The Mirrored Politics of SciFi and Fantasy

From Gizmodo:

Fantasy, especially secondary world fantasy, is a genre about imagination, creating new worlds with different views of everything from culture to economics to the limits of physics, and in many respects, presuming no limitations at all. In that imagining (to paraphrase Max Gladstone), it implies a critique, a perspective on our present reality.

All art is in conversation with its world. Fantasy is no exception and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that secondary world fantasy increasingly has something to say about our current economic model(s) and the power structures they prop up. Two recent(ish) works that have a whole heck of a lot to say in this arena are N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Series and Robert Jackson Bennet’s The Founders Trilogy. I want to focus on the opening novels in both series: The Fifth Season and Foundryside, respectively, because both tackle the nightmare that is late-stage (end-stage?) capitalism in unique ways from different directions.

In The Fifth Season, the world is torn asunder by cataclysmic climate change, the weather patterns so broken that they occasionally produce an impossibly long, harsh winter called the fifth season. Rocked by unpredictable seismic activity and climate, society turns to the mages in their world, called orogenes, to save them. Hated and feared for their magic—orogenes can control energy and through their powers, control (to a degree) the broken world around them—they are seen as a means to an end. We see firsthand how orogenes are used as little more than instruments of the will of the upper castes and the rest of the non-orogene population is similarly controlled through a series of caste structures and communities that ensure they remain disorganized, disenfranchised, and ever on the edge of losing everything they have through lack of resources, natural disasters, and violence.

An earlier emperor sums up the elite’s ruse well with the following: “Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at those contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”

N. K. Jemisin’s words are a literary gut punch about the power structures of modern society. Her words, spoken from the mouth of an imagined emperor from an imagined world, eerily reflect the lived reality of many in the BIPOC community, thrown into harsh relief across every screen in the country with the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter marches during the summer of 2020. In The Fifth Season there is no escape from a society that hates the very beings that allow for its continued existence.

N.K.’s protagonist, Syenite, an orogene herself, finds fleeting freedom from this oppressive culture on a remote island made up of like-minded castaways, but even their isolated enclave cannot be allowed to stand and soon the empire she ran from comes calling with ships and soldiers and the torch of war. Later, Syenite assumes a new identity in one of the small, scattered communities on the mainland and by hiding her magic, by hiding who she really is, manages to find some measure of peace. Until her children begin to display signs of orogeny and are murdered by their community.

Jemisin shapes a world that teaches harsh lessons about our own. Conform or be destroyed, hide your identity at all costs if you want to survive even as you die inside, and understand that true freedom can only be found in fleeting moments, if at all. It’s a bleak world that mirrors the experience of those historically targeted and marginalized in our society. But Jemisin doesn’t leave it there. Through much of The Fifth Season Syenite and the rotating cast of characters thrown in with her are merely trying to survive, to escape, but slowly they come to realize that the world—both physical and societal—cannot be escaped, it must be confronted and forced to recognize them as equals…or be torn asunder.

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside takes the many facets of unbridled capitalism, tech culture, and toxic bro culture and crams them into a single city: Tevanne. Here the magic is akin to programming, where complex sigils can be carved into objects to change their properties and shift the very physics of what is possible (think wheels that turn themselves, boulders that believe they’re light as air, and fortresses that believe they’re alive). Rather than use this magic to create a utopia, predictably, the few who discovered this magic instead used it to consolidate their own power.

Link to the rest at Gizmodo and thanks to F. for the tip.

15 thoughts on “The Mirrored Politics of SciFi and Fantasy”

  1. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside takes the many facets of unbridled capitalism, tech culture, and toxic bro culture and crams them into a single city: Tevanne.

    Unbridled capitalism belongs in a fantasy world.

    • In the real world it’s been fettered for five generations and counting. Increasingly so. And the more they bridle it, the worse things get.

      Bill Gates just announced he was moving almost all his assets to his Foundation to “do more to make the world better”. A wise move given the clamor for confiscatory wealth taxes. Especially since he’ll still be in control of tbe money anyway.

      • I think kings and potentates have been bridling capitalism for a lot longer than the last five generations, F.

        • It’s enshrined in the Magna Carta, which provides for a uniform system of weights and measures… with the direct implication that “nonuniform is verboten” and the indirect implication that “the King will provide for consequences for violations.”

          That’s back nine centuries to 1215. Can’t go back much farther than that in English because no English (and my Latin is waaaaaaaaaay too rusty and was never very good to begin with).

  2. Makes me proud that my (not yet released) new fantasy series’ world is about all the opportunities for a more commercialized (and capitalistic) expansion of magic, like any other technology. Hell, I even have a spreadsheet tracking the year-by-year earnings of the principal character/firm, to further the verisimilitude. (I wasn’t a COO for most of my professional career for nothing…)

    If you’re not following the current woke darlings of the SFWA, you must be doing something right.

    • Here.
      I have an ongoing bet that no post-puppy HUGO winners will be remembered by mid century.
      The only thing that ages worse than a to-the-minute Hard SF story is a “ripped-from-the-headlines” po litical SF story. Plenty of those from the 60’s that are dead and buried.

      (Exhibit A: Black in Time: Jakes, John, 1970: https://www.amazon.com/Black-Time-John-Jakes/dp/1557850089

      The problem isn’t politics themselves, there is a long history in SF (some of it is even good), but rather the sledgehammer one-sided trendiness.

      • Honestly, take out “SF” from that sentence and it’s still true.

        Just as an example, has anyone under the age of fifty actually read Silent Spring?

        • Yes. Both of my kids are under 50. They both chose to read it when they were impressionable teenagers grabbing reading material off Dad’s shelf during Central Illinois snowstorms when the library was closed. (Dad’s library had somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 books, and there were bookshelves in every room in the house. Yes, including the bathrooms.)

          Which implicates one of the unstated messages of the book (that unthinking orthodoxy can have consequences when extended beyond its boundary conditions).

          • That unstated messagd needs to be tattoed on the right arm of all IdiotPoliticians™. The Law of Unintended Consequences on the left.

            • The primary problem, Felix, is that IdiotPoliticians™ couldn’t recognize a boundary condition — or for that matter an unintended consequence — if it slid up their respective legs and bit them in a very, very delicate location (that includes the non-grey-cell-containing organs with which they ordinarily do what passes for thinking).

              So even the tattoos wouldn’t help, because they’d never see anything of that nature coming. You can make a human read a sign, but reading comprehension is another matter entirely. Which feeds directly back into the OP.

              • I stand corrected.
                I guess I underestimate the degree of idiocy.
                That only leaves Heinlein’s LUNA CITY solution for dealing with idiots. It did work for the ancient greeks but it makes a mess of the carpets.

            • We need far more arms and tattoo artists. The idiot politicians are elected by the voters. Minneapolis is a good example. They elected those people one election after another. They knew what they were getting. And look what they got.

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