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[writing] Is all fantasy political? - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-02-15 05:57
Subject: [writing] Is all fantasy political?
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
Been noodling on something that cropped up on Twitter last week. A reader said she preferred her fantasy not to have politics in it. I think she meant allegories of contemporary politics, but that's just my gloss.

Anyone hanging around this blog long knows I'm passionate about contemporary politics. Anyone hanging around my fiction long knows I don't write about it in my fantasy, other than the very occasional contemporary fantasy short. I detest allegory in fiction, even when it's allegory I agree with.

Yet to my casual thinking, politics is inescapable in fantasy. The classic high fantasy tropes of the secret heir, the broken succession, the usurper/evil overlord, the quest to restore order/justice/the rightful line of kings — that's all deeply political. That flavor of fantasy is almost always about things happening to societies.

One could go up a couple of layers into metanalysis and argue quite sincerely that all fiction is political. This is a bit like arguing that all fiction is biographical. I'm pretty sure that's true, but also largely meaningless except as a tool for certain kinds of criticism.

So I'm nowhere near having an answer here, but I find the question interesting. Haven't made up my mind yet whether that's interesting-but-trivial or interesting-but-significant. A few questions for you, and quite curious to read your responses in comments, or on your own blogs.

  1. Is the question of whether fantasy contains politics meaningful to ask in the first place?

  2. Is traditional high fantasy as political as I've so casually portrayed it?

  3. Is it fair to analyze those politics only in internal terms, or does an external analysis bring value? Ie, are all us fantasy readers secret monarchists?

  4. What about other forms of fantasy? Other forms of speculative fiction?

  5. What about the politics of race, gender, class and so forth?

  6. Am I asking the wrong damned questions?


If we all get clever enough in comments, I might have a poll later.

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Laura Anne Gilman
User: suricattus
Date: 2010-02-15 14:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you may be asking the wrong question, or starting off on the wrong question, anyway, because you're asking "is it X" rather than "what is X?"

Do you disengage social politics from governmental politics? How about sexual politics? "Politics" after all is inclusive of the total complex of relations between people in a society, which really is at the heart of most (successful) fiction.

On a personal basis, THE VINEART WAR isn't about governmental politics at all, but is very much about social politics, the give and take and change of power sets within an established society. Not a monarchy in sight.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-02-15 15:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Politics" after all is inclusive of the total complex of relations between people in a society, which really is at the heart of most (successful) fiction.

I'm absolutely in agreement with you on this. If you look at politics as the expression of power dynamics between two or more people, then everything is about politics in some way or another.

I consciously write political fiction, but not all of it is about governmental politics. Some is, some isn't.
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Rachel Swirsky
User: rachel_swirsky
Date: 2010-02-15 14:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ann Leckie recently wrote an essay on the inescapability of politics in all fiction. I wrote about the subject a few years ago at the Aqueduct Press blog, an essay which I've tried to do better justice to in my contribution to a forthcoming in the Aqueduct Press book NARRATIVE POWER.

On fantasy particularly, I'm sure everyone's seen it, but there's Mieville on Tolkien and socialism in fantasy...
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-15 14:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you very much for the links. I know wiser heads than mine (including yours) have been chewing on this for years. Now I know where to start looking for more.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2010-02-15 14:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'll get moaned at for over-generalising but fantasy typically holds a mirror up to our world. And I'd wager that's impossible to do without the author's own prejudice of what's right or wrong with our own world slipping through. And therefore by the very act of worldbuilding, the author is saying something political about the world, but politics with a small p, rather than the sort of Democrat / Republican politics we typically associate the word with.

It's possible that if the author's (I'm going to say world-view here) aligns with your own, that the politics is transparent even if the politics of the world is adverse to your own beliefs (it's not what the world is like politically that matters but how the author promotes or castigates it).

