[writing] Is all fantasy political?

Been noodling on something that cropped up on Twitter last week. A reader said she preferred her fantasy not to have politics in it. I think she meant allegories of contemporary politics, but that’s just my gloss.

Anyone hanging around this blog long knows I’m passionate about contemporary politics. Anyone hanging around my fiction long knows I don’t write about it in my fantasy, other than the very occasional contemporary fantasy short. I detest allegory in fiction, even when it’s allegory I agree with.

Yet to my casual thinking, politics is inescapable in fantasy. The classic high fantasy tropes of the secret heir, the broken succession, the usurper/evil overlord, the quest to restore order/justice/the rightful line of kings — that’s all deeply political. That flavor of fantasy is almost always about things happening to societies.

One could go up a couple of layers into metanalysis and argue quite sincerely that all fiction is political. This is a bit like arguing that all fiction is biographical. I’m pretty sure that’s true, but also largely meaningless except as a tool for certain kinds of criticism.

So I’m nowhere near having an answer here, but I find the question interesting. Haven’t made up my mind yet whether that’s interesting-but-trivial or interesting-but-significant. A few questions for you, and quite curious to read your responses in comments, or on your own blogs.

1. Is the question of whether fantasy contains politics meaningful to ask in the first place?
2. Is traditional high fantasy as political as I’ve so casually portrayed it?
3. Is it fair to analyze those politics only in internal terms, or does an external analysis bring value? Ie, are all us fantasy readers secret monarchists?
4. What about other forms of fantasy? Other forms of speculative fiction?
5. What about the politics of race, gender, class and so forth?
6. Am I asking the wrong damned questions?

If we all get clever enough in comments, I might have a poll later.

21 thoughts on “[writing] Is all fantasy political?

  1. Leila says:

    Personally I think all writing is political (in the all encompassing sense), it can’t avoid it. But then I’m a historian and a little bit of a marxist.
    BTW, I didn’t mean only fiction.

    1. Jay says:

      Leila – At the level I think you mean it, I believe I agree with you. Politics in the encompassing sense is the human experience of engaging in society, yes?

  2. Hmm. That’s a very provocative question. I’m not so sure it’s not meaningful, but I’m not quite sure what it means, either. To some of your questions:

    I don’t think fantasy writers (or readers) are secretly monarchists. I suspect, instead, that the concept of “monarchy” and restoring the proper order thereof represents something else, probably psychological and fairly well understood. Probably something like a restoration of the natural and proper order over chaos, or a return to an idyllic and childhood state wherein a parental figure takes care of you. In this sense, I think it might be a bit of nostalgic longing for something simple and proper.

    So, I’m thinking that inasmuch as fantasy may espouse certain “politics”, that can only be understood (a) with an understanding of where the author is coming from (b) as analyzed within the context of the prior fiction that informs that author’s work and inspires it. In other words, I suspect that an analysis of the politics of fantasy is only meaningful if we already understand the context of the author’s frame of mind. If we do that, it will be easy, in hindsight, to do a political analysis of their fantasy fiction. Without it, it may be impossible, so that asking about the politics of fantasy may only be meaningful post hoc.

    1. Are you talking about a (broadly) more historicized analysis versus a literary one? I think there’s only so much you can write about the author’s context and intentions, and is only one way to tackle these questions. You can also do a more self-contained literary analysis, examining the messages that the reader receives, or a comparative analysis across the genre or within sub-genres. To me, these are all separate examinations. Situating a work within its time and in relation to what we know of the author is one part of the discussion, but I think a consideration of how the work thrives and what it elicits in readers is another, that in some ways is more important.

      1. I sort of meant analyzing the political content in the light of the known politics of a given writer. Without that context, we can talk about the face-value politics of a given story, but very often, in fantasy, that may be so obscured by common fantasy tropes as to be completely disconnected from our own political realities. Jay’s question about “secret monarchists” is what I was really getting at. Indeed, tropes about lost kings and the restoration of the monarchy are common in much fantasy (and, I don’t know precisely why, but I eat that stuff up). If we did a cursory look at the politics of such a story, we might in fact come to the conclusion that the writer is a “secret monarchist”. In reality, however, I don’t think that’s true at all.

        I suppose I must conceded that some political content might be more easily analyzed without the context of the author’s frame of reference, because the political content more explicitly mirrors something in our real world. If I write a scene in a fantasy story deals with the issue of taxation in a fantasy world, one could more easily draw parallels to the issue of taxation in the real world (I, in fact, did once write such a scene).

        As for a more litarary analysis, I’m afraid I’m not nearly so well-versed in that field. But I’ll agree with you that the issue of how a certain story makes me, as the reader, feel is of paramount importance (from my individual point of view). Does reading a story about a return to propery monarchy make me want to have a monarchy (as an American; this line of thought may mean something else entirely from the point of view of someone who lives in present-day monarchy)? If not, what does it make me feel? Does it make me relate to society and government in a different way than before? In that line of thinking, I think you’ve struck on something interesting that perhaps I hadn’t considered.

  3. To respond in order:

    1. Yes, although right away I think we need to split this into two questions from the get-go: is it meaningful to ask if fantasy works contain politics, and is it meaningful to ask if all fantasy works are political? The difference is the presence of politics within the work, and the question of a political point, agenda, or imaginging within the work? The difference for me is internal versus external significance.

    2. I think in many cases that it is, but most in terms of internal politics. I have yet to see the fantasy novel about the complications of magical animal husbandry, or the hopes and aspirations of the beggar class in a wizard’s city, or the diary of a young girl in the country coming to terms with the fantastical world around her. They may be out there, but they are drowned in a sea of usurpations, revolts against assorted dark lords,and struggles with Big Bads to keep the people free. High fantasy especially seems to require political drama as its motor.

    In the external sense, I’m not sure as much is going on. I think that some contain political commentary, while others shy away from it. Most are more interested in a basic struggle of Good versus Evil rather than addressing specific political issues or philosophizing.

    3. Obviously, I think both are fair game for analysis, partly because they would have an intimate connection if there are external messages. I think each would be compelling to analyze in their own way, especially given that they would be braided into cultural critiques as well (says the political anthropologist).

    4. Personally, I can dig up politics in anything. More generally, I think that a political look at steampunk is increasingly relevant as the subgenre expands and people start asking very political questions within the works and outside of them. I think in terms of SF, and not just “political SF,” the distinction between internal and external may break down even more, or be harder to tease out. There’s more to say about the distinction that may lie within genre conventions themselves, but I’ll save that for later (mostly because I have to leave to work soon).

    5. Well, yes. I would especially love to do a class analysis of high fantasy, because there’s a lot to pull apart there, given the rigidity of so many high fantasy societies and a parallel hierarchization of “race” and gender. I place race is quotations because I think the term gets horribly misused in fantasy to denote species (although the greatest criminal in this sense is Dungeons & Dragons, which took its cue from mid-century high fantasy). Times have changed,and so have the ways writers deal with these elements. It might be very fruitful to compare these categories in high fantasy versus steampunk, to see what has evolved, and what may be merely reproduced from high fantasy.

    6. I think the questions need fine-tuning, but I find them a provocative start. This is all good to think with, and I am already pondering some ideas and examples.

    I doubt my answers are terribly clever, but I hope that they are a good start to a conversation.

  4. Oh, a couple of typos in there. My apologies; I wrote pretty quickly.

  5. king rat says:

    All fiction, and all fantasy, is political. And that’s not just some remote thing that can be dismissed as not significant. The question in my mind is “how overt is the politics” not “how significant”. Less overt makes for less jarring reading generally, but imho better propaganda for it.

  6. Lou Anders says:

    Fantasy is inherently political.

  7. 1) Doing “out there” proselytizing, e.g., Terry Goodkind in the Sword of Truth series is often laughable. I’m quite happy for an author to be an objectivist if he really wants, but not if it takes over a story like Goodkind’s objectivism took over the Sword of Truth, consequently the series’ narrative was damaged and the series became a flop (for me). Not that it was ‘high quality’ fantasy, but the story entertained me at points in the early books. But, if someone did it more subtly than Goodkind did, maybe I’d appreciate it, or even not notice and be unknowingly affected by it.
    2) On political content, e.g., in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, as J G-S comments above this ‘internal’ political content can fascinate the reader and drive the story along, and, though some may interpret it as commenting on contemporary society, the reader need not know or care about that commentary to enjoy the story.
    3) I get the sense that Sci-Fi and Fantasy have dramatically different political agenda and potentials. The tropes in Fantasy do not, in my experience, allow for as much experimentation as in Sci-Fi. In SF you can get the fascistic tendencies of someone like Heinlein vs. the utopianism in other stories, say Joanne Russ’s fist-wave feminist utopia in The Female Man. It’s not as easy to get such variation in Fantasy because, at least as far as I understand it, an author is more constrained by the extant tropes of monarchy, primogeniture, etc. That said, fantasy that moves away from Eurocentric medieval influence/content can complicate and challenge this (no author immediately springs to mind though). Again, as J G-S comments, Steampunk could provide one such potential expression.
    4) It would be interesting – on the literary criticism side – for someone to examine a rhetoric (in the Greek sense) of fantasy. Rhetoric studies, through examining the language of the genre, could illuminate our thinking about the nature of the genre’s tendencies and counter-tendencies. A quick scan of Amazon and it looks like someone’s done this: Rhetorics of Fantasy. Oh well…

    1. Jay says:

      FWIW, I read GRRM’s work as being sort of The Guns of August, or maybe a James Michener treatment, for a world that doesn’t happen to actually exist. It feels to me like history, not fantasy to me, much of the time.

    2. Simon:

      1) Yeah, I couldn’t even get through one of Goodkind’s novels before I wanted to beat myself senseless with the book. The really obvious stuff is the least interesting, both politically and analytically. I mean, Tolkien is not being subtle, but he’s at least being layered, and while I believe he denied any great message to his works, there are plenty there. I think that a lot of high fantasy has some political message, even if it is not completely intentional or well-thought-out.

      2) Song of Fire and Ice is what I was thinking of as well! It’s a great series of political intrigue, so in-depth and precisely plotted, but I don’t think Martin intended for their to be an external political message. You might be able to draw something out the books, but it might be more at the level of the author’s underlying ideas and not an attempt to make a political point.

      3) This is partly what I meant by the effect of genre conventions (and perhaps reader expectations) on the politics of fantasy vs. SF. I think that historically there has been more explicit political commentary in SF, with subtler messages in fantasy. I wonder how much of that also comes out of what writers are striving for in terms of audience.

      I disagree, however, that “[t]he tropes in Fantasy do not, in my experience, allow for as much experimentation as in Sci-Fi.” I think that the tropes may allow for different opportunities for expression, and that they have been under-utilized by many authors. Then again, it may depend on how you categorize certain subgenres. Is alternate history SF or fantasy? What about steampunk? I think that both genres are more fantasy than SF, and certainly alternate history provides one of the richest literary terrains for exploring questions of politics. But I think if you are specifically talking about High Fantasy that you are correct; certain conventions seem to constrain how politics come up and get discussed. But I think those conventions can be pushed against and played with (which is my plan).

      4) Mendelsohn’s work is really seminal for this discussion. I think there is more to discuss and there are a number of jumping-off points from her work that could be explored. More detailed A rhetorical analyses, focusing on how politics are invoked, could be quite revealing. Also, while is it is more about SF, Csicsery-Ronay’s Seven Beauties of Science Fiction is full of intriguing ideas about genre. I’m sure there are other sources that we could draw upon as starting points for discussion.

  8. atsiko says:

    I believe ASOIAF was based a great deal on the War of the Roses, which may account for some of the “historical” feel. There’s also a very low level of magic, and a very large scope, which both lean towards a voice similar to that which you would find in a history book.
    Moving on to the main question:
    I think that if you take a broad enough view, you can claim almost any large area of thought as “inherent” in various genres of literature. So,, my reply to Lou Anders would be “Literature is inherently political”. Saying “fantasy is political” is like saying it has narrative, or characters, or a setting. I think king rat’s comment is pretty on target, although I’d expand it to include “how intentional is the politics?” as well.
    Taking politics as an example, some sort of “politics” in inherent in any human situation. There will always be issues of power dynamics and decision-making and opinion. So, it’s going to come up in literature, and thus in fantasy, which is a genre of literature. That a great deal of fantasy features a large scope, and thus you’ll get some stereotypical “politics” caught up in the sphere of vision of the story is at many times incidental to the focus of the story itself.
    Also, I’m noticing a bit of genre stereotyping here, per the comments about fantasy being constrained by monarchist tropes, which it most definitely is not. There’s plenty of fantasy out there not set in medieval Europe, or in monarchial countries/regions. Of course, this is less well known to the mainstream literary audience, creating the stereotype.
    There are no inherent constraints in fantasy as a genre, but only in what the writer(s) in question are interested in telling a story about. There’s feminist fantasy and fascist fantasy just as much as there is feminist science fiction and fascist science fiction.
    I really enjoyed JGS’s commentary, although, again, I think that the various sub-genres are being analyzed much too much on the basis of stereotypical surface characteristics.
    I think it’s dangerous to propose such things as “secret monarchists”, because in a lot of cases, there’s no specific agenda on the writer’s part. They have a monarchy because a lot of other fantasy stories do, and because they are using historical western Europe during the medieval ages as a basis, thus creating a lot of pressure to have monarchy as the main form of government. I think we’re ignoring the aspect of whimsy that runs so deeply through fantasy, and which I think is a rather apolitical and amoral sentiment.
    If one were to write about a “race” with the ability of flight, what sort of political context would you draw out of that? What if this race were to resemble angels in a superficial way? Are we dealing with “secret Christians”? I think a more realistic analysis is that the writer simply wishes they could fly. As much as I dislike the contention that fantasy is a genre entirely focused on escapism, I think that the escapist tendencies of many readers and writers have just as much if not more influence as their political aesthetics.

    Steven Watkin’s comment near the beginning of the thread is one part of the picture, that monarchy can be conceived of as representative of an absolute, proper order, with no grey space, whereas a democratic government is much more slippery in terms of right and wrong.

    1. I didn’t mean to imply, above, that monarchy and primogeniture are necessary or even pre-eminent of socio-political organizations that can exist in a fantasy context. But the concept of the lost king being returned to the people, reinstating the proper order of the monarchy is a common trope within the subgenre of high fantasy. Other sub-genres of Fantasy, and as well of Science Fiction, have their common tropes that can be potentially limiting on the nominal political message of the work.

      For instance, within Science Fiction, you have a whole sub-genre of wild-west style space explorers and colonists who are seeking a new and “free” life on the outer frontiers of space. Such characters have a hard life, but they prefer it to whatever exists back on good ole’ planet earth (for whatever reason). The nominal political message is one of absolute libertarianism as an ideal – but I wouldn’t suggest that a sci fi writer who utilizes this trope is necessarily a libertarian. The trope, with its nominal politics, obfuscates any political message the author may or may not otherwise have intended.

      That’s why I’m suggesting that, rather, these tropes probably mean something more psychological (and personal) than overtly political – although they can and are used in over politcal ways as well (I once started reading a sci fi webcomic where the aforementioned trope was used ad absurdum to postulate a utopic, anarchic society in space; I stopped reading when I realized the story was less about hard-working space frontiersman and more political screed).

      That said, there’s certainly room for (1) tons of wiggle room on the intended political message even within the contraints of existing genre tropes (where a writer chooses to use those tropes) and (2) plenty of room for personal political interpretation on the part of the reader, irrespective of the author’s intent or lack thereof.

    2. Atsiko:

      Oh, I agree with you at the broad level, and maybe that was Lou’s point. I think what Jay was trying to do was to start making distinctions and asking if they are useful for us to think with.

      It is true that if, again, you cast your fantasy net wide you can find a wide variety of politics, but my understanding was that Jay was more focused on High Fantasy, and my comments start from there. As you said, power dynamics and decision-making are a part of human life, but my take was that Jay was asking about more explicit systems of government and power. And thus the distinction between politics internal to the work and possible political messages being communicated to the reader via those constructions.

      As far as constraints and stereotypes, genre is honestly both of these things. Genre is the idea that works of art that share certain characteristics can be usefully related to one another in a grouping. If I write a novel about my child learning to walk, can I call it fantasy? It is easy to stereotype using notions of genre, but a good analysis should be able to work with genre and not reduce ideas or works to a base characterization. And genre can give you a shared understanding to begin an analysis or discussion with; you just have to take care with how you apply it.

      I do agree that whimsy and escapism underpin some of the decisions that an author makes, but that is not all there is to fantasy. If someone makes a species with wings, it might be for a lark; it depends on how they use them. You cannot make a blanket statement about the presence of wings, but within a given work you might find that it has some symbolic quality. It depends on the overall thrust of the work.

  9. Basically, that’s also a very long way of saying I agree with a lot of what else you said.

  10. Jaws says:

    I cannot outdo St. George in describing the relationship between “political” and “writing”:

    “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.
    “1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death… It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.…
    “2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or a writer of texstbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons… Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
    “3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
    “4. Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

    George Orwell, “Why I Write” (ellipses mine, emphasis added).

  11. If sex is political, than, yes, fantasy is political as well. Draw your own conclusions (allegories, metaphors and Snoopies).

  12. Cora says:

    1. Is the question of whether fantasy contains politics meaningful to ask in the first place?

    I’m with George Orwell on this one (kindly quoted by Jaws above) that all literature is inherently political and that even the decision to ignore politics altogether is political.

    Besides, I’d argue that SF and fantasy, at least the secondary world type, have the tendency to be more inherently political than realist fiction. Someone writing a contemporary romance can get away with ignoring macro-political issues (though micro-political issues will always creep in), because the setting is our world, i.e. in most cases early 21st century US. Though even contemporary set fiction is not necessarily apolitical – crime fiction is often very political indeed.

    However, writing SFF requires worldbuilding and worldbuilding inevitably requires engaging with the political and social system of the world created. Sometimes, this is done without much thought, hence we get the generic pseudo-medieval fantasy kingdom or the generic space trade federation or the Steampunk world which is Victorian Britain without any of the downsides or the Roman/British/Napoleonic/Russian Empire in space. But many SFF writers do put a lot of thought into the political and social system of the world they create, even if they do not necessarily agree with that system.

    2. Is traditional high fantasy as political as I’ve so casually portrayed it?
    3. Is it fair to analyze those politics only in internal terms, or does an external analysis bring value? Ie, are all us fantasy readers secret monarchists?

    To the average American, a monarchic system is as remote and exotic as the Middle Ages. Not that monarchy is exactly something that I have had personal experience with – the last monarch was chased out of my country the day my grandma was born. But Europeans, even those that live in countries without monarchies, still have a keen sense of what monarchism meant, because this is our history. Whereas the US has never had a monarchy and Americans generally don’t know a whole lot about monarchies, how they operate and how feudalist, absolutist and constitutional monarchies differ from each other (which is okay, since most Europeans don’t really get the frontier thing either). To American readers and writers, monarchies pretty much are fantasy. That’s probably also why American fantasy writers do not really question the idea that fantasy societies are monarchies, whereas British writers – even those that write feudalist and monarchistic fantasy societies – usually address the political implications in some way. It’s similar to how historical romances by US writers will often be set in a fantasy version of the European (usually British) aristocracy which doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the real thing.

    So are fantasy readers and writers secret monarchists? No, a lot of them simply think monarchies are quaint and romantic.

    4. What about other forms of fantasy? Other forms of speculative fiction?

    See point 1 above, I don’t think that any type of speculative fiction can truly be apolitical. Indeed, SF is often a lot more blatantly political than fantasy, e.g. the new “Battlestar Galactica” is a barely veiled commentary on US politics of the Bush era to the point that the political commentary overwhelms the story. And even something as escapist as Star Wars is very political, though it combines frustrations about American politics of the past approx. 40 years with epic fantasy’s “farmboy turns out to be the long lost heir to the throne/lightsaber” trope, which means that a lot of people focus on the farmboy turned Jedi fantasy and miss the political analogies.

    Steampunk, meanwhile, could be a great commentary on imperialism, capitalism and class issues (the Victorian era was also the time Communism was born), though in truth it often prefers to gloss over those issues.

    Non-secondary world fantasy, i.e. urban fantasy and much of the horror genre could theoretically get away with being less overtly political, as they are set either in our world or one very much like it. Though in truth urban fantasy reflects a lot of the political and social issues preoccupying our society. Vampires, fae and zombies make excellent metaphors for pretty much everything.

    5. What about the politics of race, gender, class and so forth?

    Those are even less inescapable than macro-political issues such as form of government, economic system, etc… Because race, class and gender issues creep even into the most apolitical piece of realist fiction. For example, even the otherwise apolitical contemporary romance I mentioned above will inevitably touch on gender issues and often on class and race issues as well.

    Actually, I think this is also the area where a writer should be particularly watchful that he or she doesn’t accidentally send a message in his/her fiction that the writer doesn’t want to send. For example, in my current WIP (contemporary realist setting) the female protagonist becomes pregnant in a difficult situation and decides to have the baby. While this is the right decision for this particular character to make, I still struggled a lot with this, because I feared that this one fictional character’s decision not to have an abortion could be interpreted as a statement against abortion in general (which I am very much in favour of).

    6. Am I asking the wrong damned questions?

    One might quibble with the phrasing or with what one considers political, but the question themselves are important IMO.

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