Is Fantasy Progressive? (With Special Thanks to David Brin)

progress

As noted in the title, I have to thank one of my favorite science fiction writers, David Brin, for the inspiration for this post. And that’s although (or perhaps because) I strongly disagree with what he’s saying, or, more accurately, believe he’s missed the point.

In token of thanks, I’ll begin with a quote from Brin’s blog, “Contrary Brin.” You can read his entire post here.

The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. Heck, I enjoy Tolkien and steam punk and some of the best fantasists. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is a sugary path that leads ultimately to betrayal. Because kings and lords and wizards were never our friends! Indeed, for most of history they were the chief plague destroying hope for humankind.

I’ll also refer to a couple of essays that Brin co-wrote for Salon, one on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the other on Star Wars, in which he denigrated the political implications of those two works of art. But the above paragraph captures the argument in a nutshell, and contains two implicit assumptions which underlie this argument and which are both false, one obviously, the other requiring a bit more thought to see through:

Assumption No. 1: Fantasy consists of “dreaming wistfully about kings and lords.” (I excise the “wizards” because I rather suspect Brin does not believe they actually existed. Certainly if they did exist, they were not on the same plane of  visibility as the kings and lords and tended to be burned at the stake.) Setting aside the “dreaming wistfully” business, this is obviously untrue because not all — these days, not even most — fantasy has any “kings and lords” to dream about, “wistfully” or otherwise. The biggest sub-genre of fantasy today is contemporary fantasy, which is set in the modern world, with its nations governed by democratic republics (what we see around us for the most part), not by monarchs.

Assumption No. 2: The important thing that fantasy has to say involves politics. This requires a bit more thought — one can’t see the fallacy here merely by glancing at the fantasy offerings at Amazon — but it’s equally wrong. It’s a perfectly understandable mistake coming from a science fiction writer, because the important thing that science fiction has to say often does involve politics. But that isn’t true of fantasy. Politics in fantasy is part of world-building, which is to say, part of the background; it’s no more thematic than a description of the clothes people wear or the kind of liquor they drink or those cute maps of the fantasy world that fantasy authors have enjoyed putting into their books ever since Tolkien did it. If a story is set in a primitive, medieval or ancient setting, then naturally the government is going to consist of “kings and lords,” and to depict it otherwise would be unrealistic (barring some fantasy explanation, which would then need to be gone into). If a story is set in the modern world, though, those same kings and lords would be equally unrealistic and out of place. Either way, the point the story is making has nothing to do with kings and lords, or with elected officials either. Those elements, which would be central to a science fiction story, are peripheral in fantasy.

To answer my title question, fantasy can be, but need not necessarily be progressive, and whether it is or not, its progressivity (or lack thereof) is peripheral to what the story is trying to say. The theme of good, serious fantasy is spiritual, not political. It may be moral, it may be about personal growth and development, it may be about facing our own demons and the potential for evil within, it may be about the temptations of power or wealth and what they can do to a person and the need to rise above them, it may be about mystical transformation and apotheosis. These are things that are sometimes fatuously referred to as “timeless verities.” They are not verities. They are timeless questions, questions that cannot be answered by reference to scientific method, and whose answers, once discovered, cannot be communicated except by the medium of metaphor and myth — which, of course, is what fantasy is. In the end, each of us must discover these truths for ourselves, and at best myth can provide some helpful guideposts on the way.

(Come to think of it, the political questions that lie at the heart of the best science fiction can’t be answered through scientific method, either, although they come a little closer. For example, science can tell us — as a matter of fact — that a heavy industrial hand applied to an ecosystem risks extinguishing species whose evolutionary descendants may someday be uplifted to fly starships. What it cannot tell us is whether this predictable outcome is a good or bad thing. We must make that judgment ourselves through extra-rational means.)

Now, what I’m going to do is go into the two fantasy works that Brin chose to write about in those Salon articles, The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars movies. (The latter, despite the trappings, are fantasy, not science fiction. For one thing, their “science” is pathetic. Rather more to the point, their central themes are clearly spiritual, not political.)

