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Thread: Radical Fantasy

  1. #16
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    Agreeing in turn with Padraig, for the most part - but with regard to Tolkien's support of Franco, I think a crucial part of this is that some of the more hardcore leftist/anarchist brigades in Spain at the time were anti-religious to the point of going around gunning down nuns; to a devout Catholic, any regime that opposes this can only be preferrable to the alternative. Though in fairness it's conceivable he'd have found Franco's regime acceptable to his sensibilities even absent the threat of militant atheists, I don't know. It goes without saying Franco's regime, as repugnant as it may have been, was nonetheless pretty far removed from Nazism.

    On your point about 'good' monarchy replacing the overthrown 'evil' tyranny in mainstream fantasy, surely an exception to this is the Star Wars series - I say this on the basis that these films aren't really science fiction at all, but fantasy (fairy tales, really) dressed up as sci-fi because they have laser guns instead of long bows, Death Stars instead of magic superweapons and so on. I have no idea of George Lucas's personal politics but it's notable that he sets up a by-definition-good Republic against a by-definition-bad Empire. Or should this be viewed through specifically American eyes, in the sense of the fledgeling 13 States fighting for their freedom from tyrannical old Mother England?

    Also, 'galactic feudalism' may be a well-trodden path in sci-fi, but it also features in Dune, which is an immense book.
    Last edited by Mr. Tea; 25-10-2010 at 10:07 AM.
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  2. #17

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    Padraig,

    That seems like quite an idealised vision of the two genres. There are reactionary currents in sci-fi as well. For instance, "dystopia". Sci-fi is often very pessimistic about progress, which is the reactionary party line in its very essence.

    But there is something to the idea that fantasy is reactionary, I think, because there is this whiff of glorification of monarchy to fantasy. I certainly agree that Tolkien was a reactionary. You're spot on about conservative catholicism, IMO (also, Mr Tea above). His instincts were obviously not infallible, but not worse than many others in a century where there were a lot of bastards with widespread support.

    I also agree that there's a lot of race in Tolkein. But I don't consider that racism per se. The light versus darkness thing is a bit of a stretch though. Whatever else you can accuse Tolkein of, I think that metaphor preceded him by more than a few years.

  3. #18
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    well yeah Vim of course I'm dumbing things down a fair bit in the interest of not sitting around for 2 hours writing a mini-dissertation on the latent politics of the fantasy genre

    Quote Originally Posted by vimothy View Post
    There are reactionary currents in sci-fi as well. For instance, "dystopia". Sci-fi is often very pessimistic about progress, which is the reactionary party line in its very essence.
    yeah there's plenty of reactionary SF, as I believed I noted myself. although it's a mistake to confuse dystopian & other strains of pessimism with reactionary. i.e. nearly all cyberpunk is at least quasi-dystopian but can hardly be said to be reactionary, & actually dystopianism in & of itself isn't necessarily reactionary, it depends on what point the dystopia is being used to make. if we're talking Atlas Shrugged then yeah reactionary. if we're talking something like The Sheep Look Up, the exact opposite. true reactionary SF is stuff like the old cold warriors (Heinlein, Jerry Pournelle, etc), or galactic empires like the Foundation series, tho even there you have to be careful b/c I certainly wouldn't call Dune reactionary - it's about empires & about power but not for empires if you catch my drift. which is is a distinction one usually has to make with speculative fiction, so much of it being satire or metaphor or allegory or what have you.