Is it wrong to ask the question? Probably not, but to me at least the answer is as obvious as someone saying stories are really about people (with some exceptions).
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ulfhirtha
User: ulfhirtha
Date: 2010-02-15 15:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suspect it is "advocacy" and not quite politics per se that sometimes gets obtrusive. Such a slippery word, "politics". I think you are right that "politics is inescapable in fantasy". It also depends on, as Suricattus says, just what you mean by "politics". There are underlying assumptions about right & wrong, what constitutes reasonable behavior and how people should behave and so on in just about every work of fiction I can think of, let alone fantasy, from Gilgamesh through Game of Thrones. They are ingrained in the very mindset of the author and each reader. Manmela is right - fantasy (and fiction in general) "typically holds a mirror up to our world" and indeed for the story to comprehensible to us at all, it should be expected to be so. It is perhaps where any of these elements of setting feel like advocacy that a reader may have an issue: monarchism in "La Morte d'Arthur" vs militocracy in "Starship Troopers".

I suspect that high fantasy gets something of a pass on the governmental political end as it is expected that they have a medievalesque setting, of which kings & nobles are an expected part of the mental landscape. Unless you throw in some kind of uprisingBut of course we still want our own politics (including race/gender/class) interwoven into this ancient mindset making for at times an odd mix.
The future is different. The 'politics' are more noticeable, as it is wide open territory and can often be used (as Wells did) for commentary on our own society, with 1984 and Brave New World being prime examples, or to work out the What Ifs of some trends to see where they might lead. That too is largely built-in to the story: working out what a society might look like, and even the ones that seem to be just our current one extended into the future makes a political commentary (intended or not).
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martyn44
User: martyn44
Date: 2010-02-15 15:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Politics, as defined in my British Constitution class, is who gets what, when, why and how. Throw in Bob McKee's definition of story, who wants what, why can't they have it and what're they prepared to sacrifice to get it. What you have now is 'La condition humaine', the grist to all our mills.

All fictional stories are, by definition, 'political' because all socities and their ways of relieving conflict is political. War is just politics with a very sharp edge. Politics is inescapable in any discussion of the interactions between people because politics IS the interaction between people.

No, we're not ALL secret monarchists. As far as I'm concerned a monarch is just the most ruthless murderer and rapacious thief in town (knowledge gained by decades of studying British history) If I'm a secret monarchist the secret is so secret that I don't know about it.
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User: ex_truepenn
Date: 2010-02-15 15:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:ws: damville
I hate politics--for reasons which became apparent in that thread on my blog t'other day--and yet the five fantasy novels I've written are all intensely political, in the quite literal sense of being about government.

I'm still trying to figure out why I do that to myself, so this is an interesting question for me.

I think, though, that for a lot of people (me included), when they say they don't want politics in their fantasy, what they mean is, they don't want democracy. Because democracy is complicated and hard and no matter which side of the fence you're on, it always feels like the other guy wins 75% of the time. And that's frustrating--which is not really what most of us turn to fiction for. On the other hand, if you write your democracy so that the good guys do win, you have to work twice as hard to make it a believable victory and not just that thing (which also happens a lot in fantasy) where "good" turns into "agrees with protagonist."

Also, it requires a much larger cast of characters.

Whereas, if you're writing fantasy with a monarchy of convenience (as opposed to writing political fantasy about a monarchy, which is what keeps happening to me), all you need is a king off somewhere making decisions. If he's a good king, that's all you need to say about him and your characters can get on with their own lives. If he's a bad king, then your characters can go assassinate him and (because "good" equals "agrees with protagonist") be lauded as heroes. It's not that any monarchy anywhere in the world at any point in history has ever actually worked like that, it's that a king serves as a metonymy for government in a way that a president just can't. (See, for example, Shakespeare's history plays. There's a reason they're all titled by monarch, and why Shakespearean criticism talks about the Problem of Kingship.) And if you don't want to talk about politics, that's a really handy metonymy to have.

