Here’s couple of interesting rants from good writers– one from Charlie Stross attacking steampunk and one from China Mieville dissing Tolkien— with a common theme: there’s something a little dubious about fiction that glorifies the past. The past sucked.
Stross’s is more get-off-my-lawn; he admits that he mostly thinks steampunk is overdone. (This after I just opined, in print, that it wasn’t yet. Uh oh.) But his main point is the horribleness of the 19C. He’s perfectly right (there’s a reason we talk of Dickensian horrors), but also strangely off base. The 19C was after all a dress rehearsal for the 20C; it’s where the productivity curve starting moving way ahead of population, the popular press appeared, colonial empires started unraveling, the aristocrats started losing power, science and technology bloomed, and religion began losing its stranglehold on culture. If the past is a foreign country, the 19C is Canada. (Unless you’re Canadian.)
And those Dickensian horrors look almost quaint in the light of the 20C, when professional horrormeisters took over. From the end of Napoleon to 1914, it was basically a century of peace, with a striking lack of psychopaths in power.
As for Miéville, I can’t really quibble with anything he says about Tolkien, though it verges at times on the mean-spirited: “Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.” I dunno, China, I read The Scar and I’m not sure it exactly advanced the cause of socialism.* I’d also point out that morality isn’t absolute in Tolkien: the good is always tinged with grey, and it’s clear that, for Tolkien, saving the world meant destroying it. If Sauron represents industrialization (a bit of a stretch but I know what he meant and I’ve pointed it out myself), what does it mean that when he’s defeated, the sources of beauty in the world all get on ships and leave? Whatever Tolkien is on about, it’s not just exaltation of the status quo.
But where I really have to quibble is his dismissal of C.S. Lewis as “rugger-playing”. What? Lewis can fairly be accused of donnishness, being a don, but about the one thing he was never interested in was sports. He had a miserable school experience and was obviously what we’d call a nerd. He was conservative, yes, but also little interested in politics, and he made an effort in his apologetics to downplay differences from the Left.
Miéville is British, and I suspect a bit of old British class warfare… Lewis must be what we’d call a gladhanding fratboy because he’s a Conservative and they all are, aren’t they? There’s also, I think, the unpleasantness of finding sometone with the wrong politics who happens to be charming, erudite, and blisteringly intelligent. You hate to admit that the Wrong Side can be charming, so it must be false charm.
* To be fair, Miéville doesn’t think it did either. He writes fantasy because he likes the genre. But he’s criticizing Tolkien’s defense of fantasy as “consolation”, and I think he misses the atmosphere of Tolkien’s times– a sense of unease and destruction which did not simply have Reaction as the villains and Progress as the good guys. The totalitarians claimed to stand for Progress (and industrialization), after all, and Progress was pushing horrors like Freudian psychology or faceless Bauhaus rectangles. Even Orwell was convinced that things like nice restaurants simply couldn’t exist in a socialist utopia. It wasn’t hard to feel that powerful forces were poised to extinguish all beauty, and there were no unmixed good guys in sight. A little redemptiveness in your fiction doesn’t seem like much of an evil under the circumstances.
Edit: Here’s a much, much worse article from Michael Moorcock on fantasy. What’s annoying about it is that it’s clear that the writers he attacks annoy him politically, yet he chooses to go after them for their writing style. It’s dishonest and really rather silly… poor style is nothing to get steamed up over. He also completely fails to make any correction for the writers’ times, and he actually ends up with a complaint about our “intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards” which, amazingly, is precisely the same cheap ranting against modernism that he’s spent five pages railing against.
(And Moorcock’s own fantasy is not only laughably pretentious, but far more blatant in its ideology-peddling than Lewis.)