The OF Blog: Renegade Priests and Treacherous Young Witches

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Renegade Priests and Treacherous Young Witches

Reading Pat's post about the "changing of the guard" tonight reminded me that I have been meaning to write a bit addressing the other facets of fantasy fiction. This is not going to be one of those posts where I denigrate another's reading preferences or authorial writing styles, but instead I'll be looking at certain things that I've noticed in several recently-released books that I feel ought to be praised more. Perhaps this is akin to movies in some ways, with the usual summer blockbuster franchises going through their cyclical trilogies that serve more to just tweak the cinematography and replace the franchise name rather than to explore any substantial ground, and the more "underground" or "art house" films that try to capture substantive new shifts in perspective and meaning. Perhaps, although of course all such analogies are inherently flawed.

While I read and enjoy epic multivolume fantasies on occasion, they never have been my preferred style of fiction. Living through some of the most incredible changes in a 33 year span, from computers becoming household items in the 1980s to the fall of communism to the full impact of Title IX on American varsity sports to the 1989 Revolutions to a growing acceptance of "alternative" lifestyles, change has been a constant in my life. I can remember not knowing that "gay" meant "homosexual" or "queer" (more pejorative then than now), but now I have many openly gay and bisexual friends and am learning much from them about how many different ways there are to perceive the world. There were relatively few Latinos in the US when I was a child, now people feel threatened at all the "undocumented immigrants." Divorce is so common now, with around 50% of all US marriages ending in divorce. The nuclear family is but one of many living arrangements in a rapidly graying and diverse population.

In the face of this, I can understand why many would want to read something that seemed to hark back to a perceived simpler time, where there were honor and family codes and that things just seemed to make more sense, especially since threatening changes were embodied by external, materialized "dark lord" threats rather than by a complex and nebulous web of occurrences. While I sympathize and occasionally do enjoy this sort of tale, I think there's a whole host of fantasy being written today that is addressing either obliquely or directly many of those social issues that I mentioned above.

When I look at the books that have come out in the past few years, many things strike me as being different from earlier releases. There are more open and honest examinations of issues such as homosexuality or gender relations. Authors such as Nalo Hopkinson, Hal Duncan, Sarah Monette, among others, have tackled these issues in a way that neither condemns or cheers them in a false rah-rah spirit. Instead, their homosexual characters are presented as being just as real and just as important as straight relationships. They are not perfect people, but neither are they demons.

Child abuse and family estrangement are two of the most difficult issues to address today for many people. It is one thing to mention it in passing for "shock" value, but another to internalize it into the text and making these sensitive topics take on a life of their own that makes their stories so vital. Karin Lowachee with her trilogy of novels dealing with boys who have been abused and have suffered much in a war setting, so similar to the reports of 9 year-olds in West Africa being armed with AK-47s and sent out as cannon fodder in the 1990s civil wars there. Tobias Buckell with a character such as Jerome, who has become a refugee fleeing a sudden invasion. Jeff VanderMeer, addressing familial concerns and disagreements in a sometimes raw but always powerful way in his last novel. So much hurt and anguish expressed in these fantasies, belying Tolkien's famed comments about the consolatory nature of fairy tales/fantasies.

Race relations are starting to be addressed more. Although Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany among others addressed this in their YA or SF works, race as being a source of internal and external tension has been downplayed in this genre until recently, when there have been signs of increased awareness that the "other" is not necessarily some bug-eyed alien but those lines that fail to intersect, those that do not draw us closer together as human beings. David Anthony Durham is one who has started to address this lack of dialogue between the various readers of the speculative. His fantasy debut, Acacia, dares to examine how a social structure could permit not just widespread chattel slavery but also a rampant drug trade. How do those things affect a society? Not often have such issues been raised in fantasy, so it is rather refreshing to see them being raised again. Hopkinson, Buckell, and others such as Nisi Shawl have addressed similar issues of how race/ethnicity interact with character entanglements with others and with the world/environment around them. I believe these increased efforts to have more than just a single dominant world-view look at social relations might serve as a invigorating experience for the genre.

So instead of just slowly developing in a lineal fashion as their epic fantasy colleagues appear to do in part (to be fair, many such as Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker do incorporate many of the elements that I mentioned above into their narratives, albeit the basic storyline and character development largely remains true to the epic fantasy model of the past 50+ years), I would argue that the fantasy field has become ever more ripe with a crop of "renegade priests" and "treacherous young witches" (to steal a line from Dylan's "Changing of the Guards," as irony would have it) that are bringing their own personal experiences and shared social consciousness into a field that can be as much about our dreams for more just and diverse societies as it is about glancing backwards to an idealized past. For that, there is much to celebrate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not much to say, just that I really liked this commentary. It jives with what I find myself doing/looking for recently in reading material.


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