The Rise and Triumph of Modern Fantasy

by rsbakker

Before I dig into the meat of the dispute I want to highlight what–for me, anyway–is the most extraordinary upshot of this entire affair: the way it seems to belong to heroic fantasy and heroic fantasy alone. The issues that are being argued here and in small pockets across the web are not only key to what could be the most troubling and profound aspects of modernity, they are almost entirely specific to a fictional subgenre that is firmly rooted at the very bottom of the cultural authority gradient. Here we see a symbolic analogue to why archaeologists cry out for joy when they uncover ancient midden heaps.

More often than not, the truth, whatever it is, likes to hide in the trashcan. So let me suggest, from the outset, that even though we may belong to the low paraliterati, we are actually engaging in an incredibly complex and timely debate, one which represents genuinely conflicting social interests, while the literati are simply disputing angels and pins amongst themselves.

Only in fantasy, folks. Which is why I have been self-consciously exploring these self-same issues throughout The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. These are literally the problems that I used to structure the metaphysics of the World and the Outside. I can’t help but feel a little bit of that delicious I-told-you-so tingle…

The latest salvo in the dour side of the debate is “The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel,” which appeared on Black Gate just this past Sunday. In this essay, Theo breaks Grin’s lament down into four categories, so rescuing the argument from all the hyperbole and self-congratulatory in-group asides that so marred the original.

By way of caveats, I think its important to remember a few things, some obvious, others not so obvious. The first is that Frodo and Conan are not dead, though Tolkien and Howard are. It’s not as though there isn’t any earnest fantasy out there, it’s that there’s so very little new earnest fantasy out there. The second is that the ‘work’ is itself a fiction: stacks of ink and paper are just that, stacks of ink and paper, absent this or that particular human brain. So what we are talking about are readings and generalizations drawn from readings, not semantic objects hanging in some supernatural symbolic phase space. As far as I know, no evangelical Christian would want to argue that the Holy Ghost secures the Truth of their interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. Only the Holy Bible (where apparently, the Holy Ghost is of at least as many minds as there are denominations).

So then, Theo’s four categories:

1) Heroic inspiration versus anti-heroic discouragement

Theo’s suggestion seems to be that ‘heroic redemption’ is–or at least should be–a cornerstone of the genre. What he really means, it seems to me, is moral redemption, and a very specific one at that: the heroic overcoming of external threats. Why this should be the cornerstone of the genre, or anything beyond a statement of personal taste, is quite beyond me. Think of Achilles and his paralyzing melancholy, or Odysseus and his manipulative craft. Even the ancients had a taste for things more complicated.

2) Moral certainty versus relativistic confusion

As Theo writes:

“there is no such thing as “good” or “evil” per se in most modern fantasy. All is more or less relative, which is why modern writers are so often forced to manipulate the reader’s emotional responses with “shocking” scenes of dead children and raped women in order to provide an artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility.”

Theo poses this as a descriptive point, even though rhetoric like ‘artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility’ shouts otherwise. The idea seems to be that ‘moral relativism’ has some kind of ‘moral dampening effect,’ which in turn forces the author to reach deeper to achieve moral effects. I’m not so sure this makes much sense.

Consider what happens when we change the beginning of the above quote to “there is no such thing as obvious good and obvious evil per se in most modern fantasy. All is more or less confused, which is why modern writers are so often forced…”

Now this makes more sense: when everything is confused, then you have to reach for those deep intuitions to conjure a sense of moral clarity. This is what I do in my own works, quite self-consciously, but certainly not to provide ‘artificial fascimile’ of moral intuitions. I’m not even sure what an ‘artificial intuition’ would look like!

But this simply underscores the Great Straw Man that underwrites the censure that permeates both Grin’s and Theo’s pieces: the imputation of a metaphysical position, namely ‘moral relativism,’ to their apparent aesthetic antagonists. Like Grin (and maybe Theo) I see relativism as a nihilistic dodge, I’m just not as inclined to think my moral intuitions are the intuitions as they seem to be. In my works, what they would likely call ‘relativism’ is nothing of the sort. It’s actually moral realism that we’re talking about. Moral ambiguity and confusion are simply a fact of the human condition, one which in no way speaks to the metaphysical truth of morality. In The Second Apocalypse, the big question is simply one of what people make of this situation. Some instrumentalize it. Some flounder. Some perpetually struggle. And some–like Grin and Theo, apparently–think they have seen through the confusion. Just like the real world.

Just as genre fiction tends to offer wish-fulfilment heroes, much of it offers wish-fulfilment moral certainty as well. What distinguishes heroic fantasy is the wholesale way this morality informs the metaphysics of the secondary worlds created. This, I think, is really what these guys are complaining about: that there is a special generic relationship between heroic fantasy and moral certainty.

I agree. I just don’t see why this relationship has to be a simple one.

