Monday, April 11, 2011

F is for Fantasy

Fantasy is arguably the most ancient genre of storytelling. One can imagine that some ancient storyteller regaled his fellow hut dwellers with a tale of the day's hunt, but one can also imagine that the "one that got away" was unbelievably big and had fantastic powers. Fantasy is as old as civilization and encompasses all forms of imaginative storytelling -- even the plausible/possible. Everything from Tolkien's "Middle Earth" to the New York of ABC's Castle is a fantasy world where a storyteller engages an audience in an attempt to educate and delight them.

Yet for all its ubiquity, Fantasy that typically brings to mind a vary narrow set of tales. These are stories of Feudal societies where valiant knights slay evil demons/trolls/dragons and where the writing is "uninspired," "lacks seriousness," "is for children," or "isn't literature." What is it about fantasy, the progenitor of all fiction, that makes some rebuff it and seek to separate their own favored fiction as somehow superior to "mere fantasy"?

Recently, David Brin of all people, wrote a blog post claiming that Science Fiction differed from Fantasy in that SF stories believed in the "perfectibility of man," while Fantasy seemed steeped in an almost authoritarian desire to ensure that "the social order stays the same." The thrust of his argument, though he might disagree, appears to be that SF is superior to Fantasy because it breaks free from the "reactionary" notion that we are doomed to repeat our past or that human nature is a fixed thing. SF assumes we can learn and overcome the sins of our fathers, and if we don't accomplish this very possible thing then we are tragic figures. For Brin it is the cautionary tale that makes SF superior.

There are too many ways in which Brin's essay fails to make its case for me to itemize here -- to be fair this and it were only blog posts and one could/should spend an entire semester in a lit genre class discussing this very question.

Brin isn't the first, nor even the best at making this argument.

Michael Moorcock's seminal essay on Tolkien's "trilogy," Epic Pooh, cuts right to the core of Brin's argument. In that piece, Moorcock argues:

"The sort of prose most often identified with 'high' fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth music...It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells comforting lies..."

"Like Chesterton, and other markedly Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour, he sees the petite bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalised in such fiction because, traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the status quo."

"In many ways, The Lord of the Rings is, if not exactly anti-romantic, an anti-romance."

"I find this sort of consolatory Christianity as distasteful as any other fundamentally misathropic doctrine."

"I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes of a finer future, her middle classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of the rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery-room wall."

There is so much more that the brief quotes above to Moorcock's essay, which is available in both Monkey Brain Book's Wizardry and Wild Romance and in Savoy Books' invaluable Michael Moorcock: Into the Media Web. Needless to say, Moorcock views a certain vein of fantasy storytelling as misanthropic -- due to its sentiments regarding human nature and the need of a heavenly protector/father to comfort us -- and as inferior to fantasy that is truly romantic and humanistic.

Brin is more reductive in his post, implying that Fantasy is regressive/reactionary while SF is progressive and positive, but his main point is the same. Type of fiction A is superior to type of fiction B because of type of fiction B's superior understanding of humanity. In the case of Moorcock there is an argument for what it means to be human -- and that it means facing terrors -- that is clearly articulated and compelling. In Brin, it seems that there is a kind of equally misanthropic Post-Human/Trans-Human/Singularity argument going on. I find much transhuman, post-singularity, fiction to be as misanthropic as anything Moorcock accuses Tolkien of writing.

To be fair, Brin's own novels aren't misanthropic and feature interesting tales of human struggle. Equally though, there are moments when he demonstrates that mankind can fall back to those feudal tendencies if they aren't continually reminded of the lessons of the past and provided the connections with the past necessary to learn from it. In his novel The Postman human society collapses back to feudal principles, only to be saved by communication and connection to others. That book has a powerful argument, but underlying it is a sort of assumption to the fixed nature of man. The society may improve, but the people don't -- nor do their motives.

In fact, there are whole genres of SF that are obsessed with the lack of perfectibility in man. The cyberpunk genre may have people who are physically improved through technology, but the societies created by these people are mere mercantilist nightmares. Dystopic SF isn't always a "cautionary tale," it is often a lamenting screed of "if only we could, but we can't."

Where I do agree with Brin is that Fantasy "ought" to have stories where the old order can be overcome, where people can learn from the past to make better societies, and humans are completely doomed by human nature to be flawed creatures for eternity.

There are many books and essays about what Fantasy is or isn't, where it fails or doesn't fail, what genre is superior to what other genre, how modern Fantasy is immoral, how old fantasy is reactionary and lame, how SF is fascist...the list is nigh infinite. I highly recommend Moorcock's Epic Pooh, Tolkien's On Fairy Stories,, The Language of the Night by Ursula LeGuin, and HP Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature. Each of these essays approach the topic from a different perspective, but all are worth while -- as is Brin's post for that matter.

I like all the forms of Fantasy. I love the nursery stories of Winnie the Pooh, the tragic tale of Achilles, the tale of the everyman hero Frodo, the tales of the super heroic and noble John Carter, the complex politics of The Culture, the wide eyed optimism of the Golden Age SF, the cynical and depressing pessimism of cyberpunk, the progressive and the reactionary. They all have a place on my bookshelf with none holding a moral high ground over the other. Fantasy and SF each have reactionary and progressive tales.

The fantasies I love the most though, are those created by my twin daughters. In their world, they are Jungle Junction (what my daughters call Ellyvan) and Iron Man battling the Grabbing Goblin and the Mandarin in order to save Uniqua and Captain D'Amedicada.
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