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.