Sunday, September 09, 2007

Maybe I'm Projecting

It's a conceit I'm sure, but I've always had this thought in the back of my mind that fantasy/sci-fi as a genre tends to be more open minded than most. Maybe it's due to the fact that Star Trek was widely congratulated as one of the first TV series' to have multi-racial casts. I don't know, but somehow I've always thought of my favorite genre as being something that attracted others who have values similar to my own. But maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see. I ran across a post on another blog that argued that fantasy novels in general are not liberal in any sense and support more conservative, authoritarian values. My first reaction was huh? I mean, look at Harry Potter for example. Every right-wing nut job has had it in for Harry since the beginning, calling it Satanic for daring to mention witchcraft in any kind of positive sense. It's easy to brush off people who want to ban Harry Potter because it seems so harmless. But the post I mentioned before doesn't invoke Harry Potter. Instead it mentions authors like George R.R. Martin and C.S. Lewis. The basic idea is that authors like Martin and Lewis (hey, Martin and Lewis.....) are conservative at heart, promoting things like religion and capital punishment. And while it would be so easy to scoff, I have to stop and realize, he has a point. He specifically cites an example in Martin's book, "A Game of Thrones," in which Eddard Stark beheads a man. By having Stark do the act himself, we are told he doesn't take the act lightly, but it is still by implication justified. And well, I doubt I need to even explain the religious connotations that are so obvious in Lewis' work. The man himself has openly declared that "The Chronicles of Narnia" have Christian themes. And the thing is, so many fantasy novels are written in what are basically medieval settings, with the traditional noble hierarchy, that it's easy to see how someone could say-- see, fantasy novels are all about espousing the might-makes-right values of stereotypical conservatism. Foolishly, I wrote a comment saying, but wait a minute, lots of fantasy I read has very open-minded views on things such as homosexuality. And in part, that's true. But I made the mistake of putting a favorite author of mine, Anne McCaffrey into the category of authors who have benign portrayals of homosexuality. Boy, was I wrong. Fortunately, I wasn't slapped down too hard on this. But I should have been more certain of my argument before I said anything. Turns out, McCaffrey--in books that I have not read--has implied that homosexuality is something that can basically be cured. And on reflection, I didn't realize how stereotypical her depictions of homosexuality were. You know, the couples with the effeminate and the butch partnering. Now, I'm not especially invested in gay rights as a cause, I simply have a live-and-let-live attitude and don't believe in telling anyone else what values they ought to have. I know I am being a total hypocrite here. After all, McCaffrey is entitled to have whatever views she wants to and put them in her books. No one is forcing me to buy them, right? So what business is it of mine to have a problem with whatever opinions are expressed in any book? I don't know. Like I said, there was this unconscious part of my mind that believed that books the explored the outer reaches of space, the limits of our minds and the fantastical worlds that include dragons, elves and magic, must in some way be more open than the rest. But I suppose the setting doesn't necessarily change human nature. I can find authors who have more open minded attitudes toward things like sexuality--Lynn Flewelling and Mercedes Lackey come to mind-- but are they any more open minded than any other authors of any other genre? I can't say, I pretty much only read fantasy and suspense novels. Like I said, it's likely a conceit of mine that fantasy and sci-fi is more lenient toward different opinions. But still, I like to think it is....


S.M.D. said...

You first thought is why someone is taking the books that seriously. I think a scene from Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back would fit nicely here:

Ben Affleck: They're fictional characters...*hand gestures* Fic-tion-al ch-ar-ac-ters! Am I getting through to you at all?

Yeah. They're books based on stuff that isn't real. Why does political bias even matter? Enough science fiction books place a lot of focus on totalitarian regimes gone wrong...but why does it matter if the story is still good?

SQT said...

Lol. Well, that puts it in perspective.

I guess I'm just self-involved enough to want my entertainment to cater to my biases. Heh.

Katie said...

