Should a novel have a message?

I consider Foundryside interesting and well-written despite never being able to fully enjoy the novel as much as it deserves. Foundryside’s original worldbuilding is both subtle and detailed. Magic based on computer programming not only makes perfect sense, but also creates unique opportunities for unexpected plot twists and reveals. Above all else, I appreciated the fact that local mages were de-facto coders, the main character being a cyborg of sorts. I liked almost everything. Except one little thing – the depiction of a destructive capitalist society. It was vivid enough to make me shake comrade Bennett’s hand. Moreover, I did not disagree with the author’s agenda, but I could not simply ignore its interference with the story. The ‘message’ was the reason why I had trouble digesting the novel.

As someone, who has a habit of stating opinions with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I have low tolerance for forced messages in literature. While I can find those messages valid, ideology overdose distracts me from complicated characters and intriguing mysteries. In the case of Foundryside, for example, I could figure out the system did not work on my own (it was obvious). I needed no hints.

While I see no inherent problem with a book having a ‘message’, this approach always strikes me as underhanded. All agenda-filled pieces of fiction resort to simplified depictions of the ‘bad order’ and the ‘good order’ very much in the vein of Plato’s dialogues. Only in the case of Plato, the debate about state organization and political systems served a vastly different purpose. The Dialogues are not a work of art, but a collection of philosophical texts. What comes off as assertive in philosophy, history, and sociology, becomes preachy in genre fiction.

You don’t agree with me, do you?

Philosophy VS Art. As scholars, we always expect heavy-handed messages in philosophical treaties, workbooks, our primary and secondary sources. In fact, we may even riot if a sociology workbook is riddled with enigmatic allusions and resembles the writings of Nostradamus. Most philosophy works investigate certain aspects of life, not bothering to entertain the reader and not caring about pretty prose. We know that. We don’t expect anything else.

When philosophy works masquerade as fiction, the situation gets trickier. In some cases, the border between fiction and philosophy is so vague that you do not grasp certain novels as literary works and certain authors as artists. They are philosophers, who mastered the art of cosplay. Ayn Rand, Chernyshevsky and a bunch of others are all perfect examples of philosophers, who excel at cosplay. You may agree or disagree with their ideas, but you will read their works to challenge yourself intellectually. Literary value is a bonus in philosophy, but not a requirement.

In the case of literary and genre fiction, such a direct approach to expressing philosophical ideas does not work. The greatest reason for that disfunction is the logic of a story that stands in the way of hard-core ideology. I loathed War and Peace with my whole heart because I despised the author’s ideas, strongly disagreed with his message, and hated the abundance of pointless exposition in the otherwise entertaining story.

In genre fiction you never want a lecture to replace a story. If you don’t agree with a subtle message, you can still enjoy the book. If you are bombarded with the ideology you despise, you can only resent the novel. The same is valid when it comes to characters.

Matters of perspective. In some cases, a novel may lose its’ appeal because the author would push the ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ characters forward despite all logic. Such was my reaction to Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire. I could not stand the ‘good Emperox’ Cardenia/Greyland II, whom I considered an epitome of mediocrity without a single hint of leadership in her bones. Despite my personal opinion, she could still be an amazing and believable character. She was not.

Cardenia was infuriating for one reason only: her political manoeuvring worked because her otherwise brilliant opponents were plagued by bad luck and struck by idiot balls whenever she needed to survive and shine. Thus, I could not comprehend why the Nohamapetan family was portrayed as evil, when, in truth, they were simply effective and unscrupulous politicians with grand visions, a dose of charisma, and (in the case of Ghreni) noble intentions. Their attempts to take down the Empire did not strike me as anything nepharious in the long run. After all, the system of Interdependency was already far from ideal. They had the will to change that.

In the case of The Collapsing Empire, the author’s preferences were so obvious that they prevented me from enjoying the trilogy as much as I would have otherwise. And, no, I did not necessarily need my favourite characters to win, I only needed to see a more nuanced portrayal of all sides with their limitations and strengths.

It’s all about your vision!

Nuanced depictions. Fiction’s great strength is its’ ability to provoke a reader’s mind, prompting him to make his own conclusions. And most of the time, all novels with a ‘message’ do not make full use of this opportunity. A space opera that does that brilliantly is Legend of the Galactic Heroes that excels at subtlety on every level. By the times you have read the last volume, you can only suspect whether the Galactic Reich under Reinhard or the bureaucracy-stricken Alliance is the political system that the author prefers. Or, perhaps, Phezzan? Or the new Iserlohn Republic?

