Space Opera and Epic Fantasy: Two Trees Sharing a Root System (and Then Becoming Two Big Nasty Trees That Eat Other Trees, or Something)

Last month, Paul Weimer suggested I write about the connections between epic fantasy and space opera.  Initially, I didn't know how to approach the topic.  Paul, you see, is far better read than myself, particularly in the literary history of science fiction and fantasy.  What could I say about the topic that Paul couldn't say better?  Well, I'm going to take a stab at it!

There was also another problem:  which period of these two genres are we talking about?  If we're looking at the early years of space opera and epic fantasy, then the connection is apparent, but diffuse.  Both epic fantasy (what might have been better termed as heroic fantasy in its "root" period) and space opera in the first half of the 20th century shared roots with the adventure fictions that preceded them.  Space opera arose, more or less, out of the planetary romances of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, proto-space opera writers like E.E. "Doc" Smith (though some might disagree with that assessment) and late-19th century "future war fiction" (see I.F. Clarke; I would argue that space opera gets its political undercurrents from this movement).[1]  Both forms (space opera and planetary romance) are hard to distinguish,[2] since they often share in the same melodrama, with "space opera" typically playing within a much wider canvas (though not always), and both forms share a common root in the late 19th century adventure stories and the pulps that followed.
Epic fantasy, too, can be traced back to 19th century adventure stories, and early forms of epic fantasy (probably just called fantasy or heroic fantasy and certainly bearing little resemblance to contemporary epic fantasy today) were not unlike early forms of space opera:  melodramatic adventures set in exotic locales, grandiose in scale. and featuring one or more heroes at center stage.  Tolkien is the obvious modern "father" of epic fantasy, but even The Lord of the Rings was preceded by heroic fantasy writers such as Robert E. Howard, Evangeline Walton and Eric Rücker Eddison or other fantastists such as Richard Wagner, George MacDonald, etc. -- anyone with a passing familiarity with these writers can see the connections.  Epic fantasy, of course, diverges quite a bit from space opera:  its heroes are mostly pitted against some variation of absolute evil; the world or "world as we know it" is usually at stake, rather than galactic civilizations;  magic serves as the operative "speculative" element rather than science; and the conversation an epic fantasy has with its time is less pronounced or more abstracted (having come from a genre whose speculations are not rooted in the real).

These are simplistic explanations, of course.  If you want to know the full history of either field -- science fiction or fantasy -- you need to read a few books on the subject, and that's certainly true of me, since fantasy is not my academic field.  Regardless, even if we start from such fundamentals as the roots, it becomes clear that though the genres start from very similar places (divergent in parts, of course), their paths to the present were drastically different.

Space opera began to move away from its planetary romance roots by the time the Golden Age rolled around, embroiling its future narratives in complicated allegories of contemporary politics and economics and developing grandiose "universes" in which larger questions about humanity and its culture could be asked and sometimes answered.  This is not to suggest that space opera discarded the melodramatic space adventures of its roots.  Rather, space opera gained three faces best exemplified by Star Wars (1977; dir. George Lucas), Star Trek (1966-1969; created by Gene Roddenberry), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; dir. Stanley Kubrick):  it became the high-flying epic adventure of its roots (similar in style to early epic fantasy), the wide-canvas exploration of human ingenuity and identity, and the philosophical interrogation of the human self.
Epic fantasy, however, didn't begin to transcend its generic roots until the last 20 years or so; it has, for so long, been mired in repetition, imitation, and simplified heroic tropes, even as writers within epic fantasy have tried to push against such things.  We can point to exceptions, of course, but one would be hard pressed to argue that the face of epic fantasy has been anything but writers struggling to swim out of the wake of Tolkien for much the 20th century.  Now, I think epic fantasy is experiencing a resurgence of what might be called "critical engagement," not as "exceptions" but as the "face."  From Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire (2014) to Joe Abercrombie's grimdark First Law trilogy (2009-2012) and on and on and on, epic fantasy (and fantasy in general) appears to be having a new Golden Age (much like space opera has had with the New Space Opera movement), brought on by decades of slow, deliberate pushes against the Tolkien model -- not because Tolkien's model is bad, but because it is so often repeated to lesser effect.

