Is Fantasy Inherently Not Political?

Is Fantasy Inherently Not Political?

51JxxayJXkL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_51j4q19higL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently, a columnist in The New Yorker discussed how literary work has ceased discussing politics and has accepted the prevailing economic assumptions and political models. He noted that the political discourse that is happening in literature is happening in science fiction and went on to illustrate forward-looking political principles featured in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series.

It’s easy to think of other examples of science fiction as a vehicle for political argument, all the way back to H.G. Wells and into today with the Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin, or Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross, or too many to list. The Libertarian Futurist Society even offers the Prometheus Award annually for libertarian science fiction.

A small Canadian publisher, Bundoran Press, is starting to carve itself out a niche with its concern with science fiction as a vehicle for political discourse with an Aurora-winning anthology called Blood & Water*, about the resource wars to be fought in the 21st century, and a new one, already available for pre-order, called Strange Bedfellows: An Anthology of Political Science Fiction. So, without a doubt, science fiction is actively and increasingly involved in political discussion.

So, does the same go for fantasy? On Wednesday, Black Gate columnist M. Harold Page tackled the question, with his article Why Medieval Fantasy is Not Inherently Conservative (or Inherently Anything Political).

What about more contemporary fantasy? I tried to think of some examples, but I’m not sure the zombie apocalypse can count as a legitimate part of a political argument. I asked David Hartwell, who has experience anthologizing the year’s best science fiction as well as the year’s best fantasy. He viewed fantasy as being more concerned with pastoral situations and identity politics.

Dan Hassl, in his essay “Steampunk Remade: China Mieville and the Political Potential of Fantasy Literature”, notes very similar views, right back to Tolkein, the founder of modern fantasy, who called fantasy “a form of consolation” for audiences unsettled by the change filling the modern world. Although Hassl argues that Mieville is doing something new and politically-relevant:

Generally speaking, these fantasy narratives present thinly veiled allegorical mappings of European geographies, organized as bizarrely utopian feudal economies, populated by cultural stereotypes associated with real-world nation-states, and threatened from the East and South by barbaric, far less developed races that create what Fredric Jameson describes as “the ethical binary of good and evil” that informs fantasy fiction.

A quick glance at some of my favorite fantasy worlds, by writers such as R. Scott Bakker, Katherine Kurtz and Edgar Rice Burroughs, tend to support this view.

Jeff VanderMeer, in his post on “Politics in Fantasy” argues:

Current events should have an impact on writers and resonate in their fiction. Activism has a place in the writing of fantasy fiction. Characters, plots, story structures all benefit from a careful consideration of, and dialogue with, the political world.

BWThis is a visionary and aspirational statement, a call to action rather than a State of the Union, but it does inform some of the literary fantasy being written, as well as the weird fantasy that has appeared in VanderMeer’s anthologies.

So, what I conclude so far from my reading experiences and the views of others in the field, is that fantasy as a genre engages only minimally in political discussions. Perhaps the only example I can think of is Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron,” which is not so much a political text as a fable of economics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Also, it’s amazing and you can listen to it for free at Podcastle.

Why is it that we can’t think of many examples of political fantasy? I muse (imagine me stroking my chin with a serious look) that editors acquire stories that they believe their audiences will want to read. They are buying non-political stories, and perhaps if we go back to Hassl, stories of simplicity and consolation. I would continue to muse (stroking my chin thusly) that this has something to do with the reading appetites of fantasy audiences. I’m not throwing stones in a glass house; I get paid money to write science fiction and fantasy.

But is it more than that?

As a writer of both science fiction and fantasy, do I censor myself to include politics in my scifi (which I certainly do) and to not do so in my fantasy? I can always think of lots of real-day metaphors and linkages in my scifi, but maybe it is harder to find a fantasy-based metaphor for relevant political thinking. That being said, I have written fantasy about street kids (more social commentary than political) and a fantasy about development aid, so perhaps it is possible. But I think it does run deeper. I do tend to buy into the views of Tolkein and Hassl and others that, at its roots, fantasy serves an escapist and consoling role for fans.

The flipside then is that science fiction, at it’s roots (if you look past old hack-work of space patrols) are subversive and socially challenging. It is also inherently future-looking, predictive and questioning, something that adds to its subversive power. I can’t think of any sacred cows in science fiction, so politics is just one among many targets of the discussion. Politics is about how we govern ourselves and the distribution of power and wealth and responsibility. Can fantasy, other than the weird and subversive sub-genre, do this? For the sake of being provocative, and also because this is the way my evidence so far is leaning, I’m going to say no, and throw down the gauntlet for someone to prove me wrong.