While the author obviously adores Reinhard as a character, he constantly challenges his views and actions, presenting his opposition as equally capable and brilliant. Moreover, the sheer amount of characters provides the reader with an overview of conflicting opinions and strategies that work and fail not because of authorial intent but because of logic and circumstances.

In the end, an author can make his characters radical or conformist, leftist or conservative, but without their opinions being challenged and their opponents portrayed as capable, a piece of fiction turns into a sermon. It is natural for our biases and ideas to seep into our writing. It cannot be otherwise. However, it is our awareness of the fact that makes our ideas more applealing. Making your characters mouthpieces for your agenda can be interesting, but leaving them unchallanged makes a book one-sided, exclusing all those, who do not agree with the message. When one or two characters voice the author’s opinion, the novel works, if the author bends the narrative to shove his message down everyone’s throat, it does not.

The beauty of unrelatable characters

Most tips for introducing the main character in fiction revolve around one important concept – relatability. A relatable protagonist allows the audience to get attached to them easily. Unlike most things in history and sociology, the theory behind relatable protagonists is straight-forward: if you understand the goals and desires of a person, you are more likely to take interest in their plight. As scholars, we tend to pay attention to these markers of relatability when studying protests and collective action. Relatability often brings understanding if not compassion. After all, we all know that a common goal unites people.

Authors strive to accomplish the same result when creating a link between a reader and a character. Who wouldn’t like a character they can understand? Most people would. Only an author is rarely a scholar and, therefore, does not know all the variables in his equation. When organizing a revolution or a criminal syndicate, the common markers you seek are obvious and very urgent: if the guys in your neighbourhood have nothing to eat, they are very likely to join you in your bakery robbery. In literature, urgency is relative.

As an author, you do not know your readers and cannot predict how many of them will relate to your protagonist. Sure, in YA you may have an idea of an ‘average teenager’. The same way you can imagine an ‘average corporate manager’, ‘construction worker’, or ‘housewife’. The ‘average’ works splendidly in the cases of wish fulfilment, where you want to imagine yourself in the position of a princess, mage, successful artist, electrician-turned-god, etc. In these cases, the aim is to help your potential reader identify with your character. In other words, you are creating a placeholder. Often, he will be an ‘everyman’.

The appeal of the average.

While all ‘everymen’ are considered relatable, not all relatable characters are ‘everymen’. Many of them are. As a scholar, I am interested in the average because it helps me gather information and act accordingly, acquiring leadership and improving efficiency. However, I am not interested in the average as a reader. In literature, especially in genre fiction, I don’t always want to read about understandable protagonists and average people. I have little to learn about their personality because I already ‘get’ them. The notable exceptions are social dramas like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The author himself explained on many occasions how every French village had an Emma Bovary, who was trapped in an unhappy marriage, slowly sinking into depression. Here, the choice of the understandable highlights a social issue.

In genre fiction an ‘everyman’ becomes a sort of an optimistic reminder that everything is possible: a peasant becomes king, a street urchin becomes the greatest mage-assassin that has ever lived (hello, Vinn from Mistborn!), an average guy thrust into a difficult situation saves the day (hello, James Holden from the Expanse!). I understand the importance of this artistic choice, but I see it as a limitation.

If speculative fiction explores the familiar through the lens of the impossible, why focus on relatable main characters and ‘everymen’? Unless you are writing a social commentary, that is unnecessary.

Writing a social commentary….

Relatability is overhyped. To appreciate a person’s motivation or root for him, you do not necessarily need to share his values or have him in a situation similar to yours. First, it may be difficult to find those, who share your views, aspirations and ideas. In my case, the lack of such characters in genre and literary fiction or their portrayal as ‘evil’ was very frustrating. I could never relate to most ‘average guys’ because I wanted to be the Napoleon and conquer the world. Solving teenage problems or talking about love did not interest me. But I gladly read book that featured no one, who shared my vision or my character traits. In many cases, those were the absolutely unrelatable, strange and outlandish characters that awoke my curiosity. They could be much quieter than myself or much more sentimental. They were, in most cases, different.

The unrelatable reveals new horizons. It is what we cannot relate to that makes us think. Part of it is the popularity of characters like Sherlock Holmes. Since the man is everything but average, few people would call him relatable. That is exactly his uniqueness that makes him so attractive. In genre fiction, the most popular examples would be Darth Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn and…well…half of the cool Imperials from Star Wars. It is because their thought patterns are so unusual and their motivations so grand, stupid, surprising, or petty that we find them fascinating. If some of us can relate to them, that is an added bonus. If not, there is no need for that relatability at all.

