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What is Fantasy about?

I just had an interesting note from Lou Anders who was also wondering what this fantasy novel would be about (that I am about to start...but haven't started yet because I wonder the same thing).  I mentioned to him that I was worried because I feel like I don't do big scale politics, in the manner of say Juliet McKenna...but Lou said he thought that Fantasy really WAS politics. 

This put my cat in the pigeon basket, because my cold feet and lack of a first sentence is really down to one thing:  I know that the two lead characters are thrown together as the result of a plan concocted by some ruling class lackeys to get rid of them, as they are both considered potential agitators at a time when their government is pushing hard into a largely unjustifiable war.  However, although I read Perdido Street Station (Mieville) and the Culture books (Banks) and other volumes in which politics get top treatment whilst character and narrative are never compromised I feel my insides go weird at the thought of me writing something about political shakings and doings, like I'm going to get it hopelessly, naively wrong and write a bunch of Politics For Dummies paragraphs, clumsily botching the worldbuilding as I stagger  towards the opening drama. Machiavelli ain't news to me, and yet...I have this horrible creeping nervousness.  Mind you, I have that about every book, so perhaps I'm overreacting as usual.  Yes, okay, definitely first night nerves.

Which ramble brings me back to Fantasy is politics.  I never thought of that, but I suppose it is.  How could I never think of it that way?  I was distracted by the orcs I guess.  It made me think of a panel I saw at Eastercon (my only panel, sadly) where the crew including Freda Warrington and Tim Powers had a debate with the audience and Clute (John) about what Urban Fantasy was, now that it was everywhere like a rash: supernatural romance, noir with supernaturals, hardboiled detectives from the aether, sensitive new age vegetarian werewolf counsellors...that kind of thing.

Trouble is, John Clute had a big list of How To Identify Urban Fantasy features but I don't remember it.  Overt politics however was not included, although the social division between an in and out class was mentioned I think, with the real world and people being either, depending on viewpoint, and the supernatural/special person class functioning as the opposition/outsiderdom.  To the extent that the supernaturals threaten the status quo or demonstrate better ways of living I suppose they are politically critical.  But urban fantasy never seems to shake at the global level whatever chatter goes on about underclasses and hidden societies.  Much of it, being essentially romantic in nature, is always in among the personals, whereas High or Second World Fantasy seems to demand to be larger scale just because you have to make some distinctions in building another world, or why bother? It forces a political stance on you whether you wanted it or not.  I guess the differences between writers is how consciously they want to deal with that - pull it all to the front, like Mieville, or just allow it to subconsciously write your views into a story that is ostensibly about other things.

I've been pointed at GRRMartin and Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains to check out their management of the situation.  As so often at this point I'm scared to open the covers in case I find it's all too hard, incisive, brilliant, complex, realistic etc and I can't do it and then I will have to scrap my plans and cry and run away so that nobody sees My Little Puny Story (like My Little Pony, but with less hair).  <- What the be-hecky IS this reaction?  Anyway, whatever it is I'm always having to fight past it to get to things.  So annoying.  Most of my inner life and instant reactions seem to be stuck around the 2 year old mark.  I'm sure the people who considered me mysterious and aloof (thanks Kari Sperring, you were too kind) would like to know that my silences are the waiting period in which I convert my toddler fits into A Suitably Adult Response.  I wish it was down to something else; an Austenlike musing on some nuance of social whimsy perhaps...but it isn't.

BTW re the panel outcome : Most people who weren't booksellers or critics seemed not to care what fantasy was, as long as there was some of it.  Does this reflect a more general political apathy?  It certainly reflects my reluctance to get stuck in.  I want to, but at the same time, I feel there isn't much point to getting all fired up about it.  Which is basically putting the handbrake on and trying to drive...oops.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2009 09:38 am (UTC)
Politics is who gets what, when, why and how (if I recall my British Constitution lectures SO long ago) The genre just seems to gallop through the political institutions in a way 'meanstream' writers tend to ignore - for reasons outwith this discussion (which I missed in Bradford but my daughter didn't)

Real world political apathy need not apply - you create your world, they are your characters, you are not apathetic about them or their situation. All fantasy is political - who gets what (their comeuppance?) etc. It doesn't need to be Political. It will spring from your characters and their predicament.
Apr. 15th, 2009 09:42 am (UTC)
I tend to agree that fantasy is politics, on both the small and large scales. There is a tendency to describe it as conservative, also because of the prevalence of kings/lords etc and yet it seems to me that this is a shallow reading. Fantasy is the politics of disruption, of the eruption into society of Otherness, of the uncontrollable and ineffable: many of its cliches -- the difficult, self-empowering women, the sexual differences, the trouble-making and successful thieves and low class warriors -- began life as subversion and protest. On the fringes on the genre, Anne McCaffrey's Lessa seized male power and held it as long ago as the the mid-60s, only a handful of years after the genuine conservative -- but also deliberate historical archaism -- of Tolkien. The historian in me would say, too, don't go to the big recent fantasies for the politics. Rather, go to historical novelists (particularly Dorothy Dunnett -- the Lymond books or the standalone King Hereafter, but also Sharon Penman -- Here Be Dragons or The Reckoning, Dumas, Hilary Mantel). The politics of fantasy tend to be self-conscious and many recent books are blurred by modern anxieties and concerns in a way that I, at least, find distracting (this may be my mediaeval historian button going off) while the careful end of historical fiction lays bare process without so many apologies. And then your books are shot through with political thinking: bright veins of subversion in the structures, most especially in Living Next Door to the God of Love.
I'm not kind. I have a Welsh mother and a short-tempered father and I spend much of my time not saying the snippy thing. You are far better at it than I.
Apr. 15th, 2009 10:05 am (UTC)
Fantasy is literature and literature can be about whatever you want it to be about.

