Fantasy Comes in Stages

Nymeth wrote a review on Octavia Butler's Cheek by Jowl, yesterday, that continued the conversation she started in an original post on the subject, which went on into the comments below, which I reflected on in a Weekly Geek on a somewhat unrelated subject recently. Poor Ms Nymeth! Poor dear lady, she hasn't learned the art of ignoring me yet. Perhaps noone gave her the notice that I can't shut up on a subject once I start to Nova Scotia it, as Amanda calls it :P. So, I started writing a response to her review, and it was kinda long for a comment. So, I'll just write it here.

Having never READ Cheek by Jowl, this isn't a response to the book, per se, but more to the ideas Ms Nymeth presents in her review of it. Disclaimer ends here. Also, Ms Nymeth knows about 120 times as much about fantasy as I do, it seems, just fyi, my gentle readers. Second disclaimer ends here.

First off, I just want to quickly address the idea of there being a bias against fantasy and science fiction. Yes, there is, I will not disagree with Nymeth or anyone else on that one. However, I believe it has reached it's wax, and is starting to wane - honestly the current feeling on sci-fi novels reminds me of the old 19th century attitude towards novels of any sort, an attitude that lasted through at least the early 20th century, as shown in 'Anne of Avonlea' by L.M. Montgomery:

And I can tell you, you redheaded snippet, that if the cow is yours, as you say, you'd be better employed in watching her out of other people's grain than in sitting round reading yellow-covered novels," . . . with a scathing glance at the innocent tan-colored Virgil by Anne's feet.

At first glance it might be thought that by Ms Montgomery's time, snobbery against novels was something that old farmers such as the one in this scene felt, but it's worth pointing out that Ms Montgomery apparently found it pertinent to tack on the fact the the book wasn't a novel - it was Virgil, a more suitably highbrow choice. This was the time when novel writing was developing into some of it's highest forms, at the turn of the century. So, I guess the point is that, obviously, snobs will as snobs will, and it is frustrating, but novel-writing wasn't too low brow for great artists to take it up then, and that's the only snobbery that would have truly mattered. The same is true of sci-fi fantasy today. Not to belittle the problem, just to offer the comforting veil of history - this too shall pass.

Now, for my points about this book in specific. First of all: I thought one point Ms Nymeth brought up was interesting:

Fantasy is often accused of being nostalgic and anti-progressive; of offering escape from contemporary problems by constructing pseudo-medieval societies... But focusing on something other than contemporary society doesn’t mean avoiding human concerns. It just means remembering that we are not alone on the planet, that there are things beyond us, there were things before us, and there will probably be things after us.

I thought this point was interesting, because it puts a wrinkle into the nature of the conversation we were, originally having, where we (sort of) lumped in Fantasy and Sci Fi together. Understanding, of course, that there is great breadth of variety in both sci fi and fantasy, and that the two genres definitely meet, I'd nonetheless make the point that one might suppose that the two would have basically diametrically opposed viewpoints. I'm actually not the only one who has noted this: David Brin, a sci-fi writer, pointed it out several years ago in an essay attacking Tolkien's fantasy writing (not that I agree with his particular position on the subject but the idea of there being two different basic ideas is an interesting one). Perhaps it would be better to say that there are two different kinds of fantastical fiction in general - stuff that looks forward to a bright future, and stuff that looks backward to a golden past, and sci-fi might classically have a tendency to the former, fantasy the latter, because there are certainly many exceptions to the rule, but nonetheless, the idea is an interesting one - and actually one that points out something very interesting about fantastical fiction in general: that it really has become a venue for honest debate about the big questions of humanity, particularly the destiny of the race. I know, though I can't cite it, Kurt Vonnegut made a similar point about why he wrote Science Fiction, because it let him grapple with questions of what we are as a race. In a sense, it's always been this way, for whether it was conscious or not, I'm sure that's part of what the greeks were doing in the Illiad, or the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Mythmaking is a way to couch real questions in a place where we can look at them and think about them. Much like a physicist creates an artificial environment to test theories, by removing as many complicating factors as possible (testing in a vacuum for instance, or outside of the pull of gravity), a writer can, in fantasy or science fiction, construct an environment uniquely suited to testing their theories in. There are a number of good examples of this in literature: dystopian literature, for instance, takes the world, presupposes certain conditions, and shows what those conditions will result in, as a way of warning humans to avoid those conditions.

However, there is another point I wanted to make, and it's one that I really appreciate Ms Nymeth for sparking in my mind, because it made me think of an idea that might clear up why there are so many conflicting ideas abotu what sci-fi/fantasy is FOR. The idea of animal fantasies is where I originally conceived of the idea, so let me discuss this idea with these as an example.

