fantasy is following suit. Led by writers like George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, fantasy has become less whimsical and more historical, less hopeful and more gritty and pessimistic”

    Would you say that Martin is so very much more gritty and pessimistic than, say, “Jirel of Joiry”? There’s plenty of not-so-whimsical fantasy about these days, but there’s been not-so-whimsical fantasy around for quite a long while. And there’s also a whole heap of highly whimsical current fantasy out there – and plenty of shades of grey of fantasy in between.

    As for whether it is possible for fantasy to be escapist, or whether it’s inextricably wedded to our own mores, yes and no. Is a child in an angry, poverty-stricken home not ‘escaping’ that home when they read, oh, “Malory Towers” or “Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm”? Mieville seems to simply be using a definition of ‘escape’ which is highly literal – not a temporary escape of imagination and experience, but a complete unshackling.

    At the same time, our reading child cannot help but bring with them the shadow of shrieking parents and empty stomach. And that will inform the reading experience, to make Sunnybrooke Farm all the more golden – or soured by envy. There’s a nice quote from Angela Carter which says it well:

    “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”

    Comment by Andrea - February 2, 2012 11:37 pm

  2. One question is whether the Mieville of 2012 still believes what the Mieville of 2000 believed. I distinctly remember him making the comment about “cool monsters” whether or not the politics behind that monster is understood.
    Anyway, the point is that a binary is trying to be constructed where a binary is not needed. This isn’t either/ or, Team LeGuin vs. Team Mieville. The beauty about literature, whether fantastic or not is that it is open to all schools of interpretation. This isn’t just a Marxist thing.
    Take two fantasies. One is a straight up technologically and culturally accurate (save for the fantastic elements). The other one is completely schizophrenic. Both are equally open to a political reading if a reader so chooses to go in that direction.
    This isn’t a zero sum game.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 2, 2012 11:43 pm

  3. And Andrea is quite right that gritty fantasy is not new and whimsy is not dead. Much of Clark Ashton Smith’s work (not to mention Robert E. Howard)are highly pessimistic.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 2, 2012 11:48 pm

  4. I guess it all depends on what the author, by writing, and the reader, by reading, have the conversation about.

    Some writers write to “SAY” things, some write simply to entertain. Some readers read to dissect the structure and meaning of the story, and some just to enjoy the ride.

    No one is obligated to do anything.

    Anyone that says differently is being a pretentious twit. 😉

    BTW- The person R Scott Bakker was responding to is…

    Wow…

    That is a ton of hate.

    Comment by TW - February 2, 2012 11:54 pm

  5. It’s not just the politics. There are readers who can’t appreciate other worlds, and are always trying to turn them into this world. This is why you get so many people thinking 1984 and Brave New World are the proof that SF can be good: they are really about the current day.

    In the country of the blind, they practice sculpture. It is, of course, tactile. People from that country tend to be rather funny when they criticize our sculpture. Certainly, there are sound reasons why their judgments don’t lie up with those of the sighted.

    Comment by Mary - February 3, 2012 12:16 am

  6. Great article, very thought-provoking. I do wonder – is this really a debate that’s specific to fantasy? I suspect that most of the people making the argument that fantasy is fundamentally embedded in the milieu in which it is created would make the same argument about all art. Similarly, I suspect that most of the people who argue that fantasy is able to transcend the social conditions from which it emerges would make similar arguments about aesthetic creation broadly speaking.

    For myself, I think that fantasy can transcend the conditions which gave birth to it. At the same time, I believe that most fiction, especially if it’s good fiction and good art, does have relevance to eternal human themes – has relevance to the questions which define human existence – and because of this have some kind of relationship to other questions. I mean, all art is created by people, and all art has a context, and it can definitely be useful to understand and be aware of that context. So, I guess, contra Mary: nearly all fiction will have some kind of this-worldly relevance, insofar as it is made by human beings and therefore has some kind of relevance to them. Even if it is not about contemporary political issues.

