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October 13th, 2008, 09:58 AM #1
Power, Fantasy, & The Joy of Fanaticism
Recently I have been pondering just what it is that I enjoy about those SF and fantasy novels which really catch my attention. Not necessarily the best books in the genres, but the ones that I read more avidly than any others, and which light up my imagination. This really stems from a conversation with my better half, in which we talked about why we love the books we do – what’s in them to attract us? She isn’t a fan of SF&F, more fool her, but we do share many mainstream literary books as favourites. The answers I came to for those various mainstream books differed as widely as the books themselves, as I might have predicted; there really isn’t any common thread between them. But later, thinking about the SF&F books I really enjoy, I came to think that there is a common factor. There are many things which can characterise fantasy novels; a certain grandeur, an epic sweep of story, is usually a key ingredient. Magic, of course, even in a GRRM “less is more” style. Battle, honour, betrayal, shock revelations, sly allegories of our own world – these are all common in fantasy. However I’ve come to see that there is one factor which is common to all the books I really devour. And it’s not a good one.
It’s fanaticism. Looking back now, I realise that the characters and races that always caught my imagination were those driven by passionate commitment to…whatever. I always loved the guys who were often being held out as an example of how not to be; I’ve always resented Star Trek for the way it requires Vulcans to open up emotionally, and Klingons to be tamed. To mimic Starfleet’s humans, in other words. I LOVE the Vulcan commitment to logic. And being a Klingon warrior must be refreshingly uncomplicated, there are days when I can most definitely see the attractions of that lifestyle! But things have got worse, if that’s the word I want. I have developed a theory, which is:
The dominant theme underlying all fantasy is “Power”.
A magical item threatens the world, and must be destroyed. A Dark Lord has arisen, and must be cast down. Dynastic strife shatters the existing order of things, and must be played out until a new equilibrium is achieved. An ubermensch enters a world of religious tension and manipulates it to his own ends. A greedy and paranoid Empire fights its enemies within and without, real and perceived, with assassination and magic. It’s all about power - the uses and abuses, the having and the losing, the virtues and the threats thereof. Hardly a fresh insight, I know, but it's where that realisation takes me that bothers me.
My real point here is that it’s (almost) always the obsessed, the unbendingly committed, that draw my sympathy. No, that’s not right – I should say they draw my interest, even if I find them totally unsympathetic. In these struggles for/against power, it’s nearly always those who want it most that fascinate me. This has reached its apotheosis with my recent obsession with books set in the Warhammer 40K universe, which take fanaticism and love of power (i.e. the power structure, namely Him on Earth) to remarkable heights. I have found myself devouring this stuff lately. Imperial Fists, Space Wolves, Ultramarines, Blood Angels – love ‘em all. I have to face the fact that there is some small, dark part of me that is fascinated by – and attracted to – fanaticism.
The weird thing is that IRL that’s the total opposite of me. I despise fundamentalism of any kind (“Death to all fanatics!”), and I revere those who overcome their own entrenched loyalties to accommodate the other guy, as a way to settle disputes and achieve peace. Seriously, I’m the *most* tolerant man you could meet. And yet I actually envy the likes of the Space Marines, with their clarity and certainty and raging xenocidal lunacy – er, sorry, I meant “faith”. Is this a symptom of the modern age, where all the old truisms have lost their power over us?
But of course that’s a horrible contradiction. In today’s world, the last thing we need is more fanatical certainty. And yet because the old touchstones of faith, nation, party, hierarchy, etc have crumbled away (for me, anyway), I am left rudderless – and envious of those who are not. Am I just whining about the burden of having to make it up as I go along? Of not being able to retreat into some ideology, because I’ve rejected them all?
I’d like to know what you lot think about this. Do you reject the original argument that fantasy is about power? Do you understand the lure of fanaticism?
It’s going to be really embarrassing if I’m the only one.
October 13th, 2008, 02:31 PM #2
you're not alone. i find myself attracted to authors who split the proverbial hair and spend a lot of time dissecting their characters : R Scott Bakker, Frank Herbert, L E Modessit, Orson Scott Card, and my latest craze K J Parker. Obsession and powerplays trump the simplistic "good vs evil" fights of Terry Brooks or David Eddings and for me are more relevant to understanding some of rudderless world you mentioned. Deux et machina solutions of continent shattering magic [Rand al Thor] or unbeatable enchanted swords are starting to feel like a cop out on the part of the author.
