otakukeith pointed out that some fantasy worlds have a tendency to turn up considerably better than our own, such that medieval-level technology, biased or cruel political systems, and so on hardly seem to matter. This is particularly true of crossover fantasy, those stories where the protagonist comes from Earth and seems determined to find a sanctuary in this other world from (relatively, compared to exile from all she’s known) small problems in her other life.
So here’s my advice/rant/essay on avoiding those tendencies:
1) Give some friction.
Even in a tightly-knit organization with a keen sense of its mission, which describes some of the Special Groups in fantasy—groups like Lackey’s Heralds or McCaffrey’s dragonriders—there will be conflict. Competition, personal animosities, jealousy, bad reactions to unfortunate accidents, moments of passion gone too far, and so on will not all be smoothed over by a shared group aesthetic or one terminally perky character with a telepathic animal. If such a perky! person does manage to bury the troubles for a while, they’ll probably explode later, especially if a few of the people who don’t like each other are isolated from the larger group and have no buffer. (Claiming that the telepathic animals soothe all the arguments is just cheating).
Now extend that to a society, and imagine what happens. Yes, I thought so.
Have some prejudice in your society. If you don’t want to deal with racism or sexism, and I really can’t blame you given how often I’ve seen that done poorly, then you can go with classism, there are plenty of hierarchies of wealth in most fantasy societies. Or prejudice against a religious minority, or a linguistic one, or a magical one. Or, hell, another intelligent species. I roll my eyes when the only people prejudiced against elves in fantasy are the bigoted, the misinformed, and the evil. There will be unconscious speciesism, too, I bet, and some springing from genuine conflicts. What happens if the elves are tree-dwellers, and the humans are farmers who want to cut the trees down to have some open farmland? The only treatments I’ve seen of this tend to insist that the elves fall back helplessly before the humans and have to be rescued by other humans who negotiate with the farmers to protect the forests. Why shouldn’t they fight back? Why shouldn’t each side resent the other?
Let’s not even talk about what would happen if the trees themselves were intelligent and able to fight back. The attack of the Ents in LOTR frightened more people than just Saruman, though he was the one it came as the nastiest surprise to.
Look carefully at your world. If you honestly can’t see any sources for conflict except with people who are evil or stupid, look again. Large groups do not get along that well, and they can disagree for reasons that seem perfectly good at the time.
2) Work out the negative consequences of deep attitude changes.
As I mentioned before, I like changing some attitude considered “fundamental” to a habit of thought and watching what happens if the altered attitude is let loose in a fantasy world. My favorite fantasy tends to do some variation of this. On the other hand, it’s awfully easy to wind up with an utopia, because the author can start out saying, “Let’s see what happens if we do this,” and slip into saying, “Stupid Earth, why can’t we do this?”
The trick to pulling off such an attitude change honestly is to face the consequences—all of them—and try to portray them as clearly as possible. Let me take two examples I’ve played with recently: collectivism and biocentrism.
A society where the good of the family is valued before the individual can certainly have positive consequences—more consideration of other people, less open conflict, more help given to people who might be despised in a more individualistic society because of lack of talent or motivation. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t fit into the society can careen headlong into disaster. If the society has some ingrained prejudice, such as against children with birth defects, condemnation can descend on people who have never done anything to deserve it. There is no reason that evil people wouldn’t still rise to power, that heads of families wouldn’t do ruthless and cruel things in order to push their families forward. Does the murder of an innocent victim committed to secure the safety of the family seem “better” than one committed on an innocent to remove an obstacle in an individual’s path to power?
I would love to see more done with collective societies in fantasy, and not just making them a faceless enemy. But the author would have to look clear-eyed and unflinching at what pain that society caused as well. Again, saying that everyone in the society just has a genetic/magical/whatever reason to fit in, so there are no misfits, is cheating.
Now, on to biocentrism. This involves the ripping out of anthropocentrism, the focus on humanity, and replacing it with an approach that values life instead, and humanity as only part of life. It’s the kind of attitude that deep ecologists tend to favor, and I would personally love to see a fantasy book written from the perspective of a character or society that did this, because my gosh, that would look awfully different than an anthropocentric perspective.
But this could become dangerously utopian even more quickly than a fantasy novel focusing on a collective society could. What’s wrong with valuing all life? Nothing, right?
I can see a problem right off, and that involves humanity’s limited understanding of what exactly “life” is, and what its purpose is, and what it’s here for. For example, a lot of people think of evolution as a progress, a building on to higher and better forms of life. So what happens if a species that’s past its natural sell-by date because all its food is gone, and is only surviving with human help, such as genetically engineered crops, begins to die off? Would the biocentric thing to do be to step back and let it perish, obeying what evolution has condemned it to, or would it be to continue working with genetic engineering so that this species could survive, because, after all, it is alive, and has a right to continue to exist?
Now, see, I think this is a fun thorny little problem. (Ethical dilemmas are fun!) But it would be so easy to never have it occur in a biocentric fantasy world, and just parade around showing off how “good” the biocentric humans are, and having them confront those nasty enemies who just want to chop down the trees and dam the rivers and not live in harmony with nature, the bastards.
And yes, in this case, having the humans achieve a high level of technology by magic, so they never have to make choices between using nature and leaving it alone, is also cheating. Stop it with the shortcuts. Where is the ambition, the challenge, the difficulty, in them?
3) Have ethical systems non-compliant with liberal humanism.