    Comment by Doug R - February 3, 2012 1:22 am

  7. […] Black Gate (Brian Murphy) on Transcendent fantasy, or politics as usual? […]

    Pingback by SF Tidbits for 2/3/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog - February 3, 2012 2:07 am

  8. Led by writers like George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, fantasy has become less whimsical and more historical, less hopeful and more gritty and pessimistic. Many “fantasies” now actively grapple with issues like racism and misogyny, or conservatism vs. liberalism, which lurk beneath the veneer of strange secondary worlds that in other fundamental ways closely resemble our own.

    Theo has already noted that fantasies like those of GRRM that are set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe but that delete the role of the Church or any meaningful religious belief are profoundly AHISTORICAL. I might also add that projecting our own current attitudes about racism and misogyny onto quasi-medieval-European fantasy worlds does not make them “historical”, it only makes them annoying. For example, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves features a Magic Negro (Morgan Freeman) who got the dumb white boy out of trouble, and Maid Marian who was a kick-boxing, sword-fighting maniac who didn’t need saving. The result was not a gritty and historical movie that effectively grappled with racism and misogyny. The result was a preposterous fiasco in which characters supposedly living in 1191 acted like people did in 1991.

    Fantasy books like Mieville’s Iron Council that have an overtly political message are utterly tedious. It’s not like Leftist political opinions are hard to find, so they hardly need to be “hidden” in a fantasy guise. And is there anything more boring than fictional factional politics?

    Comment by Lugo - February 3, 2012 10:26 am

  9. Lugo,a few points
    If memory serves, the Faith of the Seven does serve an equivalent role to the Catholic Church. Now, how comparatively “accurate” it is is honestly just silly.
    Which brings to mind the notion of historicity in fantasy in general. I don’t know if it is provable, but I suspect the move to “historical” fantasy is more akin to hard science fiction. Like I’ve said repeatedly, history serves as inspiration. Often, I find the notion of “historicity” in fantasy (particularly secondary world) as inconsequential. As long as the constructed world works on its own, I don’t see a reason to complain.
    And I certainly cannot disagree with you more on your characterization of Iron Council.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 3, 2012 11:04 am

  10. If memory serves, the Faith of the Seven does serve an equivalent role to the Catholic Church.

    It is a perfect example of what Theo says here,

    “What is all too common, however, is writers attempting to use various aspects and trappings of religion while failing to recognize the way in which religious belief was an intrinsic part of how most historical societies interpreted their world. Making do by stealing a few interesting bits and pieces here and there while ignoring the whole systemic structure to which they belonged means that one is almost guaranteed to write something as nonsensical as Gnorts the Barbarian wielding his fifty-pound sword single-handed.”

    As long as the constructed world works on its own, I don’t see a reason to complain.

    When you have a world transparently modeled on 14th century England, except the people hate racism, everyone is essentially a secular hedonist, and the women are kickboxing badasses… it just doesn’t “work on its own”.

    I certainly cannot disagree with you more on your characterization of Iron Council.

    Shrug. Even The Guardian (!!!) thought it was weighed down by tons of excess political baggage.

    Comment by Lugo - February 3, 2012 12:48 pm

  11. My question then would be for those wanting absolute historical faithfulness (particularly with religion in mind) is this: why? Why is it so important to you as a reader that Westeros mimics its 14th century inspiration completely?
    Another issue is how really “modern” are the female characters? Yes, many of the women depicted are relatively more activist than the average woman of either 14th century England or Westeros. But, what can you say of Margaret of Anjou, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and countless other women of the period that have been brought to light by recent scholarship?
    Moving on to Iron Council, the politics serve to muddy the waters as much as providing a foundation. The character’s points of view are colored by their politics.And this raises questions about their objectivity. And shows just how masterful a manipulator Spiral Jacobs is.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 3, 2012 1:15 pm

  12. I’m not really a scholar but I will say as a reader I don’t really think about the politics – I see the world through the character’s or characters’ eyes. That isn’t to say – having developed my own opinions of how I see things – that I’m not cheering on the the character (regardless of gender) who is ‘the good guy’ kicking but or booing ‘the bad guy’ as I see them.