October 13th, 2008, 03:15 PM #3
As to fanaticism, that's so much a part of the human element. What's that old phrase: nature despises a vacuum?
I think you can apply that to fantaticism as well. I think it's a natural part of the human psyche to want certainty. For many people, if they're not as certain about the institutions their parents believed in, they make ones up that they can be certain about. So, does nature despise uncertainity?
October 13th, 2008, 04:36 PM #4
Wow, love the thread. Very perceptive posts all. Indeed, when it comes to cultures, in general, and individuals, specifically, the definitive difference is the one you're discussing...'certainty v. uncertainty', if you will. I can see both sides of the issue, as I've been to both 'realms.' I spent the initial several decades of my life adrift upon uncertainty. In retrospect, I see the purpose of such a state as being a catalyst to compel the individual to strive, search, quest - or whatever - for a certainty. Again, IMO, this is my conclusion having reached the other side of the street. There is an inherent danger to such an endeavor, however: auto-induced blindness. To clarify, it would seem that people usually 'discover' or find precisely what they were looking for. The trick is to annihilate all premises before beginning in order to have an end result that is untainted. It may not be pretty, tolerable or commendable, but, at least, it will be 'the real thing.' Of that, you can be certain.
The notion of fanaticism is, I think, a criticism of the certain, by the uncertain. Like the queasy feeling a country bumpkin might have when moving to the city and finding themselves, whether at work, at play, or wherever, in the company of something new, i.e. a *gasp* gay individual perhaps. For the uncertain, certainty is either undiscovered country, or it's paradise lost (i.e. ignorance is bliss). While some might see, define, criticize or even openly condemn certainty as the refuge of the zealot, I (being certain) would describe it as peace of mind and unassailably restful.
Pedro's in the Hedro &
kickin' like a chicken
Last edited by PeterWilliam; October 13th, 2008 at 04:44 PM. Reason: clarification
October 13th, 2008, 04:39 PM #5
I remember the quote as being, "Nature abhors a vacuum," only because Mr. Spock said it on the original tv series. My memory is like a steel trap, now, if only I could find where somebody left my keys....
October 13th, 2008, 07:06 PM #6
Only a small amount of posts and yet all showing different views, offering different ideas: herein lies the beauty of fantasy.
I believe one can, with fantasy more than any other genre and if one is so inclined, read into the stories on so many levels. Or one can simply sit back and enjoy a good yarn.
Fantasy offers so many themes for the reader to explore, think on and examine. From individual characters to whole cultures the brilliant irony of fantasy is the reader can, by reading a story so utterly removed from realism, discover and explore deeper themes in the real world. Opening oneself to the deeper themes available can give anyone an interesting angle form which to look upon the world around us... or maybe that's just me. I reckon there's a lot of wisdom to be found in fantasy if you choose to see it, lessons which can be absorbed and used. Yet, they differ for each reader. The reader can decide how far to, or not to, read into a story.
I read little else... could be why I'm so messed up. Mwahahahaha!
October 13th, 2008, 08:41 PM #7
The reason I brought up that phrase was because I think our individual consciousness' seem to abhor uncertainty. That may be a great part of the appeal of Dark Lord fantasies: there is minimal argumentation about what's right and wrong, which is so different than most aspects of our lives.
As for kged original question: is fantasy about power? Certainly, there is a very large element to that when it comes to epic fantasy. Even the 'gritty, realistic, yada yada" kind deals with power in that sense. However, it also seems typically true that fanatics aren't written sympathetically in epic fantasies, either.
So, I like the certainty of easily defined good and evil in fantasies, but I don't like the fanatics in fantasy. Odd.
October 15th, 2008, 07:10 AM #8
I would extend your premise to say that almost all stories that deal with human interaction deal with power, even if only on a miniature scale. Human society is grounded in status and power, it is a fairly universal theme.
This is most noticeable in fantasy because by merit of the genre's flexibility the scope and drama of the story are expanded and the power struggles grow proportionally, often becoming polarised, leading to the ultimate dichotomy - Good vs Evil, a staple of fantasy more than any other genre. There is an appeal in that premise, but nowadays it is often seen as simplistic and to me there has been a general trend away from moral absolutes in modern fantasy.
I would agree that I am drawn to fanaticism in characters, more so than those characters who are morally ambiguous, but only in context of a morally ambiguous story line. I think in many ways it's harder to portray a fanatic realistically than a reasonable person, because their mindset can become so twisted. Of course when done well these characters are brilliant, and I think there is a subconscious fascination with this side of humanity, especially when we live in such a complex society, there are two sides to a story etc, and we are missing causes which we can believe in unconditionally.