Monarchy gives the illusion that politics isn't political, that the guy in charge is in charge because of Divine Right or inheritable, magical, innate superiority (yes, Dr. Tolkien, I am looking at you), or because a watery tart chucked a sword at him. And I understand the temptations of that illusion. I really do. I just can't write the effing thing.
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ulfhirtha
User: ulfhirtha
Date: 2010-02-15 15:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And sometimes (as in Tolkien) Divine Right actually IS reality, but that doesn't mean the king doesn't have to work at being a good one (Kocher's essay on Aragorn is instructive on this point).
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-02-15 15:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is one of my rants.
Of course fantasy is political. It can't escape politics, and not simply because of its context or the tendency towards kings n' things. Fantasy is political because of its very shape. When you write fantasy, you construct new worlds, and no world can exist without politics. Those politics may be borrowed from history (or the cod version thereof), from personal beliefs, from mediaeval epic or nineteenth century romanticism, but they are there and they are shaped by the writer. Tolkien's Mediaeval society is not that of William Morris, though Morris influenced him, and Terry Brookes' isn't Tolkien's. We bring our expectaions and our expertise, our limitations, our romanticism and our errors.
There's more. Fantasy is often deeply subversive. Think about it. We in the fantasy ghetto are often accused of conservatism, monarchism, backwards-looking sentimentality. And yet... The core of much fantasy is not the dynamic of the mediaeval polity but that of the folk-tale. The cliche of the stableboy-becomes-king is the rhetoric of the trickster and the outsider, not the hereditary monarch. The lost heir has learned to understand the poor.
And then: here is the literature of equality, of women who are as likely to succeed, to be special, to be powerful as the men. The kick-ass fantasy heroine is still far more common than her starship captaining sf equivalent. Here is the literature open to LGBT issues, the societies where union of the same sex is the norm, where the gay swordsman is the hero, of transformation and subversion of gender. It looks at religions and their impacts, good and bad.
And then, there's the shape of the worlds. We know our tropes and we do not just repeat them. kateelliott uses epic fantasy to examine the effects of war on civilians, on slaves, on the poor -- and with a cold unsentimental eye. glass_mountain asks questions about race and culture and equality. So do Carol McDonnell and Steven Brust and Sharon Shinn. You, sir, look at our interactions with what we make. I could list more and more. Fantasy is where we reshape and recast and interrogate everything we know or think we know.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2010-02-15 15:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Quite simply: this
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fledgist
User: fledgist
Date: 2010-02-15 15:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Human beings live in societies. Societies are inherently political since politics is about power (who gets what, who decides who gets what). Fiction is about human beings relating to each other (who gets what, how that is decided). Fiction is thus, inherently about politics.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-02-16 05:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is?
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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2010-02-15 16:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Between man, the pattern-seeking ape and man, the political animal, I don't believe it's possible to keep politics out of any writing, fiction or non-fiction. If you're talking about human relationships, you're talking about politics at some level. Even an experimental novel comprised entirely of nonsense words would be a political statement of some sort. Art and politics are pretty much inseparable (although that may be my own pattern-seeking tendencies putting an overlay on art - or is it on politics?), as it all comes from reaction to (and hopes for) the larger society.

Overly preachy fiction is just bad fiction. It's not the politics that makes it bad, but the way it's framed. If you've never read L. Neil Smith's Libertarian SF (The Probability Broach and The Venus Belt to start), I'd recommend it, if for nothing else as a way to understand what a vision of a Libertarian utopia is. I use capital 'L' Libertarian because L. Neil was also the principle author of the Libertarian Party platform at one time. As fiction, I don't think it stands up all that well, and don't get me started on why libertarianism is just as much a crock as any other utopian vision.

I can't remember who it was who once accused Wells of 'selling his birthright for a potful of message', but it's always been one of my favorite auctorial criticisms.

Edited at 2010-02-15 04:13 pm (UTC)
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-02-16 05:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Pot of message.
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madrobins
User: madrobins
Date: 2010-02-15 16:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
1) Yes

2) Yes. Some people will see the political, some won't. But anytime you've got a class system (even one where the peasants are happy to be peasants and the kings are tormented and full of woe) there are politics. Whether the reader sees them as such is another question.

3) That's three questions in one. No fair. It is fair to analyze a work of fiction in any damfool way you want, if it makes it more meaningful to you. People reading the Harry Potter books may feel as badly about the plight of the house elves as Hermione Granger does, and some may make a political issue out of it, but I don't know that it matters materially to most readers. As to whether all fantasy readers are secret monarchists--that's a fun question. I would say, rather, than many fantasy readers crave a place where there is more order than in our current political venue, where you know where you are (although, of course, the Hero may leap over several class strata to attain his proper kingship, marry the princess, etc.)

