Sunday, August 3, 2008

Escapism aka Fantasy

Some remnants of Romanticism may still be found in the popular media---but in such a mangled, disfigured form that they achieve the opposite of Romanticism's original purpose . . .

Under the pressure of conformity . . . today's Romanticists are escaping, not into the past but into the supernatural---explicitly giving up reality and this earth. The exciting, the dramatic, the unusual---their policy is declaring, in effect---do not exist; please don't take us seriously, what we're offering is only a spooky daydream. (Ayn Rand, What Is Romanticism?)

I use the above quote not to suggest that Ayn Rand would agree with my assessment of modern fantasy, but to show that she saw the perils inherent in the genre, to which some had already succumbed. My view is that virtually all modern fantasy has descended into escapism.

And I am sick to death of it. In literature, in tv shows, and in movies, fantasy is flooding the marketplace. In modern history fantasy was little more than a blip on the radar screen, until Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was published. After that, the deluge.

First it wormed its way into the science fiction section of book stores and grew like a weed until there was little if any science fiction left that was worthy of the name. Just a lot of fantasy masquerading as science fiction.

I'm not sure what started the craze for fantasy shows on television. There were a few mild ones in the 60s, such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Now they are everywhere. And instead of it being something to laugh at, as it was with the two aforementioned shows, we are expected to take it seriously in shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The X-Files, Lost, etc.

What makes a blockbuster movie these days? Fantasy and comic book heroes. The Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Golden Compass. Spiderman. Batman. Harry Potter. The Mummy. Hellboy. Ironman. Etc., ad nauseum.

Now the big seller among fiction books, after the fantasy Harry Potter phenomena has died down a bit, is what? A series about vampires, The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer. It's selling like hotcakes.

Why do authors want to set their stories in unreal worlds? Anti-rational worlds? Why do they want their characters to have magical powers? What is it about real life that so bores them, that they have to imagine a different world where A is not A. In order to be heroic, why must a man have unreal superpowers? Why do readers want to read this stuff, instead of stories about heroes in the real world, who have only their human mind and human body to use in dealing with the problems that beset them? Why do people want to escape the real world, and run away into fantasy?

The impression all this escape into fantasy worlds leaves is that heroism isn't possible in the real world. Heroes are only possible in some other, fantasy world. In this sad vale of tears we actually inhabit, we must simply accept that there are no heroes.

Is the real world perfect? Far from it. But heroes don't run away and hide in little fantasy worlds. They fight to make their world better with what they have: their rational mind, their physical courage, their integrity. Wherein is there any need for fantasy here? There is nothing magical about it. It's not superhuman, it is simply man, the paragon of animals, man the hero, living up to his potential.

If you want to see what real literature can and should be like, watch Dae Jang Geum. Thank goodness someone is still creating great, realist art.

[Edited 8-13-08]


Myrhaf said...

50 years ago there was so little fantasy that the genre was just called science fiction. The biggest culprit in the change was Terry Brooks, who showed in the 1970's that there was money to be made imitating Tolkien. Then D&D furthered the trend. Since then there have been several generations of fantasy writers such as R.A. Salvatore and entire publishing lines such as Forgotten Realms that do nothing but Tolkien rip-off fantasy. In the last 10 years at least one book store has considered separating science fiction from its fantasy section, which would mean the death of science fiction.

I don't think it is a coincidence that the rise of fantasy mirrors the rise of religion. Mid-century science fiction was dominated by atheist-scientists such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and so on. Both religion and fantasy place the realm of values elsewhere than this Earth we know.

Chuck said...

I had forgotten about Terry Brooks. I read his original "Shanara" book, which was the most blatant Tolkien plagiarism imaginable. And there was indeed a D&D generation - I played it as a youngster - that has now become the moviegoing public, and probably the scriptwriters for tv and movies, like Joss Whedon.

A lot of people defend the better fantasy fiction, such as Harry Potter, because apparently it portrays good values in its plots. I haven't read any Harry Potter, because by the time it emerged, I was already sick of fantasy.