Let’s begin with Tolkien’s magnum opus. I’m going to quote a paragraph from Brin’s Salon essay, not because he would probably recognize it as central (unlike the one above), but because I see it as embodying the main error he’s making:

Wouldn’t life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly “scientists” do today? Weren’t miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of being commercialized, bottled and marketed to the masses for $1.95?

Is it not obvious where this attempt to set up the lure of fantasy preparatory to knocking it down in favor of a modern, scientific, and enlightened approach fails? All of the above paragraph is written from the perspective of an ordinary person. But fantasy is not written from the perspective of an ordinary person. It’s written from the perspective of a king, or at least a prince or princess; of a wizard; of someone who used to be an ordinary person but is propelled by circumstances into becoming something more. (Incidentally, for all his protestations, that’s equally true of Brin’s fiction. His characters may not be feudal nobility or royalty, but they are all a cut above the average. Indeed, it would be hard to write a good story about a truly average person.)

Remember, the political and social organization of a fantasy story is not central, not thematic, it’s just world-building background. The lure is not “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could live in a pre-scientific world,” but rather, “If we were confronted with these challenges, what would we do?” One can set such a story in any background, and as already noted, much fantasy nowadays is set in our own world, not in the primitive past.

Which does not, however, describe The Lord of the Rings, so let’s return to that.

In The Lord of the Rings, a sub-plot involves the failure of the royal line of Gondor and the rise of one of the main characters, Aragorn, to assume Gondor’s throne. This ascension, along with the fall of Sauron, brings about a golden age. One might be excused for thinking this makes LotR a paean to monarchy, especially if one knows that the author had leanings that way. One would, however, be wrong, because the main plot line and the theme of the story is something completely different having nothing to do with kings.

Actually, in Tolkien’s fantasy world, unlike the real one, a decent argument in favor of hereditary power can be made; Aragorn is not altogether human, being descended from the daughter of an Elf and a minor deity. He really is superior by birth. But that’s neither here nor there, because the whole true-king business is peripheral to the actual story, which involves the lure of power.

Also, for all the fact that Tolkien himself in his real life was a critic of industrial modernity, we should remind ourselves that Sauron was not a new thing in his fantasy world, and therefore hardly an emblem of modernity or enlightenment. He was an ancient evil that turned up long before human beings — or even Elves — existed. Part of the transition that takes place in the course of the book is the end of these ancient things. Sauron gets his butt kicked, and the Elves disappear into the West. It’s time for the Dominion of Men. But again, this is world-building backdrop, not central to the story.

The story is about the One Ring. This is a marvelous mythical device on so many levels. Let’s start with how it came to be made, which is background to the story.

Sauron, way back in the Second Age, wanted to rule the world. He especially wanted to rule the Elves. His scheme to do this involved giving them the magical equivalent of software with a programming back door that he could exploit. He went in disguise among the most powerful and capable of the Elves and taught them cool stuff. With the knowledge that Sauron gave them, the Elves made the Rings of Power.

Then Sauron pulled his fast one. He made a Ring of his own, designed to dominate and control all of the other Rings and their users. The scheme didn’t work, because the Elves got wise to it and took off their Rings and stopped using them. All it did was to ruin relations between them and Sauron, which had been going well up to that point.

Here’s the first lesson. Sauron could have had all kinds of influence with the Elves and benefit from his relationship with them. He gave them useful knowledge and they were grateful. But by trying to exercise absolute power over them instead, he lost everything he could have gained.

Now fast forward to the final war against Sauron. The unthinkable happens: he loses the One Ring! Not only does this mess up his big scheme, but it also chops his own power down to size and sets things up for the story told in Tolkien’s main narrative. The Ring is found later on by Gollum, then accidentally passed on to Bilbo, and from Bilbo to Frodo, and the plan takes shape to destroy it and end Sauron’s power forever.