I hope this is a real trend and not some figment of my imagination.  Science fiction and fantasy are my great literary loves, but I think it's the perception of fantasy as the "less serious" genre which has left it out of academic conversations, except in those rare cases where one must talk about a fantasy without talking about it being a fantasy.  I've certainly seen things changing within academia overall, though science fiction still remains the critical focus.  But if I'm right that fantasy is pushing back against its roots, not to "diss" those roots, but to advance the genre as a whole towards more original (or at least less derivative) narrative practices, then fantasy will become as much a part of the academic discussion as science fiction.  For me, that's a good thing, because it makes talking about fantasy less like talking with a push and more like having a conversation with a forest.

Of course, I could be very very wrong here.  If so, please put forth your own argument in the comments!

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[1]:  I would also suggest that most early space opera is decidedly not political in nature in the same way as "future war fiction."  Its purpose was entertainment, if not explicitly, then certainly in form.

[2]:  I would distinguish planetary romance from space opera by arguing that the former typically focuses on adventures contained to a single world (i.e., Burroughs) while the latter typically explores multiple worlds and assumes interstellar space travel is "easy."  These definitions do not hold as the New Wave or the New Space Opera movement significantly shift how space opera is perceived.

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Literary Explorations: Gender Normativity, Genre Fiction, and Other Such Nonsense

In a past episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, we (Paul, Liz Bourke, and myself) discussed, however briefly, the paucity of women among published science fiction authors in the UK.  Specifically, we were talking about their minority status in the present while acknowledging the existence of a long string of incredible female SF writers in UK SF history.  Though I am not an expert on the UK SF scene, my impression as an American peeking in has confirmed the notion that there is a great deal of sexism within the broader fanbase, and a systemic gender-bias problem in the publishing sphere.  The latter has been attributed to sexism (today); I am not convinced that this is necessarily true -- at least, not in the sense of a deliberate action.  The former is probably a reflection of who speaks as opposed to a true assessment of UK fandom as a whole, and it is certainly true that this perception is changing.  Perception, of course, is not everything.

I say all of this not because I want to talk specifically about the UK scene, but rather because the recent discussions surrounding the Clarke Award's all-male finalist list offers one of many
gateways into what I actually want to talk about here:  the perception of SF as a boy's world.  I'm certainly not the first to take on this argument, or at least to funnel it to the public.  In 2009, an anonymous writer blasted science fiction for having given in to the whims of the lady folk, adopting narrative stylings specifically geared towards everyone not-male.*  The post elicited a sea of negative responses (expected, really) and once again opened the floodgates on discussions about the position of women in genre.  In 2011, David Barnett asked where all the women had disappeared after Damien Walter's post calling for the public to name the best SF novels resulted in a remarkably male-centric list (I still think we're recovering from that one).  Other related discussions have occurred since:  Ann Grilo recently discussed the visibility of women in our community; others covered the news that women are still encouraged to use male pseudonyms because men don't read books by women; ladybusiness analyzed the available data to determine the gender divide among reviewers and the books they discuss; and, throughout most of 2012, Jim C. Hines explored the way women are posed on SF/F covers.  Most recently, John Scalzi and Strange Horizons have dived into the debate again -- the former ran the gender divide numbers on his Big Idea feature; the latter did the same for several major publications with review sections.

I'm understandably scratching at the surface here...

The continued discussion about the position of women within our community, whether as characters, writers, or reviewers, has made me wonder why science fiction, in particular, has remained such a boy's club.  I spent a short while trying to Google an answer to the question, assuming bloggers, critics, and so on would have covered this topic as frequently as the "absence of women" topic -- but I came up empty.**  There are probably a number of obvious reasons:  publishers have traditionally held a bias against female writers (intentional or otherwise -- as a result of submission numbers or for some other reason I know not); SF's readership is perceived as primarily male; or a host of nonsense reasons, from "women don't like space stuff" to "SF is written for boys."

