Wednesday, June 15, 2011

STL #98: An Assay Into the Nature of the Fantastic

I haven't written an academic article in some time. In fact, I have on occasion wondered if I'll ever write one again. But I've had for some time in my mind a theory that would best be explored in such a setting (if it's not too banal).  My theory is as follows: "Science fiction and fantasy" is an umbrella term that yokes together two large genre groups that are radically different politically. Science fiction is inherently politically progressive while fantasy is by nature reactionary. This theory of mine obviously has two propositions, one about science fiction and one about fantasy, so in actuality would be best explored in two separate articles. I thought I might use this space to start to articulate my thoughts on the fantasy half  of the equation, in recognition of my recent reading.

My current obsession is George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, but I'm not ready to write about Martin's work yet. I tore through Game of Thrones and am a few hundred pages into the second book, A Clash of Kings. Being only 1,000 pages in to the yet-to-be-completed series, I can't actually make a judgement. I have the better part three fat paperbacks yet to read, not to mention a new hardcover of equivalent length and at least one unwritten volume. Among the many virtues I've found so far, though, is the political intrigue of the apparent dissolution of a kingdom. The characters, fantastic yet utterly believable, act as the participants of any court of any era might. The plot and storytelling is handled well in what I've read so far. Martin, a former television story editor, balance many strands and character viewpoints. We see the action from the shifting perspectives of a small number of key characters,  each, in the fashion of the classic screenplay, with desires and obstacles. As a result, he balances a number of character strands.  In Game of Thrones, the endings to these strands were thrilling. Because of the multi-volume format, each ending had to conclude the character's arc and start them out on a new one. Each marked a sudden but suddenly inevitable turn in character development. The first of the four endings was a pleasant surprise, the second a grand gesture. In response to the third, I pumped my fist in the air (an unusual maneuver to make while reading). As I read the fourth and final ending, I had a mild epileptic fit. On finishing the novel, I did a shamanic dance on one foot.

But back to my basic theory, that sf is inherently progressive and fantasy is reactionary. I'll begin by saying that I don't intend any value judgement.  Though in my personal politics I am a progressive and feel stern antipathy to reactionary politics, as a reader I rather prefer the fantasy genre (being quite taken with Martin, for instance. I may be somewhat old-fashioned in the belief that one can separate aesthetic response from political facts (and, for what it's worth, I fancied myself a scholar of Pound's work some years back.) For another disclaimer,  I do not think my theory will describe the whole terrain in absolute terms. Some science fiction writers no doubt have been personally conservative and set out to write pronouncedly conservative books. Robert A. Heinlein comes to mind.  The reverse is no doubt true too. Rather, I mean to argue that each genre has developed a set of qualities that tend toward one political pole or the other. Science fiction is predicated on change: a story is not considered to be science fiction unless its world can be differentiated from our own. Fantasy postulates worlds without change: Elric of Melnibone is the 976th of the name. Change that does occur is either the coming of evil or a reversion to an older order; vide Return of the King.  Science fiction strives to explain change in lifestyle and technological development, sometimes to its detriment. Fantasy is under the obligation to explain nothing, having the option to mystify power into magic. Power is thereby festishized in a familiar fascistic manner. Finally, and I'm on shakier ground here, fantasy may tend to be racially essentialist in a way that sf is not. Alien races if sf can be symbols of humanity manifesting itself in myriad forms. First contact fiction generally ends with new understandings or accommodation of newness. The traditional races in fantasy realms (elves, dwarves, orcs) have essential natures that are less than the (often implicitly white) human race. This last point is problematic, because it compares shoddy examples of one camp with sophisticated examples of the other. One could select examples to make the opposite point.  If I don't think of some structural reason for this difference, I may cut it.

This brings me to the question of texts. In fantasy, I must at least address Tolkein's  foundational text and I will be thinking about this as reading Martin. While something like Norman's Gor series is a sitting target, Tolkein, which can be read as an anti-Nazi book is not a ready candidate for a fascist text, nor is Martin on the surface of it. Reading Martin, I do not feel myself to be in the company of a Tea Party zealot or even necessarily a Republican. (Nor is he patently liberal or progressive.) After finishing Martin, I hope to read further in the field to see if my theory will bear out. Then I'll return to sf, specifically the progressive novels of the 60's and 70's that inspired my theory in the first place.