The Ring is power. It’s a great temptation. It was made by Sauron for his own use, but it can be used by anyone with a very strong will, who is prepared to devote himself to exercising power over others. Resistance to the power of the Ring and ultimately giving it up and destroying it are the story here, not anything to do with kings or wizards, except insofar as those kings and wizards resist (or fail to resist) the lure of the Ring. The story is Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, and Galadriel all refusing to take the Ring; Saruman, Boromir, and Denethor falling to its influence; Frodo struggling to carry it to its destruction and ultimately failing so that only a power beyond himself can bring about the events that lead to victory.

The Lord of the Rings does not call upon us to fantasize and romanticize about medieval life. Nor does it call upon us to rise above it and embrace modernity. It has nothing to do with the central political struggle of the past few centuries in our own real world. It takes no sides in that struggle, but deals instead with something else altogether: the lure and danger of personal power. We do not put ourselves in the place of some peasant of Rohan cowed into obedience to King Theoden and his nobles, because they hardly come into the story. Instead, we put ourselves into the place of the main characters, and in doing so we neither make nor think about any simplistic one-to-one comparison between the political and social institutions in the story and our own. Because that has nothing to do with what the story is about. We make a mythic connection not with the literal story elements (I think it’s safe to say that none of us will be tasked with the near-impossible destruction of an artifact of power made by the Dark Lord), but with the broader implications regarding facing the temptation of power, which, in one form or another, faces people in all worlds and in all settings.

Brin’s error in regard to Star Wars is a bit more complicated. He has a problem with the whole idea of the Force, it would seem, not on a scientific level (we suspend disbelief, of course) but because it elevates an elite with superhuman powers, whether those powers are employed with compassion (as the Jedi) or ruthlessness (as the Sith). He has a more specific (and well-taken) objection to some of the philosophy expressed by Yoda, to the effect that human emotions such as fear and anger lead inevitably to evil, even when the anger is directed against evil itself, and to the way the story absolves Darth Vader so easily after all his crimes merely because he rediscovers love and does not betray it in the end. (In view of the fact that Vader dies in the final movie, we may reasonably question whether or not he is “absolved” and in what way.)

When evaluating fiction — especially when the story is told in film, which is an especially visual medium — it’s sometimes important to get past what the characters say and look at what is shown. In the first three episodes, the Jedi Order is dominant in the Republic and follows the philosophy that Yoda expresses to Luke in the later/earlier films (and which Yoda also expresses in the first three episodes).

This philosophy destroys the Jedi Order.

The Jedi are called upon to suppress their humanity. They are not allowed normal human emotions. Critically for the story line, the Jedi are a celibate order. Anakin Skywalker, by falling in love with Padme Amidala, marrying her, and getting her pregnant, breaks Jedi rules. His pathological fear of losing her is the lever that Palpatine uses to turn him to the Dark Side. But this only works because he cannot go to his Jedi mentors for advice and help! He cannot ask Obi-Wan or Yoda how to deal with his fears, at least not with any specificity, because he must keep his relationship with Padme a secret. His only recourse is Chancellor Palpatine. Because of this, he turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader, and the Jedi are destroyed.

Regardless of anything Yoda says, that is what the movies show. Yoda’s philosophy is the fatal flaw that ruins the Jedi and brings about the Empire.

Consider the prophecy about Anakin, “A prophecy that misinterpreted may have been,” as Yoda says — and he is right. Anakin, the “chosen one,” is supposed to “bring balance to the Force.” It’s an interesting choice of words. The Jedi assumed it meant that the “chosen one” would bring them total victory over the Sith, and the end of the Dark Side, but that’s because they could not see their own fatal flaws. In the course of the movies, the prophecy comes true but in an unexpected way. Anakin first destroys the (unbalanced) Jedi, and then, years later, destroys the (equally unbalanced) Sith by killing the Emperor and dying himself. This leaves his son, Luke, free to rebuild the Jedi, hopefully without repeating the same mistakes.