That last phrase, however, may have some unfortunate truth to it.  Before you dig your claws in, let me explain.  SF has been seen as a relatively boy-oriented genre since its arrival into pop culture.  The Edisonaides, the Pulp Era adventures, and so on and so forth have traditionally been viewed as the domain of men.  The reason for this, as far as I'm aware, has little to do with whether the themes of SF are "men-oriented themes," but more to do with the traditional assumptions about gender.

You'll notice that I included "gender normativity" in the title of this post.  Because science, war, technology, and other traditional thematic subjects in SF are still perceived as a "male thing," SF has maintained an image as a genre "for boys," even while great women writers (and male writers) have challenged this perception by either writing SF OR inserting female characters into a "male world."***  Gender normativity, as I understand it, assumes that there are behaviors and positions that are inherently "male/masculine" or "female/feminine."  In literature, gender normativity tends to function by way of associating genres with gender:  romance and certain non-fiction categories for the ladies; SF, business, and so on for the menfolk.  SF's association with careers and fields that are still dominated by men has helped keep it on the male side of the spectrum, even while women have rightly challenged the paradigm within fandom (or outside of it).  Let's face it, the last decade has seen a dramatic change in the dialogue surrounding this subject...

Gender normativity, of course, is complete nonsense.  There is no such thing as a "female behavior" or "male behavior."  Culture determines these boundaries, which is why children are frequently indoctrinated into assumptions about what are acceptable "gender practices" throughout their lives.  Girls are supposed to wear pink, play house, maybe get into the liberal arts or social sciences, and pay attention to their looks or behave in submissive ways (see Jane Kilborne's excellent video, Killing Us Softly).  Men, however, are supposed to wear "boy clothes," play with cars or soldiers or other "aggressive" objects (even firetrucks fall into this category), and otherwise behave in aggressive ways, from asserting oneself physically to associating intellect with domination.****  When people behave outside of these paradigms, our culture does not respond kindly  (see this story about a little boy who wanted to wear a dress).  And it's all nonsense.  A girl playing cops and robbers is no more behaving like a boy than a boy playing house is behaving like a girl.  These positions are, in truth, completely interchangeable.  Our culture is what says it's not OK for a boy to play house or a girl to play cops and robbers.  There is no biological necessity for these divisions.

SF's problem, I think, stems in part from these assumptions about gender, however flawed or nonsensical they may be.  The degree to which gender normativity influences who gets involved in the SF sphere (primarily as a writer or a publisher) is up to debate.  In our contemporary moment, which I think marks the dawn of a full-fledge "wave" of feminism (either the 3rd rearing its head again, or a 4th, distinct wave), the challenge to these normative assumptions has resulted in a slow upheaval.  More and more, we're becoming aware of the struggle for inclusion in our genre.*****  We need to keep having this discussion to upend all the assumptions we hold about masculine and feminine behaviors, to change the way our culture views gender, and to change the publishing game.

Onward, ho!

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*No, I will not link to that post.  You can read the highlights in the critiques.

**To be fair, I didn't spend a long time at it.  If you happen to have any interesting posts trying to determine why women don't write SF, please drop a link in the comments.

***I'm oversimplifying here.

****Again, I am oversimplifying to make a point.

*****Not just in regards to women, of course.

Literary Explorations: What the hell is a “strong female character”?

(This is a ramble.  Expect ramble-ness.  Note:  there aren't many comments on this blog (you can fix that if you like), but some of my Google+ followers opened the flood gates here.)

No joke.  We hear about them all the time.  But what do we mean when we say "strong female character"?  I ask this because I've read so many different definitions, and none of them seem to offer a valid justification for inventing a special category to describe characters.  When you think about it, we almost never say "strong male character" -- granted, there are so many male characters anyway, and I suspect I'm right when I attribute "strong female character" (SFC) to a community response against the relative shortage of, well, SFCs.  Implicitly, this is a binary.  There are "weak female characters" (WFC) too, but their weakness derives from their portrayal -- a frequently sexist one -- rather than any assessment of their "strength" (broadly defined).  Identifying a WFC means exposing the ways in which writers fall prey to gender stereotypes in a way that doesn't challenge those stereotypes (or, in other words, at least exploring what it means to be a woman in a more powerless position)(I'm not convinced this is actually a good definition, though).