Unrelatable protagonists or antagonists are the most interesting of characters because they are mysterious. Because their stories are complicated and their ideas polarizing. As a reader you can expand your knowledge of patterns and organization, when looking through the eyes of those, whom you do not understand. Thus, the more outlandish your protagonist is, the more interesting it is to get to know him.

After all, some readers do not even want to relate to character because they seek escapism and not self-portrayal. In my own case, the characters I have related to most, were almost never my age or gender or nationality. We share a personality type. The character, whom I always understood best, was Reinhard von Lohengramm from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Ambitious Lohengramm, though, was never my favourite character. I simply got him and recognized his strengths and weaknesses as my own, but I preferred another character – Paul von Oberstein. Thus, relatability does not necessarily make one fall in love.

This is what I saw while reading about Reinhard von Lohengramm.

Relatability may help some people identify with characters and deepen their immersion. However, in the case of genre fiction, relatability is only an option. It’s not the most interesting one either for an author, or for a reader. However much you try to create a relatable character, there will be people, who will not understand or like them. Besides, in most fantasy and sci fi series the most popular characters are those, who are outlandish, quirky and unrelatable.

Why writing genre fiction nowadays is more difficult than fifty years ago

Creating art and producing quality research is bloody difficult. The effort never changes. Yet, we live in an interesting world that venerates the past and honours pioneers. Undoubtedly, it was more difficult for the pioneer to pave the way. Only it is not necessarily true. It may be this way in science. However, art and literature offer a more nuanced picture when it comes to the price of novelty. We tend to believe that the ‘classical’ is the pinnacle of creation, because, we all know how Tolkien created everything ‘fantasy’ (spoiler: no, he did not, he was just the first one to be recognized as a fantasy writer). Nevertheless, we forget how increasingly difficult creation becomes once so many niches are occupied. Besides, the ‘classical’ was not necessarily new or the most challenging.

The assumption that nobody can eclipse the Professor endures partially because of Tolkien’s brilliance in so many fields (history, linguistics, even painting to name a few). And while classical fantasy works are impressive (Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin and many other now-dead authors truly revolutionazied the genre), there are mans reasons for their cult status. And the subjectvie quality of these literary works is only one of these reasons. There is also another that most of us tend to ignore. It’s something that may sound unexpected: It was easier to write quality genre fiction and please the audience fifty years ago than it is now. Now we face more challenges. They come with opportunities, of course. But they remain challenges.

Fierce competition. Fantasy stories have existed forever. Tolkien was not the first to draw inspiration from Celtic and Germanic Folklore. Elder Edda, Beowulf and popular myths have inspired luminaries like the Grim Brothers and Charles Perrault. So, Tolkien was not the first man to write about the fantastical. He was the first to break through. And he had a whole literary field in front of him and no stigma attached to genre works as such. Everything seemed new. Even if he drew from existing traditions. There was simply not much competition. Nowadays one can simply check recent fantasy releases to see how many works in the genre pop up each month. And, yet, every reader expects them to bring something new to the table. It’s a fun challenge, of course. But it’s also great pressure since some of these expectation may seem outlandish.

Wide audiences. Think of the Golden age of Russian Literature, when such luminaries as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev wrote their masterpieces. Only 30 percent of the population from the European Provinces of the Russian Empire were literate and could read them in the 1890s. You may guess, how many of these literate people had money to buy books instead of booze and how many had time to read them. It’s a gloomy picture if the gritty details of everyday life are added to it.

The Habsburg Empire fared better in terms of literacy. But even their relatively high literacy rates among the population (especially in Austria itself, where the level reached 90 percent in some parts by the 1890s) was nothing like what we, thankfully, have nowadays. Almost everyone can read, write and has an easy way of sharing his opinion. If you could publish literary criticism in the pre-Internet era, you had to edit, print, seek distribution. Now you press enter on your keyboard. It is a positive development, yet, it has a darker side. Typing has become easy. Thinking has not.

From an occupation for a few intellectuals (like most early fantasy and sci fi writers with rare exceptions), we have an occupation for everyone. Thus, new greatness emerges from these new opportunities. And so does new mediocrity. It is no longer the world of the privileged few, which is a positive development. But the field has also become more chaotic and more aggressive in terms of criticism. For example, toxic fandoms and hatedoms are a relatively new trend (on such a scale).

