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?
Of 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.
However, there are a large number of fantasy works that present a lot of these outdated tropes, beliefs, and prejudices as if they are indeed components of some long-lost utopia.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.