    Of course there are books in which the idea of ‘political issues’ don’t even cross my mind and I’m quite sure the Author has opinions:

    Piers Anthony
    Laurell K Hamilton
    Anne McCaffery (and now her son)
    Carrie Vaughn
    Patricia Briggs
    Mercedes Lackey
    etc

    Books in which magical and supernatural are wedded to a modern world or are just pure magical entertainment goodness. For me, it isn’t about accuracy or a ‘message’, it is more for entertainment and curiousity. It’s also why I read Black Gate. “You never know what you’re gonna get” and I like to be surprised; so even things with a ‘message’ have as good a chance of keeping my interest as anything if it’s written in a way to keep my interest. To me that’s like my watching Grey’s Anatomy – my mom will see something happen on there and say something like ‘Doctors don’t really do that, do they?’ and I answer her ‘Mom, it’s just a show with an interesting story plot’ to it. I am not looking at ‘accuracy’ I’m looking to see if the story is interesting – the ‘why do I care about this story’ question.

    For someone else, it will be different as a reader. As a writer, which I am not – not a ‘real live one’ at any rate -I’m guessing it is depending on what you feel you have to say and how you want to say it. Without a story to tell (genere aside) it’s all empty. So in that sense, you are bringing your experiences and thought with you.

    That’s my opinion anyway. :)

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 3, 2012 3:16 pm

  13. My question then would be for those wanting absolute historical faithfulness (particularly with religion in mind) is this: why? Why is it so important to you as a reader that Westeros mimics its 14th century inspiration completely?

    It is not important that the AGOT universe mimics 14th century Christianity exactly. It is important that most of the characters in the AGOT universe don’t have ANY strong religious beliefs at all. This ought to strike you as extremely weird – as weird, indeed, as a universe where people don’t have sex and raise children. Throughout history, human beings who do not have religious beliefs have been the exception, not the rule. It is only because you are a 21st century American secular liberal reading something written by a 21st century American secular liberal that you don’t notice this gaping lacuna. It precisely fits your assumptions of the way the world is and ought to be.

    what can you say of Margaret of Anjou, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and countless other women of the period that have been brought to light by recent scholarship?

    I could say that they did not act like 2012 American women, and did not share the beliefs and attitudes of 2012 American women. Female fantasy characters who act and think like 2012 American women are wildly offputting.

    Comment by Lugo - February 3, 2012 3:38 pm

  14. I forgot to add an author to that list:

    S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series. A world where the laws of physics go askew and technology from gunpowder up stops working the way it should. I suppose could be classified and Neo-Feudal? At any rate, I really love that series. :)

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 3, 2012 4:07 pm

  15. Shadowfox13, a lot of this is a fight over what direction fantasy should go in. Should it be whimsical or bloody and gritty? Should it be tomes of political and religious nostalgia or explorations of the limits of human imagination? Like I said in my first comment, this is a binary that should not exist. Fantasy is what it is, and there is enough room in the tent for everyone. Add to this the tired old liberal/ conservative claptrap and we get the debate that has been going on for over a year now.
    To Lugo, speaking of politics, don’t presume to assume what my politics are. For all you know, I could be a neoliberal atheist or conservative pagan. Your answer to my question is interesting because I would argue that religion in ASOIAF is incredibly subtle. Catelyn’s prayer at the sept, the heart tree scene, etc. are all evidence of a strong, but subtle, religious undercurrent.
    All of that said, Westeros is not set on 14th century Earth, but in 4th century whatever planet it is set on.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 3, 2012 4:39 pm

  16. Thanks for the all comments, everyone.

    The LeGuin-Mieville comparsion is a little bit artificial on my part. I put the quotes up as food for thought on both sides of the debate; as is usually the case I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I’m not sure if it’s ever possible to eliminate politics and personal beliefs from a story that a human being creates. And much of LeGuin’s writing certainly advances feminism and sexual identity (The Left Hand of Darkness).

