Tuesday, July 12, 2011
July 12, 2011: What’s the Fantastic For?
If you’ve read any science fiction, you probably have a sense that one of the genre’s fundamental purposes is to critique aspects of our own society from the safe distances of the future and/or outer space; as Robert Silverberg puts it, “in reading them we look backward by the brilliant light of those distant epochs to see our own era.” As far back as a work like Edward Bellamy’s time travel utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), through 20th century titans like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 (1968), and into our contemporary moment, science fiction has often served precisely to create a space in which present issues and trends can be extrapolated forward and outward, and so viewed and analyzed with more clarity than might otherwise be possible. At times the resulting lens has been hopeful or humorous, at times satirical, at times bleak or cynical, but in any case it would be easy enough, I believe, to argue convincingly for the value of science fiction from an AmericanStudies lens; Bradbury’s novel, to take one example, can tell us a great deal about American society in the middle of the 20th century, and particularly that society’s perspectives and debates on exploration, science, religion, the environment, race, and many other crucial themes.
Fantasy, on the other hand, can seem much less connected to specific national or social moments or themes, and much more broad and universal in its meanings and significance. Readers and scholars have long tried to tie J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to the unfolding events of World War II against which he wrote much of the series (between 1937 and 1949), but Tolkien resisted that connection unceasingly, and certainly his series’ engagements with good and evil, heroism and cowardice, war and peace, and other such themes likewise resist any easy historical analogies or concordances. Even when a fantasy series does seem to intend its analogies more overtly—as is certainly the case with the Christian symbolism in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books—those analogies are similarly broad in scope; Lewis’s Aslan the lion is without question intended to represent Jesus, but he and the books are not to my mind a commentary on the state of Christianity (or anything else) in mid-20th century England, but rather on the religion’s abiding principles and beliefs. By its very nature, the genre of fantasy seems to rely on such universalizing connections, on the creation and inhabiting of worlds that are either defined by clear differences from our own or, if they seem to echo ours at all, tend to portray time periods that feel centuries earlier than our own contemporary moment.
Today marks the release of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth novel in a saga that seems very much in the latter category (and is, not coincidentally to my writing about it here, my favorite series of all time): George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s world does indeed feel deeply rooted in medieval history (and is relatively light on fantastic elements, at least compared to many fantasy series), so much so that his series has sometimes been called a fantahistorical; but that history is of course entirely distant from our 21st century American moment, especially when compared to an earlier work of Martin’s such as Fevre Dream (1982), a vampire novel set on the Mississippi River during the final years of the steamboat age. Yet as I’ve written elsewhere in this space, I plan to start my third book with a quotation from the series’ first chapter, the conversation between young Bran Stark and his father Ned about bravery and fear. Their subject there is, as Tolkien’s and Lewis’s were, broad and universal, applicable to any society and moment; but it’s also, both in its specific and counter-intuitive image of bravery and in its general goal of revising our clichéd narratives in favor of something more challenging, genuine, and meaningful, hugely relevant to American identity and studies. Martin’s books are not in any way targeted at America or our particular historical moment—there’s a reason they’ve been translated into dozens of languages, and I can imagine them ringing just as true 100 years from now—but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a great deal to say to them and us.
There doesn’t have to be an AmericanStudies reason to read Martin, or fantasy fiction, or anything else as great and powerful as these books are—as with all the best works of art, these give you their own reasons in spades. But if something can entertain us, move us, thrill us, affect us deeply, and make us better and stronger as a national community at the same time? That’d be pretty fantastic. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Google book of The Martian Chronicles: http://books.google.com/books?id=340yCIudlMwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
2) Martin’s own website, which includes in the Not a Blog some very interesting recent reflections on the writing of the fifth book and his series: www.georgerrmartin.com
3) OPEN: Any science fiction or fantasy that you’d say can tell us a lot about us? Or works in other genres?