You know I think it is and it isn't. Like you said it is all down to human nature and the person writing the novel. If the writer is open minded that tends to come across in the novel. And even C.S. Lewis didn’t shove it down your throat, it’s there if you want to look for it, even if his is a little bit more obvious than most. But most kids when reading it don’t pick up on it. Most adults don’t pick up on the religious idea behind R.R. Martin, I know my husband didn’t when he read them.

And I guess S.M.D. has a good point with the fictional characters thing. But I get so involved in the books I'm reading, they are such a big part of who I am. I spend hours talking about them and reviewing them. It's only natural that you would want to have them reflect a little bit of you as well.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Good points of view there.

S.M.D. said...

Most of my little bit wasn't directed at you SQT, just at the guy on the website.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with getting involved in a book. But I think if you're upset by a bias in books you're either taking them far too seriously or you're not looking hard enough. There are plenty of books with liberal viewpoints. Take Carnival by Elizabeth Bear. It's about two homosexuals in an advanced human civilization where they are actually banned from being that way. Stay with me for a moment now. But these two are both intending to betray the 'order' for lack of a better word, just in different ways. They're lovers both trying to get to the same place. So really it's taken from their viewpoint and how they change the social structure of things. I guess the politics in the book are very right wing conservative, but you're in the mind of people who would otherwise be very liberal because they don't believe in the control, but rather in the freedom of their choice.

Yeah, sort of stretching there, but you can find a lot of books that don't push those ideals...or maybe not. I don't know. I'm just weird.

Crunchy Carpets said...

I think most books at least echo the authors own background and biases...and there are the few with real 'agendas' behind them too.

It is only natural really..and it can be a challenge to write beyond your own boundaries too.

CS Lewis isn't in your face because that wasn't his agenda..he was just a deeply spiritual and Christian man.

We also have to remember that most modern fantasy is really shaped and 'inspired' by the Tolkien.

Most fantasy novels follow the same sort of structured 'medieval' world and European mythology and history.

He was inspired by history and European mythology as well as his on Empirical upbringing.

Sci fi tend to bend either dystopic or utopic in it's message. There tends to be SOME cautionary tale or dark side to the technological future.

A lot of that is influenced on purpose or just by personal views depending on what is going on in our current world and what that said author personally believes about THIS moment in time.

I tend to not enjoy a book with a whiff of right wingedness or that is too misogynistic....unless there is a more 'liberal' purpose behind the story.

Jack L Chalker is a good example of this...HATED the Soul Rider series..until I re read it...when I was older and better to understand what was being said behind the story.

Anyone who thinks global warming is bunk would hate Kim Stanley Robinson.

Anyone who think the Christian Right is the bee's knees is not going to enjoy Sheri Tepper.

SQT said...

Sci fi tend to bend either dystopic or utopic in it's message. There tends to be SOME cautionary tale or dark side to the technological future.

Totally agree. I did a post awhile back on how sci-fi movies often show a bleak future--very cautionary in nature. Mad Max, Terminator, Soylent Green-- all that. So I would expect the novels to be the same.

The Curmudgeon said...

I think that if the author's ideology gets in the way of the story... maybe the story isn't so good.

Myth said...

I would say the only author that comes to mind, that has liberal views of homosexuality would be Mercedes lackey. In fact the very first series I read of hers (the Last Herald Mage)the mc is homosexual.

Fantasy allows a lot of freedom to play with certain customs and cultures. After all since the system of magic is yours to design, the culture, then so is gender rights and punishment of criminals. No author would aim for a utopia though, because while such a thing would truly be fiction, it would also be boring. The only limitaton, is the lack of technology and most pre-technological societies were fuedal monarchys'.

The idea is to have fun with different systems, not use your own ideology to make a point. It is why Terry Goodkind, had a great start and then became very preachy and annoying to read.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SMD, political bias shouldn't matter but there are certainly some titles and authors that take a strong political stand.

We've talked about politics and science fiction before. The best science fiction, we've argued, is science fiction that has a message, that challenges and reframes our perspective.