Market oversaturation. Nowadays most queried works are classified as young adult fantasy. Fifty years ago, you would have been hailed super original if you wrote in the same niche. So, however great classical fantasies are, they never faced the same scrutiny and the same criticism as contemporary works. Not because they were exempt from criticism. It is just that Goodreads, blogs and YouTube did not exist, and the power of media, while existed, was never on the level of most contemporary social networks. If you simply look through the lists of upcoming fantasy novels, you’ll get lost in all the titles. And most authors no longer worry about competition, but rather about readers getting tired of this avalanche.

Picky readers. That would be another tough blessing. On the one hand, you have (for the first time in forever) a truly open discourse about literature. As a historian, I certainly find that there are more people I can share my bookish ideas with than those, with whom I’d talk about social reforms in the late Ottoman Empire. Platforms are a relatively new thing. (and I am not old) But well-informed readers are also a challenge for authors. Surprising savvy readership is hard. And so is finding new topics.

These complicated realities are the result of…progress. They are positive on a grand scale. They allow genre fiction to develop and flourish. They are what makes contemporary genre fiction more elaborate than anything from the past. We tend to forgive the Luminaries (Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, or whoever your personal favourite is) for certain mishaps and omissions, while we criticize modern-day authors for smaller missteps. Meanwhile, all contemporary writers have a more difficult time staying afloat and creative in our modern world. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s a brilliant and frightening perspective.  

The problem with sci fi/fantasy politicians

‘Political’ is my personal favourite kind of fantasy. The sheer amount of mental satisfaction it offers is extraordinary. A good political fantasy is akin to a game of chess, where you not only get to play, but also get to watch the duel of minds with expert commentaries in the background. While many fantasy novels include elements that make their political struggles believable, they surprisingly lack great politicians to match the dramatic tension. They focus on notable characters. Yet, somehow many of those characters don’t strike me as great politicians even when they are presented as such. There are several reasons that define my attitude.

Political geniuses are subtle. In very many fantasy and sci fi novels they are everything but. Pondering over a list of fantasy/sci fi politicians I appreciated, I found it difficult to come up with more than five-six names. Political figures as such are not rare, but few are even close to what I seek. I would name Glokta, perhaps,…and my favourite literary character Paul von Oberstein from the Legend of the Galactic Heroes (ok, he stands next to Grand Admiral Thrawn on the pedestal of my favourite characters, but Thrawn’s genius is not exactly political, but military). Who else? Well….

Technically, Phedre from Kushiel’s legacy would qualify, although her diplomacy pretty much revolves around seducing all the hot important people in her entourage. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I can’t escape comparing her to one of the many courtesans, who owned politics through their lovers and wits. Think Ninon de Lenclos. That would perhaps, be the greatest association that comes to mind, when I think about Phedre’s trilogy: beautiful, independent, dangerously seductive and educated, she can be an outstanding diplomat. The power of her intellect is not overstated. Her impact is, though. While many political conflicts can indeed be solved by dragging someone into bed, that is only one of the many ways politics and diplomacy work.

Political ninjas in action

In most cases, even fantasy novels with elements of politics (think the Gentleman Bastard series or the Farseers trilogy) don’t bring many brilliant politicians to the table, while still having characters that readers find interesting. It is difficult to portray a political genius. And it is not the trouble of writing intrigue that makes this task complicated. It is rather the focus of the novels itself. Politics, at first glance, does not seem as exciting as pirate-ninja-quest-adventure. Thus, you will encounter political elements in Mistborn or the Gentleman Bastard series, but will not see politicians as the most important characters in those settings.

In the case of the many fantasy courts, politicians are often ditched in favour of action heroes. This temptation is understandable. After all, politicians can lack the traditional elements of coolness. A venomous exchange of quips in an empty room is more difficult to handle than an action scene with enemies converging on one valiant hero, while he is hanging from a balcony. On fire. Possibly, dying. Great visuals are awesome. But even subtler approaches do not always produce believable politicians.

Iconography matters. So does the setting.

The empty chessboard syndrome. This was the term I coined to describe the situation that we often encounter in all types of media. In this scenario we have a politician (a military commander, a scientist), who rocks. He/she is basically the Ace. He/she is smart, calculating, charismatic (in some cases) and shrewd. This person entangles complicated political puzzles with ease, vies for power, escapes assassinations, etc. Only that Ace is very much the only player in the game. I first defined the idea, when I watched one of the Avatar: the Last Airbender episodes, where Princess Azula told Long Feng that he ‘was not even a player’, when her gambit paid off.

In fiction, the closest analogy I can come up with, would be Nineteen Adze from A memory called Empire. There is plenty of intrigue to follow in the novel. There is also a murder mystery to solve and conflicting interests to consider. And, of course, there are political struggles that do not leave much room for idle criticism. They are mostly believable in the given setting. It is only that the most capable politician in the book comes off as competent simply because her opponents are very much absent.

