Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Ideology, Terror and making fantasy relevant

One of the dangers of fantasy or science fiction writing is for the author to imagine an alternative world too much through the filters of the prevailing attitudes of his or her time or social circles.

For a science fiction writer, it's often necessary to stay in closer touch with the here and now, since much of sci-fi involves extending current trends into the future and developing them to their logical conclusions. The trick there is to recognise how attitudes will differ while making sure that the path by which society got to that place remains visible and relatable to the present day.

Fantasy has a couple of characteristics that make it a bit different. Firstly, it's much more about world building, in that the author doesn't have a set of established historical, geographical and cultural data that readers share and on which he or she can build the story. The fantasy author must build the entire geography, history and set of cultures from scratch (by and large they will pick and choose fragments from history and legend, but they still can't rely on the reader's familiarity with the background). Secondly, fantasy is a fundamentally conservative genre. Settings are largely based on historical or mythical themes, science is primitive or non-existent, society in a fantasy world usually has to deal with different challenges to modern industrial or post-industrial societies.

The result of these two factors means that the social and political world of a fantasy novel would likely be utterly alien to a modern day reader. The values of the people in it would reflect different social priorities and any insertion of the attitudes of the writer's own time will look clumsy at best and utterly shatter the fourth wall at worst. The ending of Philip Pullman's otherwise wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy with its "Republic of Heaven" premise is a classic example of this, because Pullman's own modern day liberal-left sensibilities jar with the alien world(s) he's spent the past several hundred pages constructing.

Obviously that doesn't mean that fantasy can only be written by right wingers. Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series is legendarily awful in large part because he can't let go of his own Randian wingnuttery. Where Pullman perhaps unwittingly allows a glimpse past the curtain, Goodkind places the ideological stage machinery front and centre. Pullman also has the advantage that his fantasy is rooted in a more fluid, technological universe in which social and political change are ideas that are by no means anathema to its existence. It doesn't quite work but it doesn't fail so utterly and completely.

But if you're writing about an archaic seeming world with a largely rural population, who the fuck is going to care about ideas like liberty, democracy and self-actualisation? Could an ancient or medieval society, even a magical one, even function along those lines outside of the city-state setup? Inserting those values into a fantasy novel is like giving Frodo Baggins a Segway to help him across the Plains of Mordor. 

We have of late been living in a society where those values are taken for granted though, and it's easy for them to slip unquestioned into our literature (and especially our Hollywood-dominated cinema). It also means that the values of the bad guys, which were born out of 19th century antipathy towards despotism, 20th century fears of fascism and communism, and 21st century anxieties about religious fundamentalism, also too often pass unquestioned. In fact Lord of the Rings itself never even bothers to explain what life under the rule of Sauron would be like. He's evil and that's that, just go ahead and imagine your worst nightmares (which at the time basically meant Hitler).

Taking on and providing analogues to real world political and ideological conflicts isn't a bad thing of course. The West's model of liberty and democracy and the sense that the march of these ideals is inevitable and unstoppable is challenged by places like China that have far less interest in democracy and yet seems to be doing very well thank you without it, so there is great value and probably more than a little interest in exploring alternative models of society in order to question and probe our own model. As I mention earlier, those kinds of questions are part of the job description of a science fiction author, and while it's a thornier problem for fantasy authors (given that escape from the real world is pretty much their raison d'etre) it can be done, particularly if the writer is skilled at mining historical sources for relevant but also convincing allegories.

That isn't often what the writer's looking for though. The writer is usually, whether they realise it or not, looking for a quick fix: a Big Bad that will get the audience on their side. They may think they're being challenging by dealing with an "issue", but they're not really challenging anything, and both the writer and audience are able to feel comfortable in their horror and revulsion. It's easy to look at the systematic murder of groups of people or the ethnic cleansing of populations and say, "No matter what your explanation, that's just wrong." Moral certainties like that are comforting.

Cultural relativism can be understood as an automatic and even necessary response to a world that is becoming more connected, and more and more information and conflicting values are forced to coexist in the media and especially online spheres. Trying to reconcile all those different ways of thinking, sets of values and traditions is going to drive you insane, so it's natural to look for an out: to say, "Oh well, different horses for different courses." It's a kind of tolerance of others' differences, but it's also a distancing mechanism. It's a way of saying, "That's nothing to do with me."

