The OF Blog: A socio-cultural/political question involving Fantasy

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A socio-cultural/political question involving Fantasy

I'm taking a break from writing my lesson plans for this week, because a thought struck me while I was in the middle of trying to decide how much I ought to incorporate today's immigration debates (in both the U.S. and in many other parts of the world) with the 19th century mass migration of peoples from Southern and Eastern Europe and from China and Japan to the U.S., Canada, and Argentina (among others). In thinking about how to portray the nativist/anti-immigrant attitudes in a way that wouldn't be setting up a straw man (despite my own personal irritation at the antics of such odious groups as the Minutemen), I tried to think of which fantasy stories dealt with the migrations of peoples in a fashion that didn't indicate possible author biases against the migrants.

For the most part, I have failed to think of many positive examples. Tolkien, for example, has been criticized numerous times over the years for having a possibly racist overtone to his portrayal of the peoples of Rhûn and the Harad (not saying I agree with those criticisms, but rather noting that they exist). Elsewhere in other fantasy novels, even many of which purport to be about the "strangeness" of the world around, there is that sense of a vague threat looming, whether it be the newcomers (from the perspective of the main character(s) ) or the protagonist him/herself.

Perhaps I'm just missing the copious counterexamples that could be cited as proof that fantasy (I'm purposely leaving out SF, since I do know of examples there of a benign or at least non-threatening "first contact") stories are not uniformly filled with a sense of unease at the "alien" groups that are "moving in." Anyone care to share examples of stories that explore how such wildly different groups are seen to reach out and to integrate themselves in a fashion that runs counter to the notion that "different equals threatening"?


Anonymous said...

Le Guin's Earthsea novel The Other Wind comes to mind. Maybe also Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series. Watership Down?

But yes, it is difficult to think of many strong examples. The taproot texts of fantasy are often the creation myths of nations, and so a strong thread of nationalism, of defining a group positively by its opposition to another, exists in much fantasy.

Also, I suspect that many authors are too aware of the damages often done to existing peoples and their culture by new groups of settlers (and at times vice versa) to feel comfortable depicting immigration in a wholly positive light. It can be difficult to reconcile the ideals of toleration, pluralism, and post-colonialism. What you do get is fantasy that tries to show the best and worst of all sides. Gaiman's American Gods, say; or some of Robin Hobb's Farseer books. Or, there are issues with Tolkien, but we also should note that the elves in Middle Earth were immigrants, exiles, and that the necessity of peoples and races joining together is a frequent theme in his work. Then a series like Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn takes the same basic formula but tries to show that within any given people or race there will be individuals taking one side of a conflict and individuals taking the other -- trying to dispense with racial generalizations. From there you get works like Martha Wells's City of Bones or Wheel of the Infinite, in which race and culture are seen fully as elements of individuals, rather than individuals being examples for races and cultures.

Elena said...

Neither of these examples show immigration positively, but they focus on the differing reactions of the people already living there.

Sharon Shinn's Heart of Gold does I think an excellent job of showing both sides in an equally bad light and an equally enlightened one. The basis of the story is the racial conflict.

Emily Gee's Thief with No Shadow skirts the issue, as the main character is an immigrant who has seen and experienced the reactions of two different cultures to someone of her race. And how familiarity with an individual can overcome prejudice.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference, of course, between those fictions written from the point of view of the incomer (in which the immigrant is viewed positively because he is the hero), and those fictions written from the point of view of the native (in which the intruder is an easily identifiable enemy). There are examples of both in fantasy, but neither is really taking a positive view of immigration.

But, of course, we must remember that it is only in the last ten to fifteen years that science fiction has really got to grips with a post-colonial agenda. Maybe fantasy will catch up shortly.

Anonymous said...

This story from Fantasy Magazine tackles the theme head on.


Mark Newton said...

I'm not sure if this is askew to the point, but in China Miéville's "The Scar", there's a classic anarchistic aspect when prisoners (the remade) are freed and made equal peoples on the pirate city of Armada. So it's not immigration in the usual context, since on Armada everyone is pretty much a forced immigrant, but worth considering to see how the hybrid-race of the remade are integrated back into an equal society - and this is treated in a very positive light. Just a thought.

Lsrry said...

Good examples, everyone. Le Guin in particular I think would serve as a good counter to the trend I noted in my post, as she was one of the first to write from a "post-colonial" PoV about the things that are usually seen from the WASP perspective.

Paul, I would also add that SF is actually not that far behind what has been transpiring in social/cultural history studies. I graduated from high school in 1992; I recall the American History books containing maybe a chapter section, if that on the immigration experience. Sixteen years later, I'm teaching a unit on immigration and coverage has expanded to most of a devoted chapter (the other section dealing with political corruption in the 1870s and 1880s "Gilded Age"). Perhaps it's more a case of an understandable lag from the 1960s movements to those activists rising in academic and other professional circles to writers being influenced?

Catherine said...

Robin Hobb's newer trilogy - the Soldier Son books - was much more direct than the Farseer ones about colonialism - although more to do with the complicity of the colonisers than immigration per se.

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