    Quote Originally Posted by vimothy View Post
    The light versus darkness thing is a bit of a stretch though. Whatever else you can accuse Tolkein of, I think that metaphor preceded him by more than a few years.
    sure he was no worse than & indeed better than many if not all of his contemporaries and sure, the dark/light predates him (both points which, again, I noted), but the latter certainly is not a "stretch". it's so strongly developed that the Dark Black Villains of Shadowland vs. the White Fair-Skinned Blue Eyes of Light has been the template by which all fantasy is defined, either for, against, ambiguous towards(something like the Night Watch series) or satire thereof. which isn't to unfairly vilify the author but not excuse him either. Joseph Conrad was hardly the architect of the horrors of colonialism in the Congo, and the Heart of Darkness is an amazing piece of literature, but that still doesn't stop it & its central metaphor from being uncomfortable on many levels.
    Last edited by padraig (u.s.); 25-10-2010 at 05:38 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    On your point about 'good' monarchy replacing the overthrown 'evil' tyranny in mainstream fantasy, surely an exception to this is the Star Wars series
    Star Wars is actually not all that progressive. remember, the rebellion isn't actually a revolution but a counter-revolution (leaving aside that the Empire is obv a tyrannical dictatorship) and even the original Republic while a nominal representative democracy was in fact much closer to a theocracy ruled, albeit benevolently, by the Jedi. they're also essentially old-style morality plays, in which heroes are tempted with sin & must resist it - it's about as Christian as can be. more than anything they're about individualists triumphing over an impersonal system. the whole Jedi thing is nothing if not elitist & the secular- non-Jedi - heroes are small-time capitalist entrepreneurs (Han, Lando) who make their $ illicitly by defying the Empire. if anything the Empire resembles the Evil Empire way more than mercantile Ye Olde England - all the dour gray uniforms, the enormous bureaucracies, centralized economic control and so on. I mean sure, the movies were made by a couple of mainstream liberals but there's a hell of a lot of Cold War overtones (maybe inescapably I guess).

    and oh I mean the point is the same anyway - the whole point of the Rebellion is as noted to reinstall the same system that was there previously

  5. #20

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    What about Mervyn Peake? I wouldn't call the Gormenghast novels radical in a political sense, but it's fantasy that's not really based in old european mythology like Tolkien etc., and a major theme is the struggle of the individual against a reactionary society that's stuck in tradition and bureaucracy.

  6. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by vimothy View Post
    That seems like quite an idealised vision of the two genres. There are reactionary currents in sci-fi as well. For instance, "dystopia". Sci-fi is often very pessimistic about progress, which is the reactionary party line in its very essence.

    But there is something to the idea that fantasy is reactionary, I think, because there is this whiff of glorification of monarchy to fantasy.
    I think that both SF and fantasy have traditionally had fairly naive political structures as default 'good' societies that either need preserving or re-establishing - the good monarchy in fantasy and the benevolent technocracy / good empire / large scale republic in SF. But while SF started to undermine and question this sort of stuff at an early stage, and investigating possible good / bad social structures became a key part of SF, in fantasy, afaict, it remained very much in the background. Which is why Mieville seems radical by comparison - he's got something that's nominally a democracy but isn't actually very nice and he doesn't offer an easy alternative.

    I certainly agree that Tolkien was a reactionary. You're spot on about conservative catholicism, IMO (also, Mr Tea above). His instincts were obviously not infallible, but not worse than many others in a century where there were a lot of bastards with widespread support.

    I also agree that there's a lot of race in Tolkein. But I don't consider that racism per se. The light versus darkness thing is a bit of a stretch though. Whatever else you can accuse Tolkein of, I think that metaphor preceded him by more than a few years.
    Yes, Tolkein mostly ust seems, as Tea said, small c conservative, a rural traditionalist. So he's into the environment (good), opposed to becoming cogs in the industrial machine (generally good) or trying to dominate others(good), not up for an archo-syndicalist revolution (bad) and a bit suspicious of strange foreign stuff (bad).
    Last edited by Slothrop; 25-10-2010 at 10:54 AM.

  7. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by Slothrop View Post
    not up for an archo-syndicalist revolution (bad)
    That depends rather on whether you're an anarcho-syndicalist, no?

    Tolkien's 'xenophobia' is not as straightforward as all that, I think - there's a good case to be made that, in the Shire and its diminutive inhabitants, he's actually poking a bit of gentle fun at the unadventurous, borgeois, Little-Englander mentality. At any rate, the Tookish adventurousness/unpredictability and desire to see 'foreign parts' seems to be preferable to the traditional Baggins values of stolid respectability and the rather closed-minded, stay-at-home tendency that implies.

    I think there are interesting arguments to be had more generally here, about the meaning of words like 'progressive' and 'radical'. Established religion, for example, is generally regarded as a conservative/reactionary force in society, but early Christianity was radical because it was a transformative ideology that threatened (and eventually subsumed) the authority of the Roman state. Similarly you have modern radical Islamist groups, whose stance on social issues is generally far to the right of even conservative secular governments, but which are no less radical for that, because they're revolutionary in intent.

