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?
Here's hoping he finishes the series! Is he still aiming for 7 books in the series?ReplyDelete
And in response to your question, Ben, 'Dune' is still one of my favorite books of all time and, I think, really engaged with the current challenges facing science, religion, and progress in an extremely abstract and creepy way.ReplyDelete
Hey Ben, just a short request. Not sure if you're opposed to this or not, but have you considered putting links in your posts when you reference earlier posts. It would be nice to review the aforementioned post with the click of a button.ReplyDelete
Will do, I was thinking about doing that anyway and will go back and do so in the earlier posts where I've referenced others. Appreciate the feedback, now as ever!
PS. Yup, Martin is still aiming for 7 books as of right now.
What do you think of Fantasy/Science Fiction stories as being looked down upon, especially in your own field, as trash, or more nicely popcorn books. Do they constitute "true" literature? Or I suppose CAN they do so.
With something like "Game of Thrones" I would say the argument is definitely there to put in on par with some other works (War and Peace is the one that comes to mind) that are these huge epic pieces that delve into some really hard subjects. So I guess ultimately do you think being a "genre" book makes a book therefore not literature?
I absolutely think that the best of these genres, as I would say of any and all genres, are on par with the great literary works. (I created a lit course called Intro to Science Fiction and Fantasy to explore lots of these questions.) Besides my feelings about the great sci fi/fantasy works, there are at least two other reasons why I feel this way:
1) Historical fiction, another of my lifelong literary loves, has long been defined as a bastard stepchild of "true" literature (and of history writing) as well. And I disagree with that one too!
2) And much of what we think of as "true" literature was in its own era considered more "popular" or "genre" lit--while I don't entirely discount the idea of a literary hierarchy, I do think it's important for us to remember how much of a construct, and a shifting one at that, it is.