A military leader One Lightning is trying to overthrow the government. He is supposedly powerful. Unfortunately, we never get to see him interact with Nineteen Adze. There is also some kind of opposition with leaders relegated to the side-lines. They…act, I guess. So does the sickly Emperor, who only plays politics when everything goes to hell. In the end, it is just Nine Adze, who shovels dirt, solves everyone’s problems, takes responsibility, and generally acts like a badass.

This is not a big issue in the novel. After all, there is not enough place in one installment for all political intricacies of one grand Empire. The Empty Chessboard Syndrome is not always a problem. But it can easily diminish the capacities of an otherwise interesting political figure. That point brings me to a problem that is far more common across genres.

Lousy Opponents. In order to show the prowess of one brilliant politician, most of his opponents are…well…dumbed down. In some cases, they are total idiots. In other, they do show certain promise until the political genius shows up. Sometimes, they are ‘just confused’ for some reason. I see a lost of lousy opponents in young adult fantasy, where they often act as punching bags for military and political prodigies, who have just hit seventeen. Surprisingly, you can still have a riveting story even though there is a direct correlation between the coolness of your character and the lousiness of his/her opponents.

In the otherwise politically realistic Cruel Prince, the main character’s intrigues mostly work because her opponents are…well…not Glokta or Oberstein. A megalomaniac prince, who publicly murders his entire family for power, also somehow forgets to check his spies? You have him. A smart, but politically inadequate stepfather? You have him. A prince, who has his perks, but mostly drinks and parties, strongly resenting the court? You have him. Generally, the only politically savvy person except the main character Jude is her twin Taryn. Everyone else is either incapable or axe-crazy. Or perceives himself as an outstanding genius, but falls for the simplest of tricks. Compared to the rest of the cast, Jude is the Talleyrand and Metternich of the trilogy. All that at the age of 18.

There is still another perk that ruins many otherwise great politicians. That would be dumb luck. The genius plan works not because of someone’s political skill, but because a secret cache of whatever magical element destroys the enemy. Dumb luck solves all. The screw-ups of opponents are only believable until they become constant. Miscalculations occur. We all know that. However, dumb luck is rarely the way to show how someone’s far-fetched lunacy of a plan can work.

In the end, it takes a truly brilliant politician to rise from the ashes of failure and win the game. It is the politician in dire circumstances that deserves attention. Unfortunately, such politicians are rare. And I desperately need more of them in genre fiction.

The importance of character description

When I started reading Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire, something about the novel did not sit right with me, impairing my perception of events and characters. It took me a while to realize that all three instalments of Scalzi’s space opera lacked character descriptions. By the time I opened the third book I knew everything about flow stream physics and the structure of the Interdependency. And I still had no idea, how any of the characters looked like.

Returning to the first two novels, I methodically searched for sentences mentioning physical traits. All I found was Kiva Lagos’s description of both Claremont twins as ‘attractive’. Also, Nadashe Nohamapetan, my personal reason for reading the trilogy, is supposedly good-looking. Whatever that may mean in the futuristic setting we are given.

The Collapsing Empire is one of the few genre novels that avoids physical descriptions entirely, although few reviewers seem to notice this detail. While appearances of characters do not define any novel, I still find physical descriptions necessary, especially in genre fiction. Provocative ideas inspire art, but descriptions make it shine. Architecture and technology are all integral parts of worldbuilding. And so are the looks and styles of people. Appearances matter, and their lack creates a gap in perception that is hard to ignore.  

Visual perception is a part of worldbuilding. Societal conventions and biases exist everywhere, even in Flatland (because some geometric figures are more ‘popular or aesthetically pleasing’ than others). It is not eye colour per se that matters, but society’s reaction to it. This connection between beauty and societal norms is something that Umberto Eco addressed in his works on beauty and ugliness throughout history. Trends pass and change, but certain attitudes remain. We tend to like expressive, proportionate and healthy-looking faces and bodies. After all, even thousands of years later, the bust of Nefertiti is considered a depiction of a beautiful woman.

Nefertiti. Three thousand years of hotness.

Fashion dictates tastes, and subjectivity remains a decisive factor. However, it is often the very discourse about beauty that warrants attention in fiction. Unknowingly, everyone participates in it, not only historians and sociologists. We would like our looks not to matter, but we are all painfully aware that they do.

