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Issue #125 - January 2006

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Politics in Fantasy

By Jeff VanderMeer

Politics is as personal as religion. Current events should have an impact on writers and resonate in their fiction. Activism has a place in the writing of fantasy fiction. Characters, plots, story structures all benefit from a careful consideration of, and dialogue with, the political world.

Two decades ago, I would have been horrified by statements like these — statements I now believe in deeply. In my teens and early twenties, I very much saw fiction as Art with a capital "A," and Art was above the fray of the every-day, and, therefore, politics. I didn't yet see that the Surrealists’ statement of "convulsive beauty in the service of liberty" was a political call-to-arms.

At the same time, however, my fiction conflicted with my conscious thoughts about writing. On a subconscious level, on the level of inspiration, politics and the consequences of political decisions entered my fiction on a regular basis. I wrote about Latin American dictatorships and the legacy of the Conquistadors. I wrote about the erosion of personal liberties. I wrote about the impact of war on individuals and groups. I wrote about the effects of colonialism.

My short fiction was awash in politics and political positions. Sometimes it was so embedded that to cut it out of a story would have required killing the story. Sometimes it was superficial. Sometimes it was probably too didactic.

I think this last possibility — that the fiction could become too preachy — made me believe that writing as Art should somehow be separate from the current world, and therefore the messiness of politics. Fiction should come out of character and situation. Anything from the ordinary day-to-day should be included solely in the form of specific detail. The way light struck a window frame. The particular lilt to a woman’s speech. The smell of coffee curling out from a sidewalk café.

I believe this position on fiction explains why many of my stories had a stylized quality. I almost thought of them as paintings: beautiful but static, emblematic and symbolic, solemn and visionary, the passion grounded in the so-called "universal," which had no place for the temporal.

Writing about my imaginary city of Ambergris changed all of that. As a place, it had to encompass nitty-gritty detail at street level. It forced me to think about politics on all sorts of levels. A city can’t remain stylized and be real — that would be like denying oxygen to someone, or depicting everyone in mid-step, forever frozen. A city also can’t be above politics because politics forms its beating heart — its institutions, its government, and the personal politics of its individual citizens, their personal interactions.

I remember that Brian Stableford once said of Angela Carter that her work had risked sliding into mere rote symbolism before its exploration of gender politics became wedded to a fantasy setting. That she risked not allowing enough air into her work for readers to breathe.

For me, the secondary world fantasy of Ambergris let more of the real, unstylized world into my writing — and that meant those echoes of the real world that concerned politics as well. I found myself thinking about how conflict arises on a micro and macro level. How do ruling elites come into being? How do they stay in power? What are the consequences of colonialism and pogrom on both the oppressor and the oppressed? Who fills a power vacuum when it occurs, and why?

In Ambergris, merchant clans serve as stand-ins for the corporations of our world. A merchant elite more or less rules Ambergris, aided by a hodge podge of revered artists and other creative people. These are the people who lend legitimacy to or withhold it from the rulers.

Of course, there is also a strong vein of anarchy running through Ambergris, a sense that the city could descend into chaos at a moment's notice, even if the annual festival serves as a release of violence that helps stave off every-day anarchy.

Is this much different than the world I live in as an American? I don't think so. We have our own aggression-relief festivals in the form of sports events, for example. And, when an event like Hurricane Katrina occurs, or election irregularities, or, as happened in Florida recently, rival state agencies have an armed stand-off over the fate of a person in a vegetative state, we begin to realize that we are much closer to the edge than we would like to think, anesthetized as we are by our technophiliac gadgets and our selfish pursuit of creature comforts.

Not only are we closer to the total or partial breakdown of civilization than we think we are, we do not understand how close we exist to potential atrocity. In Ambergris, pogrom and counter-pogrom occur as the result of greed, ignorance, and fear. The gray caps, a native people driven underground by the founders of the city, exist in that dynamic shared by every group of oppressors and the oppressed. (The plot of such events varies in its details — whether in Rwanda or the Balkans, Cambodia or Germany — but the results are the same: a mass psychosis and individual indifference to suffering that leads to mass bloodshed.)

But "politics" in fiction is not just about using a backdrop of war or atrocity or city dynamics at the macro level to explore questions that affect us in a longer-term, broad way. It is also about understanding that all people are political in some way, even those who seem apathetic, because politics is about gender, society, and culture. Every aspect of our lives is in some way political. So if we don't, at some point during our writing, think about this consciously — if we simply trust our instincts as writers — we may unintentionally preserve cliché, stereotype, and prejudice.

Carol Bly, in her amazing writing book The Passionate, Accurate Story, makes a compelling case for the inclusion of the political — and thus real-world ethical, moral issues — in the creation of character. She gives the example of a character who happens to be an executive for a company that produces a harmful product or whose factories pollute the environment. The story’s emphasis may have nothing to do with the character’s job, but it is still incumbent on the writer to ask, What is the character's relationship to his or her job? Does the character think about the ethics of supporting harm to others, even if indirectly? What are the character's politics, and how do they reflect or not reflect the character's actual actions? How does the character justify both personal and political decisions?

Asking such questions is part of creating fully rounded characters. A character’s politics — public and private — may be inconsistent or, again, irrelevant to the main story being told, but the writer still needs to think about such issues. The questions still need to be part of the conversation the writer has with him or herself about the character.

When writing about characters in Ambergris, I try to position them in relation to events such as the Silence (when 25,000 people disappeared from the city, possibly because of the gray caps), or a war between rival political groups the Reds and the Greens, or on how they feel about the merchant-ruler Hoegbotton & Sons. Not because all of these thoughts will make it onto the page as part of character, but because somehow even just considering them rounds out the character, influences other things about the character that do make it onto the page.

Just as every day we make potentially dozens of small decisions that reflect our thought or lack of thought about the world around us so too does a fictional character of any weight exist in a world of such daily decisions, such thoughts. Otherwise, the character becomes less than real. Even small decisions have consequences in the real world, because we live in a world where politics matter, where politics can get you killed or knighted, often for the same action in a different context.

As part of the whole of a character, these types of attributes, internalized, expressed at the most basic level can make the difference between good fiction and great fiction, but, also, perhaps as importantly, the difference between fiction that is relevant and fiction that is not.

But is it important for fiction to be "relevant"? Does it affect what we think of as "classic" fiction fifty years from now? Relevance may, in certain types of fiction, create a kind of "temporally regional" form of literature — fiction that contains outdated references to issues no longer of consequence in the future, consigning a novel or story to that gray, half-lit, half-dark world where fiction is primarily read for its historical importance.

However, there is at least one area of fiction in which the idea of relevance today leading to potential anachronism tomorrow doesn’t have as much truth to it: that loose grouping of types of settings or a way of seeing the world often labeled "fantasy," and, in particular, secondary world fantasy.

Seen through the mirror of a fantasy setting that allows the real world to be reflected in it, a writer can perhaps more easily be relevant — in the short term — without running the risk of becoming dated in the long term.

In my new novel, Shriek: An Afterword, I wrote several war sequences during the most horrifying phases of the Iraq War and the conflict in Afghanistan. Are those scenes making a comment on U.S. involvement in the Middle East? No. Any aspects of those events become fictionalized and conflated with a number of other wars, until the specific detail I’ve gleaned from my nonfiction reading and television viewing is subsumed by the creative process into something that is both timely in one sense and timeless in another. Thus the current war becomes a catalyst for a relevant mood, for a way in to writing about a fictional war — an indirect influence.

A more pointed example might be a movement in Shriek called Nativism that reflects our country’s head-in-the-sand attitude toward Iraq, while still being fantastical enough that it can be read any number of other ways as well. In a similar way, the stranglehold corporations have on the politics practiced in Washington, D.C., becomes, as previously mentioned, warring merchant clans’ stranglehold on Ambergris. Even climate change is addressed in Shriek, in an off-kilter way. None of these elements of Shriek will be dated in fifty years, or one hundred years. All of them can be read on the surface level or on a subtextual level in a way that has nothing to do with "current events" — even though any reader today would easily recognize those events embedded within the novel.

(Did I intend all of these points of common reference originally? No. I wrote most of Shriek or at least planned out most of it well before 9-11 and all that occurred thereafter. But an organic novel, a novel that is alive, has at least one inherent trait during the writing of it: it devours the world. It is wide enough, deep enough, and enough about the entirety of life that it envelopes the real world and distills it out the other side in fictionalized form.)

Incorporating such issues from a through-the-looking-glass angle also allows for the possibility of presenting a heated current political situation in a non-threatening context. This doesn't mean that the ideas aren’t still threatening, but that the remove from reality allows for possible acceptance of those ideas by readers who originally did not share in that same system of beliefs. In other words, on some level, even if subconsciously, you may begin to change the world, one reader at a time. Even better, at least in Shriek, the politics of the setting do not overshadow the characters, but instead are expressed through the characters, and the emphasis in the novel is on other matters entirely. (The defeatist would say that, in fact, the opposite is true — for example, many right-wingers listen to, say, The Clash, and enjoy the music while ignoring the lyrics.)

However, no matter what I intend, the success of that intention depends on reader reaction and interpretation. Sometimes the reader has a responsibility — and in the case of the political, that responsibility includes not screaming "didactic!" any time a writer raises important issues in his or her work. Readers who care about writing need to recognize that sometimes the entertainment value of a piece must be weighed against the depth of what is being said, that sometimes a story may need a certain slow pace in a section, may need to build, and may even need to, yes, lecture, to achieve its full effect.

Now, after stating all of this, you may realize I haven’t yet answered the question I posed before: Is it important for fantasy, or fiction generally, to be relevant in this way? The answer is a resounding No, it isn’t. The instinctual idea I had as a teen and young adult about Art for Art’s sake, the idea that character and situation are paramount, that some truths transcend politics — that’s all valid.

But, for me, not because of 9-11 but because of everything since then — the hypocrisy, greed, and evil of government leaders, institutions, and private individuals — I cannot not react in a different way than before. These issues permeate our world, and if you do not internalize that, if it doesn’t affect your writing, then it lies like an unhealing wound in your heart, and you go a little bit crazy.

If there's one thing I’ve learned in the post 9-11 world, it is that everything we do matters — every little thing matters — even if we sometimes feel like we’re drowning, going down for the third time.

I’m not a political activist. I’m just a writer. But in doing what you love most — writing — and in observing the state of the world you love so much and have such curiosity about — with its insane assortment of sad, beautiful, ugly, evil, wonderful people — how can you not write these kinds of things into your fiction?

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