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Is Fantasy Inherently Authoritarian?

September 12, 2007

I just read an interesting article by Jonathan McCalmont over at SF Diplomat, where an argument is made that Fantasy is inherently authoritarian.  According to McCalmont, since many fantasy works take place in worlds that contain racism and other reactionary elements, and the characters rarely challenge the status quo, the authors themselves must be authoritarians.

First of all, the article starts out with him admitting that he is biased against fantasy, so I have to wonder how widely read he can possibly be in the genre.  That being said, I will assume that he is quite well read, and that his conclusions are drawn from sufficient evidence (i.e. – not just going by Lord of the Rings and a handful of others).

The second point that I want to bring up is that how progressive or reactionary a society is is largely a function of its technological sophistication.  What I mean by this is that history is, overall, progressive.  When it was founded, the United States was the best game in town (being a sort of democracy), but they still had rampant sexism.  What I am coming to here is that it is impossible to judge a past (or fictional) society by our standards, as to do so would mean removing the historical (or fictional) context, and would render such a judgement practically worthless.  To look at it another way, do you think that in 1000 years they will view our current society as the one that finally got it right?  I hope not.

Finally, an authoritarian setting does not hinder the ability of a story to deal with issues of authoritarianism.  In fact, I would argue that the only way to deal with issues of authoritarianism is by looking at the situation in context.  Its easy to point fingers at people who didn’t risk their lives to prevent Hitler from coming to power in Germany, but really, how many people are active in trying to stop the genocide in Darfur, or get US troops out of Iraq?

All of this is not to say that I think the fantasy genre is a bastion of progressive thinking, but merely that I do not think that it is inherently so.  Indeed, it is up to fantasy fans and authors to ensure that it goes in a healthy direction, and the only way to achieve that end is through constant self analysis and the challenging of old ideas.  No matter how much I disagree with Mr. McCalmont, I appreciate that he has helped to bring about serious debate on this issue.

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