Tradition in Fantasy and Science Fiction
Mark Wegierski examines four main foci for traditionalist impulses in these genres
[This article is based on a draft of a presentation read at the Fantastic Literature Conference, The Basic Categories of Fantastic Literature Revisited, Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz, October 21-23, 2012.]
Fantasy and science fiction are genres where traditionalist impulses can persist, in an increasingly desacralized, disenchanted, and “mundane” world. The four main points of focus for these impulses are mapped onto several subgenres of fantasy and science fiction. Such a typology creates a helpful method for distinguishing between these various subgenres.
The first point of focus consists of nostalgia for a “greener world” and is identified with high-fantasy, especially the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. High-fantasy is frequently characterized by a lament for the “thinning of the world” and is in fact quite congruent with traditionalist despair at the increasing loss of meaning in current-day society. Frequently, in high fantasy, past ages of a “sub-created world” are grander and more magical than the world of the present, while magical forces are often on the wane in the current day, what Max Weber called the disenchantment of the world. This finds an easy conceptual correspondence to the conservative and traditionalist lament for the so-called good old days. High fantasy is also often characterized by fear of an encroaching quasi-industrial or machine age – which is frequently identified with the forces of evil. It participates therefore in the Romantic disdain for the “dark Satanic mills” – a sentiment which is also apt to partake of traditionalist and conservative impulses. Also, the better characters in high-fantasy usually have good manners and a sense of reserve and modesty. This too corresponds to a conservative ideal. These good manners are typical of social existence in somewhat earlier periods of human history (according to conservatives at any rate). Also, quite obviously in high-fantasy, kings and queens, princes and princesses, as well as lords and ladies of various sorts are the main rulers of society – which feeds into the pro-monarchic and pro-aristocratic ideas that at least some conservatives hold, at least sentimentally. High fantasy like that of Tolkien also celebrates the rootedness of life in the countryside (such as found in the hobbits’ Shire), the attachment to place associated with noble and ancient cities (such as Minas Tirith), and the perennial traditions of proud and confident nations (such as Gondor and Rohan).
The second point of focus is that of the neo-pagan heroic, which is identified with the sword-and-sorcery subgenre. Here, the paradigmatic works are Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The great popularity of this subgenre can be seen as a response to an increasingly bureaucratized, over-regulated society. Indeed, it may be a form of displaced protest on the part of increasingly “geek-ified” males who long for a Nietzschean heroism. They yearn for some expression of ardent masculinity – for ferocious sword-fights and unbridled and readily fulfilled episodes of lust slaked by the nubile warrior-women, sorceresses, princesses, and elf-maidens that are typical of the sword-and-sorcery milieu. These impulses are probably among the main reasons for the popularity of fantasy role-playing games (RPG’s) such as Dungeons and Dragons.
While some males are apt to become absorbed entirely by the innerness of a fantasy world, for others, it is possible for these impulses to be rendered more dynamic and lead to a more actively aggressive and coherent resistance to the world of late modernity, where nowadays straight white males are particularly subject to the severe strictures of political correctness. Even the “geekiest” of males can sometimes show a flash of steely resolve that is expressed in constructive (hopefully not destructive) action, when they have been badgered for too long.
The heroism of the Conan vision stands in marked contrast to the sort of heroism usually expressed in the high-fantasy typified by Tolkien, who warns against the unbridled will-to-power. The most obviously Nietzschean hero in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is Boromir, who succumbs to the seductive lure of the Ring of Power. In contrast, it is the ordinary, humble, unassuming hobbits who in the end succeed in the quest to destroy the Ring of Power.
Feudal values plus high technology
The third focus for traditionalism is what has been called “feudal values plus high-technology”. This term was first prominently used by noted left-wing science fiction writer Judith Merril in 1985, when she ruefully complained that this was the most common typology of most of the more popular science fiction. This typology is present in most types of space-opera, as well as in military science fiction.