Of course fanaticism is a staple of fantasy's exploration of humanity's darker side, which all too often leads to one dimensional baddies, but can also be fascinating, especially when used as a parallel for contemporary society. In this 'age of acceptance' our prejudices are forced to retreat as our targets of fear and loathing, once upon a time witches, homosexuals, transsexuals etc, are becoming more integrated into society.
This can lead to a pouring of excess vitriol into the remaining, justified prejudices we still hold. For instance the nation wide outcry in Australia following Bill Henson's exhibition of photographs of naked children, labelled 'child pornography'. Never mind that he had achieved international acclaim with the exact same style of portraiture for the last decade, paedophilia was on the nation's mind and he was the unlucky scape-goat.
......I'm not sure how I wound up discussing that, but I think I might leave it there before I wind up even further off track, haha.
Nice thread btw, this forum desperately needs more analytical discussion like this.
October 15th, 2008, 07:38 AM #9
October 15th, 2008, 08:03 AM #10
Ooh. I just changed my av, largely because of the issues raised in this thread! Although the Joker was appropriate too, I now realise. Sorry MM. Yes, I did really enjoy the way the Joker in the latest movie had a twisted sort of philosopical crusade, wanting to demonstrate to all that life is in fact chaos, and all our structures of order and society are an illusion. That obviously puts him at the other end of the spectrum from the devoted conformists of the Space Marines, but he still retains the fascination of the fanatic.
Thanks to all for the responses so far anyway, they have been both entertaining and a relief!
Fruitonica, you're right of course - all fiction can arguably be said to be about power in the sense of the characters' relationships. But it's the real naked capital-P POWER that I'm on about here. And I'm very much surprised at myself to find how fascinated I am by it, and by those who wield it or devote themselves to its service, even unto death. I do hope MI5 don't read this board too often, because I'm starting to come off like a bit of a nutter here.
October 15th, 2008, 08:54 AM #11
I had a whole reply up, then realized I'd misunderstood the original post initially. So to respond more accurately to your questions:
Do you reject the original argument that fantasy is about power?
What all types of fiction deal with are the choices people (or reasonable equivalent) make, and fantasy fiction deals with this directly more than most. Some of those choices may be involving physical or political power, but they are just as likely to be about relationships or about how someone is going to live their life. These choices are often morally ambiguous; fantasy fiction, even secondary world fantasy, has never been simply about good versus evil.
There is only a percentage of fantasy stories that have an extreme evil entity in them -- and this goes for old fantasy as well as new. Of that group, the evil entity often didn't start out as pure evil, but became so because of the choices the person made. And there is seldom ever an entity of pure good in these fantasy stories. They may have a Satan who is a fallen angel, but there is seldom an Aslan directing the troops. And even when there is an Aslan, the main characters have free will and still must make choices and often make the wrong, non-heroic ones.
Instead, in fantasy, you have people who are confronted with thorny situations that often involve life and death. Some of them choose to hack their way through them. Some dither over the outcome and the danger. Some become villains. Some start out as villains and then change their minds. Some of them chase power, some want to avoid it. And some are obsessed with a girl he'd do anything for.
I'm not surprised that if you're reading a lot of very martial fantasy that power would come up as an issue for you. Soldiers so seldom have power but their job is to get it for others. But it doesn't really work as a reason d'etre for all of fantasy fiction.
Do you understand the lure of fanaticism?
An evil entity is not necessarily a fanatic, per se, because an evil entity quite often doesn't have a doctrine to believe in, just a hunger, a desire for, yes, power, or destruction or release, or all three. Such entities have the frenzy part of fanatic down, but not the rigid belief part. And people who follow an ideology, and don't have that ideology rocked by events, are not necessarily fanatical characters either. Get yourself a suicide bomber who wasn't forced into it and you have yourself a fanatic. Yet, the character who sacrifices his life is not necessarily always a fanatic either.
Does a Space Marine want to force everyone to become a Space Marine? Or does he just want to accomplish his objective? Is intense loyalty to his fellows all that different from the love you feel for your children? If a Space Marine trusts in the decisions of his leaders -- or just doesn't care -- is that fanaticism or just a combination of cynicism and hope?