*Full Disclosure: I have a short story in this anthology, but it is only one of twenty and it is about clowns, so it is probably accurate to say that my contribution to the Aurora Award is minimal 🙂

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I think its more a matter of what is or is not published, what is let in the door by editors… I think that by nature Science Fiction will lean political while Fantasy will lean philosophical. And if we as writers of stories, consumers of stories push for open direct markets, taking the hits for the drek the editors also pushed out, the field will evolve into a beast very outspoken.

Matthew David Surridge

Well, I disagreed with M. Harold Page’s article earlier today, and I think I have to disagree here. Although some of this may be definitional. I mean, I think David Hartwell has a point when he says that fantasy lends itself to exploring identity politics; but how then is that not political? Accepting your definition of politics as being “about how we govern ourselves and the distribution of power and wealth and responsibility” (which certainly seems fair for the sake of discussion) does identity politics not come into that? For example, is E.R. Eddison’s Zimiamvia trilogy, which has a lot to do with Eddison’s ideas about gender and divinity and how these things are related and work themselves out, not political?

Still, trying to be as strict as I can, here are some consciously political works of fantasy that leap to mind:

— Steph Swainston’s Castle books used fantasy to look at how a command economy would handle industrialisation (during warfare).

— Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana used a magic that affected memory to talk about conquest and imperialism.

— A Song of Ice and Fire is dealing with politics in the clash of religions in Westeros, and in Daenerys Targaryen’s exploits in the East.

— Susan Palwick’s The Necessary Beggar followed a family moving from a secondary fantasy world into this world, and so seemed to be engaged with issues of immigration and assimilation. (Identity politics, I suppose, but I got the impression it was also trying to speak to debates about immigration policy in the United States.)

— I’ve only dipped into these books, but I gather Samuel Delany’s Neveryon series had a lot to do with economic structures and the movement from barter to a money economy.

— William Morris was a socialist, and his fantasies can certainly be read as questioning the relative virtues and flaws of feudalism and capitalism.

— Dave Sim’s Cerebus examines the transition of a society from a medieval economic structure and level of technology through to ‘modern times’.

— I thought The Steel Seraglio, by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey was trying to make certain political points, though I’m not sure it succeeded.

— Salman Rushdie’s fiction often mixes the fantastic and the political (think of The Satanic Verses).

— There’s also China Miéville, who I have believe has spoken about trying to infuse his political perspectives into his fantasy. Michael Moorcock as well.

How’s that for starters?

Ty Johnston

Fantasy, like any literary genre, is not “inherently” anything, one way or another. It’s whatever any individual writer can come up with. Now whether it gets published or not is a different story.

I agree that much of the early (pre-1990 or thereabouts) pseudo-medieval fantasy tends to be conservative literature, even socially to some extent, though not necessarily politically. Just because one form of oligarchy or another is used as the backdrop for an adventure tale does not mean the story in and of itself has a conservative bent politically. I’d also agree that much of the media-tie-in fantasy fiction tends to be fairly conservative from a literary angle, but such fiction isn’t generally meant to or expected to stretch literary boundaries, but to focus on the adventure aspects.

Does this mean there are no modern authors making political statements? I don’t think so, but I do tend to think many modern authors (of most if not all genres) shy away from strong arguments one way or another in concern of losing part of their audience. Maybe fantasy authors are more susceptible of this than sci-fi authors, or authors of other genres.

But truth be told, I’m not seeing in modern fantasy how it is more interested in “pastoral situations.” Tolkien, yes, obviously, maybe even Lewis and Dunsany, but modern writers? Really? Heck, even Terry Brooks isn’t generally writing about “pastoral situations,” at least not beyond his earliest works way back in the late ’70s.

“Identity politics” is more common, but I’d have to believe it’s more common in nearly all forms of literature nowadays than it was even a few decades ago.


I think it is easier for sci-fi to be political as it inherently deals with the future, so the effects of today’s politics can be played out on a large scale.

Fantasy is much more escapist and much more influenced by the past. This does not mean that you cannot be political, just that it is necessarily more circumspect. Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga deals with issues of racial discrimination quite explicitly, with a more subtle environmental theme (A thinning of the world’s ozone layer is mentioned in The Last Wish).

I would say that fantasy is not inherently political, but it can be used to make a political point. Even Tolkien made political points – In Lord of the Rings Saruman represents the ecological damage caused by an industrial society.


Why must every genre be political? The idea that art must be political is absurd and usually comes from proponents of various totalitarian ideologies.

Fantasy doesn’t work well for propaganda anyways . It is historically focused whereas SF offers possibilities. Merely extrapolating the present into the future requires some sort of political judgement.