What is the lesson here? It is that spirituality divorced from humanity becomes diabolical. We have an implicit recognition that the philosophy Yoda expresses is flawed.

Fantasy is not inherently anti-progressive. It isn’t even inherently medieval or ancient in setting. In fact, none of my own fantasy books has a medieval setting. The Star Mages is contemporary/futuristic, and A Tale of Two Worlds is (partially) set in an early-modern society in the course of making the transition from ancient/medieval governing structures to modernity. In Goddess-Born, the Kingdom of Grandlock undergoes a democratic revolution, the monarchy is overthrown and a republic created (with some magic-borne hiccups along the way). But that is not the theme of Goddess-Born, it’s just a part of the backdrop that emerges logically from any early-modern society governed by a monarchy.

Depending on the setting, fantasy can describe anything from a completely primitive, pre-civilized, hunter-gatherer society, to a futuristic science-fiction type setting. It can also go off completely into fantasy-land and describe something that is utterly unlike any human society in history or our likely future (as Shakespeare did in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Regardless of what world it depicts, however, the theme of fantasy is almost always spiritual rather than political, personal rather than collective, and neither progressive nor regressive but timeless.

Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

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4 Comments

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

4 responses to “Is Fantasy Progressive? (With Special Thanks to David Brin)

  1. A very interesting set of arguments, enjoyably written and offered in a spirit of joyful debate!

    Which, ironically, steeply undermine’s Brian’s position. For the openly joyful questioning of assumptions would simply not have been allowed in most of the cultures that fantasy stories gushingly admire.

    First off… those cultures of the past most definitely did have “wizards!” They were also called priests, shamans, grand viziers and so on. At times they provided some actual service, predicting the rise and fall of floods and eclipses. For the most part, they wove extremely effective spells and incantations that accomplished what they were meant to do… hypnotizing the masses into doing the bidding of the wizards and the kings. Almost exactly the kind of spells today woven by fantasy movie makers and authors.

    To blithely claim that most modern fantasy does not take place in feudal or quasi-feudal settings is so counterfactual that I really wanted to see if Brian was trying to pull it off with a straight face. It’s hilarious! Still, I will grant that there are more “contemporary” fantasies recently. And when they QUESTION the trope, as in the excellent works of Tim Powers, then terrific. Yay. Tim shows us magical settings, but does not suck up to hierarchical uber-lords.

    Alas, most contemporary fantasies don’t do that. What do you think vampires are? They make up the bulk of modern “contemporary” fantasies and nothing could be more classist, racist and genetic-deterministic than this caste system that directly tugs the reader into the same mode as Star Wars… dreaming about inherently superior beings and choosing which side in their lordly struggles to support.

    I never said fantasy is all about politics! But it is about the societies in which politics takes place. And those societies are almost always cauterized of hope for all but tiny glimmers of social mobility through merit. Unless you have special “talents” or midichlorians.

    Brian says: “fantasy can be, but need not necessarily be progressive, and whether it is or not, its progressivity (or lack thereof) is peripheral to what the story is trying to say.”

    Bah. Sorry, but that is wholly drivel, Brian. Most fantasy tales show a teeny bit of local progress… amid a setting under which progress inherently CANNOT happen.

    You claim that these tales teach good and evil. How? What complex quandaries are posed? How, when evil is recognizably ugly, with red, glowing eyes, do we learn a darned thing? What? They teach dichotomies. Because the villlains are psychopathic exaggerations, you must choose to side with the handsome prince whose family merely flogs your dad for speaking up when they are evicted from the family farm.

    Brian then gets honest before getting insulting:

    “But fantasy is not written from the perspective of an ordinary person. It’s written from the perspective of a king, or at least a prince or princess; of a wizard; of someone who used to be an ordinary person but is propelled by circumstances into becoming something more. (Incidentally, for all his protestations, that’s equally true of Brin’s fiction. His characters may not be feudal nobility or royalty, but they are all a cut above the average. Indeed, it would be hard to write a good story about a truly average person.)”