    But the LeGuin essay is particularly interesting as it breaks this traditional political/social narrative. She says that fantasy offers something uniquely different from mainstream literature: the chance to step outside ourselves, to “restore the sense–to regain the knowledge–that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.” According to LeGuin, fantasy “offers a world large enough to contain alternatives, and therefore offers hope.” I like that quite a bit.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - February 3, 2012 5:27 pm

  17. And Andrea is quite right that gritty fantasy is not new and whimsy is not dead. Much of Clark Ashton Smith’s work (not to mention Robert E. Howard)are highly pessimistic.

    Gritty fantasy is not new, but I haven’t seen anything quite like Martin or Abercrombie before (and I’ve read about everything Howard has written, and a fair bit of Smith). Maybe it’s a matter of degree.

    I’m in the middle of Abercrombie’s The Heroes and to me it resembles the historical fiction of a Bernard Cornwell more than fantasy. As for Martin, he would have butchered Conan in chapter 3 just to jolt our sensibilities :). REH had a lot of bloodshed but his POV characters (Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, etc.) lived to fight another day, his violence was stylized, and his stories were largely sexless. Smith’s stuff is great but feels otherworldly to me with its high style, and thus the pessimism is lessened (I feel the same way about the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, which take place in a materialstic, uncaring universe, but is distanced due to Lovercraft’s style) whereas Martin, Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, et. al. shock you with their here and now immediacy. At least in my opinion.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - February 3, 2012 6:13 pm

  18. Brian, Martin’s reputation is highly overrated, if you ask me. Yes,killing Ned was a huge shock, but like I said in a post on my own blog, he really should go on a POV massacre.
    This “gritty” school of fantasy is likely a reaction to our increased willingness to accept reading/ viewing “shocking” events.And likely this “gritty” school will play a similar role as the New Wave did fifty years ago.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 3, 2012 6:50 pm

  19. *lol* Sorry got lost in the comments a little. But, I agree that about the tent being big enough so sort of preaching to the choir. :) Does it really have to take just one direction? The authors I listed all write fantasy and all have different styles. I’ve yet to read George R. Mountain’s stuff, but a co-worker was absorbed by it, so it must have been good. Was the tv series wildly different from the books or did it follow pretty closely? How would the Witch World series be classified as? Gritty or Whimsy? Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel series could certainly fall under alternate history and while it has a lyrical flowing sensuality to it, it also definately has some grit. As it is alternate history fantasy, it couldn’t be really deemed form fitting accurate to the Earth centuries it takes place in.
    On the other hand Simon R Green’s books such as his Hawk and Fisher books or Nightside books tend toward grit rather than whimsy, but the former is definately not an earth setting and the latter while definately gritty is a more modern setting that sits hand in glove with a magical Nightside. I haven’t read him in a while, but I think Charles de Lint has elements of both. Come to think of it, I think the only true examples of whimsy I know of are authors like Peter S. Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn” or Young Adult fantasy. So, perhaps, it’s more of a question as to the audience it’s written for? At the end of it all, my honest opinion mirrors that of your in many ways – the market is big enough for a variety of fantasy forms and writing styles. Hm, I’m not through his first book yet, but how would one classify Hal Duncan’s works?

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 3, 2012 7:07 pm

  20. A question on the side, do you think descriptive violence has gotten too prevailent in our writing because the vilolence in our society has risen, mirroring our reality or has our society gotten more used to violence because it’s more readily seen, heard and read in mass media?

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 3, 2012 7:18 pm

  21. Gritty realism vs. fanciful fantasy has nothing to do with whether a work is political and some are falsely conflating the two. I don’t see why fantasy and science fiction have to go in one particular direction or another. There are many authors and many more readers. Why do authors in the genre have to move in lockstep? That said, some people, whom I consider dysfunctional, cannot stop thinking about politics. And their endless accusations of ***ism against anyone who doesn’t share their ideology is the real problem.

    George Martin isn’t a bad author because of his politics. He is a bad author because he can’t complete a story in a reasonable space and relies too much on shock value, almost always an indication of a sub-par artist.

