Reflections on tropes and subverting them

Reflections on tropes and subverting them:

There is lot of good commentary about a) tropes not being inherently bad & b) subversion for subversion’s sake not being good, and I have Thoughts on why subversion rarely works for me.

It often feels like either a gotcha! moment or a take that to previous users of the trope, or else more schematic than an organic plot element or character trait, or, worst of all, a misunderstanding of how fiction works.

Take “but the restored king should be bad at governing!” I mean yes, fair, and in general I don’t like abilities (magic, ruling) being passed purely through blood, and therefore inherent, and in general too, I could live with fewer Secret Heirs™ in SFF, but since most fantasy monarchs don’t do much anyway, it can be metaphorical and symbolic, as the restoration of the Gondorian monarchy is. Unless you’re really going to do something with the character learning to rule (which I would read [and kind of have, in The Goblin Emperor]— Heir Raised Humbly has to learn to deal with the dance of politeness at court and lessening a new set of rules, as well as coping mentally with being responsible for the welfare of the whole kingdom, but it could easily be boring), it’s hard for it not to read as a cheap joke.

Of course, I totally understand the impulse to write contrary to a trope you hate, but I think I wish it were less sign-posted than it often is – if you see, to stick with the example, the new monarch struggling with their position, but it’s not highlighted, I’d think “oh, the author is working out the logical consequences of elevating someone who isn’t raised to rule to the throne, I like that.” There’s a way of doing it that feels more like “And Aragorn would be terrible, suck it Tolkien!” that I find much less readable.

And it could be a really good tragedy! Good person not raised to rule finds out that 1) ruling is hard & 2) you have to bend your personal morals for the sake of the realm sometimes. But if you approach it as “these other authors are wrong,” it’s much less effective.

As a digression, I’m kind of against the supposed desire for “realism” in fantasy — I want a world to feel real and complicated, certainly, but often the best way to do that is to suggest a larger world beyond the protagonists, rather than to give us the details of the textile industry, unless they’re plot-relevant. A secondary world is never going to be as complicated and messy as the real one, and that’s fine — I want a few gestures toward history and the sense that the world and universe are bigger than the protagonist and the current plot, and that’s it.

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On Race and Fantasy

Fantasy’s race problems feel more early 20th century than anything. To give it credit, the genre has mostly moved on from Conan the Barbarian cutting a swath through hordes of swarthy foreigners, or even Tolkien’s untrustworthy Easterlings, and the problems are mostly reflections of larger societal problems. I honestly don’t think there’s conscious malice in most of the fantasy being written now. But 1) it’s hard to talk about and examine one’s views on race, always; 2) it’s hard to create cultures; 3) it’s easy to write characters you know; 4) one takes a lot of shortcuts to get a story on the page; 5) it’s hard to make race feel important in a fantasy world.

1) It’s obvious that the Conan example is bad. The enemies are faceless non-white people; they’re all evil, and they’re all evil becauseof their race. But it’s less immediately obvious why Paula Volsky’s The White Tribunal is uncomfortable. It’s set in a fantasy version of British-occupied India, and it has a lot of fantasy Indian characters, mostly treated sympathetically – but the reveal at the end is that the god the fantasy Indians have been worshipping is really a demon trying to claim the world for Chaos. “A god is really evil” is a fairly common fantasy trope, and in the abstract it’s not bad, but when you’re replicating the 19th century as exactly as she does, it’s also replicating Victorian missionaries’ talking points about redeeming benighted savages from the grip of the demons they worship. And I very much doubt that Volsky has anything against Indians or Hinduism in her personal life, but she also didn’t think about how that plot point would read.

2) There are a lot of eastern Asian inspired cultures in fantasy. They tend to be closed to foreigners, have an emperor who is often divine, and control their emotions well. And those are all fun traits to have – if it weren’t so uncomfortable to read the mostly white heroes traipsing around the court and imposing their cultural values on them, I’d like those cultures a lot. And it’s much easier to take 19th Orientalism and create Others than to create a culture that will read similarly and not feel so close to China or Japan that it can’t be ignored.

3) Heroes tend to be white because their writers tend to be white. It’s easier, again, to write a hero you know, and so you write a white party even if you have a diverse fantasy world, because you can draw from people and stereotypes you know. If you’re white, it’s much easier to flesh out a stereotype of a white person – say one of your supporting characters is the in-universe equivalent of a soccer mom who wants to see the manager. You can draw from soccer moms you know, or you can give her non-soccer-mom traits that still feel appropriate (she’s a really good alchemist; she’s read a lot of history; she can do minor surgery), and so make her feel more real. But the template non-white characters are harder to work with, and harder to work with for a white writer especially. I’m sure it’s possible for a writer to flesh out your stereotypical “urban” youth, but it’s hard to make the extra traits not feel racist as well – it’s the “articulate” problem. “Articulate” is a good trait, but if you say that a black person is “articulate,” especially with the surprise it’s often said with, it simply shows that you don’t think of most black people as able to voice their thoughts eloquently. So while the character could have come from the slums of the fantasy city and his strength could be that he spent a lot of time sneaking into the library to read, an author could attempt that, but make it too much of a contrast – it would be surprising for the other characters, but if it’s too underlined, it also reads as though it’s condescending.