    Yes! Like most epics of the past, fantasy is obsessed with the lords. Duh? Bards wrote that shit because the lords had to be flattered, ’cause they had the beer! At least you admit this. The crum bums who bullied us for thousands of years are the central figures of fantasy. Amen.

    Only your insult is wholly rejected. I have characters who range across the spectrum and many have come from the lowest ranks of society and lacked any discernible “superior talent” beyond gumption. They tend to need that one thing in order to qualify as story heroes. Anyway, the point is absurd. Star Trek heroes may be above average, but that is okay and a BIG difference from being demigods, as the heroes are in Star Wars. Indeed, demigods are scrutinized skeptically in Star Trek.

    If ONLY fantasy tales asked “If we were confronted with these challenges, what would we do?” But they don’t! Well, some do. Xena. Buffy. And in those cases the heroes rise above the local plot and assault the underlying assumptions. They hunt down the gods. They create opportunities for the daughter of a blacksmith to be chosen over some spoiled prince.

    Faced with a world without flush toilets, opportunity or internet connections, Buffy would go “ew!” and fight until everybody got all three.

    Wish I could continue. Fun subject. But this is a hit-n-run. Do drop by http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ if you want to talk more.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com
    blog: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
    twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidBrin1

  2. I’m going to reply here, and then I’ll copy this to David’s blog. I really appreciate him taking the time to drop by, even it is a hit and run.

    There’s a lot to say in response to this. Starting with:

    “First off… those cultures of the past most definitely did have “wizards!” They were also called priests, shamans, grand viziers and so on.”

    Well, there’s a problem with that, David, when you’re comparing those “wizards” to the wizards of fantasy. Priests, etc. held a position in society which fantasy wizards almost never do. Fantasy wizards aren’t official voices of sacred authority, but more commonly outsiders bringing visions that those in power foolishly reject. (Either that, or they’re the bad guys.) The comparison doesn’t really work. So really we are talking about kings and lords, and one might add “priests” to this list; wizards are a fantasy element added to a medieval (or other) setting and not really a part of that setting.

    “To blithely claim that most modern fantasy does not take place in feudal or quasi-feudal settings is so counterfactual that I really wanted to see if Brian was trying to pull it off with a straight face.”

    I’m quite serious, and it’s not counterfactual in the least! To illustrate this, I’m going to pop over to the Amazon Kindle Store and take a look at their top fantasy sellers (I’ll examine only the paid bestsellers rather than the free ones). In the top 10, I find four books that are even in a medieval setting at all, and only one that MAY romanticize such a world in the way you suggest is the norm. (I include that “may” because I haven’t read the book and so can’t evaluate it for certain, but for reasons stated below I strongly doubt it.) These are Disenchanted by Robert Kroese (a humorous fantasy), The Mongoliad book 1 by a number of authors including Greg Bear (and I have a hard time imagining that author — who is another of my favorite science-fiction writers — contributing to a work of that nature), A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (a grim, bleak, and extremely harsh view of a medieval society, hardly a panegyric to it, as is this entire series), and A Game of Thrones by the same author to which the same observation applies. Of the remaining six, one is set in a pure-fantasy setting (it’s a life-after-death thing), and the other five are all contemporary fantasy.

    So among the top sellers at Amazon, at least, what you are regarding as the norm is not only not the norm, it’s not to be found at all these days.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that medieval romances are no longer being written at all. I’m fairly certain they are, but this is not a current trend in the genre.

    This fact alone pretty much undercuts your entire argument, David. If fantasy ISN’T a romantic rapture with times gone by, then one cannot level valid criticism against it based on the idea that it IS.