Artists are obsessed with description as much as historians are. We visualize our ideas and we hope to transmit them to others. Thus, I desperately wished to know how my favourite character in the Collapsing Empire Trilogy (Nadashe) looks like. Her goals and personality are well described. Her appearance is not. In a futuristic world, where rituals matter and promoters runs the show, looks should be a big deal.

Without physical descriptions of characters, societal biases, structures and values all remain unexplored. In certain high-concept novels you can ignore all descriptions in favour of grand ideas. Sometimes, this approach works. The lack of physical descriptions in Scalzi’s Redshirts did not rub me the wrong way because the very idea of the novel stressed the seeming insignificance of the main cast. They were Redshirts. Nobody cared how they looked like. They were considered expandable. Until they weren’t. In the case of most genre novels (especially space operas and political fantasies), however, looks matter.

Appearance reflects a character’s journey. Unlike the Collapsing Empire, Nevenight goes out of its way to hammer every little detail of the characters’ appearances into your head. By the middle of the book you not only know everything about the main character’s hollow cheeks and black hair, but also remember all the outfits she ever wore. In any other context, those descriptions could be considered excessive. However, in the case of Nevernight, they are appropriate. Beauty is compared to ‘fresh suicide’, paleness compared to ‘death’ and a whole collection of visceral metaphors only stresses the dark and edgy nature of the world and characters. These descriptions work for most part.

A character’s view of the world is shaped by their appearance, chronic illnesses, or disabilities. If a description does not mention their missing leg or their unhealthy complexion, part of their struggle or their privilege is lost. Nevernight is an example of a world, where style meets personality.

Description is a point of reference. The inner value of character is not diminished by his beauty or his supposed ugliness. However, descriptions anchor readers, adding stunning visuals to words. For example, Miles Vorkosigan would not have been half the mastermind he was, had it not been for his disability and unconventional appearance. Had he been the most handsome man in the galaxy, his struggle would not have been half that believable and dramatic. The same can be said about extreme beauties. Would any elf characters across media gain such popularity without their idealized beauty? (from the Elder Scrolls to Dragonlance) Similarly, we all know that many readers will fall for the Dark Lord (in whatever setting) if the Dark Lord is hot. Thus, without their iconic appearance, many characters would not have the exact same impact.

Description is a form of both representation and self-expression. Does the character have multi-coloured hair and a sword in a world, where everyone carries a blaster and has black ponytails? It says a lot about a character without telling. Does someone hide his scars because they are considered ugly in his culture? That is important information. Also, the very idea of people of all shapes, colours and abilities represented normalizes the perception of marginalized groups in our world. Representation in fantasy offers an outlet for those, who face discrimination. All kinds of it.

Physical description is not a replacement for emotional depth. Neither is it important exclusively for representation. The great thing about art is its ability to develop interest in a conventionally unattractive or freaky character (Darth Plagues…, my childhood crush. I admit he may be someone’s nightmare, but his impossible intellect and his strategic abilities make him attractive to me). In literature such feats are achievable easier than in real life. And, perhaps, we can make them achievable here and now. Why not use this opportunity to its’ fullest?

What makes a good political fantasy

As a social historian I have always been fascinated by the patterns of human interaction and the ways one can influence them. In reality, we are not as unpredictable as we want to believe. Choices can be manipulated. Heroes are made rather than born. Above all else, our nation-states are all creations of the 18th and 19th-century intellectuals, who knew how to sway public opinions and how to spread propaganda.

Political turns can be predicted. And, yet, they often surprise. In all the neat nice models I’ve been building since my BA, there were certain elements I could not classify or incorporate. Those were the annoying exceptions that tarnished my perfect theories. There was always someone, who acted differently, even though the majority adhered to whatever pattern I and other historians had. Our models were not perfect. Similarly, our ideas about politics often failed because of those, who did not share our rational approaches. At its core, politics combines the precision of mathematics and the randomness of emotions. And, of course, politics is about power. And fanasy as a genre offers some of the best ways to address it.

Although I don’t scorn political thrillers, I still think that fantasy novels can reflect political machinations better than any other literary works. Fantasy as a genre promises distance from the real world. The world you paint is not the world you live in, thus you can have a scientist’s freedom and experiment all you want, while still drawing inspiration from reality. The problem is that many fantasy novels still fail at depicting political drama.

I get it. Some people want to escape reality, read about grand quests and unrealistic scenarios. Not everyone likes to be bogged down by politics as much as I do. It is only that without it, you cannot have an adult fantasy novel. You can have a fairy tale. And contrary to popular ideas, it’s not a crapsack world that creates a believable fantasy. Neither do piles of corpses and continuous betrayals. Those are decorations.