    Comment by Tyr - February 3, 2012 7:32 pm

  22. Shadowfax,

    Violent death has decreased over the last few decades. Descriptive violence, like descriptive sex, is a crutch that compensates for missing talent. Worse, most of the authors who use that crutch don’t seem to have much experience with either and it shows in their descriptions.

    Comment by Tyr - February 3, 2012 7:35 pm

  23. Ah ha! Just re-read the very top (I’ll paste it here):

    ‘My Black Gate post this week is not a review, nor an essay proper, but a question: Is it possible for fantasy to move beyond the political? Or because it is written by authors of a particular time and place, must fantasy—however fantastic its subject matter—forever remain trapped within the circles of our own world?’

    That’s probably why I thought it was asking about fantasy and politics – it asks if it can move beyond the political at the very beginning. But as it was clarified to me in another post (I love pasting *lol*):

    ‘Shadowfox13, a lot of this is a fight over what direction fantasy should go in. Should it be whimsical or bloody and gritty? Should it be tomes of political and religious nostalgia or explorations of the limits of human imagination?’

    That helped a little – though again I have not read GRRM’s works (hehehe GRRM it sounds like Grim) probably because I’ve other things I’ve been reading or planning to read, though I saw a few of the tv episodes of the show based on his books. And I’m not any where near educated enough to be a literary critic to be honest, but if I am understanding the tid bits and after watching a few of the episodes (which kind of reminded me of Rome in the violence) I’d have to guess it’s a rather violent alternative history fantasy or high fantasy with tons of blood and gore. Hence my question on the side above. I do think it is possible to have a ‘gritty’ feel without the added detailed gratituous gore. After all, we all know mideval ages itself was pretty violent, but they don’t give you a descriptive detail in school when they teach you about it (well, they might in University classes, but I couldn’t tell you for sure)

    I’m still trying to wrack my brain for adult fantasy that is whimsical but most I can think of are all YA. Does anyone have examples?

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 3, 2012 8:05 pm

  24. But it can also be argued that it’s only popular because there are people out ther who enjoy reading it. So stories in that vein continue.

    (In Answer to)
    |
    |
    \/

    ‘Descriptive violence, like descriptive sex, is a crutch that compensates for missing talent. Worse, most of the authors who use that crutch don’t seem to have much experience with either and it shows in their descriptions.

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 3, 2012 8:16 pm

  25. […] and reality not sure if this has been discussed before, but i came across this article on black gate magazine yesterday, and thought it was interesting. essentially (for those too lazy […]

    Pingback by fantasy and reality - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums - February 4, 2012 9:48 am

  26. “Female fantasy characters who act and think like 2012 American women are wildly offputting.”

    The irony is that I just heard at a convention two panelists, both women, criticizing GRRM because the world does not have gender equality. They were (with obvious reluctance) willing to concede it for historical settings, but since it wasn’t one, they didn’t think it too much to ask.

    Comment by Mary - February 4, 2012 11:48 pm

  27. Well, it is conceivable in a fantasy setting that women could be on a more ‘equal footing’ as it was not ‘whatever century’ Earth, hence not a alternate history fantasy however, everyone is different and brings different experience and ideals to their writing. I think Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Rider series got a lot of criticism about her LGBT characters. Though I thought it unfair considering the decade she started writing those books. In that light I’d have said she opened minds. My point is, it may not have occurred to him at the time of his writing the books. Hm, my observation would be as he is male, he writes a more male ‘colored’ fantasy.