High fantasy, on the other hand, tends to be about the doings of kings, and is therefore inescapably about politics.

If you are thinking of writing high fantasy, read Daniel Abraham. He's brilliant, and his books are commendably short. Also I second Kari on the historical stuff. Dunnett is a genius.
Apr. 15th, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)
I'm not sure that I agree totally that fantasy is always about politics (although I believe that it is always political, but then I'm the sort of lefty that holds that everything is political), but I think it's true that it is a big part of a lot of books. I suppose I would say that fantasy is mostly about power - about who holds power and how they use it and what sort of power it is that they hold and how right it is for them to hold it. In the large scale of second world fantasy that often does mean that the power under scrutiny is at a societal level and therefore the action shifts into (or encompasses) politics. (The way power is seen as belonging rightly with individuals or small groups is I think why it seems to be mostly a mostly conservative, or right leaning genre as well).

However, I think that you can still have political wranglings affecting your characters without it having to be fully explained in the story... having them buffeted by something they don't even understand can be just as effective as long treatises on the state of play in government. Anyway, in the end, it's your book to do what you want with, and I'm sure whatever you decide to do will be interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with.
Apr. 15th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't worry about reading someone else's take on the situation. All it could really do is refine your own viewpoint, rather than dull it. You've written umpteen books, so you're able to put ideas into words, and they're your take on your ideas and interpretations.

Just because you see something that someone else did, and possibly did spectacularly well, doesn't mean you're not going to put forward your own best efforts. It's your book, your contribution, so it's right to fan that creative spark. As the story grows, you grow. :-)
Apr. 15th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
I just read with enormous pleasure Keeping It Real and Selling Out, and they were pretty rife with politics, I should say, and in a fabulously good way.

So, fantasy I'd want to read? Exactly like those two....
Apr. 15th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Oh dear, do we have to know what we're doing?
I'm just about to start something new and I was just going to do the business as usual thing - close my eyes, cross my fingers and jump : )

Hi Justina we met a few years ago at something or other - I was the ignorant one.
Apr. 16th, 2009 09:47 am (UTC)
Hi Honey! I made some notes about what John Clute said, altho they are a bit of a scrawl and I'm not sure I can decipher them fully or remember what he meant by them but - I've written 'theatre' by which I think he meant either that the urban setting was a Theatre, or that the events were theatrical, or both. He mentioned doubles (of both characters and things presumably) giving the example of a portal in a high tower echoed by a portal in the deepest cellar/cavern. And he mentioned edifices - something smaller than a city, but bigger than a building. (No doubt he said more but I've forgotten too!) He also said, interestingly, that he'd been unable to identify a story TYPE.

Don't know it any of this is helpful or jogs your memory! I would say, don't worry about politics. That sounds like putting the cart before the horse to me. Once you start on a story and characters that excite you, the politics will surely reveal itself as a natural part of events?

Lovely to see you at the con! ((HUGS))
Apr. 18th, 2009 08:27 pm (UTC)
Hmmmm. I'm wondering if you've spent too much time hearing other people talk about what fantasy is, and defining it. Never mind them, just write YOUR story. What made you think of it in the first place?
Apr. 23rd, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)

If 'High Fantasy' is politics it's usually pretty shallow, names of Kings and lists of battles and occasionally mediaeval court intrigue - nothing like Niven and Pournelle's examination of a monarchy-and-aristocracy spacefaring culture in The Mote in Gods Eye. Or even - don't laugh - the dismal statements about sexual politics and human nature that pervade the Gor fantasy franchise.

But 'urban fantasy' venturing into Gibson-esque dystopias with no visible government in a kind of corporate anarchy with street kids 'round the trashfires... That's political!

Which is a roundabout way of saying that politics can be an attribute of fantasy, if the themes and places have an overt or intrinsic political statement; but fantasy can be all kinds of things and almost anything you want. At best, it should defy attempts at categorisation, no matter how hard the booksellers try to ghetto-ise the genre.

(For your reference, I'm the geeky bloke who asked awkward questions in the Urban Fantasy panel)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )