Political Problems

No, this isn’t going to be about the Real World, as much as I’d love to rant about it. Then again, it actually is, in a way. What I really want to tackle, hopefully in brief, is why we get so worked up about politics in our fantasy,  and – more often – why we don’t.

I think everyone is aware of the first part – outrage, puppies, SJWs, diversity, awards agendas, sexism and racism, and the rest. For one, I’m glad these battles are being fought, both in wider society and in fantasy literature. I know fantasy is supposed to be escapist, but that doesn’t mean it should be devoid of responsibility. Those trying to maintain fantasy as a safe space (ha, see what I did there?) to escape from so-called political correctness really need to take a long look in the mirror. (Science fiction has always been overtly political, so they have even fewer legs to stand on there.)

I do wonder, however, if we don’t hold up enough of a mirror to the fantasy we write. Fantasy, almost by definition, is a very conservative genre. It almost always involves some sort of gaze into the past (or, at least, environments resembling our past), often without too much criticism. Hereditary monarchy is a Good Thing as long as the right people are in charge. Some people are better than others by accident of birth and/or innate ability. Whole races of creature or peoples are irredeemably evil just because of who/what they are. Religion is bad except where it’s the True Faith in the right gods. War, murder, rape, banditry, feudalism, slavery, and other horrible and violent things are a matter of course.

Is this really the sort of world we want to escape to?

BooksOf course, there are plenty of works that approach many of these issues critically, and some which either tackle them head-on or leave them out entirely. However, there are many more which just accept them, in part or in whole, without comment or criticism. In a lot of cases, even propagating some of the common tropes seems problematic enough. This can be excused somewhat if the intention is to set out some sort of dystopia – post-apocalyptic or grimdark are both very popular, and are clearly no-ones idea of an ideal. And I’m not saying fantasy should just ignore these gritty, real-world issues that accurately reflect human nature, warts and all.

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Yep, conservative.

However, there are a large number of fantasy works that present a lot of these outdated tropes, beliefs, and prejudices as if they are indeed components of some long-lost utopia. The Good King as rightful ruler, worshiping the right gods (not the evil ones), keeping the simple folk and dependent women safe from the Others on the borders with the help of violent, entitled elites (and the occasional murderer-of-the-right-people). I can see why this is an attractive escapist fantasy for some people…it just isn’t one that I like the sound of in the Real World.

So why am I accepting of it in my books?

I suppose you can argue that these tropes are the in the very genes of fantasy, and to shrug them off would render the genre label unrecognisable and somewhat meaningless. After all, what would be the point of a fantasy without long-lost kings, noble warriors, princesses to be rescued, evil adversaries to slay, castles and dungeons and brothels and back-alleys to explore, and all the rest?

Ok, some would argue you could leave all that out and write a damn good fantasy, and there are certainly some tropes I’m tired of and more than a little uneasy about. But I’m not going to argue for some Whitehouse-style cleansing of our genre tropes, because I think fantasy would be a sadder place without (most of) them. However, if we are to accept that every choice we make in our books is in some way political, it’s worth examining them critically and making sure they are the sort of statements we are happy to back up.

 

Summer Holiday: Morrowind

So, I didn’t take an actual summer holiday this year, and at the time everybody was taking theirs around me at the real-world job, all I would have really wanted was a few weeks off to sit in my writing chair and finish my latest draft of the everlasting WIP. (This is all I ever want, most of the time.) Still, I managed to just about do that anyway, and in any case it has gone off to the latest round of Beta Readers, so I figured I should take a break.

Breaks are tricky for writers, especially those for whom it’s not a real, let-alone full-time job. You always end up feeling guilty, even though the only person you are beholden to at this stage is yourself. Perversely, I think that if I had editors, agents, or readers giving me set deadlines and work packages, then I would be able to take time off with less guilt. In that case, I would, at least, know what was expected and when it was due, rather than the current system of trying to do everything all the time just to get it done as soon as possible.

Of course, every writing knows that without external input, done is an illusion. That’s why sending something to beta readers provides some blessed respite (though also, much anxiety). No point making more changes while you are waiting for feedback on the previous version. And I do find that every 6-8 months I need to step back from the coal face and do something entirely different for a while – in most cases, that seems to be gaming.

Gaming and writing certainly have an interesting relationship. I know a lot of writers who are also gamers, and I think imaginative types are attracted to games. They provide a similar escape to books, in that you can go live somewhere else for a while. In the case of games, this other place is very much shaped around you, rather than some other author’s character(s). You (well, your digital surrogate) get to be the centre of the story, and you shape how you approach the game.

Of course, games can be a huge time-sink, which a writer can ill afford. They do, I think, keep your creative, storytelling brain ticking over a bit, though the tasks are much more reactive than in writing. This is why they can be such a good mental break, for those times when your brain really won’t spit words on the page (or at least, not decent ones). And, for a fantasy or science-fiction author, the plethora of titles in these genres can help explore the ideas and worlds that you want to write about.

Role-playing games obviously have the most scope for writers, especially the more open-ended variety you get these days. Yes, sometimes you are playing as a defined hero, with a storyline on rails you can’t deviate from, so that customisation amounts to a few weapon or party choices. Other games are so open-ended you can get lost in them, especially if you have a few compulsive personality traits (gotta catch ’em all!) and access to exhaustive internet guides.

Which brings us to Elder Scrolls, my personal favourite series. Everybody knows Skyrim is awesome, a lot of people enjoyed Oblivion (despite it’s one fatal flaw), but for me, Morrowind was the first place I got really lost in. It was exactly what I’d always wanted in a game, even if I didn’t realise this at first. I thought wanted a game where I could play as a dwarf, for starters, preferably in Middle Earth. It soon won me over, however, with its truly alien setting, its almost endless customisation, its huge open world.

When I did get games where I could play as a dwarf, I found them very much wanting in comparison. Some of that was down to the gameplay – the Elder Scrolls system of not having XP like D&D, but gaining ability in skills you specifically use, is magic (if occasionally frustrating). Some of it was down to the open world, and perhaps more specifically the way they entice you to undertake the storylines rather than force you. And, in the end, a lot of it was down to the world, which is nothing like the Middle Earth I thought I wanted.

And what a world! Despite a somewhat similarly eclectic approach, it puts the Forgotten Realms (where I’d spent a lot of game time) to shame. I even prefer it to the Middle Earth interpretations I’ve visited, and this made me realise that interpretation is the problem. Forgotten Realms appropriates a lot of its hodge-podge, and I’ve never found it really compelling. Tolkien didn’t write enough to make an open-world game out of (or, apparently, a feature film), so people adapting him have to make changes that, most of the time, don’t work for me either. Even the later Elder Scrolls games had too much of the familiar in them, straying dangerously close to the generic fantasy world of everyone’s nightmares (well, mine anyway).

Which is why, after all these years, I’ve chosen to take a few weeks’ holiday in Morrowind again.

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Finally got a screenshot (complete with mudcrab and scamp!)