Before I get into the post itself, a meta moment: ever notice how my posts’ titles are always so much more heavy than Chris’s? But don’t let that fool you–I’m here to talk about happiness and joy.
(But I’ll only tangentially be talking about our current webcomic, “Year of the Dragon.” Skip to the end for that.)
Let’s talk escapism. This American Life recently put on a show about looking for advice in strange places; and the first long segment was about an unhappy teenage fantasy nerd who runs away to find Piers Anthony. I won’t ruin the story, but I was struck by Piers Anthony’s note about the use of fantasy: “People sneer at escapism–well, there those of us that need it.”
Piers Anthony isn’t the first sf/fantasy writer to note that some people (a) use “escapism” to brand fantasy as bad, unserious, and childish; and (b) overlook the positives of escape. Maybe J. R. R. Tolkien is the first, when he wrote “On Fairy-Stories”:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: … Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?
Ursula K. Le Guin (hallowed be her name!) takes this and runs, noting that when we say “escape,” we have to note what one is escaping from and what one is escaping towards. (Is that in “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”) Le Guin has an excellent essay online that makes clear this virtue of escape.
But in that essay, Le Guin (hallowed be her name, even though I didn’t love the last few Earthsea books!) also notes the dangers of some fantasy, that fantasy doesn’t mean saying “there are no rules” or “everything is going to be okay” or “all of your prejudices are correct.” I like the way Le Guin put it in “Escape Routes”:
What if we’re escaping from a complex, uncertain, frightening world of death and taxes into a nice simple cozy place … We have escaped by locking ourselves in jail.
Or as John Rogers (creator of Leverage) wrote on his blog,
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
This gets us to what I meant when I said this post would be about joy AND work. Because fantasy can do substantive, subversive work, both as an escape from our current reality and an escape towards the reality that we want to make. But only if fantasy grapples with the problems of reality.
If escape is always outward-oriented, well, then, it’s good as a painkiller, and let’s not scoff at painkillers. But sometimes you need stronger medicine, medicine to treat the causes and not the symptoms of our fallen world. And fantasy can be that stronger medicine: from helping us to imagine solutions to situations that we can’t bear to think about in real life (like Mary Shelley reconfiguring her class and gender issues in a monstrous other); to imagining the ultimate goal of utopia that is unreachable, but still motivating as a vision.
You’ll notice I’m almost done with this post, so it’s time to get back to talking about the webcomic. I wish I could say that I carefully crafted “Year of the Dragon” as a searing indictment of something important, like inequality in our time. I didn’t; it isn’t.
If you’ve read up to page three, you know that “Year of the Dragon” is the story of a young boy chosen to face a monster that’s much bigger than him–a hopeless task that he doesn’t yet take seriously. If there’s a deeper meaning there, a serious attempt to grapple with something wrong with our reality, I’ll let you tell me.
While I was editing out a few typos from the previous post, I noticed that Chris offered the opinion that “Fantasy has a tendency to take itself (far) too seriously.” Current research suggests the time between “meeting Ben” and “Ben lecturing on genre” hovers at around the hour-mark, because I love arguing genre; and I also love defending various genres. I’m like the Mighty Mouse of genre: Wherever there is danger of a genre being denigrated, I’ll be there.
So when someone says that fantasy has a tendency to take itself too seriously, I have to respond, especially when I’m working on a fantasy with a comedic edge. Because, yes, there is a lot of terribly serious fantasy out there, whether we’re talking about Granddaddy Tolkien’s impossibly emo Passing of the Elves or the Super-mopery found in grim and gritty ’90s comics. (“Can’t you tell by the shadows on my face that I’m tormented?” said every ’90s superhero ever.)
But there is a tradition of comedic fantasy (and speculative fiction more broadly) that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Some of that is genre parody that remains within the genre, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; some of that comic fantasy is focused on being funny, as with Thorne Smith’s Topper or E. Nesbit’s children’s fantasy; and some of it is not focused on comedy, but gets a few good laughs all the same, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories.
(Sidenote: Vance has the best description for prose ever printed in the New York Times: “barbed, velvety, arch and mandarin.” Shit, that’s the name of the evil law firm in my next work.)
I often like a little lightness and joy in my fantasy, so I see our work as being very much within the comic fantasy tradition. That’s my take on comedy in fantasy and hopefully gives you some idea about what we’re going for here.
Also–fair warning–if you say “Voyages transcends its genre,” I will cut you.