I sincerely doubt you are without ideologies. Tolerance is an ideology, and it's one that you can be fanatical about and feel should spread. What you may be fascinated by are ideologies that are so different from your own, so that you want to explore these and understand them.
As for old versus new, why do people do this, as if people in the past were some sort of alien beings completely different from us in the present? Ideological rhetoric was used but not necessarily adhered to by the average person as much in the past as is the case today. In fantasy, ideology can often become reality, the symbolic and abstract made literal, which means you can look at the choices people make in a different way and the choices they make may have to be more direct. But they are still the same thorny dilemmas we face today, whether in an imaginary world that has not yet developed complex machines or in a contemporary New York where ghosts turn out to be real.
So I think you're probably fine, and mentally well-balanced. At least as far as I know.
October 18th, 2008, 08:07 PM #12
- Join Date
- Oct 2008
My grade school education was highly liberal in nature: black is white is gray etc., but eventually I saw through a lot of the contradictory fallacies my impressionable young mind had been subjected to.
Our position in the west sometimes appears schizophrenic. On the one hand, we're largely moving beyond what was the main religion that held society together for centuries. But our western mindset was never really satisfied with its tenets, because deep down, we knew that the meek do not inherit the earth. Our old gods, be they greek/roman, celtic, or germanic pagan, the ones we evolved for ourselves did not care for us as special unique individuals, but we used them as models to help us cope and survive against nature, because nature does not care for us as special unique individuals. All nature gives us is a brief window in which we can pass on parts of ourselves together with the inherited benefit of the radical selfishness and perseverance of our ancestors.
The heroes of the west, Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Ferdinand and Isabella, etc. [I'd like to add my personal hero, Godfrey de Bouillon, though his legacy never survived], did not ensure that we exist today to briefly explore our hard won liberty by adhering to tenets like "the meek will inherit the Earth." As was necessary, they discarded this affectation because more was demanded for survival. They were people who like Nietzche advocates make their business "wakefulness itself," clearly by their actions, not slumbering, intoxicated by visions of a cloud-bound afterlife, regardless of their religious dogma.
But after centuries of being inculcated with an ideology contrary to our nature, it has sunk in to a large extent, so that even when with the sword of rationalism, we shake off the yoke we were enthralled with, we want to forcibly impose its core tenets, now renamed as humanism, liberalism etc., on nature itself. Believing this to be possible, many people day dream their lives away, but can never quite account for, or muster an adequate response in the face of unwavering fanaticism and aggression, without pointing the finger at themselves. "We weren't tolerant (i.e. meek) enough, and so we brought this act of terrorism (or what have you) on ourselves."
Now, to the fantasy genre. I am similarly attracted to "fanatical" literature, not because (I'd like to think anyways) I'm shallow or naive [does having a Ph.D. in math at a top 40 university count for anything?]. In the 40K universe, humanity is continually threatened by extinction both from within (chaos) and without (orks, eldar, take your pick). The situation is depicted as uncompromisingly grim. Clearly this resonates with people, because black library publications continue to be churned out and consumed whole-sale. Movies like 300 or the latest Batman - conservative fantasy are box office blow outs. Clearly the ideas put forward in these movies are striking a very real chord. In 300 the Spartans believe that "all men are not equal", a fact which anyone can verify by simply walking downtown in any major city. Only the strong Spartans are allowed to continue because strength was a valued necessity for their continued survival. This is the hard essence of paganism (sorry to ruin the flower parade).
These stories resonate with the hero myths so deeply embedded in our western psyche. Even the imposition of a narcotic alien religion could not stifle it - it was too necessary for survival - and so you have the advent of chivalry, and in turn the legacy of conquest and exploration (Cortes) and ultimately colonialism.
So the schizophrenia I diagnosed the West with in my third paragraph is the war between the competing narratives of our history, only one of which in its pure form, provides the adequate tools for survival. The depiction of continual threat within and without resonates with us today, because it is in fact the same reality we have been facing for ... ever. Inside, we turn to the narratives that our most honest selves know will most reliably lead to further survival. So 300 is a hit, 40k is well-loved, because we aren't learning the necessary and native survival mentality elsewhere.
Or I could be wrong: maybe we just haven't fully embraced post-colonial guilt...
"We've been sharing our culture with you all day"
-Nabonidus in 300 [correct me if I'm wrong on the exact wording]
Last edited by Thor; October 18th, 2008 at 08:09 PM.
