|Submitted by Archren |
(Oct 10, 2006)
There’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind when I read epic fantasy: why do Americans love this stuff so much? Your average epic fantasy derives a large part of its structure from the divine right of kings. After all, Aragorn wasn’t heading to Gondor to start up a Democratic form of government or campaign for president, he was headed there to take for himself the mantle of king to which he was destined by birth. The people of the city state didn’t have a say in the matter, although they were all (of course) portrayed as quite happy about it. And one has to wonder then, does leading a large army and walking through spooky mountain passes really qualify you to head a turn-around administration for a decaying city-state?
So I have to admit that when I read the following passage in John C. Wright’s “Mists of Everness,” the second half of his “War of the Dreaming” story, I just about dropped the book to clap:
“The prophecy reports the next King lives, even now, somewhere up on the Earth; now, even now; the King destined to restore the Empire and knit up the sundered universe. His bloodline shall rule both gods and men; his sway shall reach unbound beyond Heaven, Earth, and Hell, to compass all cosmos entire. No less than the cosmos shall the kingdom be; nations shall be subjects as much as constellations….”
“New king, eh?” said Peter. “Forgive me if I don’t stand up and clap. I vote Republican.”
This is a uniquely American fantasy. Set partly in modern day America (and partly in The Dreaming), and with the addition of distinctively American myths, it takes on the entire field of princes-fighting-to-regain-thrones-type fantasy. That it does so using an intense mash-up of almost every Western mythology you care to name in no way diminishes the fresh winds of the New World that flow through the entire piece.
There is a new power introduced in this volume, one that owes everything to American culture. His antecedents are such heroes as The Shadow and Batman, then combined with every single ideal that a young boy is taught constitutes success in the American milieu: he’s a inventor, an entrepreneur, a millionaire, a lawyer, an engineer, a persuasive writer, and a romantic lead. He even appears to own the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty automobile. Although at one point he enters with his wide brim hat and smoke grenades and I got a brief mental image of Dark Wing Duck that almost completely undermined any sense I had of the seriousness of the action.
With the help of this new hero and the Titan Prometheus (who turns out to be almost as useful as MacGyver and may in fact be my new Patron Saint of Engineers), our heroes fight to make their own way towards the future, succumbing to neither the obvious evilness and enslavement of Hell (here Acheron), nor to the tempting pleasures of a heaven where the absolute monarch will makes sure everyone is happy and no one will be allowed to be innovative. Probably the closest story lately that treads that ground, insisting on forging our own destiny no matter what the gods may say is the central story arc of Babylon 5, although Wright may not appreciate my comparison. Over and over Wright has his heroes use the values of the Enlightenment to triumph over their adversaries, noting in particular that logic is something that magical beings can’t use, and it can always be used to defeat them. In that way this book finishes with the flavor of a science fiction novel as much as a fantasy, and not simply because of the (mathematically dodgy) improvement in nuclear technology revealed by Prometheus to our hero in a climactic scene of Socratic dialog.
One other vast improvement over typical fantasy epics is the handling of the aftermath. The bad guys have predictably used the chaos caused by the walls between the Dreaming and the waking world (including Frost and Fire giants roaming over the countryside, the President of the United States being killed in human sacrifice, and the Sun itself being killed) to seize governmental power and institute martial law. Luckily the armed populace is not so easily cowed as your average feudal fiefdom, and they never solidify control. At the very end, our Shadowy American Hero is offered all the power he could ever desire, to be the one who can inspire the populace and put everything to rights. In a rare moment of balance (Wright has an unfortunate tendency to erect strawmen), Wright allows the argument he doesn’t agree with to be rationally and powerfully stated, essentially recapitulating the Federalist Papers debate in about a page, reiterating just how important the lack of centralized power (like a King) is to making America what it is.
I could personally wish that the wonderfully American fantasy wasn’t quite so aggressively Libertarian (are Zoning boards really that bad?), but I am very happy that people are finally looking at how the unique historical experiment that is American politics may be influencing the gods and myths we live with. Neil Gaiman treaded on some of this ground in the brilliant and dark “American Gods,” and Gene Wolfe’s works include some of the same philosophy and sf/fantasy blending in his “Book of the New Sun” sequence. At his best Wright can match the lyricism of those two greats, although he can’t quite match the spectacular vividness of their descriptions, or their flair for dialogue. There is plenty to quibble with in Wright’s vision of America portrayed in this book, especially the rather odd depiction of the few women involved. However I hope that many other authors will respond to the themes he has opened up here, and start to move ever so slowly away from the unexamined assumptions of divine superiority and the unworthiness of the masses to govern themselves that underpin so much of contemporary fantasy.