SQT, I may have to go to that site and lay the smack down, but I think your initial response is correct. Fantasy and science fiction has been a way to frame a politic of rebellion since the early sixteen hundreds. Look at fairy tales. Look at all the fantasy stories that were veiled attacks on the politics of the monarchy and on the parliament at that time. And some stories were an attack on the church.

For every writer who is considered conservative in the genre, I'll give you three who are liberal. How could they not be. And keep in mind, a writer can be liberal on some topics and conservative on others. Homosexuality can split people. But the author who attacks gay rights may turn around and attack the corporate structures' dehumanization of America.

Just to lubricate the brain cells here are some major works of science fiction and fantasy that were left or liberal in their politics. "1984" by Orwell "BRAVE NEW WORLD" by Huxley, "MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE" by Philip K.Dick. "DUNE" by Frank Herbert, "FOUNDATION" by Isaac Asimov, "ENDER'S GAME" Scott Orson Card, "WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER" by A.E. Van Vogt.

Hell, you wanna see some lefties in action. Go look at comic books. The most recent CIVIL WAR series from Marvel raises some interesting questions about privacy in the face of national security.

Yes, there is always sci fi and fantasy written for fun. And many people who read fantasy wouldn't know what to do with something intellectual. Especially fans of urban fantasy like the fluff of "the Dreiden Files" and the unreadable "Undead and Unwed" series.

SQT said...


Did you notice he closed down the comments on that post (and another similar one)? I wonder why.

Matt said...

SQT, I think I share your initial reactions to this topic. At first I was like, huh? but now I see the possibilities.

This also reminds me of a short story by Phillip K. Dick. In the future, alien races compete with Earthlings for political control of the galaxy. This uneasy relationship allows interspecies business relations as long as an Earth committee approves the alien product safe for Earthlings. Long story short, the committee rejects several children's toys that are blatant attempts at harming earth children. However, the one toy they do approve is a seemingly harmless board game that is basically the opposite of Monopoly in that players are rewarded for losing money and property. Makes you wonder how some of these books we're talking about will shape our Earth children.

Lulu--Back in Town said...

I'm getting to this way late, but...

I don't think you're projecting. There can be a lot of submissive female, king=great, vigilantism=the best stuff, but I don't think it's the rule. In fact, what I'm seeing all over, these days, in sci-fi and fantasy, is the strong female lead acting out in a repressive society. While it's not exactly new, it always seems to be making jabs at the masculinist, heteronormative, conservative regime. There's usually even a king or overlord and repression of one sex or one people that the main character is overcoming, in these genres, and while we're generally looking at it from democratic republics where women and minorities are at least allowed to marry whom they wish or join the military in at least some capacity and there is no one absolute monarch, it does still serve to re-emphasize the point.

Even if there is a lot of conservative fiction in these genres, it seems like they're still far less restrictive than others. You're not nearly as often going to find mainstream fiction with strong gay leads, independent heroines, or which implies that staying on our current path with the environment is going to saddle us with our own destruction, as you are in sci-fi and fantasy.

Some of my favorites, that I think are good examples: Babylon 5. Gave us the bisexual Susan Ivanova, and her love affair with Talya Winters, without any comment, as well as interracial (and interspecies?) relationships. Also embraced diversity, revolution against restrictive regimes, peace treaties, and non-violent communes. Showed in a Very negative light the sort of witch-hunt mentality common in the McCarthy era (and resurfacing, now), propaganda, violence by authority, prejudice..

Terry Pratchett has transgendered, gay, and lesbian characters portrayed in generally a positive light (or without comment), and more strong women and progressive social commentary than pretty much anyone else I've ever read, even through the wonderful silly, satiric light of it. Tears at assumptions that "civilization" of native groups is the good way of it, or that commercialization of our daily lives and war are benefits, deals with the tragedy of poverty and the easy way it's overlooked by people benefitting from capitalist excess, etc.

And those are both very strong players in the modern canon, it seems to me.

Idunno, I just have to give it all props. The fandoms for these genres are without doubt far more progressive than others, on the whole.

Lulu--Back in Town said...

Shit, that was a long comment. Sorry!