    Then if we examine the word 'progressive', couldn't it be said that early industrial capitalism was progressive in that it demolished the last vestiges of feudalism* and greatly reduced the power of the monarchy and nobility** in faviour of a new borgeois-entrepreneurial class? After the capitalist class had become firmly ensconced in the 19th century, 'progressive' in the 20th century came to mean more or less left-wing, though I guess in the sense of liberal democratic socialism rather than capital-c Communism. And where does the environment fit into this? These days you think of the environmental cause as inherently left-wing (especially in contrast to the American Right, good grief!) but it's certainly possible to be a social conservative and a massive greeny (Tolkien), or a Marxist-Leninist who sees the natural environment purely as fuel and fodder for the Proletariat's glorious factories and farms - the USSR is surely as good a model for Mordor as Nazi Germany or industrial Birmingham. Tolkien would agree with the anarchists in his simultaneous rejection of Nazism, state Socialism and capitalism - in fact he regarded himself as a bit of an 'anarchist', in a very specialised sense that is somehow compatible with his obvious love of monarchy; notably, the Shire has an elected Mayor rather than a king, although that society is so well insulated from anything resembling actual politics that the Mayor's duties seem to consist mainly of presiding over feasts and beery knees-ups (not an undesirable set-up, I think).

    *though of course it helped entrench the class system, which I suppose derived to some extent from feudalism

    **in many European countries the power of the Church forms a big part of this equation, but I guess the Church in England never recovered the political pre-eminence it lost after the break with Rome

    Edit: unfortunately I can't really comment on any trad orcs'n'elves fantasy other than Tolkien, as I haven't really read any - oh, apart from C. S. Lewis, about whom the less said the better, probably (politically not so very different from Tolkien, as far as I can tell, only even more irksomely Christian and Anglican instead of Catholic).

    Also, while Tolkien's writings are more or less explicitly spiritual in nature, it's remarkable that religion per se is almost absent. TLOTR and the Silmarillion abound with wizards, sybils, prophets and various dispensers of sacred wisdom, but there are no priests. In fact the only beings that demand worship as such are the Dark Lords and their various subordinates and imitators (the Nazgul, Saruman) - for a fervent Catholic, JRRT seems remarkably down on organised religion.
    Last edited by Mr. Tea; 25-10-2010 at 10:19 PM.
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  8. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    I think there are interesting arguments to be had more generally here, about the meaning of words like 'progressive' and 'radical'.
    reactionary = desire to maintain status quo/return to something that was previously, radical = its opposite the desire to tear down what is and install something new in its place, progressive = a watered down version of radical i.e. gradual change of the old usually via reform tho its come to refer to a kind of generic leftism not necessarily implied in its original meaning. it's entirely possible to have reactionary revolutionaries (usually they'd be counterrevolutionaries then like Francoist Spain) or leftist reactionaries, i.e. latter history of the USSR.

    early Christianity was radical. then as the Church came into power and established interests to protect it became very reactionary (Protestants are a bit trickier to sort out). individual Catholic have often been progressive on various social issues or even radical - i.e. liberation theology - but the institution of the Church remains highly reactionary. Islamists, despite seeking revolution, are anything but radical. they're as reactionary as can be, seeking return to a 7th-century Caliphate or whatever. as far as early capitalism, sure the nascent bourgeois was progressive if usually not radical in its struggle against the status quo. again however, once that struggle was won it and its interests became established it became for the most part reactionary as it remains today - tho it may be a little bit less clear than the Church, given that capitalism is in no small part a continual process of the new devouring the old however all in the framework of the same status quo. anyway about a million famous people from Marx to Fredy Perlman have expounded on this at length so I'll leave off. but I guess the point is that progressive & radical don't always mean good things, it depends on what final goal of the change is.

    environmentalism is also a bit tricky as it can be about a desire to return to something that was or a desire for something new or both at the same time. Tolkien is certainly of the former. I don't even know if you could say he was for "the environment" in the modern sense - which wasn't really a well-formulated idea in his time anyway - so much as for an idealized pastoral version of rural England. as far as outright xenophobia yeah I dunno, tho he does seem, well not naive but...I mean contrast him to say Graham Greene as far as another Catholic author with a much more shades of gray, cynical worldview.

  9. #24
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    I think for Tolkien, 'the environment' = the natural world plus old-fashioned, low-tech, small-scale agriculture/horticulture/husbandry. Basically, the English landscape prior to the agricultural (as well as the industrial) revolution, minus the cities, such as they were in those days.

