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Thread: Radical Fantasy

  1. #1
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    Default Radical Fantasy

    Is there any?

    Literature-wise, I mean.

    Fantasy writing seems kind of ripe for formal or political radicalism - strong association with 60's counterculture, very open ended remit, links in to magick / hyperstition, obvious psychedelic potential, free reign to explore alternative modes of politics or thought. But while science fiction gets the Burroughs - Ballard axis of boundary pushing radicalism, fantasy is (afaict) so moribund that China Mieville is considered to be shoving his radical socialism down your throat by, erm, having a vaguely corrupt government / evil capitalists worldview that's been pretty mainstream in SF for about thirty years.

    So what's going on that I don't know about?

    If nothing, why not? Is it all Tolkein's fault - causing anything remotely modernist to be reclassified as science fiction? Or what?

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    This is a good one about Liverpool:

    Last edited by swears; 19-10-2010 at 11:28 PM.

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    Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? Although arguably that's better described as science fiction.

    The Harry Potter books take the piss out of Harry's Daily Mail-reading uncle, but then he and his chums all go to a posh boarding school, so I guess it's moot.

    Edit: most fantasy involves the creation of an imaginary world, or at least an imaginary aspect of or demi-monde within the real world, that resembles the real world at some time in the past, very often Europe in antiquity or the middle ages and very often with explicit overtones of chivalry, heroic kingship, Classical mythology/Germanic romanticism/Celtic mysticism and so on. So maybe it's most natural for fantasy writing to tend towards a conservative or reactionary worldview because of this? Of course, this also makes it ripe for subversion, a la Mieville, but this is bound to be in the minority.

    Having said that, there's at least one well-know author who writes in a traditional pseudo-mediaeval fantasy genre but who is highly critical of Tolkien and whose novels poke a lot of fun at what he sees as Tolkien's backwards, anti-modernist, little-Englander mentality. Can't recall his name right now, I'm afraid. (Edited edit: Moorcock, that's the fella. Not read any myself, but he's surely the other big-name lefty fantasy author apart from Mieville).

    And thinking about it, while I think you'd be hard-pressed to describe Terry Pratchett as having a 'radical' agenda in the sense of being a revolutionary socialist, his Discworld novels could surely be called radical fantasy since the subversion of trad fantasy tropes like heroism, divine kingship, predestination and prophecy, black-and-while moral struggle etc., as well as the insertion of real-life social, economic and political issues into a world of magic and monsters, is pretty much his stock in trade.
    Last edited by Mr. Tea; 13-11-2014 at 04:19 PM.
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    I know it's China Mieville but does this help:

    http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/50socialist/full/

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    I just finished the Viriconium books my M. John Harrison. The first short novel is still rather conventional in the sense of narrating a sort of "adventure quest" plot in a fantastic world, but over the course of the complete cycle there's an increasing sense of strangeness and alienation. Don't know if this is what you're after, but it reminds me of how Ballard relates to SF (Harrison is also accociated with the New Wave movement/New Worlds magazine).

    Quote Originally Posted by Slothrop View Post
    causing anything remotely modernist to be reclassified as science fiction? Or what?
    I think there's some truth to this. There's lots of literature that works with fantastic ideas but isn't regarded as Fantasy with a capital F, and a fantasy book that's as far from elves and orcs as Ballard and Burroughs are from Star Trek could easily be filed into some other category. Magical Realism, Surrealism, just generally speculative fiction etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    Having said that, there's at least one well-know author who writes in a traditional pseudo-mediaeval fantasy genre but who is highly critical of Tolkien and whose novels poke a lot of fun at what he sees as Tolkien's backwards, anti-modernist, little-Englander mentality. Can't recall his name right now, I'm afraid. (Edited edit: Moorcock, that's the fella. Not read any myself, but he's surely the other big-name lefty fantasy author apart from Mieville).
    Yeah, I was wondering about him but have never read any of his stuff. I mean, he was basically in Hawkwind, so he can't be that straight laced.

    I'd seen that China Mieville list before, actually, but it's mostly science fiction isn't it? Also, I've not got anything against China Mieville, I just don't think he's spectacularly far-out as a writer.

    Lanark by Alasdair Gray might count, I suppose...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Tea View Post
    Edit: most fantasy involves the creation of an imaginary world, or at least an imaginary aspect of or demi-monde within the real world, that resembles the real world at some time in the past, very often Europe in late antiquity or the middle ages and very often with explicit overtones of chivalry, heroic kingship, Germanic romanticism/Celtic mysticism and so on.
    A lot of that's true of black metal as well, though. Which may not always be nice, but is certainly less mundane and predictable than a lot of fantasy, afaict...


    I wonder if part of it is that the creation of imaginary worlds in fantasy basically appeals as a purely escapist activity, whereas science fiction involves some significant consideration of the world as it is now in order to predict where it might be in the future. But you'd think there'd be people either i) expanding the fantastic, mystical, subversive parts of real history or ii) using the freedom to think about completely alternative ways of living rather than just sticking to a vaguely idealized european medievalism...

