Fantasy— the Literature of Alienation?

by wjw on October 8, 2007

So the other week I was at the Jemez Symposium with Steve Donaldson and Jane Lindskold, and our interlocutor asked, “So what is this ‘fantasy,’ exactly?” Or words to that effect.

I came up with a rather boiletplate answer, that while SF’s contract with the reader was “What you’re about to read is possible (however unlikely),” the contract for fantasy was, “We are all agreed that what we’re about to read is flat impossible, but will be interesting for other reasons.”

Steve said (and I’m quoting from memory here, so I could get elements of this this wrong) that fantasy was a literature of alienation. In his view, there is a line of tension between the protagonist and the frankly impossible things that are going on around him/her, and that the fantasist plays on this tension for all it’s worth.

Of course that’s what the Covenant books are about, more or less explicitly.

Steve’s theory seems to leave out the reader, who while submerged in the text is equally surrounded by impossible events. So if there’s any alienation or tension going on, the reader is equally a part of it.

But is there necessarily alienation? A fantasy reader reads specifically for the impossible stuff: he/she may not be alienated from it at all.

Is alienation necessary in fantasy? Is it a literature of alienation?


Karen October 8, 2007 at 10:59 pm

Not necessarily a literature of alienation. It can be social critique (several Barbara Hambly books come to mind) but it can also be the fantasy equivalent of the cosy mystery. Um, like the umpteen zillion LOTR clones out there. “If you liked LOTR, you’ll like more of the same! With stew! and indefatigable horses!” The reader isn’t being challenged at all, and likes the book for that reason.

Foxessa October 8, 2007 at 11:35 pm

Surely, this is jesting?

Whandall October 8, 2007 at 11:51 pm

Its easy to come up with hundreds of fantasy novels that fits Mr. Donaldson’s definition. How much alienation is necessary before you say “this is a fantasy novel” ?Conan, for example, is barely self aware, let alone alienated, but I think books about him fall into fantasy. A few moments of shock when the serpent priest levitates or whatever hardly seems like the linchpin of the story.

In addition, there are a lot of books out there where the protaginist is shocked and horrified by whatever seemingly impossible events are happening to them that are *not* fantasy. Some of them are non fiction.

I could see the argument that all *good* fantasy gives a nod to the reader’s suspension of disbelief by exploring the main character’s reaction to it. But I think Mr. Donaldson went a little overboard.

tcastleb October 9, 2007 at 1:00 am

The alienation thing doesn’t make sense in my head. There’s got to be that sense of recognition that defies the alienness. Like you said about the Other–as alien as it gets, there’s still got to be something that we can connect with. And one of the reasons we read is to connect with somebody or something, to find characters or situations we can identify with, which means that it’s not alienating at all.

I think I’d argue the opposite–it’s a literature of inclusion, because (and I’m rambling because I just put stuff like this in an article) SF/F has been far more inclusive of characters and situations than mainstream, because (as one writer said of homosexuality in SF/F) that it’s safer if it’s removed from our own society and we can look at it from a distance or under disguise first. Like Phil Farmer’s sex with aliens in the 50’s, or MZB using a gay protagonist–both were new and shocking, but needed, and SF/F happened to be a good vehicle to get it out there. For the ones it matters the most to, there’s something we need and recognize and feel included by. For the others, I suppose it is alien, since it’s a different viewpoint, but they should still manage to connect with the characters on some level so it’s not a total alienation.

And as for the tension and dealing with impossible things . . . that doesn’t make sense, because in the character’s world, they’re obviously not impossible to him, and if the reader can connect with the character, then he should connect with the world, so I don’t know what the alienation bit is all about.

Oz October 9, 2007 at 12:37 pm

How bizarre. I never think of fantasy the way I read that. Unless it’s myself that’s alienated from a “real” world. I can see what he’s talking about, but understandably, that’s not the fantasy I like to read. If there’s alienation in the character, then the character finds solace in the fantasy world, finds a place he or she fits.

Science Fiction for me is about what the world could be/should be. Hence, I’m not all that fond of dystopic science fiction. I prefer to dream of a future where we all grew up and became responsible adults out exploring the universe. Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it?