One of the archetypal works here is Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), which, among other issues, examines the question of whether it is possible for some forms of traditional ethos to persist in societies of very high technology. In his future-history, Herbert posited the so-called Butlerian Jihad (named after its leader, Jehanne Butler), a smashing-up of advanced robots and sentient computers. The Jihad took place in what was already a civilization of numerous star systems and worlds, existing beyond our own age about ten thousand years into the future. As Herbert recounted it (in the Dune Encyclopedia, 1984) the spark for the Jihad arose out of a supervisory AI ordering an abortion for Jehanne of a child that she knew was healthy. In this scenario, a more advanced planet had been dominating a more quote primitive planet and arbitrarily interfering in its customs. The abortions were being ordered for arbitrary reasons. The upshot was that humans recoiled against some forms of advanced technology and embarked on a neo-traditionalist trajectory for at least the next ten thousand years. In the wake of the destruction of the thinking computers and robots, a neo-feudal society emerged, characterized by the maxim: “A place for every man, and every man in his place.”
A major subgenre in science fiction is so-called military SF. Although, on the one hand, it portrays a very technologized world of war machines and various military gadgets, on the other, it allows for a portrayal of the rebirth of a very “masculine” ethos, encompassing soldiers’ honour, courage in battle, loyalty, and zealous engagement in national-type political-military conflicts. The paradigmatic example of this subgenre is probably Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. (Incidentally, the 1997 movie, largely a parody, was highly unfaithful to the original text of the book.) Another very prominent author of military SF is Jerry Pournelle. An interesting subgenre of military SF is that focussed on mercenary units, who fight courageously but with cynicism towards the state entities they serve. This allows various writers to voice libertarian-type sentiments about the decency of individual soldiers and their “regimental family”, while commenting on the typically corrupt nature of the state entities that they serve.
The subgenre of space opera shares definite crossover elements with fantasy. The early paradigmatic example of space-opera within science fiction writing is E. E. (Doc) Smith’s Lensmen series. Meanwhile, the paradigmatic example of space opera in film is, of course, George Lucas’ Star Wars series. George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy can be interpreted as a cheering, heroic series of movies which played no small part in the renewal of American willingness to resist the “Soviet empire” in the 1980s.
Lois McMaster Bujold has written one of the most successful space opera sagas, featuring the diminutive and partially-disabled Myles Vorkosigan, who nevertheless drives himself to succeed in a socially harsh cultural and political setting.
John Maddox Roberts’ Cestus Dei (1983) features an interstellar empire based explicitly on religious principles and an alliance of Earth religions. It portrays the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and other religious leaders as cooperating and yet at the same time competing galactic administrators with the Earth as their centre. The novel concerns a Jesuit who schemes his way to the highest circles of a human society on another Earth-like planet, described as “the Rome of the Caesars with atomic weapons”.
The two-volume Galactic Empires anthology edited by Brian Aldiss (1976) is a particularly good example of various space opera stories. One should note especially, “The Rebel of Valkyr” (originally published in 1950) by Alfred Coppel, which has been characterized as “Horses in the Starship Hold”. The premise is that a galactic imperial civilization attacks the Andromeda galaxy. The even more-advanced Andromedan counter-attack destroys all sophisticated technology, except for star-ships. Advanced technology is therefore considered cursed, and its exploration is confined to “warlocks” and “witches”, that is to say scientists working in secret. Society is thus almost entirely medieval, the only exception being that interstellar travel is possible on the hulk-type star-ships, which are manned by a highly prestigious guild of navigators, i.e., quasi-priests. Through established rituals and memorization, they are somehow able to guide the star-ships to their destinations.
A highly regarded example of this typology that must be mentioned is Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series (original tetralogy, 1980-1983). This is the tale of Severian, a professional torturer troubled by his conscience who eventually becomes ruler of a planet called Urth. The setting is Gothic, Baroque, and filled with archaic language. In fact, Gene Wolfe took enormous care in using only pre-existent, archaic or rare words rather than inventing any new words in his description of the world of Severian.
