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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.


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.

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