Political action. That also happens after all the talking.

Politics is about resources. In Sanderson’s Final Empire (Mistborn), the detail that struck me most was the authentic representation of the value of resources. While I may not be the most avid reader of the Mistborn series, I could not fail to appreciate how The Final Empire does one thing right. In essence, the whole novel methodically explains how you can’t play politics without resources.

Despite her supernatural abilities and physical prowess, the main character Vinn simply cannot be a great politician. Because it’s not about her slapping everyone in the face. It’s about her lacking money and, therefore, influence. Discriminated as a minor ‘noblewoman’, she cannot outshine everyone because her resources (and those of her rebel cell) are limited. And that is believable.

My other favourite example is Steerpike from The Gormenghast series. Whatever he does climbing the social ladder, his resources are simply never enough. And no amount of brains can fully solve his problems. It is the terror of being powerless and the hunt for resources that makes for a compelling political story.

Politics does not equal ass-kicking. I do not mind action scenes, but I will choose a subtle powerplay over a fight anytime. For some reason, most books labelled as political fantasy sink into the endless pit of heists, chases and murders, while presenting all that as politics. On a very grand scale, running can also be a part of politics. But hard-core action is never its essence. Diplomats are not always assassins. Military prodigies are not always the ones negotiating peace.

Political manoeuvres require a different set of skills than your typical ass-kicking. My most favourite military genius Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Galactic Empire is just one example of a commander, who has it all, but lacks political skills. He will destroy fleets and obliterate opponents. His triumphs do not make him immune from those vying for power and spinning webs of intrigues. Because diplomacy rocks. Because a story about someone winning all the battles and losing all the wars is so much more interesting than an action sequence. Excellent political skills made men like Talleyrand, France’s Minister of foreign Affairs, invincible. Not only did he manage to ensure his state’s survival, but also to change sides, depose rulers and preserve his head while doing so. All that without kicking out anyone’s teeth. At least, not publicly.

Politics is about people talking. Essentially. It is not that difficult to write an intense murder scene or a chase. To write a calm and seemingly peaceful dialogue that will make chills snake up your spine is tricky. Politics is about the latter, not that much about the former. A good political fantasy can make peaceful conversations intense. I do not generally mind boiling action, but I find it simple. Again, it is far more interesting to write a person, whose sheer presence can shut everyone up than someone, who goes around punching people to achieve the same goal.  The result will be different.

Power of love and friendship does not solve your political problems. I don’t dismiss emotions and their value, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way in all fantasy novels that present love as an ultimate power. A Court of Thornes and Roses has a riddle about love that ultimately untangles the plot but kills logic. Love cannot solve political problems by itself. Love can motivate. But the very existence of certain feeling cannot untangle nods of contradiction that date back centuries. Politics is won by those with resources and those, who think. Intelligence is lethal. And so is money. ‘Power of love’ is a great component of fairy tales, but does not lend credibility to any fantasy work that delves into politics.  

Ambition is normal. I personally do not particularly like reluctant heroes or victims of circumstances. Someone discovers an incredible ability and does not want it. Someone inherits the throne and does not want it. Someone is the chosen one. Guess what? He does not want it either. For some reason, almost all fantasy works but those written by Abercrombie present ambition as a pesky and annoying trait. Worse than that: the smartest, most brilliant, most strategically capable person will be your villain. In your best-case scenario, he will be a villain protagonist. In truth, any political fantasy cannot be good without some healthy ambition. Thankfully, this trend is somewhat dimming.

In the end, political is my favourite kind of fantasy, although it is, perhaps, the rarest type of genre fiction you can find. Thrillers delve into politics (with mixed results). So do historical novels. So does literary fiction. But fantasy offers us an experimental playground. We all know how things worked out in our world. A secondary world, on the other hand, is an empty field, where we can test our beloved social theories, while coming up with most challenging results.

The Stigma of Fantasy

There exists an unwritten assumption that certain books are considered literary fiction and belong in one section of a bookstore, while others are genre fiction and, therefore, belong somewhere else. And literary or even speculative fiction pieces receive fancy awards, while not a single fantasy author has ever won a Nobel Prize. Despite general assumptions, these attitudes have nothing to do with the actual quality of fantasy novels. This is not even an anti-fantasy movement. Instead, it is the bias against the supposed readers of fantasy that determines this stigmatization.

