Radical Fantasy

Slothrop

Tight but Polite
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?
 

swears

preppy-kei
This is a good one about Liverpool:

 
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Mr. Tea

Shub-Niggurath, Please
Staff member
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.
 
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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).

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.
 

Slothrop

Tight but Polite
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...
 

Slothrop

Tight but Polite
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...
 

swears

preppy-kei
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.
 

Mr. Tea

Shub-Niggurath, Please
Staff member
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.
 
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Mr. Tea

Shub-Niggurath, Please
Staff member
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._Tolkien#Politics_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.
 

padraig (u.s.)

a monkey that will go ape
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.
 

padraig (u.s.)

a monkey that will go ape
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.
 

Mr. Tea

Shub-Niggurath, Please
Staff member
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.
 
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vimothy

yurp
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.
 

padraig (u.s.)

a monkey that will go ape
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

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.

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.
 
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padraig (u.s.)

a monkey that will go ape
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
 
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.
 
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