October 19th, 2008, 10:11 AM #13
I must admit that I find absolute certainty rather off-putting. I much prefer the morally ambiguous characters. My favorite fantasy characters of all time are Boromir and Gollum.
October 20th, 2008, 06:20 AM #14
Thor - I'm troubled by your post. You and I are clearly as far apart politically as two people can be; and yet I find much of your post strongly argued, and valid. But it's not enough, for me. Yes, I do believe you've really put your finger on why I am so darkly fascinated by the fanatical, the driven, and specifically why I have been so fascinated by tales of the W40K universe. I have to concede that it is the brute force, the will to survive and to remove all threats, which animates those stories for me, even when the writing can be a little leaden. And even that concession is a grudging one. But I say again, that's not enough.
I will not accept the Darwinian mercilessness which lies behind your post. It cannot be disputed that strength, employed selfishly, has in the past been necessary for our survival as a species. But we are well past that point, and we need to act accordingly. The very reason I started this thread was that I was bothered by my instinctive reaction to the tales of the Space Marines; and instinct is no basis for a philosophy.
I must be clear here - at no point and in no way do I approve of or endorse the maniacal ethos of the Space Marines. I can think of few fantastical worlds in which I would less rather live. They're awful people, and their lives are awful. I reject them, in my head and my heart. My gut reacts differently, but I can't help that. I'm hoping that this will pass, if I feed it enough to sate it. And this extends beyond the fictions of W40K.
Liberalism is far from a yoke. It couldn't be less of a yoke. It is the only hope of survival we now have. It is the best of humanity, it is our greatest achievement as a species - the choice to live in tolerant equity with our fellow man. We really should have left Nietzchean "morality" back on the plains of Africa, shortly after learning to use tools. That part of our existence is over.
I'm being very contradictory here, I accept that. I do not deny the atavistic appeal of the merciless ubermensch wading heroically through the corpses of The Enemy, with eyes never wavering from their gaze on victory - it would be dishonest to do so. But I cannot accept that because somewhere in my limbic system this strikes a chord, then I must therefore adopt a similar outlook on my life in the 21st Century. That's the path to despair, and I will have none of it. I may be innately misanthropic, and jaded, and cynical, but somewhere inside I still have a flicker of belief in my fellow man.
I dispute your post, Thor. And I detect a strong note of Islamophobia in your post, with which I will not be associated. Your post is redolent of neo-con philosophy, and I have no use for that. But it was a powerful argument, and I thank you for it.
Damn. This thread's going to get locked now for being too political.
October 20th, 2008, 09:58 AM #15
No, no locking down as long as you're civil to each other according to the guidelines and you stay on the topic of discussing the fantasy fiction itself, and all political discussion is related to the fantasy fiction and not directed at each other, etc.
For me, I have a very hard time when someone tells me a work of fiction and the characters in it are simplistic and only one thing or another. I find it is very seldom the case for my own experience. If I read the same thing, I don't find the characters one note and so cut and dried. One of the reasons I read SF and fantasy fiction is that the characters are emotionally complex, which I know many people believe is the opposite case in the genres, but in my view, those people are just distracted by pixie dust and laser blasts. In my opinion, Klingons are incredibly complicated and that complexity is what made them so interesting in the Star Trek series.
So you telling me that the Space Marines are fanatical, fearless robot killers in these stories -- well maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. (And they're SF, which sort of puts a different frame on the discussion.) If you could specify a fantasy novel where you also had this experience, which I might have read, I might be able to give you my view of it, which might see it from a different angle.
If I do, though, that doesn't change the experience you are having, which seems to be that you are not a violent person, that you believe in tolerance, are against fanaticism in any form, don't want to be a soldier, etc., so why do you like violent, military stories. But there are many different forms of violence, multiplied even further in fantasy by aspects like having actual monsters that are often symbols for things more abstract than types of humans. It's not always about primal urges or all or nothing ideologies. And when it comes to the military and the relationship they have to violence -- that's really complicated, because it's directed violence and it's layered violence -- different amounts for different objectives.
And you might also reflect that perhaps it isn't the end product of bloody decapitation, etc., that attracts you to these stories, but the competence and competition aspects of the situation, as with sporting events in which no one gets hacked into little pieces any more, at least not much. It's the ability to defeat an opponent, not the joy of slaughtering, which may be of more interest to you, which can come up in stories about chess matches or battling a horde of zombies before they can eat you.
Last edited by KatG; October 20th, 2008 at 10:02 AM.