Personally, I find the term SFC slightly offensive -- and I'm not the only one.  In 2009, Anna at Genre Reviews opened her critique with the following:

You know what's a problem? Strong female characters. First of all, why do we have to specify "strong" when referring to "female characters?" Why is this not a given? The default for male is not "strong" or "wusstastic," so why do we have to be so specific about the chicks?
You can find similar stuff at the Geek Feminism wiki.  There are also plenty of posts about why some SFCs are not actually SFCs (such as this one from Stuff Geeks Love and this one from Over Thinking It).

I pretty much agree with all of these folks.  There is something sinister about labeling certain "types" of female characters with the "strong" modifier.  It's a buzzword that has the unfortunate effect of essentializing one type of female behavior as somehow different from the rest.  But women, in my experience, do not demonstrate their strength via some set of character standards.  It is possible to write a character in an inferior social position (such as someone living in a vastly more patriarchal culture than our own) as "strong," just as it is possible to insert heroines who are complex, literally strong, determined and bold into our fantasy worlds.  These aren't mutually exclusive, nor is it necessary to identify one or both as "strong" when we're really just dealing with "female characters."  Not stereotypes.  Not objects.  People who happen to be female.  People who respond to stress in a variety of ways.  There are no standards for how women deal with heroism, trauma, stress, love, exploration, discovery, etc.

But a term like SFC implies that there are specific standards which only certain women meet for inclusion into a "better" category of woman.  That's bullshit.  The problem with female characters isn't that they're not strong; the problem is that they are so frequently written (frequently by men, of course) as 2-dimensional objects.  They're chairs.  And I mean that in the most offensive way.  The problem with so many female characters?  They're not weak or strong -- they're just not characters.  They are set pieces (often of the pretty variety) put in place for plot convenience.  They are, and I'll said it again, chairs.

Personally, I think we should stop calling bad female characters WFCs and good ones SFCs.  We should stop calling fake SFCs by that name too.  We should just rip them for not being real characters and spend more time writing and discovering female characters who fit the bill.

Anywhoodles.  That's what I've got to say on that.  Feel free to rip me a new one in the comments.

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P.S.:  Does Sam's mother in Transformers count as a proper character?  I always liked her as a character, but she spends so little time on screen...

Literary Explorations: When to Re-read?

Today, I had a strange moment of contemplation:  since I don't re-read books all that often, I wondered about the criteria for re-reading and what re-reading does to our perception of the work.  Do we re-read books we simply love, or are there certain elements that compel re-reading?  And what happens to a book when we re-read it (or to ourselves, for that matter)?

But as I thought about this subject, it occurred to me that re-reading is a personal affair.  After all, my reasons for re-reading a book may not coincide with yours, in part because we're not the same person, but also because there are probably thousands of reasons why people re-read (and no two reasons are necessarily the same).  For example, most of my re-reading falls into the following categories:
  • Books for my research or teaching (PhD stuff, in particular -- Tobias Buckell and Nalo Hopkinson will have been re-read at least 6 times in the last three years)
  • Books I've loved (when I was a kid, I re-read the Goosebumps and Hardy Boys books over and over and over)
  • Books I've found compelling and decided to re-read to get at some of the things I didn't see last time (such as 1984)
Your reasons?  Similar, perhaps, but also varied, I imagine.  It's not often that I re-read a book for any other reason than one of the ones listed above, and the kinds of books that fall into these various categories vary by content and genre.  Research books are often spread across genres, from mainstream to SF/F to theory to history and so on.  Most of the books I've decided to read because I wanted to get deeper into the work are of the classic variety -- usually works of genre that exist outside the Pulp Era paradigm, such as 1984, Brave New World, various works from the New Wave (Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany in particular) and so on.  And those works that I re-read because I love them tend to have a nostalgic flare to them, from some of my favorite children's books to those few works that got me obsessed with SF/F in the first place.

