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June 25, 2004

Some Assumptions about Fantasy

Ursula K. Le Guin takes on assumptions in fantasy genre fiction in a speech to BookExpo America (via ***Dave).

Assumption 1: The characters are white. Even when they arenít white in the text, they are white on the cover. I know, you don't have to tell me about sales! I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that "what sells" or "doesn't sell" can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Good point. As much as I loved the recent television adaptations of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune it did pain me to see yet another (two!) white Duncan Idahos. Frank Herbert is quite specific in his description of the character. If it is important to cast Paul Atriedes somewhat faithfully this should also be true of Idaho. It will be critical if they decide to make God Emperor of Dune. Oh yes.

Herbert's favourite characters tend to be pig ugly and have red hair. These turn up over and over again in his writing with the grumpy Jorg X. McKie as an exemplar of the breed. And where do I sign up to work for the BuSab? But I digress.

Le Guin loses me in her moralizing about "(unquestioned) Good and (unexamined) Evil". The spectre of the VRWC haunts her. It is a shame the (unquestionable) Good of women being able to walk the streets unescorted by a male relative and (unexamined by the "left") Evil of sawing heads off for cable news ratings get lumped in with ill conceived fantasy plots. No, fantasy land is not the real middle ages. But that is no reason to obscure the fact of real heroism and real evil in the real world.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at June 25, 2004 08:27 AM

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? a few remarks with the smell of earthsea from BARISTA
"Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil. In an America where our reality may seem degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality, imaginative literature continues... [Read More]

Tracked on June 28, 2004 09:45 AM


Yes, Zod forbid that anything, anything at all should be exempt from stupid Leftist obsessions. The personal is always political...always, dammit!

More and more, I'm convinced that Socialism in the West should be considered as one of the more pernicious species of monotheistic religion rather than as just a political theory- one of the more iconoclastic ones, like Islam or 17th century Congregational Puritanism. It's merely one tricked out in pseudoscientific jargon, and a slick "secular modern" look (circa 1850). Look at it: there's the Second Coming (the Revolution), and the unthinking arrogance and preachiness of "a chosen people". Even the future "worker's utopia" has echoes in the Muslim extremists' fantasies about a New Caliphate, or the old Puritan belief that "We will build Jerusalem, in England's green and pleasant land." Look around: Socialism is as great a faliure as any political program can ever be, yet it remains a hardy perennial in the world view of chattering classes. It fill the need for religion for people who pride themselves on outgrowing it.

Posted by: Jim at June 25, 2004 11:01 AM

Yes, Flea, it's pretty obvious what's on her mind in that tedious moralizing at the end. It might also be her longtime interest in Taoism peeking out a bit (i.e. good and evil not as opposite categories but as an interrelated pair that needs each other).

As for fantasy characters being overwhelmingly white: Considering that the archetype for fantasy literature is derived from folklore of pagan and early Christian Northern Europe, I don't find it surprising at all or particularly reprehensible for that matter. What I do find regrettable, however, is that more authors do not try to create fantasy founded on the stories of non-European cultures, at least for variety if nothing else. I would love to see a well-done African fantasy, for example.

By the way, I loved her Earthsea books (I read them in junior high school) but I have to agree with Gene Wolfe that her earlier sci-fi is somewhat overrated.

Posted by: Varenius at June 25, 2004 03:33 PM

Thanks for the link and the discussion. I don't see the ideological connection to socialism - her note, for instance, would support Beowolf, Heinlein and Dune, none of which are remotely leftist but all contain complexities beneath the banging around and biffing.

And yes: she says "our reality may seem degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality". As an outsider, I do see chunks of your society's public communication in that way - check the extremists on both sides of the blogosphere. But that does not imply support or rejection of a particular foreign policy conducted at the moment.

She is arguing for complexity and fundamental moral integrity and complexity on a different level, at the point where we fantasise about the world we would like to live in, where we decide what satisfies us most deeply.

Posted by: David Tiley at June 28, 2004 09:55 AM

Thanks for your thoughts, David. One note... my society's public communication is under the thumb of the CBC. Canada patriotism and self-righteousness is most enough in line with that of Australian leftists.

Posted by: Flea at June 28, 2004 11:11 AM

David writes:

I don't see the ideological connection to socialism...

I don't really either, at least at the level of Le Guin's personal views. In fact, from what I've heard she leans toward the libertarian end of things.

She is arguing for complexity and fundamental moral integrity and complexity on a different level, at the point where we fantasise about the world we would like to live in, where we decide what satisfies us most deeply.

I don't think Flea and I would disagree with the importance of that. However, the type of rhetoric she used to express it sounds uncomfortably close to that used by the anti-Western Left. It hints at the type of thinking that leads to responses such as dissolving in whiny self-recrimination in response to the September 11 attacks. Introspection and nuance are always necessary, but they should not be indulged in so much that they lead to moral paralysis.

Posted by: Varenius at June 28, 2004 04:11 PM