Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Readercon: See it Like Saruman: Reconciling Fantasy and Progress

I found this one stimulating, especially for a Sunday morning. And now I'm done (granted, by doing even more minimal editing on my typewritten notes than usual, but still.).


See it Like Saruman: Reconciling Fantasy and Progress.
Judith Berman, John Crowley, Ken Houghton (L), James Morrow, Michael Swanwick.
History is written by the winners. That explains why Tolkien never mentions that the destruction of Fangorn Forest and other efforts towards industrialization by Saruman significantly raised the standard of living for the wild men of Dunland, in fact creating (for the first time in Middle Earth) a comfortable middle class. While there is a natural opposition between the romantic and pastoral ideal embodied in traditional fantasy and the Enlightenment ideal of progress (especially in its modern industrial and technological modes), we don't believe they are completely incompatible. What works of fantasy have attempted to accommodate both? What interesting new direction might the heroic fantasy novel be taken if the true positive effects of modernization were acknowledged? Readercon hopes to put the audio recording of this panel online at some point after the convention.

Houghton: starts by mentioning Berube essay about his son, who was born with Down syndrome, and how Harry Potter changed his understanding of narrative (1.4 MB PDF; I recommend it). The article mentions Byatt's critique (NYT paywalled version; possibly-illicit reprint) of the Harry Potter books as speaking "to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery." Is the basis of fantasy mystery? What is the basis of fantasy, and what can it be?

(At this point I noted, "whee, not talking about panel description!", but my fears were not borne out.)

Houghton: is there a basic fantasy text that fits in this description?

Crowley: Utopia & CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces and similar, in which industry, capital, and business are the opposite of wonder and human values in general. From deep in the 19th century, scientists have been cold-hearted examiners of facts, versus poets who examine spirit etc. No-one asserts this now except people who are still living in the 19th century, including some fantasy writers whose roots are there. Can't say that physics has no mystery when you consider quantum physics.

Berman: William Morris, fantasy writer (Wikipedia).

Crowley: true, Morris was anti-industrial but also a Communist.

Houghton: does this come back to the Two Cultures Argument (Wikipedia)?

Crowley: he's not competent to answer that.

Morrow: thinks the Harry Potter books are an example of the question posed by the panel. Science is not synonymous with magic but the entree into it. Magic as technology, yes, but for young readers, it has enormous sense of wonder, even though Hogwarts is a "military academy of magical instrumentalism."

Swanwick: another example is Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld is a timeless fantasy world that "fell into history" (per David Langford), and so the Industrial Revolution is happening and making things better! The books are celebration of reason and human progress. His post-industrial Faerie (I'm not sure I heard that right) is no more hellish than ours, and he thinks it reflects the comforts & benefits of the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, any urban fantasy with elves and dwarves etc. all getting along, is just on the event horizon of Terry Pratchett: you crack one joke, and you slide down into the black hole of Discworld.

Berman: she thinks that a predecessor to Rowling is Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy books. Magic progresses, providing new healing & forensic techniques. It's slightly less urbanized, but conceives of that instrumentalized magic.

Crowley: the utopian fantasy is another aspect of fantasy, which is not regarded as such but he would argue should be/is. Progress is central to what's going on, even if the world is created as an act of self-indulgence by the writer. Modern utopias coincide with the beginning of the Enlightenment, in which progress was extolled.

Swanwick: he's working on a post-utopian novel. When you come up with the idea for a utopia, you realize that the flaw is that human culture constantly changes, and won't stay at the perfect point. Does this imply you're always sliding down to something else?

Crowley: that brings to mind the biggest utopian fantasist of the 19th century, Karl Marx

Morrow: [something about utopia that I didn't hear]

Morrow: is progress the enemy of the wonder? Some pretty sophisticated thinkers have argued it (listed names that I didn't write down); he thinks they're wrong but he does respect them. He riffs on the dangers of hospitals & and of the lack thereof.