One reason that the fantasy groups like the ones mentioned earlier, the Heralds and the dragonriders, usually feel unreal to me is that their ethical system—especially as pertains to sexuality—is presented as beyond question. Let an author try to say that most of her society is sexist and cruel, but this one group of people have got it aaaaaall figured out, and I generally start wanting to kick that group of people.
So this group is promiscuous in its sexuality and accepting of differing sexual orientations? Why should that make them more “right” than a group that’s accepting of differing sexual orientations but which insists that its members be strictly monogamous? Or, for that matter, a religious order that insists on voluntary chastity? Sexuality is a big mess of a question, and, here comes the bullhorn, ethical systems that happen to match liberal humanism are neither self-evident nor the One Right True Way.
This is a combination of points 1 and 2, I suppose, but it represents a further step on the road to complexity than a society that just has all its members agreeing with each other or a single shiny and perfect attitude that’s fundamental to the worldbuilding. At least an author who can present people who are proponents of different beliefs has acknowledged that, indeed, people can believe different things. Now we just have to dig that nasty liberal humanist bias out of there.
What can be done to dig it out? Some specific suggestions:
- Study the history of liberalism, humanism, and both together. They emerged as a result of specific historical circumstances. If similar circumstances don’t obtain in your world, you need to explain how these beliefs wound up emerging.
- Examine your characters’ logic. Where are they being true to their setting, cultural background, and personal story, and where are they accepting “self-evident truths” that just happen to coincide with your own beliefs?
- Try stripping your own bias from the scenes of argument, debate, and philosophizing. Or try writing arguments between characters where you don’t agree completely with either side. Or try writing a protagonist whose beliefs are the opposite of your own in at least one important respect, and not having them convert in the middle of the story.
- Watch out what you assign for motivation to believe things. “Because they’re stupid” and “because they’re jealous” are signs number one and two that these characters are just puppets, and that the author is prejudiced towards one particular interpretation of ethics that the favored character or group in the story believes.
- Study other Earth cultures and their history of ethics. By no means has everyone in the world believed what the twenty-first-century Western world does, and they certainly did not consider themselves deficient or insane.
(There may eventually be a whole rant on this).
4) Include those things that must be endured.
A really simple way to make your world too perfect is to imply—or, for that matter, state—that there’s a magical solution for every problem. Oh, yes, magical abortions are simple and free, and the wizards control the weather so there’s never a drought or too-heavy storm or hurricane, and no one ever gets lost at sea because their wind-mage can always bring them safely to shore, and there are no dangerous predators in the world that can’t be tamed by a song, and disease is non-existent or curable the moment a healer lays hands on you.
Usually, Earth technology is more advanced than the magic in a fantasy story, and yet we’re still at the mercy of disease and weather. There’s more power in a single earthquake than we’ve managed to tame or harness. We depend on sources of energy that can be consumed and fade—a problem not addressed in 99% of the fantasy I’ve read, ever, or for that matter, 90% of the science fiction—and it’s a tiny, tiny portion of the world that manages to enjoy the benefits of the inventions fueled by that energy. Hunger blazes across the world, and the ripples of a single national incident can set the international community on fire. There are forces mightier than we are in the world, and forces which care nothing about us.
It should be the same in a fantasy world. Don’t create a utopia where the society in question has managed to conquer every nonhuman ill, and has endless energy and freedom and products for everyone. For one thing, it will make it very hard for you to have a conflict, particularly if you also have a society where you’re pretending there is no prejudice, as in point 1—unless you turn to the good bad old motives of, “Oh, they’re jealous!” or “Oh, they’re stupid!” For another, the limitations set on magic in such a world are usually arbitrary, stupid, and make no sense. All right, if the weather wizards are controlling every bit of weather, why does the heroine get rained on and separated from the rest of her party? Wouldn’t the weather wizards see that she’s vitally important to the safety of the world and insure that she gets to where she needs to go? And why did her mother die of disease when healers can cure all illness? Anyone? Is this thing on?
Don’t make your protagonists the mightiest force in the world, and suddenly you have an automatic non-utopia. Yay.
(Very random, but I always wanted to see what would happen if someone took one of those perfect societies where everyone is always having all the sex they want, all the time, and set an STD loose in it. Alas, in such worlds all diseases are usually extinct already).
5) Represent inconvenience.
But, you may say, I want to have a high-magic world where most nonhuman peril has been conquered, and an isolated, sheltered protagonist who’s never run into any prejudice, and has every reason to love his life. Because I want to.
Very well. But I bet his life still isn’t perfect. I bet he still has irritating, nagging troubles. I bet he still has times when he can’t achieve everything he wants, when he loses his precious objects, when someone else’s enjoyment of life impacts negatively on his, when his high magic doesn’t work, when he has bad dreams or a depression. (As I’ve said before, I think emotions perfectly controlled by magic or genetics are cheating, unless you’re going to explore the really fucking dark side of what would happen in a society full of people who couldn’t feel angry or sad or upset with each other, and/or where some people could enter and tinker with others’ thoughts).
Have inconvenience show up and bop around and make a nuisance of itself. This is really all that’s required to keep your world from becoming a utopia. At least the reader will remember that this world is not perfect when the character stubs his toe, loses his keys, oversleeps, or gets angry for no reason, shouts at someone else, and then has egg on his face. And it may spiral into a story for you, too. After all, losing his keys could necessitate a search, during which the character stumbles face-first into all the problems he’s been kept ignorant of.
Now I must think on the next rant.