3) Organic consistency versus moral anachronism

Okay. This part I understand:

“When both morality and religion have been methodically excised from the beliefs of the characters and as well as from the environment in which they are found, especially in a quasi-medieval setting, the overall effect is bound to ring as false to the intelligent reader as providing the conventional low fantasy protagonist with a ray gun and a battery powered gene-splicing device would be.”

I have always found secular sensibilities in premodern contexts to be anachronistic and off-putting, all the moreso when they reek of ‘political correctness.’ This is the insertion of a certain modern moral certainty (more wish-fulfilment) into premodern story contexts. The bulk of the controversy my books have caused, I think, has to do with my refusal to pander to the readers’ modern moral sensibilities, particularly with regards to gender.

What I don’t understand in Theo’s recap is the apparent presumption that individuals in ancient contexts were not morally conflicted: of course they were, insofar as the complexity of our moral environment always outruns the simplicity of our moral precepts and intuitions as a fact of the human condition. You don’t need to study ancient Greek drama to appreciate this: humans always have been pinched by moral dilemmas. It’s one of the reasons why we have the history of violence that we do. Why would doubt be so vilified and certainty so prized, if the ancients didn’t find themselves trapped in ancient versions of the moral quandaries that continually plague our souls, collectively and otherwise?

Once again, he seems to be conflating moral realism with metaphysical relativism, which he then assigns to a certain political sensibility. I just don’t see what warrants any of these moves.

4) Moral cowardice

I found this the muddiest of Theo’s recapitulations, so I’m not entirely confident of my interpretation. The idea seems to be that for all the ‘shades of moral grey,’ a kind of obvious moral cowardice motivates the representations of moral conflict in recent fantasy. As he writes, “Their work isn’t the least bit daring or dangerous, it is entirely predictable as they only attack the targets of the past now deemed safe by modern sensibilities.” In other words, they only go through the motions of challenging the reader.

Since Theo is advocating the apologetic, reaffirming form of the genre, his charge has to be one of hypocrisy (your defections from the code achieve none of the things you claim they achieve) because ‘challenging’ is not an artistic value for him, at least as far as fantasy is concerned. Since I always thought Joe Abercrombie was blessedly free of my pretentious ambitions, I never thought he was ‘trying to rewrite the genre’ or anything like that. Either way, Theo seems to be almost entirely blind to the irony of what he’s saying, since he himself was obviously ‘challenged’ or ‘provoked’ enough to write an entire essay in an attempt to make his unflattering evaluations stick. I think writers like Joe, Steve, and George are actually tweaking millions of readers.

I also think that this is precisely what Grin and Theo don’t like, given that they have supposedly isolated a ‘liberal bias’ in these three writers. Especially with Grin, the problem is that these guys are challenging the reader in the wrong way.

As for me, well…

I hesitate because I always hesitate when I think I find catastrophically horrible arguments. I gotta be missing something…


As I hope should be clear by this point, Theo’s four recapitulations of Grin’s points are really different spins of the same complaint: modern fantasy is a moral failure. To me, these essays reek of rationalization, the attempt to dress up a certain yen for certain narrative problems resolved in certain narrative ways in certain narrative circumstances in ‘reasons.’ The resulting arguments are well nigh incoherent.

The charge of ‘moral anachronism’ is the only one that seems to have bite: insofar as historical consistency is accepted as a common standard, inserting politically correct intuitions into ancient contexts is a ‘spell breaker.’ It is for me, but I’m not sure it is for many other readers. Does that make me a better reader? I’m not so sure.

Otherwise the strategy consists of equivocating moral realism (the fact that moral confusion and conundrums are part of the human condition) with moral relativism, which is then conflated with modern liberalism. This way, any moral uncertainty in heroic fantasy becomes a kind of anachronistic betrayal, as well as an insidious attempt to politically indoctrinate. Mammon is everywhere.

But as we have seen moral realism is no way historically inconsistent. The moral confusion they take exception to is as true of our ancestors as it is for us. It certainly characterized the foment of the time period I use to model my world. The primary difference is that we no longer possess the institutions and ignorance required to enforce an official moral consensus. With the dawn of science and capitalism, the State had no choice but to get out of the moral solidarity business. As Iran’s theo-political class is discovering, the repression required to enforce moral uniformity tends to undermine legitimacy, which is a necessary condition of long-term social stability and prosperity.

Theo and Grin are arguing that a certain family of wish-fulfilment moralities is the only one appropriate to fantasy as it should be. It’s a kind of critique that I have more than a little passing familiarity with, since it shares the same form as many of the arguments used by those who accuse me or my works of misogyny. The insurmountable problem for them is that they use realism, ‘fidelity to the times,’ as their critical yardstick.

In other words, they argue for a certain fantastic fantasy morality by claiming that the kinds of moralities you find in much modern fantasy are not ‘realistic.’ Not an easy circle to square.