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the best known science fiction authors, has made the provocative statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
A return to older forms of human organization in the future may not be as unlikely as some might think. During the 1980s debate over the nuclear winter theory, the respected popular scientist Carl Sagan suggested that the reason the universe is not teeming with intelligent life (as some astronomical theories had proposed to be the case) is that, as every intelligent species develops technology, it is faced with a developmental crisis that in most cases results in its extinction. Sagan had suggested that it is probably nuclear war that is the vehicle for this extinction. Although Sagan was highly critical of Reagan’s policies of the 1980s, the argument can certainly be turned in a quasi-traditionalist direction. If we do not deal with the hyper technology overwhelming our planet by pursuing an order that only some form of neo-traditionalist and/or neo-authoritarian arrangement can provide, our human societies are doomed to fly apart and possibly lapse into oblivion from the disintegrating forces attendant on too-rapid technological advancement. So feudal values juxtaposed with high-technology may indeed be one possible future for humankind (or for any other intelligent species that is faced with the need to surmount a similar developmental crisis). Whether these planet-wide “feudal” elements can be provided by distinctly more humane and peaceable religions and national traditions rather than by violent means remains to be seen.
This typology gives traditionalists hope that the future will not be “hypermodern”, but rather “postmodern” (to give this term a highly eclectic usage). In this scenario there will be some kind of return to tradition, of “moving forward to the past”.
Also, some settings of alternative-history posit worlds that may be more to the liking of traditionalists and essentially replicate this typology. Take, for example, Sheldon Vanauken’s notion (expressed as part of his non-fiction book The Glittering Illusion, 1985) that a victorious Dixie would have joined the British Empire, the eventual result being a quick Allied victory in World War I and with a more traditional modernity following in its wake. It is usual for conservatives to suggest that slavery would have been relatively quickly abolished in the South and that black-white relations would have actually been better without the association of black advancement with triumphant Northern aggression. Alternative history centred on the premise of Hitler being thwarted earlier in his nefarious career should also be of strong interest to traditionalists, as presumably, under such a scenario, more of the “Old Europe” would have been saved for the future.
The fourth point of focus is marked by a lonely, existential resistance to “hypermodern” dystopia. This focal emphasis posits future societies that constitute an extension, not a negation, of modern trends. That is to say, the trends of modernity are extrapolated to ever increasing extremes.
One of the most typical genres here is cyberpunk. Cyberpunk (a paradigmatic example being William Gibson’s Neuromancer, 1984) depicts a vision of technological dystopia or semi-dystopia, sometimes called “an air-conditioned nightmare”. In the cyberpunk world, the planet is dominated by huge transnational corporations and so-called virtual reality or cyberspace. The latter is imagined as an autonomous electronic realm with which specially equipped “cyberjockeys” can interact and is indeed a central element of life and power struggles. Within this dystopian scenario there exist multifarious interpenetrations of humankind, the electronic realm, gadgetry, machinery, and genetic manipulation.
The most prominent examples of cyberpunk in film are Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) (loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,1968) and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999).
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) points to the approaching perils of a consumerist and post-literate society, where books are burned by so-called firemen.
The Space Merchants (sometimes also titled Gravy Planet) (1952), by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, presents a polluted planet of ostentatious, consumerist capitalism where, for example, oak wood is worth more than gold, the reason being that there are very few living trees left. An interesting aspect of this work is that the forces opposing this world exist in an underground organization called the World Conservationist Union. They are derided as “Consies” – a word that might equally suggest “Commies” or “conservatives”. In fact, the tendencies that stand in opposition to this world can easily be characterized as embracing both socio-cultural and pro-ecological conservatism, although the authors might not have explicitly intended this as the message of the book.
Cyberpunk would not appear at first glance to be a subgenre at all friendly to a traditionalist orientation. It is interesting to note that, although it portrays such a “gritty world”, many people who read this sort of fiction identify with the independent cyberjockeys and experience a kind of exhilaration in this literature. In point of fact, many readers who have a tedious and uninteresting life are captivated by the sense of adventure inherent in this subgenre, although more often than not it depicts a dystopian world. Perhaps the real reason for cyberpunk’s attractiveness is not so much the gadgets, but the fact that the reader can identify with a cyberjockey living a far more interesting life than that of the reader.