    Your point about Islamists is interesting. If a significant part of the world were to come fully under the sway of, say, al-Qa'eda, how closely do you think that society would resemble the original Islamic Caliphate? Surely even just the differences necessitated by modern technology would be significant? Isn't it more likely that they'd bring about a society that was a distorted, idealised, anachronistic imitation of 7th-century Arabia, as the Shire is a distorted, idealised, anachronistic simulacrum of Olde England?

    Edit: sorry, getting away from the main point here, but it's interesting and people who've studied history and politics might be able to help remedy my ignorant curiosity - anyway, if we accept that Islamists are reactionary, being in a sense counterrevolutionary rather than revolutionary, wouldn't Nazism nonetheless count as genuinely radical, in the sense that it sought to create a genuinely new kind of society that hadn't existed before? A unique mix of a half-invented nostalgic folk mythology coupled to a relentless enthusiasm for 'progress': technology, industry and science (or pseudoscience, in the case of their racial ideology). In fact putting it like that, national-socialist Germany almost starts to look like a distillation or natural conclusion of Victorian Britain, minus the Christianity, and with emphasis more on a kind of racial collectivism as opposed to the Victorian ideal of capitalist individualism. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar was going on in Japan around the same time - anyone know more about this?

    Actually, given the degree to which both Tolkien (and much subsequent trad-fantasy) and the Nazis took inspiration from Germanic mythology, this isn't so off-topic. When The Hobbit came out shortly before the outbreak of WWII, Tolkien got a letter from a German publisher that wanted to put out a translation. He told them, in so many words, to fuck off, even going so far as to express his admiration for Jewish culture and regret that he didn't have any Jewish ancestry that he knew of, when they asked questions about how 'Aryisch' he was (c.f. padraig's point above about 'Jewish' dwarves).
    Last edited by Mr. Tea; 25-10-2010 at 06:30 PM.
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  10. #25

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    Edit: sorry, getting away from the main point here, but it's interesting and people who've studied history and politics might be able to help remedy my ignorant curiosity - anyway, if we accept that Islamists are reactionary, being in a sense counterrevolutionary rather than revolutionary, wouldn't Nazism nonetheless count as genuinely radical, in the sense that it sought to create a genuinely new kind of society that hadn't existed before?
    In a pre-modern society the value and position of people is defined by birth. Nazism does exactly that, it's just not a system based on legitimation by god as in medieval europe, but race. Blood and soil and all that. So I'd say that Nazism is surely radical but still very reactionary.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    In fact putting it like that, national-socialist Germany almost starts to look like a distillation or natural conclusion of Victorian Britain, minus the Christianity, and with emphasis more on a kind of racial collectivism as opposed to the Victorian ideal of capitalist individualism.
    In From Hell Alan Moore says something quite similar, that Jack the Ripper (the distillation of the victorian age) gave birth to the 20th century.

  11. #26
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    ahhhhh so glad to find this discussion here

    I'm actually making a film right now that definitely qualifies for the "radical fantasy" label (though in aesthetic approach it's much more SF) - the whole idea is about money being black magic (invented out of thin air, multiplying on its own, etc.) and time traveling rebels hiding out in pre-history from the evil dystopian government.

    but yeah... I've been asking myself the same question for some time. I think the looking forward/looking backward aspect is certainly part of it, though it's still always puzzled me that nominally liberal people would fall unquestioningly into the seemingly obvious "good empire" trap.

    Morcock has already been mentioned. I think his essay "Stormship Startroopers" is an excellent touchstone for this conversation, especially in how he describes the speculative fiction scene in the '60s and '70s and speculates on why he sees so many radicals drawn to what he sees as politically repulsive stuff

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    i bet moorcock is a cracking bloke and would be fantastic company, but lets be honest the books are pretty appaling, not withstanding some lovely ideas. the prose is some of the worst around.

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    Anyone read any George RR Martin? I just finished the 'Sandkings' short story collection and it was excellent fantasy/sci-fi writing...very darkly humourous stuff. Some of you might remember Sandkings from that old TV show, Outer limits.

    Apparently he's written tons of novels, anyone know which ones are worth checking out?

  14. #29
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    I think a large part of it is that kingdoms and empires are just inherently more romantic to read about, whether they're good or evil, than social democracies or workers' collectives.
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    But it seems like the genre that, more than any other, has license to jump out of capitalist realism and real world models and so on and actually posit completely different forms of social organisation or ways of thinking about society or the self or whatever - either intricately worked out or highly speculative and impressionistic.

    Having slated Perdido Street Station a bit earlier on, it does at least have an attempt at that with the purely anarchist garuda society...

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