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 5, 2012 2:05 am

  28. I have this book called “The Complete Guide To: Writing Fantasy” which has a collection of essays on writing fantasy. There is one chapter about research – bear with me – which talks about researching the details that go into your world. Which makes a point with an example where a story occurs in an Ancient Egypt like setting but has the mention of a bed with a mattress. A minor detail, but important to the bigger picture of things. Hence the need to research what one uses. Of course, my opinion is that if it isn’t an alternate history type of fantasy, subtle mixing and matching should not hurt if it is known to be done deliberately and with care. I mean what if a world does have beds because someone came up with the idea for one, but they’re done by a magical transformation of straw first mundanely sewn into a huge tapestry like cloth? It would still give that ‘hint of realism’ because it started out as mundane straw before it’s transformation. So whatever the style of writing – gritty, not gritty, etc – the world has to be plausible in some way. That is filtered through a writer’s mind which is informed by their experience as well as their research. I would add to a prior commentary that some recent sub-genres of fantasy are tailored for descriptive sex or gore – i.e. the so called Romantica or horror – and a lot of people enjoy reading them while others may not. Is it truly a crutch or writing to publishing criteria that is ‘popular’ and sells – after all publishing companies are still businesses and the bottom line for keeping them in business is the almighty dollar.

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 5, 2012 2:38 am

  29. It is also conceivable in a fantasy setting that women could be on a less ‘equal footing’ as it was not ‘whatever century’ Earth. It kinda depends on what the story needs.

    Comment by Mary - February 5, 2012 10:46 pm

  30. Too true :)

    Comment by Shadowfox13 - February 6, 2012 2:32 am

  31. The assertion that the characters in ASOIF are insufficiently religious compared to people of the 14th century is an obvious confusion of fantasy with historical fiction. Secondly, the idea that fantasy fiction is improved by resemblance to a past culture in all aspects is invalid. The work should be accessible to the contemporary audience. Resemblance or divergence are 2ndary considerations at best.
    I don’t see Mr. Mieville & Ms. LeGuin as being polar opposites. Yes, author & reader bring socio-politico assumptions to fiction. But any particular work may or may not make an intentional social or political statement. 1 can find things that aren’t there.

    Comment by hooded.swan - February 6, 2012 10:08 am

  32. One thing I do love about Black Gate comment fields is how it functions as a polite battleground over what does and does fit into “acceptable” fantasy, and that more often than not, politics (that is, real world politics) rears its head. Once upon a time, I as a poly sic major, and the whole debate makes my poor aging heart beat faster…

    Re: Mieville, I finally read one of his novels, THE CITY AND THE CITY, which is both confusing and very much in line with his overt politicization. It’s a procedural, sort of. With overlapping realities just to keep the reader (and his characters) hopping.

    I haven’t read LeGuin for a while, but my memory of THE DISPOSSESED is that it’s about as political a novel as you’re likely to find. I wonder sometimes about author’s own ability to assess themselves, or to live up to their theories.

    Currently reading J.K. Rowling aloud to my youngest. It’s so inclusive it’s almost funny: she takes great care to note the race of every minority who gets into Hogwarts, except the white kids. By default, any first-year who doesn’t have their skin color mentioned is Caucasian. But is that political? Or just a tic of her writing?

    Who’s next?

    Comment by markrigney - February 6, 2012 11:55 pm

  33. I reread Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia about a year ago. (The subtitle is usually dropped, but very important to the work.) The last time I’d read it before that was about 20 years ago when I was in my teens. My 15-year-old self recognized immediately all the problems with the more capitalistic, imperialistic society on Urras, but recognized almost none of the problems with the anarchist society on Annares. Though Le Guin has sometimes identified herself as an anarchist, she took great pains to show the many small tyrannies that might very plausibly arise in even the most functional anarchy. Reading The Dispossessed as an escaped former professor myself, I had a new appreciation for the protagonist’s decision to flee his home planet over university politics gone wrong. And it was more apparent to me that it was not at all guaranteed that Shevek would survive the angry mob that awaited his homecoming at the end of the novel.

    It’s a political book, all right, but I would say it’s more like a thought experiment than like a polemic. What would have to be true of an anarchist society for it to survive for more than a generation? What dysfunctions would arise from its functioning? What kinds of relations could it have with societies different from itself? Whatever a reader’s own political leanings might be, it’s possible to read this thought experiment with interest–something that could not be said if it were just a sermon in favor of the author’s own views.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - February 7, 2012 2:16 am


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