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Existential fantasy

In 2000, fantasy author R. Scott Bakker wrote an article about the place of fantasy in contemporary culture. Fantasy, he said, represented “the primary literary response to what is often called the ‘contemporary crisis of meaning.’” Bakker argued that the march of science and rationalism had revealed the world to be apparently meaningless, and fantasy’s response was to present stories in invented worlds which, unlike the real world, had not been “disenchanted” — stories of the fantastic about “individuals certain of [their] meaningfulness in a meaningful world.”

Though I had some quibbles with a few details of the article, overall I found it to be an insightful and compelling piece. As Bakker said, “In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.” And if there was one thing that all fantasy seemed to share, it was a commitment to meaningfulness.

But that was then. From the vantage point of 2014, the nature of fantasy no longer seems so clear.

The most significant development in fantasy in the past decade-and-a-half has undoubtedly been the rise of “gritty fantasy” — or, as some would have it, “grimdark”: a term originally used as a pejorative but increasingly becoming a simple descriptor. This is fantasy shorn of its comfortable assumptions. No good characters and bad characters, just grey characters and other grey characters. People die abrupt and messy deaths. On occasion, someone might find themselves trying to save the world; yet on another level, there seems to be profound doubt about whether the world is even savable. It’s hard to characterise these stories as being about meaningful individuals in a meaningful world — and yet, somehow, they’re still recognisably fantasy.

What’s going on?

It seems to me that fantasy is in the process of shedding its pre-Enlightenment heroism and embracing instead a kind of contemporary existentialism. The depiction of a world empty of higher purpose would have once seemed anathema to fantasy; today, it is almost de rigueur. The increasingly tight focus on character used by the likes of George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie makes clear the subjective nature of the tale we’re being told and introduces us to a hundred different forms of existential uncertainty. And many of us reach for such stories because they connect with our experience of life — and without that connection, although we might find a story interesting or entertaining, some part of us will be unable to truly believe it.

It’s important to acknowledge that “grit” is not the only avenue by which this is happening. Existentialism is finding other paths into fantasy as well — I’d nominate the works of Daniel Abraham as a prime example of an alternative, less gritty type of existential fantasy. And I don’t expect traditional heroic fantasy to disappear any time soon. But it’s clear that the palette of fantasy has broadened considerably since Bakker’s analysis in 2000. What, then, can we identify as a common characteristic across the different strands of fantasy today?

Perhaps a partial answer lies not in the “present day” of most fantasy settings but in their histories. Fantasy worlds may be increasingly “disenchanted”, in Bakker’s use of the term (the existence of magic notwithstanding), but nearly all of them still carry echoes of an earlier, “enchanted” time. Pope Francis may have recently affirmed the legitimacy of theories of evolution and the Big Bang, but in fantasy there’s still the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Eden was once a real place. Existential fantasy is thus not simply about the absence of enchantment, but about its loss. It’s about how to live in a world where the enchanted still echoes tantalisingly in quiet corners but can no longer be grasped. Sometimes, just for a moment, it breaks out again — but soon it passes once more, leaving those in its wake to deal with its loss anew.

Maybe part of the reason we feel drawn to these stories is because, on some deep level, they resonate with us in a way we can’t quite put into words — and we have no other way to mourn the meaningfulness that we sense our culture has lost.

Pournelle’s Iron Law and fantasy fiction

When I was writing The Unbound Man, one of the core ideas I found myself wanting to explore was the behaviour of formalised groups — how they pursued their goals, how their goals changed over time, and how they interacted with other groups and with individuals both within and without. This, I thought, was something that frequently came up in stories of all kinds, yet it rarely seemed to be given the kind of central attention that I wanted to give it, particularly in the context of fantasy fiction.

I wasn’t quite sure how to verbalise all the things I wanted to say, and I took that to be a good sign. Clearly there was enough here to sustain me through a 150,000-word novel, and perhaps more. At any rate, if I wanted to arrange my thoughts into some vaguely coherent form, there was no other way to do it than to sit down and actually write the book.

So I did. I wrote The Unbound Man, revised it — and then, shortly before it was published, I discovered that Jerry Pournelle had thought about many of the same things already. And he’d done more than just think about it — he’d managed to distil his thoughts into Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

It’s hard to disagree with that. Go to your favourite news site, pick the most prominent story involving some sort of systemic societal problem, and there’s an excellent chance that the Iron Law has something to do with it. (If, like me, you’ve spent more time playing Civilization 4 than is strictly healthy, you can probably hear Leonard Nimoy observing right now that ‘the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy’.)

But it seems to me that this phenomenon goes well beyond modern bureaucracy. Bureaucracy itself, of course, is far from a modern invention — no doubt the Iron Law was just as applicable at the time of the Roman Empire and to the medieval church as it is to any organization today. But doesn’t the same dynamic exist in broader geopolitical entities like nation-states, to the extent that unthinking, uncritical support for the state is frequently termed ‘patriotism’ and considered a virtue? Doesn’t the same tension exist in smaller groups — football clubs, research teams, and each little sub-department that makes up a bureaucratic whole? Even families are not immune from something akin to this — just consider the Lannisters of Westeros.

For me, Pournelle’s Iron Law is too specific. If I was to rephrase it, I’d probably put it something like this:

In any group or association there may be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the group, and those who work for the group itself. The older, larger, and more complex the group, the greater the likelihood that the second type of person will gain control and establish the rules under which the group functions.

Or, to put it another way, this is the danger of tribalism: the division of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the unreflective assumption that the highest good is whatever seems to benefit ‘us’.

And when I put it like that, I realise that in fact this is something that fantasy has been exploring for decades, ever since Boromir sought the Ring for the good of Minas Tirith. Far from blazing any sort of trail, I’m really just following in the footsteps of so many other writers who have gone before me.

Huh. Perhaps I should have stuck with Pournelle’s original formulation after all.

Yet merely recognising this phenomenon is just the beginning. One then has to decide — as an individual, or as a character — what one is going to do about it. And that’s something I had a lot of fun exploring in The Unbound Man, though I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Fortunately, I’ve got two books in the Undying Legion trilogy still to go.

And in the meantime, I think I need to go and read some Jerry Pournelle.