Unfortunately, this has not prevented people from trying to rewrite historical facts via fantasy and the resulting stories range from silly to awful. My advise to the wanna be fantasy propagandists. Go write a blog about your ”important ideas’ or at least try and craft a plausible SF story. There are no shortage of op-ed columns. Most of us don’t want another – especially one with hand waving magic.

Come to think of it, the political debate today mostly involves hand waving magic and fantasy so maybe these authors should just run for office!

[…] A blog about politics in Fantasy  […]

Ty Johnston

Thinking about this post some more, I wanted to add some things:

I think modern fantasy literature is too often, and unfairly, being judged under a solitary label or vision, even by people who should know better.

That term “pastoral situations” bugs the h— out of me, mainly because I do not think it’s fair today, especially coming from people who should really know better. I can only assume such people either have an axe to grind, do not prefer the fantasy genres, or are not as well read in fantasy as one might think.

In “Wizardry and Wild Romance,” Michael Moorcock takes Tolkien and Lewis and their ilk to task for “pastoral situations.” In fairness, Moorcock does not use that exact term (not to my memory), but he’s inferring such or something similar. From Moorcock, such an attitude is understandable and believable, the man coming from an earlier generation in which much of fantasy did indeed delve almost solely into “pastoral situations.”

But today, and perhaps for at least the last 20 years, with the possible exception of media-tie-in works, I find it boggling that fantasy literature would be accused of such, even fantasy that has a pseudo-medieval viewpoint. Has no one read Jacqueline Carey, Steven Erikson, Neil Gaiman?

And to go back even further, to the 1950s and 1960s, was Moorcock himself writing such literature? Was Fritz Leiber? Zelazny?

If one includes any story that contains even a vaguely medieval persona as having a “pastoral situation,” then I suppose the answer has to be “yes,” but come on. How many fantasy stories today are about the farm boy living in an idyllic situation but finding himself traveling Campbell’s hero’s journey? Didn’t that pretty much die after the original Star Wars movie? I’ve read my fair share of slush over the last decade, and my fair share of self-published works, and I’m just not seeing it. Outside of the writings of Christopher Paolini, I can’t think of a modern author who follows this exact path. Even Harry Potter, who obviously is on the hero’s journey, doesn’t wallow in “pastoral situations.”

Matthew Johnson

There’s no such thing as apolotical art, of course (see — even if an artist isn’t thinking about politics at all, that just means that it reflects his/her social and political beliefs and assumptions. There’s no question that genre fantasy, like most commercial genres, tends not to deal explicitly with politics, but just means that its social and political implications are more implicit (and typically have more to do with reinforcing mainstream social and political views.)

Aonghus Fallon

I think the ‘young shepherd embraces his destiny’ has been replaced by characters who occupy the periphery of society – ie, thieves, assassins and mercenaries. This is a familiar trope, especially in times where there is a generalised distrust of authority. Moral nihilism can be a welcome antidote to a certain type of stodgy, well-meaning cant, but – despite their issues – these characters are often far too well adjusted for my liking, which in turns bluntens their potential to make a point about the culture they inhabit.

But maybe we need to define exactly what we mean by ‘political’?


Joe Abercrombie’s books are *very* political. All that stuff about the rivalry between the bank and the wizard… I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, but if you make it all the way to the end of The First Law trilogy, I don’t think you can have any other opinion.

And speaking for myself, every fantasy short story I ever wrote was political too — including those I published with Black Gate. My tale The Sunshine Baron, is particularly transparent in this regard. The podcast is available for free here:

James McGlothlin

Tyr Johnson: “How many fantasy stories today are about the farm boy living in an idyllic situation but finding himself traveling Campbell’s hero’s journey?”

Aonghus Fallon: “I think the ‘young shepherd embraces his destiny’ has been replaced by characters who occupy the periphery of society – ie, thieves, assassins and mercenaries.”

Both of these comments stuck out to me because I’m currently reading Patrick Rothfuss’ bestselling fantasy series right now. And though Kvothe, his main character, is not a farm boy in an idyllic situation, I think he very much fits with the usual hero’s journey or embracing his destiny motif of old school fantasies that I grew up with.

The success of this Rothfuss’ fantasy series seems to say to me that the old school fantasy tradition is very much alive. No doubt Rothfuss’ books are more updated in some ways. But they are reassuringly familiar in many other ways.

I don’t think Rothfuss is trying to making any political statements in this series, at least not explicitly (Thank you Mr. Rothfuss!). But, I think, in many ways, his fantasy series has close associations with the Tolkien tradition (though I’m not sure you’d call it “pastoral”).

Just some thoughts . . .

[…] Strange Bedfellows: An Anthology of Political Science Fiction. I’d mentioned the anthology in my post as something I was looking forward to […]

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