As you know, Jay, I got my start writing historical romances set in England during the Regency era. I think there's a huge unexamined yearning in readers of that genre to live in an orderly society, to be smart enough and quick enough to use manners and wit as their weapons, and to so thoroughly understand the politics of society that you can triumph over them. Of course, many readers simply want to be the Duchess's daughter with a fabulous wardrobe...but again, the political underpinning of that wish is to live a certain kind of life that is not possible to the reader in her real life.

4) As above, I think politics seeps in everywhere. That said, it is often not the point of the work. Kushiel's Dart, is (aside from the sex) political; so is Dune.

5) Any time you have elves, fairies, dwarves, or other magical creatures, there's certainly politics. I think race, gender, and class are the meat of high fantasy--the girl who has to disguise herself as a man to be a soldier; the elves who sneer at dwarves (and vice versa). Class--well, yes.

You had to go and make me start thinking before my morning coffee, didn't you?
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LynnF: Elephant
User: otterdance
Date: 2010-02-15 18:37 (UTC)
Subject: Politics, Fantasy, and Fairy Tales
Keyword:Elephant
Those are great questions, especially on a Monday morning.

Truepenny said a lot of what needed saying. I didn't set out to deal with politics, or war, for that matter, but they just keep cropping up. More than cropping up. They're important. I set out to write a ghost story and the next thing I know I'm writing the damn battle of Agincourt. I try to write a simple little "you can't go home again" novel and end up negotiating trade agreements.

In both series, my main characters are members, to differing degrees, of the noble class. An understanding of the workings of that level of society is essential to their survival. It's not politics for politics' sake, so much as something woven into the fabric of character, plot, and world development, integral rather than foremost. But it also sets up the rules of the game they play, to be followed or flouted as needed to advance the plot. Social politics is a much more conscious effort for me, weaving in issues of gender, class, etc in a way that don't jump out as soap boxing. (I hope)

Or maybe we all just imprinted very deeply on Western fairy tales, Tolkien, King Arthur, Disney princesses, and the like. Mental comfort food.

As for other forms of fantasy, I think it's hard not to see politics of one sort or another once you start looking for it. It's like telling someone, "Don't think of an elephant." As I was composing the above, another part of my mind seized on the story of Hansel and Gretel. It's a roiling cauldron of social politics.

Classism and socio-economic inequalities lead to the abandonment of the children in the forest in the first place. Clearly the ruling class did not care that ordinary shoe makers, fairy godmothers, and wood cutters were sitting around their kitchen tables at night, worrying about how they were going to pay their bills and feed their children (of which there were too many because there was no universal health care, and even if there had been, birth control would be excluded because pregnancy is not a disease.)

So, the story begins with child abandonment and progresses to kidnapping, another manifestation of a morally bankrupt civilization. In the original version, the witch was [I'm assuming] a kindly wise woman who took in the children and raised them as her own. The girl went on to be a midwife, and the boy went into eco-forestry. However, this story was long ago hijacked by the patriarchy, which so distrusts female power figures that the wise woman must be perverted into a figure of blackest evil: a witch and a cannibal. She, of course, chooses the boy to fatten and eat (because men are superior in every way) and feeds poor Gretel nothing but crab shells, symbolic of the death of the anima. Being male, Hansel tricks the witch, who, of course, is crippled and at a disadvantage, being nearly blind, by slipping her a bone. Yeah.

Gretel, too, is subverted by the patriarchy as the instrument of the wise woman's destruction. In short, she pushes the poor old dear into the oven, sacrificing the last of her humanity to preserve her brother's life. They are rewarded for this homicide with chests of jewels and pearls, thus receiving validation in terms of their morally ambivalent cultural matrix. It is she who subjugates an innocent duck to make good their get away. They return home to enrich the father who abandoned them, thus validating the patriarchy as well as manifesting severe abandonment issues. The mother had died in the meantime. Of course.