Fantasy can be about good vs. evil, about something wrong in the moral order and whether the order is restored and at what cost to the characters.

Space opera clearly is not about what could actually happen and if it is, it’s quite a stretch. And if only fantasy is about alienation, how does one explain Miles, a quintessential alienated character?

Blathering here. Better heads than mine have commented. So I’ll stop.

Pat Mathews October 9, 2007 at 1:36 pm

Well, I have repeatedly found myself alienated from Steve Donaldson’s world, but not from, say, Jane Lindskold’s, so let me take a stab at this.

Fantasy can be a way of entering a better world than the one around you for a time. So can science fiction. The difference is that many science fiction readers have put down the book and set out to make their shiny new worlds come true.

You can’t do that with fantasy. What you can do with fantasy is come away with what seems to you to be eternal truths and metaphors for the same, and then compare those to the real world. Or why my sig on Fourth Turning reads “The Eagles picked up the One Ring after the Fall of Mordor and are using it now.” I can’t use that on the Bujold list because American politics are a forbidden topic. Yet – this is a strictly LOTR Universe comment. Who said anything about American politics?

Or the simple lessons repeated whenever a young person in fantasy meets, frex, Father Wolf. Again, from Kipling to Lindskold to Stirling, the message is always the same, but yet always new.

Tarl Neustaedter October 9, 2007 at 9:41 pm

I may not be qualified to speak on Fantasy (my normal interest is in hard SF), but I’ll comment that I see both fields as where one can carry out thought-experiments in how people & societies act and interact under different constraints than we get here.

Ordinary fiction bores me because I know how normal people do things under normal conditions. Since I’m not particularly interested in reading about damaged people, that means SF and fantasy are the venues which can provide interesting material for me.

I don’t read much fantasy because I’m interested in the world behind the story (rather than the story itself), and so many fantasy authors are crappy world builders. To a degree, that’s really a basic distinction between hard SF and fantasy – the degree of hard rules and predictability of the resulting universe.

Matt October 15, 2007 at 7:03 pm

Fantasy is all about the elves – and the unicorns. We can’t forget the unicorns.

More seriously though I’d love to buy S.R.D a beer and pick his brain about this. It sounds like a fun conversation as much as anything…Terry Pratchett’s discworld books are about alienation? All those endless Forgotten Realms novels that are released?

Carole October 15, 2007 at 8:07 pm

“flat impossible”?

There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in many folks’ philosophies. What Christian fantasy writers consider possible or “real” many atheist fantasy lovers would consider impossible. Even more…what some christians consider possible/real might vary with what other christians consider possible/real.

I remember one night in college where I was in a room with a friend from Yugoslavia and a friend from Haiti. The haitian girl spoke about an incident she had seen with her own eyes where a wolf became a man. The yugoslavian girl spoke about someone she knew who turned into a bat. What was interesting to me was to listen to how they treated each other’s stories. Sneering at the other person as if the other person was an idiot but totally sure and convincing about what they had seen with their own eyes.

I saw an interview in passing on current where an east indian young guy –i think he was an atheist– spoke about camping in India and a being who was half tiger and half-woman approached him. Plus I have an atheist acquaintance…virulently so…who had an encounter with a demonic presence in the middle of the desert out west.

In the long run so much depends on our history and experiences that I find it hard to call anything “frankly impossible.”

I can say perhaps that alienation might mean…something that shakes up our view of what reality is…and maybe does make us question what we’re “sure of.” But I can’t say that our indulgence in fantasy is about our indulging in the frankly impossible. I’ve lived long enough never to use the word “impossible.”

I like the way C S Lewis discusses it in Surprised by Joy, that the joy we feel when we read fantasy is a kind of anticipation or our truest joys… of our truest inate ideas that something truly wonderfully strange exists.

-Carole McDonnell

S.M. Stirling October 16, 2007 at 4:51 am

The original template for fantasy was the fantastic adventure story — the Iliad, the chanson du geste, the sagas, Mallory and so forth.

Thing is, this was the literature of ages which believed in magic the way we believe in atoms or electricity. Up until the 1700’s, even educated people in the West thought encouters with witches and sorcerors were a perfectly possible, albeit not very common, real-world possibility.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.