Monday, December 13, 2010

The Failure of Fantasy

Castle Of Sin by Frank Frazetta
I've always been a science fiction fan, not so much a fantasy fan. Oh, there are books I've read.

Ursula K. Leguin's Earthsea series. Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series. (Of course, it was Frank Frazetta's book cover illustrations that ensorcelled me first and foremost).

L. Sprague De Camp. H.P. Lovecraft. Jack Vance. Roger Zelazny (never read the Amber series). Piers Anthony... Okay, so maybe I'm more of a fantasy fan than I realized.

I've not read the Harry Potter series, but I've seen the movies - and I'll get to this in a minute.

I feel that there is a distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Granted, a fantasy author can do pretty much as he or she pleases - so long as the story remains internally consistent. (Example: if the wizard hero cannot teleport across water to get off an island imprisonment in one part of the book, but then later pops across a raging river, I have to say, "Oh, come on!"). And, of course, there is Arthur C. Clarke's famous maxim that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Or my corollary, that a sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology).

I think the major distinction is that, although both can be shameless vehicles of escapism, SF at least tries to be socially relevant, in the sense of exploring social themes, either in terms of impact of technology, or alternate political systems, or interpersonal relations, or psychological impact/exploration of personality and identity.

Fantasy just seems to be, well, a jerk-off fantasy about medieval romanticism. I mean, take Harry Potter. Not a single gun to be found, as far as I know. No bombs. Oh, motorcycles. Motorcars. Knives. Swords, I think the occasional pole-ax. But not one gun. I mean. Voldemort? Take him out? Give me a sniper rifle and a well-hidden location. Bam! Problem solved. J.K. Rowling's first book, barely a paragraph in, and it's over. Rest of series, unnecessary.

Alright, I kind of shifted sideways on that, but really, what's the point of the story? The standard villain who upsets the status quo and the hero who defeats the villain and returns everything to normal. Your standard Republican/ Teabagger daisychain.  So, you want my distinction? SF is for liberals. Fantasy is for conservatives.

And in fact, what is the whole purpose of magic anyway? It certainly isn't there to improve conditions. No magic potions to cure smallpox, or AIDS. No spells to prevent a Darfur or a Bosnia. No anti-Katrina curses. Just stuff for personal enrichment and gain. And all set in a castles and dragons and horses atmosphere.

Here you have a literary device pretty much primed to explore some really far out human conditions, and instead it is wasted, again and again on a Middle Ages beatoff fest. Or rather, to keep us mired in what could be considered simpler and better times. Pre-long-19th-century times. Before the dreary ugliness of Modernism reared its head.

Is that what it's about? We (mistakenly) long for a better time? A time when it was hard not to keep keep from dying before the age of 30? A time when you could tell a person was a king because "he isn't covered in shit"? That's pretty sad for a genre.


  1. I like The Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter too, although it would be silly to compare the two.

    The Harry Potter movies are okay (when compared to other books that have been adapted, again, let's not compare them to The Lord of The Rings because... well, you know). The gun theory to defeat He Who Must Not Be Named (I hope you are grinning) would be faulty if you think about the horcruxes, but after they were all found them boom!

    But I get what you mean when it comes to the use of magic in fiction. It annoys me. I don't like the stories that tell you that something happens just because and expect you to sit there and believe it because they are written. For instance, think about vampires... (don't thinking?) okay, good. If this entities were as powerful as they have been written, then they would take over the world even if they were just one tenth of the population. I'm just always surprised by how they rarely want to, and the ones who want to are usually very stupid, or terribly terrified of crosses, which is dumb too, especially for the books where vampires existed before Christianity... WOW, I didn't mean to commentjack... but I feel somewhat strong about the topic.

    Oh and there is a sword in Harry Potter. He pulls it our of a hat and kills a gianormous snake with it lol

  2. Hello Magaly,

    It has been too long since your radiance graced these grey and stony halls. The hearthstone is cold and the oak tables empty. And there is a beer wench posting open.

    Hijack away, as it still drives the point home (ah ha ha). It's still about pre-modern times. If you look at vampires on TV Tropes (which, to me is the new Encyclopedia of Folklore):

    These are all characteristics of a yearning for a time when the world was not quite tamed (or seemingly tamed). Man was still prey (although we still are). Yes, modern day vampires are stupid. If they are viral, then either there is immunity, or they show restraint about infecting. But the fascination is (aside from the sexual predation) possibly going back to an oral hisstory of a subspecies or culture of humans which did prey on other humans (since I subscribe to the idea that myths being oral history have a kernel of truth to them). So, WHY this yearning to return to pre Modern times?

  3. I'll quote one of my best friends and say that "sometimes is all about the sex".