The flipside of that of course is that pretty much everyone has a line they draw somewhere, where they say, "No, enough is enough. That's just wrong." At some level, your tolerance for other people's differences has to give way because you feel something they do or think has intruded on your own ethical, moral or ideological territory. For some people, for example a religious fundamentalist, this line is drawn widely and they feel very offended and put upon, sometimes to homicidal degrees, by all kinds of things other people do with their lives. But for almost everyone, there are moments where your own values, your own sense of identity, pushes you to intolerance.

These moments can be interesting for a writer, and the minds of people who do things we find unacceptable are fertile grounds for literature.

Most people who commit atrocities aren't like Sauron. Most people would agree that even the worst crimes against humanity are often committed by people who think they're doing right. What gets less attention is the fact that a lot of horrendous crimes are not only committed in a spirit of righteousness, but they're also quite logical.

Robespierre and Saint-Just were quite rational in their application of the Jacobin Terror and while the period is frowned upon by modern liberals, a look at the history of revolution and counterrevolution in many countries suggests that a period of terror to rigorously instill revolutionary values (Zizek takes it further, adding the idea of "divine violence", although the philosophy isn't as much of a concern to me here as the practical side) is an entirely logical response to the danger of reassertion of the old regime or the creeping return of their remnants through the weakening of revolutionary zeal. Similarly, the murder of the Russian royal family and the destruction of their remains was a logical response to the reality of such figures' symbolic power -- revolutions had failed in Russia before, and the punishments of the perpetrators had been severe. In both cases people did horrible things that nonetheless made perfect sense in terms of the situation in which they occurred and what the people were trying to achieve.

There is much controversy over the issue, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that from a moral perspective, it's very difficult to defend Israel's actions in Palestine. Nevertheless, one could argue that from a strictly rational point of view, Israel doesn't go nearly far enough. What kind of Palestinian state could ever emerge from that situation that would be anything other than pathologically hostile to Israel? We may see Palestinians as victims and instinctively sympathise with them but Israel's own history shows us how easily oppressed can become oppressors. In the mind of someone like Benjamin Netenyahu he is not committing crimes, he is Doing What Has To Be Done. A more ruthless man might do more, as America did to its native population without apparently seeming to even notice it.

We live in a world where "terror" has become an evil in itself, a binary opposite of "humanity", but this is a function of our own comfortable lives and society (and one Robespierre and Saint-Just would have disagreed with fundamentally). For us there is no greater evil than the disruption of our peaceful existence. How easily might we slip into a new fascism all of our own if that comfort were threatened? For me, one of the most interesting and valuable avenues that the science fiction or fantasy author can explore is the minds and rationales of the people with whose values and actions we disagree or reject. Not in the sensitive, liberal-minded and relativistic way of "tolerating" them from a distance but to really get inside the heads of those who trespass upon the ideological ground that makes up our identity.

In this sense, fantasy, so often intellectually the idiot sibling of science fiction, can in fact provide a more subtle, allegorical comment on the world, challenging contemporary assumptions about The Way It Is and taking us ideologically on tangents from the straight lines that science fiction tends to draw into the future. Of course most won't do that, and undoubtedly many writers and fans in the genre are attracted to it precisely for the way it presents us with an established social hierarchy with simplistic and small "c" conservative values.

Even then, however, there is something interesting in showing us the thought processes and logical steps a king goes through in his decision to go to war or levy a tax, and then letting us see the effect that has on the peasant farmer. Does the farmer dream of change? If so, what sort of change can he envisage? As I said before, a modern liberal democracy would probably be low down on the list. Another, better king might be more like it, because this imaginary peasant's sense of the natural order of things would likely be just as limited by his experience as ours is by our own world. Where we usually hold fantasy at a distance like good social relativists -- "it's another place, they live differently there." -- and where bad fantasy writing allows modern ideas to unwelcomely intrude, an alternative model of fantasy literature can induce the reader to examine their own ideas by introducing recognisable problems into the world of the story but having the characters tackle them using a totally different set of ideological tools. Our response -- horror, pathos, amusement, anger, whatever -- is influenced by our consciousness of the gap between what we see or read happening and what our instincts tell us should be happening. Thus the writer is able to address contemporary values or issues by their very absence, sidestepping the awkwardness of inserting them into an arena where they don't necessarily belong.

No comments: