“More people want to change the world than want to change themselves.” – Leo Tolstoy
Our subject for today is fantasy as the literature of reassurance and consolation. This is a fairly common view of fantasy, just not one I agree with. At all. Now, I’m perfectly willing to concede that fantasy often is generic, and reaffirming of the status quo, and all the other things that it is accused of, usually when the person doing the accusing is pointing out its inferiority to science fiction. The basic problem with that argument is that it’s just as true of a great deal of science fiction, and just as irrelevant, applying only when we confuse fantasy and sf as marketing categories with fantasy and sf the forms of storytelling. Fantasy and sf that are more market-driven often fit that description, but in neither case is it a limitation of the form. Anyone who argues otherwise has their work cut out for them so far as I’m concerned.
The other truism I keep hearing is that fantasy is “backward looking” while science fiction is “forward looking.” Ummm, no. Some science fiction is forward looking. A lot more isn’t. A lot more, rather, is more solidly rooted in the here and now than anything John Irving ever did, but no one’s saying that such stories shouldn’t be called science fiction. I think it’s truer and more useful to say that fantasy is “inward looking” while science fiction is “outward looking,” though even that view doesn’t fully describe either genre. I admit it’s a shaky platform, but we have to stand somewhere.
“Now wait a minute,” I hear my Mr. Strawman say, “isn’t it true that most fantasy is set in the past?” Actually, no. Very little fantasy is set in our actual historical past. Just as “urban fantasy” is not really set in our present. It may look like this world or some close variation, but that’s deceptive. Fantasy is almost all set in a place beyond time and history. Beyond the Fields We Know. Anyone ever heard of it? Some call it Fairyland. That has its own unfortunate associations, but it’s not wholly inaccurate. Then there’s Beyond Ultima Thule. To the West. To the East. Over the Rainbow. In the Underworld. On Mount Olympus. At Tir na Og. Avalon. Downtown Detroit. Call it what you want, it’s not what it seems, and it’s not here and it’s not now. It’s not a place any of us have been. It’s a place we’ve all been.
“You do realize that you’re speaking absolute nonsense, don’t you?” asks Mr. Strawman (and give the guy credit—he never misses a cue). Sure I am. I’m rather fond of Nonsense as a destination. Edward Lear was a master of it. That’s how I first found out about the Jumblies, and how they went to sea in a sieve. Fascinating creatures and fascinating place. Nonsense is a setting that I definitely should have mentioned.
Setting is important. The difference, at least in my opinion so feel free to have your own, is that, in science fiction, the setting is most often a representation, however crude, of the physical universe, and the story a look at our relationship with that universe. In fantasy, the setting is a metaphor for ourselves only. The settings in fantasy are the universal inner landscapes of the human psyche, beyond space and time. It’s what and who we are, and only really, truly accessible in the stories we tell each other about us. Per Jane Yolen, storytelling is “our first and best method of casting out demons and summoning angels.” All the rest is stagecraft.
So what do we see when we go there? Marvels. The clash of armies, the birth of the Gods, the fall of the Gods. Each other. We see anything we’re capable of seeing, for better or for worse. That’s not safe, nor should it should be. Ursula Le Guin in THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT likened certain writers’ and readers’ attitude toward Fairyland as being the same as obvlivious tourists in Yosemite, having a grand old time until, say, they try to get their picture taken with the cute bear and the cute bear eats them. Sure, there are cute bunnies and horsies in Fairyland. And some of the bunnies drink your blood and some of the horsies drag you off to the loch for drowning and devouring at leisure. There are also worse things lurking. Far worse.
Telling a fantasy story is the act of going to the place that we all live and taking a good hard look at what’s there. Like taking a look in the mirror. We often look in the mirror but only now and then we get a glimpse, maybe no more than that, but a true glimpse of what’s there to see. Do you find that reassuring when it happens? Consoling? I sure don’t. In fact, it scares the hell out of me every time I sit down to write. But sometimes the act of storytelling tells us something we didn’t know before. Or didn’t know that we knew. Which, despite the danger, is more than enough reason to keep making the journey.
At least, when we get it right.