Is Our Fantasy Readers Learning?

Charles Stross, “Genre neuroses 101“:

“Finally, there is the blasted heath that is fantasy. At least the two decade long post Lord of the Rings hang-over is mostly over, and the post-movie-trilogy bean fest has faded somewhat. There’s some really interesting stuff going on there (paging Paul Park, Paul Park to the white courtesy phone — or Steven Brust, at a pinch). But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another.” (emphasis mine)

Two problems with the sentence in bold.

First, fantasy is not “by definition” consolatory and escapist. Not even China Mieville believes that. It is trivial to come up with counterexamples.

Second, why is “consolatory” fantasy so obviously inferior to “unsettling” fantasy? I can agree that fantasy that rattles our sensibilities can be excellent. But saying that excellent fantasy must rattle our sensibilities, that’s not qualitatively different from saying that all excellent fantasy should Teach Us Something. Ugh. Look, I don’t mind if you enjoy attempting to OMG R0X0r OUR W0rldvi3w!!!11one1!!, but please, don’t assume that’s the end-all be-all goal for fiction.

Oh, and another thing. “Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world…” Umm, if this is a reference to fundamentally aphysical nature of fantasy, please do keep in mind that 98% of SF, even “hard SF”, is equally aphysical. Those “nanobot/Singularity” stories that are so hip these days? They’re as grounded in reality as the latest offering from Laurel K. Hamilton. Not that nanobot stories can’t be fun and all, but if you’re actually taking them seriously, well, that faint murmuring you’re hearing is the sound of a thousand condensed-matter physicists snickering.

8 thoughts on “Is Our Fantasy Readers Learning?

  1. Also, anyone who doesn’t think fantasy can ever “tell us something about the world” has a rather impoverished sense of what “the world” consists of, because there’s lots of fantasy that deals quite effectively with political and social issues. (The War of the Flowers, rather by accident, ended up becoming disturbingly apropos — its villains are a cabal of magical-energy executives, who use phony “security” issues to prop up their rule over fairlyland.)

  2. Oh, of course. The idea that “realistic characters in an unreal situation can still tell us something about the real world” is just thuddingly obvious — so much so that a bright guy like Stross couldn’t possibly be referring to that.

    Instead, I thought that he was arguing that science fiction somehow wins extra “reality” points because it’s based on SCIENCE, see? When the truth is that nearly all science fiction is based on “science”. Unfortunately, that distinction trips up a lot of people who really ought to know better.

    I will say that China Mieville is right on when he says about bad medieval fantasy, “if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king.” Many of Tolkein’s imitators are (perhaps unconsciously) incredibly reactionary. It’s pretty hard to read Extruded Fantasy Product with a modern perspective and not come away with a sense of weird vertigo. But this is a problem with some writers in fantasy — not all fantasy, and not even all medieval fantasy.

  3. So, I’ve always thought of fantasy and SF (at least the good stuff) as being almost purely about our world. The basic idea is to take some element of our world, amplify it, and then use that amplification as a tool to understand our world. Many people have a hard time seeing through this amplification, and end up labeling the genres as escapist.

    In SF, the amplification usually (but not always) occurs by moving into the future. Think multinational corporations and Cyberpunk. The multinationals are even more powerful and more evil in the future. Or are they really that evil and powerful now, but we just don’t see it?

    I know fantasy less well, but I’ll venture. Often fantasy seems to amplify class and racial divisions into truly distinct creatures: elves, hobbits, dwarves, and the less pleasant types. Surely this creates an effective vehicle for social commentary?

    Does this picture make sense to anyone else?

  4. Oh, it makes a lot of sense. I basically agree with you and Auros. That’s a wonderful point you make about amplification. The great thing about SF and fantasy is that if you want to explore some particular aspect of our world, SF and fantasy gives you some incredibly powerful knobs to turn.

    Of course, I like my escapism too.

    There are really two types of stories where I have issues. A) Stories with politics that are totally unexamined, where the author has not bothered to think through the ramifications of the world they have created. B) Stories that are merely a didactic exercise, where every character is a megaphone for proclaiming that X is bad and Y is good. Bad Tolkein ripoffs tend to fall into category A, while bad SF novels tend to fall into category B. I happen to find category B more irritating, but to each their own.

  5. Of course there’s C), piss-poor writing, but a category C almost always turns out to be a category A or B as well. Although the converse is not true.

  6. And then there’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where the politics has clearly been thought through, every character is realistic, the writing is excellent, and you still want to clobber the author because he can’t restrain himself to just three books. Oh no, he has to announce that he’s expanding his originally-projected five to seven, because volumes three and four got so big that they had to be expanded into two separate books apiece…

  7. Heh. Well, okay, the inability to tell a complete story in a single volume, that does seem to be a disease peculiar to fantasy. And probably inherited from Tolkein. Multi-volume series are fine as long as the volumes are loosely-coupled. If they’re not loosely coupled, the author had better have a darn good reason for it. (Besides $$.)

Comments are closed.