But my question is: why did Harry Potter have to be set in a fantasy world to begin with? Couldn't the same values have been portrayed in the real world? Of course they could. So why fantasy then? No one has ever answered that to my satisfaction.

Perhaps they think children need stories told as fairy tales or something. But what did Ayn Rand read as a child? The Mysterious Valley. Not fantasy. Simply heroism of real humans, without any magic or superpowers involved.

Fantasy is not ever necessary. Authors simply choose to use it, because they don't like reality.

Myrhaf said...

I would not say fantasy is never necessary. As Leonard Peikoff points out in a recent podcast, science fiction or fantasy in which one thing is changed can make an interesting point about reality.

Shakespeare uses fantasy in Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Hamlet, the Tempest and a few others. He integrates his fantasy into the other aspects of literature so that it never becomes the sole reason for a play's existence.

Noel Coward uses fantasy delightfully in Blithe Spirit when a man who has a new girlfried is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife.

Dickens's A Christmas Tale, It's a Wonderful Life, Heaven Can Wait and ET all use fantasy elements well.

Chuck said...

I wouldn't say that fantasy has never been used effectively, since it has in many of the stories you mention. I still maintain it is never necessary.

I think Peikoff was referring to the rational extrapolation of technology, such as a future when we live to be 200 - how would that change us? Or what happens when we perfect fusion and have cheap and unlimited energy - how would that change things? I don't think he was referring to wizards turning their enemies into toads.

I think several of the stories you refer to are not really using fantasy, but rather psychological states of mind. A Christmas Tale is an old man imagining things, because he feels guilty. If I was expected to take that story literally, I would not admire it at all. Not that I admire its altruist them to begin with.

I guess my main point is that if fantasy is used, it should be the exception, and not the rule. That's how it used to be used. Today, to me at least, it seems as though fantasy has become the rule, and reality is the exception.

Chuck said...

Edited my post to add a pertinent quote from Ayn Rand. I realize she has also said that fantasy is a legitimate form of art, in her lectures on fiction writing. But I believe today's fantasy is more in line with her comments from What Is Romanticism that I quoted.

eunice said...

Gee, I am a dreamer and I love fantasies! But of cos I don't dream that I am a superhero :P and I am a logical person when comes to goal settings. I guess people are attracted to fantasies cos those are beyond their capabilities to manage. Sometimes fantasies can inspire inventors to think of new ideas, say to improve lives?

Well, I guess everyone has their opinions in every context, just like the current controversial topic in Singapore about the China-born Singaporeans who just grab the first medal for Singapore after 48 yrs! I agreed with you and I just replied the comments regarding that controversy too. Thank you! :D Have a great day!

Chuck said...

Hi, Eunice, thanks for stopping by. It isn't that I object to heroism. I love reading about heroes too, even if I can't do what they do. I just don't like the idea that they need magical powers to be heroic.

As a fellow fan of Dae Jang Geum, don't you find Jang Geum much more inspirational than some fantasy character like Superman? Her courage, indomitable spirit, intelligence, and perfect integrity are all the more admirable for not being due to some unfair advantage such as magical powers.

Anonymous said...

You probably won't read this, but I feel the need to respond to your article anyway.

Come on, have you ever heard of symbolism? One does not have to be realistic to speak about reality! On top of that, fiction is an essential feature of our world. Without fiction, there wouldn't be any language, any science, in fact, there wouldn't be anything.
By the way, Terry Goodkind writes fantasy books based on Ayn Rand's theories...

Chuck said...

Where did I say anything against fiction? I was speaking about one genre of fiction, namely fantasy. Of course I am aware of symbolism, and it certainly is a legitimate part of fiction.

My main point was, and is, that the rise of fantasy is more concerned with escapism than anything else. Most of the fantasy writers are acting as if heroism is not possible in reality, but only in imaginary, unreal worlds.

I have actually read four of Goodkind's novels. If he had stopped at one novel, it might have been ok. Stretching it into, what is it now, a 20 volume series?---is ridiculous. That's a whole other subject.