    I meant no insult, of course, in saying that your characters are generally larger than life and well above the average. (Does that truly sound like an insult? Would you prefer if I’d said, “David, your characters bore the hell out of me and put me to sleep”? Come on.) And I admit I haven’t read literally everything you’ve written — but not too far from it. Jacob Demwa? Tom Orley? Captain Creideiki? The main character in Earth whose name escapes me, who tried to solve our ecological dilemmas through mass murder? The cream-of-the-crop chimpanzees in The Uplift War? Very rarely do you present an ordinary, average person as a character, and when you do that character is not the main protagonist or villain. This is not an insult — I’m saying you have the ability to create powerful, interesting characters that are exciting to follow along with, either to love or to hate.

    “How, when evil is recognizably ugly, with red, glowing eyes, do we learn a darned thing?”

    Ah, but even when that’s the case (and it isn’t always), the important evil isn’t that, but what’s in us. Our own capacity for it is the important thing, and the shadowy figure with the glowing eyes only serves to put us to the test. Its evil isn’t in doubt, but ours is.

    The fact is, there are other questions facing us — I won’t say more important ones, but certainly important ones — besides the struggle to achieve an advanced society and leave the darkness of the Dark Ages behind. Not every story is about that, or needs to be. The fact that a story is set in a medieval or ancient setting doesn’t mean that those times are being offered as a model for how we ought to live, anymore than your own matriarchal world in Glory Season is presented as your recommendation for society. (Or at least I didn’t take it as such.)

    “Star Trek heroes may be above average, but that is okay and a BIG difference from being demigods, as the heroes are in Star Wars.”

    Well — not really. A person with extraordinary abilities, whether he is a master of the Force like Darth Vader or an uber-thief/spy like J. Demwa, is a potential danger to those around him who are less able. As this is a fact of life in one form or another — we are not, in fact, all created equal — I hardly see why depicting it in fiction is a problem, unless one depicts the victimization as just or a good thing, which no stories do that I can think of offhand. (Except for a few in the Bible, and that’s off-topic.) There’s a huge difference between someone who is empowered by society to oppress the weak (like a feudal lord), and someone who is enabled to do this by his own personal abilities — particularly when the judgment of society harshly condemns his doing so, rather than claiming that it is his right of birth.

    I will say this much. I am a fantasy author, but I doubt I’ll ever put anything in a medieval setting, because the idea bores the hell out of me, and also because I share your condemnation of the problems with such a society. But that’s rather than point.

  3. Sorry Brian, doesn’t wash. Fantasy wizards often serve the king. More often than not. From Merlin to Gandalf. Where do you get this stuff?

    You nitpick and redefine in order to evade, alas. Romanticize does not mean showing a world that is all honey and roses. The medieval setting is romantic in itself, even when gritty. I never said there’s no grit. It’s just that there’s no way out. Not for the blacksmith or his daughter.

    “David. If fantasy ISN’T a romantic rapture with times gone by, then one cannot level valid criticism against it based on the idea that it IS.”

    Argh!!!!!!! talk about a straw man. You are making up an image in your head and then arguing with it, Brian. Tell me, did you read anything I wrote about this… at all? Any of it? Even the intro?

    “A person with extraordinary abilities, whether he is a master of the Force like Darth Vader or an uber-thief/spy like J. Demwa, is a potential danger to those around him who are less able. ”

    Here you aim at a valid point. SO? In all my works, from the nonfiction The Transparent Society to EXISTENCE, a major topic is accountability and the give and take of a wise and open civilization that let’s no one man’s delusions go unquestioned.

    For you to ignore all of that, the very essence of our enlightenment, and claim – that people who are talented AT ALL are the same as demigods so give up on the distinction?

    Weird… reeeeeeelly weird.

    But you are a nice fellow. I’ll not be back here. But will answer at my blog where a fair sized community awaits.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com
    blog: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
    twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidBrin1

  4. Well, David, thanks for actually replying TWICE! 🙂 You’re probably doing my blog traffic worlds of good, and I appreciate it. I will, of course, copy this response to your blog, because you’re right, you do have a much bigger community that I do, and you’ve earned it.

    Neither Merlin nor Gandalf “served the king.” In fact, the Arthurian legends (although hardly recent, modern fantasy) illustrate the core mistake you’re making, which is to confuse a trend that happened in fantasy a few decades ago with something essential to the genre.