Swanwick: there's a pernicious anti-rational, anti-technological streak in fantasy. All great fantasists are the loyal opposition, and the streak comes from a principled opposition to a century in which they'd seen hellish changes. JRRT's famous lament for a tree's that cut down, unmourned but for him and birds: it gets scorned for sentimentality, as though loss were not a bad thing. Another example was his effort to get cars out of the middle of Oxford. A contemporary reportedly visited Oxford and said, "gosh, you know, he was right!" There's an idea that ugliness is more privileged or valuable.

Berman: town planners try to keep cars out of town middles now!

Swanwick: it's not that the pastoral was that positive a virtue, but that the non-pastoral happenings were so bad.

Crowley: the opposition is a historical one. Progressives in the past were the builders (hospitals, mental institutions, cities), and now they're not. Now conservatives preserve the ethos of the 20th, not the 21st century. Probably newer fantasy novels are seen as more in line with "progress" because they're aligned with what's progressive today.

Berman: fantasy is in part about imagining what we don't have. Most people live in suburbs, so what's more exotic than being stuck in the wilderness?

Morrow: and yet even in our wilderness, we're all parasitic. Cites Krakauer's Into the Wild, about a guy who really did cut himself off from everything: he walked into Alaska and starved to death.

(This reminded me tangentially of a new book which imagines the effect on the Earth if humanity vanished, called The World Without Us. I haven't read it, but it sounds interesting.)

Morrow: JRRT saw progress not as bad in-and-of-itself. His diagnosis of the malaise of modernity was the unspoken assumption that if can be done, it should be done. He saw Elves as avatars of something like science or natural philosophy (I'm sure that's what he said, but I have no idea what he meant).

Crowley: the idea that what is really natural is cutting one's self off from the human network: that's insanity. Anthropology is how we understand the human network, and so science can show us that it's full of mysterious elements.

Morrow: the guy in Into the Wild wasn't insane, he was born into the wrong century.

Houghton: there's never been a century when nature was benign.

Berman: it's like Grizzly Man: the American Indians who saw him knew that it couldn't end well. Anthropology understands that nature etc. is all culturally constituted, including the AmInd landscape. Book called Before the Wilderness argued that wilderness is what happens when you take AmInds out of the land.

Crowley: Book called White Savage, describes encounters between Europeans & AmInd around French-Indian War: even the Europeans did not see it as a trackless wilderness.

Berman: when the Pilgrims landed, they didn't find a forest up to the beach, because it had been cleared for burning.

Swanwick: he approves entirely of the oppositional stance of fantasy & the implicit critique of our culture. But (I think) there's something pernicious about the agrarian society (? I got stuck trying to spell "agrarian") it pushes. He talks about his forthcoming Tower of Babel that's really NYC book again.

Crowley: his future wife asked, why are all the worlds you imagine in ruins? well, it's about what you produce out of ruins . . . and then he had children, and didn't want world to fall in ruins to be fixed, he wanted the world get better slowly (no revolutions either).

Audience: JRRT was very selective in describing in Middle-Earth. We see that the Shire is pastoral, yet we know that pipeweed is cultivated & exported; Elves have huge feasts; Rohan is a horse-riding culture, but you need different horses for tilling; Gondor still needs infrastructure. All that's glossed over all that because that's not the story he's telling, but if you look history, these things are there: you had technology from flint knapping. Things we think of as tech are the extreme ends, much is not as recognized as technology.

Berman: JRRT was full of nostalgia for the handmade, a folklorist.

Crowley: the stuff created in Middle-Earth is not fungible: every sword is unique (me: the four swords given to the Hobbits seem to be . . . yes, yes, I know, nitpicking).

(someone): so then what's the medium of exchange?

Crowley: we don't know. Then again Henry James don't mention this stuff either.

Swanwick: cites Moorcock essay that listed all the anachronistic technology in the Shire to establish that they clearly could have built an airplane and flown to Mordor.

(I suspect this is transitioning between narrative voices.)