Alright, to start with go back to the explosion of popularity of Grimm's fairy tales and the other fairy tale revivals of the Victorian period, back in the mid-Victorian period. Look at the stories in these fairy tales about animals: the Frog Prince (a man is forced to become a beast and is transformed by marriage back into a man), the Swan Maidens (a man attempts to force a beast-woman to be human, but she reverts into beast form), or Snow White and Rose Red (two girls love a bear, and change him into a man). Then, read the literature of the period - book after book after book talks about how the changing world of the industrial revolution forces men to be bestial and cruel. Books like North and South try to find a way to transform these powerful beast-men into civilized society (notably, the main character begins thinking with beastly idea that success is measured by profit, and by love is transformed into someone who loves his fellow men and wants to help them). Books like Oliver Twist present a world in which Beast-men (like Sykes) can be temporarily transformed, but the savage, bestial power cannot be bottled up forever. Eventually it bursts out, and the main becomes beast again. Did these books seek to reconnect men to the natural world by way of their animals, the way Le Guin seems to say animal literature does? No, just the opposite. The natural world is a symbol of the unknown, the terrifying, the uncivilized, and it's pictured as being TOO much a part of men's souls, rather than not enough. Then, we get into the early 20th century, and we have books like Beatrix Potter's wonderful stories, stories in which the animal world is little more than a simpler, child-like version of the human world, where creatures can be pardoned for their childishness, and not expected to grow up. This is the same period as Peter Pan, it's worth noting, and it's the same period as such paeans to childhood as 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn', or books that struggle with the disillusioning, impossible truths of adulthood that books by Joseph Conrad or Ernest Hemingway protray. By this point, the Industrial Revolution had run it's course, and the world was in the terrifying period of the world wars. This was the age of immigration, the age of socialist internationalism, an age when the centuries long traditions that made nations be nations (a shared history, shared language, shared faith, shared folklore) began to dissolve, particularly in America and Britain. People had no real moorings, and were searching back to their childhoods to try to understand the simple rules, to try to find the bedrock that everyone could agree to build a society on. Now move into the 70's, when books like Watership Down and the Rats of Nimh were written, books that truly tried to leave the human perspective altogether, and talk about societies outside of humanity. This was a period where people were losing faith in their institutions, the Hippie era, the Vietnam era, the Watergate era, when on the one hand people had learned what power there governments had (they had atomic bombs, they could fly to the moon) and on the other, they learned how little they were prepared to weild it properly. The books, thus, go back and forth between talking about the problems of the outside human society (they are destroying the ecology of the rabbits home, they are experimenting on the rats in ways they don't even understand), and showing alternative ideas, or simpler insights into how those dynamics work (the simple loyalties of the rabbits are much more effective than the more human-like organization of the General's warren in producing happiness and welfare).

This is true in general sci-fi and fantasy as well. George MacDonald is much different from Tolkien, who is in turn much different from Rowling. The point is that what Le Guin describes as the power of animal stories is a very apt description of why we need animal fantasies right now. It may have nothing to do with what they did for us 50, 100, 1000 years ago. I don't think this invalidates her argument - I think it broadens it, because the power fo the best of these stories is that they are so primal and mythic that we can project them over whatever our current needs are. Fantasy, after all, is highly akin to myth and faith, and myths are often written to explain, to understand, to grapple with the incomprehensible ideas of their ages. Explaining Narcissi with a beautiful boy looking into a pool isn't REALLY so different from explaining Russian Communist dictators with a group of sneaky pigs and a beleagured horse. Whether we believe the stories literally, after all, is somewhat irrelevant.

Anyway, I don't think I have the idea fully worked out in my head yet, but I thought I'd throw it out there, and see what everyone else thought.


Mish said...

Nice essay-response.

Even if I'm not a fan of Harry Potter, it really helped bring fantasy back into the fold and to not be deemed as just damsels and dragons. As GK Chesterton wrote, "Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

One of the reasons for sci-fi, and why I like the genre, is social commentary and possibilities. During McCarthyism, Rod Serling's Twilight Zone and other speculative fiction were able to slip past the censors because it was so speculative and fantastical, and thus couldn't have anything to do with reality or the era's politics.

"There’s a great fear of the imagination. It’s a dangerous thing. It’s out of control, it’s subversive.” ~Ursula Le Guin

Nymeth said...

I agree that the prejudice is starting to wane (and I like using the 19th century example too), but I'm not opposed to the idea of shouting from rooftops to help it along some ;) Same things with comics, really. If I can help dispel a misconception or two, I'll take the chance :P

And you know, I also agree with your main point - I think our relationship with fantasy, and with stories in general, is not fixed. It does change over time, and it's definitely influenced by the period we're living in. You brought up Watership Down, and Le Guin actually makes a point about it failing to leave human perspective behind that was uncomfortable for me to read (because I'm attached to that book), but which rings true. The reason why I didn't include it in my review was because I could have written pages and pages about that alone. Hopefully I'm making you curious enough to want to read the book, though :P

Jason Gignac said...

I'll have to add it to my list - my theory is pretty weak on the subject :). It'll be a little weird, because I've never read anything by Ms LeGuin. I don't read much that is modern (you know, like, newer than 1960-ish ;) ) - when I HAVE read things, I seem to have trouble connecting to them, often as not, like when I read Ragtime earlier this year. I feel kind of unwelcome in a lot of new books. But, I know, I need to expand my horizons... so scary, thoguh... ;)

Jason Gignac said...

Mish - It's interesting that you'd bring up Twilight Zone, my dad always said the same thing about hte old Star Trek shows. I'm now going to have 'To Serve Man' in my head the rest of the day... ;)

Mish said...

For the most part, Le Guin is fantastic. However, a lot of her shorts make my head want to implode. I suggest trying Lathe of Heaven (1971) or Lefthand of Darkness (1969). Le Guin and Lefthand were really ahead of their time. Dates included to show their age.