Cyberpunk may suggest ideas that could be termed neo-Romantic, a Romanticism based only on one’s own humanity rather than on the natural world. Nature in fact is virtually non-existent, but in this gritty, poisoned world where there are virtually no other living creatures except cockroaches, humans must somehow find meaning and sense in life through their own resources and devices.
The extrapolation of this idea to contemporary reality suggests a kind of solution to our latter-day “crisis of identity”. No longer labouring under the sense that roots are being “imposed on them”, in the end humans make a choice in full freedom to embrace their traditional roots, not excluding at the same time partial identifications with the various other collectivities of late modernity. It would be extremely difficult in today’s world to demand total immersion in tradition. Insofar as we live nowadays in a society that – apparently at least – places enormous stock in free choice, opting freely in such case to become re-invested in a cultural context marked by traditional roots constitutes a strong challenge and a not insubstantial ideological conundrum for today’s prevailing system.
A yet further subgenre is that of “the lonely, wounded hero” in opposition to a corrupt society. Examples of this are Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s theatrical-operatic reinterpretation of The Phantom of the Opera, the Beauty and the Beast television series (1987-1990) (which unfortunately ended in such a pessimistic way), the new Batman epics, and the movie Ladyhawke (1985), which showed a black-clad knight fighting on behalf of the Church of Rome against a heretical, white-clad bishop and sorcerer of seemingly limitless powers. It could be argued that, in today’s society, the “true masculine” has been forced into the underground or subconscious of society. The appeal of these various productions could be attributed to the attempt to allow the so-called whole man to re-emerge.
The V for Vendetta movie (2006), based on the 1980s comic-book series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, combined the fascinating imagery of the dark-tinged Romantic hero fighting for his beloved and also against a corrupt society, but with a high degree of political correctness in the portrayal of that corrupt society as stereotypically fascist.
There are as well those classic works of dystopia that can be seen to imply a traditionalist critique of modernity, such as, most prominently, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). While left-wing critics focus in on the genetic caste system of Brave New World as symptomatic of “corporate conservatism”, it seems that Huxley’s point is much different. The posited abolition of God, history, and the family in Huxley’s dystopia points to the work as a classic of conservative criticism of society. Also, the book has to be read very carefully for one to notice a lot of the very disgusting aspects of the dystopia that might not be apparent on a superficial read-through. It is possible to see the main characters of Brave New World, Bernard Marx, John the Savage, and Helmholtz Watson as pointing to different aspects of possible resistance to late modernity, embodying the following concepts, roughly speaking: alienation and social awkwardness, the passion of opposition, and (for the lucky few) superb accomplishment and success.
As for Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is at its most obvious level a critique of Stalinism – a courageous stance for a Western intellectual to take at that time. The work can also be seen to evince a yearning for the traditions of Britain and England. At the same time, Orwell makes highly astute observations about the nature of political and social control, a great many of which can fairly easily be applied to today’s political correctness. He makes the vital point that semantic control is probably the most important part of controlling people – or as he puts it, “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak”. Many traditionalists in Western societies today can certainly identify with various elements (though obviously not all) of Winston Smith’s dissident experience.
Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973) – which portrays the West overwhelmed by Third World immigration – may be added to the great literary dystopias.
These foci offer practical points of departure in terms of social and ideological re-alignment – as far as traditionalism is concerned. For its part, high-fantasy such as that of Tolkien certainly has the potential to inspire cultural and ecological resistance to the more negative aspects of late modernity. Sword-and-sorcery might in some cases increase the confidence of persons critical of late modernity, although it can also result in an escape into a fantasy world. Cyberpunk and some dystopias provide a warning about the future, pointing to future worlds that traditionalists don’t want to happen. However, boldly extrapolative science fiction such as that of Frank Herbert can be seen as having affinities with “prophecy”, suggesting some of the ways in which a traditional ethos might be able to persist in societies with a very highly advanced technology.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based science fiction and fantasy aficionado