But I don't do a lot of re-reading.  All in all, I've probably only re-read 5% of the books on my "have read" list.  There are good reasons for this too.  My shelves are full of unread books; unless I read something that knocks my socks off, I'm not likely to return to it (for an unspecific time, since I am not currently dead).  Why re-read when you can have new adventures?

Of course, re-reading has its own advantages.  When you re-read, you discover new things.  I've read 1984 five times.  It's not a book for everyone, but I find that re-reading it exposes a lot of elements and themes that I never noticed before.  Undoubtedly, that has something to do with age.  Some books, I think, open up like flowers the further away from the first reading experience you get.  1984 is one of those books (for me).

But is there also a time when you shouldn't re-read?  I've heard people say that Lord of the Rings is a great book to read as a teenager, but also that it loses its luster as you age.  I have no opinion on that particular point (for now), but I do think there are some books that deserve to remain as memories.  After all, a great deal of the stuff we loved as younger people certainly changes in tone as we age and become more knowledgeable about the world.  I know some of the kid's books I recall reading over and over will probably look like sub-literature to my current self.  For me, keeping the image of so many great reading experiences is more important that indulging my curiosity.

What about you?  Do you re-read?  If so, when and why?  Do you think there is a way to tell when you shouldn't re-read something for your own good?

Literary Explorations: Jack London’s The Iron Heel and the Political Dystopia

In a recent discussion on The Skiffy and Fanty Show (it's here), Andrew Liptak, James Decker, Paul Weimer, and I discussed the prevalence of dystopian narratives in science fiction.  At one point, Andrew suggested that dystopias are, in large part, responses to the political climate of the author's present.  I agree with this assessment in principle, but I think the idea collapses when applied to works of the popular dystopia tradition -- the "dystopia is hip" crowd, if you will.  The Iron Heel, however, is the most obvious example of a literary response to a particular political climate -- in this case, the U.S. boom-and-bust economy at the turn-of-the-century.*
Told through the memoirs of Avis Everhard, The Iron Heel employs a number of literary devices to explore its political climate.  First, London frames Avis' narrative with Anthony Meredith, a
historian from a future in which the Revolution (i.e., the Socialist Revolution) has succeeded, resulting in an apparent utopia -- though we are never given much information about this future world.  Meredith introduces and annotates the "journals" of Avis Everhard, herself attempting to relay her past life with Ernest Everhard and the first revolts -- all of which fail.  We know from the start that both Avis and Ernest are dead, the latter due to some form of execution, but that their desires to see some form of change will find their realization some 700 years later.  The confusing narrative structure is probably best understood in terms of time:
  • Anthony Meredith is writing from 700 years into the future
  • Avis Everhard is writing in the 1930s about events that took place roughly between 1912-1917
  • Ernest Everhard's speeches occur in Avis' recent past
What is important about these shifts is how they relate to the political climate of London's 1908 present, and to the same climate that drove the early Dystopians to begin the literary tradition of critiquing utopian social concepts (more prevalent in Europe and the surrounding territories than in the U.S. in the last 1800s to the early 1900s).**  The Iron Heel directs much of its attention on the same issues that were a concern of the Progressives (see these sites on The Progressive Era for historical details):  rapid industrialization, commodification (the early stages, that is -- not what Fredric Jameson would identify with the cultural commodities of the Postmodern Era), social strife (women's rights, early African American rights movements, etc.), and so on were all important issues of the time.  In particular, London's "hero," Ernest Everhard, takes the form of the revolutionary who wants to set right a world of economic inequality/monetary totalitarianism and to prevent or destroy the Oligarchy (The Iron Heel itself), which, by the end of the book, manages to reduce most of society to absolute poverty (in a nutshell).***