Swanwick: JRRT was aware of his weaknesses as a writer and would keep his mouth shut as a way of dealing with them! "How do they get those eyeglasses—look, a magic spear!"

Audience: Harry Dresden novels are set in a present-day technological world that Dresden can't participate in. Another example, author & title not remembered, of magic fading as the world entered the gunpowder age.

Crowley: in his first novel, he portrayed a medieval society in which handmade guns had just been introduced. He didn't t mention anywhere where they got the gunpowder. A similar but different example: Ted Chiang's "72 Letters", where science (not magic) is mystic. There's very little fantasy about science, but this is one of them.

(What else is there, oh audience?)

Swanwick: loves the image of an elf with a gun.

Berman: Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan & City on Fire: very thorough and modern treatment of "plasm," magic stuff that powers everything. Author (?) said "how could you not think this is fantasy?", but it's portrayed in a very sf-y way.

Crowley; isn't this like Rowling?

Berman: yes, but less.

Morrow (interrupts): it's not fantasy, it's alternate science.

Swanwick: it's actually an assault on the fantasy reader: no bureaucracy, no-one bills for magic!

Berman: you can have a secret college but not a monthly utility bill?

Swanwick: everyone would like to be able to do real magic, such as clapping to flood the room with light: "and yet I do not own the Clapper." It's the numinous, which is very close to wanting to meet God and hope he's not just a swell guy in a nice suit. Magic is something that we want, that we cannot have, and that is good.

Morrow: an example of living in fantasy and technologically progressive worlds at the same time: George Bush's Christian America (see The Slacktivist's enormous dissection of the Left Behind series).

Berman: they're rejecting the age of the universe while accepting nuclear medicine.

Morrow: and even Jesus is technology, a salvation machine.

Berman: there's a planetarium at the creationist museum: how do you do that without believing in the speed of light?

Eric Van from the audience: it was created as ancient.

Audience: someone has done a paper with very selective observations to support an exponentially decreasing c.

Swanwick: an actual argument he's seen: God is a mean SOB trying to trip you up.

Crowley: but yes, that's living in an irrational view of universe but embracing its rational benefits. That's always been the case. The primitive hunter prays, and also sharpens his spear.

Berman: she'd argue there's a difference between that and living in a contemporary mythic universe. There was a famous book about primitive people showing that they both knew a lot about agriculture & believed in magic. The difference between them & the Heaven's Gate cult: they knew you have to plant the yams. The idea that mythic stories in a mythic universe are about truth in the factual sense is not supported. Mythic stories are about common cultural values, not why Coyote's eyes really factually yellow. AmInd healers who talk about red ants in the bloodstream, if you ask if them if there really are, they'll say: "not ants, but ants." It's to have a way of thinking strongly about disease.

Crowley: this is what we do with JRRT, too: the first question is, what does this tell me about life, not is it true. Anecdote which is either historical or a thought experiment: if an angel was telling you about Jesus for the first time, the first question would be not, is it true?, but, what does it mean, what am I supposed to understand? It's only post-Enlightenment, that "mean" versus "true" are different.

Berman: disagrees. There are different European traditions: wonder tales are not true, but saints' stories (I think) are true.

(I recall Crowley directly contradicting Berman about mythic stories, which caught my attention because Berman is an anthropologist and so I was (1) generally kind of astounded and (2) unhappy that it was a man doing so to a woman. But I didn't write down the specifics.)

Morrow: what JRRT was getting at was the degree we've ceded sovereignty to the cult of expertise without quite knowing it. It's a discussion worth having, the cut (in the sense of line?) between simple tools & complex machines.

Crowley: it's always a cut that needs making. In the 19th century medical science was thought to be complete.

Berman: quotes from Little, Big about how you used to have to go to wood for wildness, but that's tamed and the jungle is now NYC.

Crowley: which is what Swanwick is writing too.

Swanwick: "obviously influenced by you!"

The end.

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Tags: cons, readercon, readercon 2007

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