    The Arthurian legends were not a romantic view of the Middle Ages. They were developed DURING the Middle Ages, and were a view of a much earlier time, the fall of the Roman Empire, when Britain was being invaded by the Anglo-Saxon peoples who became today’s English. Arthur, if he really existed at all, was a Romanized British (Celtic) chief or king who tried and failed to stem this onslaught. When the legends depict him and his knights motivated by ideals of chivalry, wearing full plate armor, riding horses with stirrups and fighting with couched lances, and so on, they are modernizing this history, much as if today we were to write a story of Richard the Lionhearted and give him command of a modern army with tanks and jet fighters.

    Merlin in the Arthurian legends cannot be considered a priest, if nothing else because these were Christian times, priests already existed and held all those posts, and Merlin was a relic of the pagan past. He came from the shadows, shaped events, and disappeared again — about as far removed from the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury as one can get and still be a spiritual figure of any kind.

    As for Gandalf, clearly he was in service to no monarchs, a free agent (or perhaps in service to the Valar), prone to “speaking truth to power” in ways that irritated kings, stewards, and such. (Actually, and interestingly, there are no priest figures in The Lord of the Rings. This may arise from the author’s devout Catholicism, which made him reluctant to put religion into his stories, since it could not realistically be his own religion.)

    The idea of fantasy that you have presented is based on a misconception of it: that it represents a nostalgic look back at times gone by, which in reality don’t deserve that adulation. Even fantasy which is set in the middle ages isn’t really ABOUT that time, and much fantasy isn’t set then at all. No, fantasy is about the intrusion into the world (whether this world or another world) of fantastic elements: gods, devils, and super-beings; magic; quasi-humans; fantastic creatures; marvelous things. It’s often lumped together with science fiction, because that also involves intrusion into the world by things that we don’t see really existing, and which may not be possible. The difference (on the surface) is that science fiction elements, however unlikely, are not known to be impossible, while that isn’t true of fantasy elements. The deeper difference is that fantasy tends to be mythic and timeless, while science fiction tends to be temporal and forward looking. The one (if serious) usually has a spiritual theme, while the other (again, if serious) usually has a political theme.

    Fantasy elements are not dependent on a particular setting. They can be part of a story set anywhere, including the modern world or even a science-fiction, futuristic world. If fantasy for a while seemed to involve a lot of tales set in a quasi-medieval milieu, I believe that was due to the influence of Tolkien, and by now that motif has been done to death. It’s no longer terribly interesting and fantasy has moved in different directions. Also, we seem to be more comfortable today as readers blending fantasy elements into the “real” world, and there are reasons I believe that is happening which I’ve gone into in other posts and won’t repeat here.

    “In all my works . . . a major topic is accountability and the give and take of a wise and open civilization that let’s no one man’s delusions go unquestioned.”

    Well, sure, but that’s because you’re writing science fiction (and nonfiction) and the theme of most of your work is political. I don’t know of any work of fantasy offhand in which the idea of accountability is refuted, even if (because of a different slant) it isn’t beat over the head with a sledgehammer.

    What is the significance of these “demigod-like” powers, such as the Force in Star Wars, that seem to bother you so much? The Force is a fantasy element. Granted, it is meant to have something to do with psychic abilities, but real psychic abilities, if there are such things, don’t work like that. There is no precise real-world equivalent of the Force. What, then, does the Force represent on the level of metaphor, analogy, myth — of imprecise equivalents? It represents personal power. Power is dangerous, can be corrupting, and carries a price.

    One may view this subject (power) collectively, and assert that society must act to restrain the holders of power and keep them accountable. That’s a political focus. One may also view it individually, and assert that the wielder of power must exercise self-control, responsibility, and in the end selflessness, or risk corruption and self-destruction. That’s a spiritual focus. The two are not in conflict, and both are important to my way of thinking.

    Thanks again for responding, David. I really appreciate it.

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