The Iron Heel not only addresses many of these economic concerns, but it also does so by making their logical steps "forward" a part of the plot of the narrative itself.  Instead of imagining a future world where the Oligarchy has taken over, London shows us how the world came to be under the Oligarchy's control, springing off of a real-world historical/political/economic context that certainly resonated with contemporary audiences.  Maurice Goldbloom, writing in Issue 25 of Commentary (1958), argued that the popularity of London and Lewis Sinclair's (It Happened to Didymus) work stemmed from the fact that "both write recognizably about their own time, and about those aspects of it which are of most concern to ordinary people wherever they are" (454).  He further suggested that because many of the issues that presaged the writing of The Iron Heel remained in 1958, London's novel couldn't avoid continue relevance throughout history.****
I don't want to bore everyone with the socialist teachings of the book, themselves a product of London's attempts to come to terms with his own beliefs about capitalism and socialism.*****  Rather, what I want to point out is the way this novel fits into a larger paradigm of political dystopias -- that is, works of dystopian literature which are direct responses to real-world concerns, as opposed to the anti-utopians (i.e., the Dystopians) who simply rejected the supposed utopian impulse in political thought.  London (and E. M. Forster in the 1909 short story, "The Machine Stops"), like many writers that followed in the wake of the First World War, was one of the first to do just what I am describing, and his work, whether directly or otherwise, influenced dystopian literature through the pre- and post-Second World War periods, from Sinclair Lewis' fascist dystopia in It Can't Happen Here (1935) to Yevgeny Zamyatin's satire of the Soviet Union in We (1921)(not in chronological order, obviously).  The trend continued through George Orwell in his most famous works, 1984 (1949; apparently influenced directly by The Iron Heel and We, if Michael Shelden is to be believed in Orwell:  The Authorized Biography (1991)) and Animal Farm (1945) -- both works deeply concerned with totalitarian forms of government (a common trend); to Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" (1961) -- a dystopian look at radical equality; Alan Moore's V for Vendetta -- totalitarianism again; and P. D. James' Children of Men -- an allegory of reproductive rights.
There are plenty of books I'm leaving out, of course, but the idea, I think, is clear.  The political format of dystopian literature -- the political dystopia -- has a long and incredible history in literature, and it is a tradition that continues to this day, such as in Max Barry's Jennifer Government (2003) or Koushun Takami's Battle Royale (1999).****** Unlike many works of dystopian literature, the various ones I have mentioned here have directly engaged with real-world issues, often set within the author's present.  They attest to the remarkable ability for dystopia and science fiction to engage with our contemporary world by opening up the dialogue that is so crucial to any political system.  Even if we recognize that many of these dystopias are unlikely, the intellectual exercise entailed in reading political dystopias, I believe, fosters the critical faculties we all need to assure the unlikelihood of terrible futures.  The Iron Heel, in other words, is not just an important work of literature, but also, and more importantly, a poignant, timeless warning about unchecked economic inequality.  More terrifying is the fact that so many of the things London imagines actually happened.  A poignant warning indeed....

What do you think about all of this?  Feel free to leave a comment.

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*I am not properly representing Andrew's argument here.  I recommend checking out the discussion on The Skiffy and Fanty Show.

**This is not to suggest that the U.S. dystopian movement was not significant.  It was, but you'll find a much more concentrated mass of dystopian works in Europe during the aforementioned time period, while the more contemporary moments are dominated by American texts.  I could be wrong on this front, though.

***While London imagines the Oligarchy as the end result of monopoly or market capitalism (or boom-and-bust capitalism), the true brunt of the novel, as I see it, is fascism through an incredibly affluent class.  The Oligarchy, after all, ceases to be a capitalist government after a while, dominated by what Ernest identifies as the compulsion to expel excess capital (which it refuses to spend on making the lives of individuals better).  Thus, the Oligarchy uses its political weight, derived from its original wealth, to create a virtual slave class of laborers and homeless citizens, which it lords over through coercion and violence (if you join the socialist revolution, you will likely die within five years).

****I couldn't find any reviews from around the publication date of The Iron Heel.  I'm sure they exist, but my initial academic searches came up empty.

*****I recommend reading The Iron Heel, though, if only to explore the political depth of London's work, which are not discussed as often in relation to his more popular novels, White Fang and The Call of the Wild.

******If you have any suggestions for political dystopias originally written in a foreign tongue, feel free to let me know in the comments.