Lynn ;-)

Edited at 2010-02-15 06:38 pm (UTC)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-15 18:54 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Politics, Fantasy, and Fairy Tales
:: dies of the loff ::

And, erm, some really good points here. Thank you.
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Mike
User: miketo
Date: 2010-02-15 18:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'll throw in some contrary thoughts to the discussion. I really have no qualifications or authority other than a keyboard and time to use it. :)

* Saying "all fantasy is political" is so broad as to be meaningless. Like silly putty, the definition can be stretched to include so many extremes and edge cases that it's no longer useful for inquiry or discussion. I suspect the definition is as useful as the "all speculative fiction is fantasy" argument; neat in the abstract, messy in the application, ignored in the main.

* The world isn't made up of absolutes but shades of gray. Political science undergrads love to argue that everything is political. While they argue, the rest of us go on with life, mowing the lawn or running errands for dinner. The number of abstractions required to reach the "everything is political" absolute reminds me of high school debate, where every affirmative plan could be conclusively shown to lead to nuclear war. IMO sometimes a story is just a story; dissecting it makes us no wiser and kills the patient.
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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2010-02-15 20:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
(only halfway tongue in cheek)

Mowing the lawn is in itself a political act. Are you mowing the lawn because you can't afford a gardener? Are you mowing the lawn as a statement of self-sufficiency because, even though you can afford a gardener, you choose to express your individuality by taking on manual labor to express your solidarity with the working class? Is it as a statement of isolation from the working class or a rejection of classism in and of itself? Do you avoid gardeners as a statement about immigration issues? When you say 'mowing the lawn' do you really mean that your gardener is doing the mowing, but your attitudes about class and place lead you to think of the gardener as chattel? Is it a gas mower, electric mower, or manual mower, and how does that choice reflect on your world view?
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Jenavira: lotr: adjuva brigitta
User: jenavira
Date: 2010-02-15 19:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:lotr: adjuva brigitta
I agree entirely with the all-encompassing definitions of politics already listed here, and I suspect that what the reader means is that she doesn't want her fantasy to preach politics at her. Wait, I don't mean to put words in somebody else's mouth: that's what I mean when I complain that a writer is getting "too political" for my tastes. As a general rule, for me this doesn't happen just when contemporary political issues come up, or even when the process of politics is included (I love high fantasy with political infighting, when I can find it), but when contemporary political issues are settled in the basic worldbuilding of the book and treated as if this arrangement created no new problems at all. F'r instance, I am currently slogging through a fantasy novel set in what is a very Wiccan Utopian setting, and although that's not a political viewpoint I usually have much trouble with, the sheer Utopian nature of it is driving me crazy.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2010-02-15 20:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Maleficent
I've already talked about the monarchy thing at length, so I'll just leave that at a link and go on to the rest of it.

I agree with you that politics is inescapable, even if you aren't writing traditional high fantasy (or China Mieville-style socialist fantasy). I cannot, off the top of my head, think of a single fantasy novel I've read that doesn't in some way touch on the issue of power -- who hasn't, who doesn't, and what its proper use should be. And this is absolutely bound into race, gender, class, and so forth, because those categories are used to divide Has Power from Doesn't Have Power, and who the power is used against.

Furthermore -- and this is where fantasy diverges from non-speculative genres -- since we have the freedom to choose what governmental system, inequalities, and so on exist in our stories, we're automatically grappling with that question at closer range. We make our choice, and then we show its virtues or flaws (whether that's the focus on the story or not), and that carries implications the reader might agree or disagree with. Hence all the squabbling about monarchical fantasy. SF can do the same thing; compare the Federation to David Weber's Honor Harrington books.

But I strongly suspect the reader meant contemporary politics, or at least fantasy that seemed to be trying to make an overt political statement intended to be brought back into the real world. Even if it isn't preachy, it brings the reader's politics hard up against the writer's, in a way that brings into focus any point at which reader and writer diverge. (I can enjoy a good fantasy set in a monarchy, but if I get the impression the writer is a die-hard royalist UK resident who yearns for the Good Old Days when the Crown was really in charge of everything, that's probably going to sour me on the story.)
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