Popularity is a mixed blessing. Fantasy somehow oscillates between two extremes when it comes to readership: it is either too mainstream or too specific. Does everyone like The Song of Ice and Fire? Well, then it’s too popular to satisfy a sophisticated reader. Have the Shadowhunter Chronicles found love among teenage girls? Well, then these novels are considered unworthy of serious and mature readers whoever they may be. In the end, there is always a label attached to all kinds of ‘fantasy works’ despite the abyss of themes and ideas that separates them.

Simultaneously, fantasy novels that are considered pieces of ‘classical literature’, are rarely acknowledged as pieces of genre fiction. Why don’t we call Canterbury Tales fantasy? How is Faust not fantasy? How is Balsac’s Peau de Chagrin not an urban fantasy? There’s exists no rule that dictates the exact amount of supernatural elements one needs to add to a novel in order to create ‘fantasy’. What matters are the roots of genre fiction as such. And those are fairy tales and folklore.

The fairy tale dilemma. Fantasy is, supposedly, something for kids or young adults. So is, supposedly, animation. Perhaps, not all people watched Elfen Lied or Persepolis, thus this myth persists. Partially it endures because of the fairy tale origins of most fantasy works. We all know, where the inspiration for elves, mermaids and vampires comes from. Folklore and fairy tales are too often juxtaposed against ‘high culture’. In fact, few intellectuals treated folklore lovingly before the European national revivals in the beginning of 19th century. With all the problems that nationalisms caused later on, those were romantic artists (the Grimm brothers were among them), who first turned their attention to folklore, presenting it as an integral part of what is now considered ‘high culture’. Nowadays, it seems, these approaches are mostly forgotten.

Because fantasy art like surrealism attracts attention and asks more questions than gives answers.

Obscure fantasy art and cheap paperbacks. Another weird reason for the marginalized status of fantasy is, as strange as it may seem, artistic experimentation that began roughly in the sixties. A new field allowed artists to express themselves in whatever way they wanted, and chain bikinis and dragons did not always look ‘serious’ or ‘mature’. Your story could be about existential dread, violence, and the philosophy of power, but your book cover reflected something else entirely. Whenever I need to remind myself of that, I look at my childhood copies of the Witcher Series. Overdosed bodybuilders, mermaids with breasts the size of balconies and multi-coloured dragons do not really have anything in common with the story. They look interesting, though. But, perhaps, it is the very unconventional nature of that unusual art that makes them somewhat strange for non-fantasy readers. And, perhaps, many of them do not understand what fantasy is and can be.

Fluid classification. Fantasy comes in all shapes and forms. Unlike other categories or genres, everything ‘fantasy’ is brushed under one carpet. In the end, you can have a light-hearted romance and a jaw-dropping philosophical thriller on the same shelf in the same category, in the same genre. It is all fantasy, right? We tend to generalize, so, in the end, you will most likely assume that ‘fantasy’ is whatever your first pick was. Buried Giant and Anita Blake are both considered genre fiction. Most non-fantasy readers do not care to distinguish between ‘fantasy heist’, ‘fantasy thriller’, ‘new weird’, and ‘contemporary fantasy’. And all the hundreds of other labels that overlap and confuse. Gaslamp fantasy, steampunk fantasy, political fantasy…., etc.

And, of course, there is always ‘Fabulism’ (or ‘magical realism’ if you focus specifically on South American literature). While I appreciate the term, I too often see it mentioned in relation to ‘serious books’ as opposed to ‘not serious’ epic fantasy. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, for example, is often considered fabulism or satire, while it has all the elements of a typical urban fantasy. How is a novel about a witch, a talking cat, the dashing Faust-type devil, and flights on brooms over Moscow is not urban fantasy? I have always assumed that it was.

All fantasy works deal with the ‘what if’ concept that does not fit into the conventional reality. (unless you are from Eastern Europe, then…sure, our reality is weird) In the end, ‘fabulism’ is still ‘fantasy’. And, more often, than not, it is also literary fiction: well written, addressing complex topics and themes, etc.

As a grad student in a ‘serious field’, I was not expected to read or appreciate ‘fantasy’. Because I am a historian. Because fantasy is supposedly not serious, not for scholars and not for adults. (mind you, hard sci fi is fine, since it defines you as a ‘fancy science person’, so reading Lem and Asimov elevates you)

Not all books are created equal, but all genres are. However, genre snobbery is an interesting reality that reflects not the attitudes to ‘fantasy’ or to ‘romance’ genres as such, but mostly toward people, who prefer them. In the end, it is the recognition of readers and writers of the genre that can make a change. And, yes, a Nobel Prize awarded to a fantasy writer would, certainly, be a nice touch.