Some Thoughts on Fantasy

So, as part of the discussion on my previous post, n8chz has directed my attention towards a discussion going on the blog the Hipcrime Vocab . This post (which is well worth the read) asks the question: given all of the problems that (the application of) technology has caused, Why must positive depictions of the future always be dependent upon some sort of new technology?

My first inclination upon hearing this question asked was mundane: science fiction tends to be written by scientists or science enthusiasts, and this subculture tends, of necessity, to be very positive about Humans’ abilities to solve problems through the diligent application of wits. But the second, deeper reason, I think, is that technologies, once having been invented, cannot easily be un-invented*. Thus, the only feasible way through the problems of technological civilization is out the other side**. Some Science Fiction writers err in thinking that technology alone would make a better world possible, but ultimately, any vision of the future that doesn’t involve huge numbers of people dying must be technological in nature; there is no chance of returning to pastoralism, and frankly, the overwhelming majority of moderns–even the ones who might think otherwise–wouldn’t actually want to if they thought about it in any great detail***.

But then it occurred to me that this impulse to escape to a romanticized vision of a pre-industrial world (rather than trying to envision a better future for the one we’ve got) already has an outlet: Fantasy literature. 

When you think about it, it’s actually kind of odd that science fiction and fantasy should so often be grouped together on bookstore shelves. It is true that both of them involve imaginary departures, be they large of small, from the mundane world of the here and now. But historically, the two genres in fact arise from two diametrically opposed ideological forces: science fiction from the technological enthusiasm arising from the industrial and technological revolutions, and fantasy from 19th century romanticism, which was itself a social reaction to the “disenchantment of the world” by these same revolutions. Needless to say, there have been no shortage of fantasy worlds in popular culture over the last fifteen years or so, and has all-but-replaced the mainstream science fiction which was so popular during the 1990s. Indeed, I would say that it first entered it’s present position in mainstream culture around 2001, with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. By coincidence, this was also around the same time that the technology bubble of the 1990s burst, the economy started to slow down, and the war on terrorism started.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m as much of a fan of fantasy as the next person. But I have yet to be convinced that it can offer anything but escapism.

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*There are, of course, a huge number of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels wherein modern technology has been lost due to cataclysm, but no one seriously asserts these as “positive’ depictions.

**A positive alternative, I suppose, could be to have a world with no technology that hasn’t already been invented, but in which the societal machinery has been reconfigured into a more-Utopian configuration, but even that would require some sort of catalyst.

***Here’s a fun game you can play by yourself, it’s: Try to count the number of times you would have died if it weren’t for modern medicine.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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4 Responses to Some Thoughts on Fantasy

  1. n8chz says:

    I never thought of fantasies as being set in the past. I always assumed they were set in an alternate universe. Perhaps I have too little ability to suspend disbelief concerning the past.

    • Forgive me for generalizing; they’re not set in the past in any literal sense; as I read them, they’re set in imagined worlds which are elaborations upon romantic conceptions of “yesteryear.” This is most notable in very early fantasy such as “Conan the Barbarian,” which was explicitly set in a forgotten age before the dawn of history, and the concept has since been fleshed out by subsequent authors to include worlds that are entirely separate from our own.
      The unifying factor, though, is that these worlds are explicitly written to exclude many of the trappings of modernity–including technology, culture norms, scientific restrictions on the behaviour of nature (to the point where magic is real), bureaucratic states and so forth. This is done to such an extent that attempts to apply such concepts to the Standard Fantasy Setting seem ridiculous (see, for example, Terry Pratchett’s Discword, particularly the earlier novels).

  2. Lindsay says:

    Allegory. That’s what it can offer besides escapism.

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