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    If you haven't ever read any Morcock, do it now!

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    yeah, michael moorcock is flippin great.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Slothrop View Post
    Yeah, I was wondering about him but have never read any of his stuff. I mean, he was basically in Hawkwind, so he can't be that straight laced.

    I'd seen that China Mieville list before, actually, but it's mostly science fiction isn't it? Also, I've not got anything against China Mieville, I just don't think he's spectacularly far-out as a writer.

    Lanark by Alasdair Gray might count, I suppose...
    Mieville is too much of a straight-up moralistic leftie to be really far-out, guy just cares about human beings too much. Can you imagine Ballard at an SWP rally? Even Orwell thought those types were full of shit. That's not a bad list, tho.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Slothrop View Post
    A lot of that's true of black metal as well, though. Which may not always be nice, but is certainly less mundane and predictable than a lot of fantasy, afaict...
    ...and is also a genre of music not totally estranged from the radical right - right?

    I mean, 'radical' is not a synonym for 'Marxist', it works both ways - is there a widespread subgenre of far-right fantasy fiction? Depressingly, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if there were. Tolkien himself was certainly a small-c conservative and his attitude to race is debatable, but he was definitely no Nazi. Not sure where I'm going with this - I've read basically no 'trad' fantasy beyond JRRT and don't listen to black metal - though of course some of the hardcore Norwegian nutters have a certain orciness to them. Obviously Vim would be yer man for this kind of chat.

    Agree with the rest of your post, though.
    Last edited by Mr. Tea; 13-11-2014 at 04:35 PM.
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    Hmm--I think you have to read a fair bit into Tolkein to find evidence of racism. He was certainly no fan of Hitler and the Nazis or Stalin, which is not an insignificant intellectual achievement for the time, IMO. Wikipedia has a good summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R...itics_and_race
    Last edited by vimothy; 24-10-2010 at 06:09 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by vimothy View Post
    Hmm--I think you have to read a fair bit into Tolkein to find evidence of racism. He was certainly no fan of Hitler and the Nazis or Stalin, which is not an insignificant intellectual achievement for the time, IMO. Wikipedia has a good summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R...itics_and_race
    I should make it clear that I, personally, don't think Tolkien was necessarily a massive racist; it's just that I can see why some people might have levelled that charge against him. Obviously it's nothing like Haggard or Lovecraft.

    He was a reactionary purely in the sense of recoiling from modernist political movements, industrialism, militarism and all the rest of it, so it makes perfect sense for him to reject both Hitler and Stalin, as you say. On a personal level he had a particular hatred of Nazism because of its co-option of his beloved Germanic myths.
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    Quote Originally Posted by vimothy View Post
    Hmm--I think you have to read a fair bit into Tolkien to find evidence of racism.
    overt racism, no, but it's not hard to find moderately uncomfortable racial overtones. the good=white or light/evil=black dichotomy obviously (not that he was the first to do it, but the most influential perhaps). also a bunch of the humans supporting the bad guys are super-Orientalized. and the dwarves are uncomfortably...Jewish at points - which I'm pretty sure Tolkien alluded to himself. of course you have to allow for the time in which he was writing, which doesn't excuse everything but does go a ways towards amelioration. and there are worse offenders surely.I think his politics are easily explained by viewing them through the kind of Catholicism that loathed Vatican II (i.e. he would've liked the current pontiff) which went hand in hand with as tea mentioned small-c conservatism of the British variety. on the latter honestly he's not so far off from Orwell, even they were coming it at from opposite ends - Coming Up for Air is an idealization of a foregone English countryside that resembles nothing so much as the Shire, contrasted with the horrors of modernization etc (Mordor). i.e. Tolkien was no fan of the irreligious Hitler or Stalin, but a big fan of Franco - certainly a very unpleasant fellow - whose side in Spanish Civil war represented the epitome of devout, conservative Catholicism (at least on its surface - there was perhaps never a more piously hypocritical regime than Franco's). I reckon he'd be a big fan of the current Pope too.

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    well tea said it mostly

    anyway...I'd have to agree that fantasy tends towards conservatism. it's always looking backward, to something idyllic (pastoral - as Tolkien, feudal, Gothic, etc) whereas SF is pointed forward, or at least sideways, to new possibilities. also fantasy is about the triumphs of individuals i.e. when the hero defeats the evil king s/he is much more likely to become the new king rather than institute a socialist workers republic or anarchosyndicalist utopia (queue up Monty Python peasant), or in other words instead of a new system good defeats evil so that the old system can continue unabated, albeit ruled by good. whereas SF., while still using individual characters to tell stories, is more about the development or evolution of entire cultures of societies. not all of those are "radical" societies - for some reason it seems half the SF writers out there are obsessed with feudalism in space or Roman Empires in space or whatever - but at least the possibility is there in a way it isn't in fantasy. I mean how much fantasy do you see about successful peasant uprisings? exactly. although someone should write some, I reckon.

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