4) Stories rely on signifiers, cultural contexts, intertexts, and the expectations of their readers. So if you want to evoke something – maybe that closed culture I mentioned in point 2 – you call it Tzhung-tzhungchai (a real example) and make the emperor self-controlled and self-interested. And it’s definitely a problem, but it’s hard to flesh out a minor character, especially, and it’s often not worth it. So you drop Tzhung-tzhungchai in there, and your readers will get it and create  more to it than is there, and see what you want them to, and you move on.

5) People have pointed out that you could make Aragorn black and change nothing. And you definitely could! There’s no reason for a secondary world to duplicate the racial politics and problems of our world. In Discworld ‘white and brown get together and beat up green’ – in a secondary world, a modification of “there’s one race – the human race!” would actually make sense. You meet a strange people who live across the steppe from you and think “well, at least they’re human, not orcs!” So what does it mean to have a black hero in a secondary world? And that gets into “what does it mean to be Black,” which people who spend a lot of time thinking about race in our world don’t agree on, so fantasy authors don’t have a lot of hope. You could mention your hero’s dreadlocks, maybe, or their dark skin, and spend less time giving the beautiful people very stereotypically white features. And honestly, race not mattering does work for me, the way gender not being a bar to anything works for me in fantasy, but I know there are people who would look at a black Aragorn, even in a black Gondor, and wonder why their race didn’t matter to the people of Bree.

The upshot of all those points is that I think the problem is that using racist stereotypes, whether consciously or not, is easy, and that examining race is hard, and so is writing a book, and if you can take some shortcuts, you probably will, and that I don’t think current fantasy has problems with race beyond the ones the culture at large has.

Ok, I lied, I read the tor.com article about reading the manual, and it’s just as bad as I thought it would be –

“This [having lost data from an ancient space civilization] allows for all manner of surprises—some nice, some not so nice. But all very plot-friendly surprises.”

and that sentiment is marginally better than I thought it was, because I recognized the author’s name and thought he was a writer, but he’s just someone who people listen to for some reason, but as I said in the tags of my last post, I) sff, and literature broadly isn’t a documentary & II) even if it were a documentary, Ii) the situation he’s describing is analogous to us finding a Roman sign saying “do not open, will end world” and opening it, which honestly, we probably would, after taking some precautions, because a) we don’t know what they meant by it and we might be able to deal with it now anyway & b) archaeology! & Iii) people don’t always act rationally.

And leaving aside conversations about whether you can have a book without relationship conflict, you can have a book without some conflict, I guess, but every review would complain that it’s boring, because “they landed on the planet, saw a sign that said ‘do not open this door,’ didn’t open the door, and built their colony without ever opening the door” would be excruciating if it were longer than about ten pages (I’d read or write the short story where it was a metaphor for something, but a novel would be miserable).

And to return to “not a documentary,” and “plot-friendly surprises,” writers construct worlds. I don’t think that everything mentioned needs to drive the plot (I love Hugo’s tangents and Tolkien’s histories), but since it’s not describing real events, you can set up the world to tell the story you want to tell. That story might be about the consequences of the loss of history, or human folly, or what happens when you ignore warnings, or even killing radioactive undead Mongols that have been sealed in a mountain pass for millennia. But complaining that the setup could have been avoided if people were just sensible, or had just read the manual, seems to me to ignore the point of fiction in general and SFF in particular, as well as a writer’s role in the creation of a novel and its world.

Question: is it possible to write a story now with the same flavor as the ones I could love in the pulp magazines if they weren’t bad?

I don’t think it is: it’s not exactly true to say that what I love about the pulp stories, even the good ones, is how naïve they are, and how dated. They’re period pieces: you can picture all the characters poking someone in the chest and saying “now see here!” even when they’re wearing space armor. And the plots tend to happen, without regard for craft or art. When I start reading one, I know that there is a very long spectrum of quality (some really dire lows and some amazing highs) and I find out pretty quickly where I am and what to expect. But even the good ones are good because they’re exciting and fun and leverage their formulaic nature well.

There have been a few attempts to channel this energy in modern SFF –  but mostly at novel length, which doesn’t work as well (SFF short story markets, the good ones at least, seem to be purely literary SFF now, and I’m glad there’s a place for it, but it’s bad for dumb SFF, which I also like). It’s hard to sustain the silliness taken seriously throughout a novel, and you have to do more with characters, so pulp tropes, even if you’re attempting to subvert them, don’t really work.

And every time I think about this, I get back to “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“ – if you write a 1940s pulp story in 2019, is it meaningfully different? Not enough for me, I don’t think.  I’ve read a couple of things attempting it, and the common thought has been “but what are you doing with this?” and it too often feels like not much – like the author thinks that “pulp, but with decent gender politics” is enough. And a 1940s story written in the ‘40s is charming; a 1940s story written in 2019 is frustrating, because I feel like I’m looking for the catch or the key.

I was vaguely thinking about something I’d posted about before (a story about a world where the language and metaphors around something like love had developed differently & in a less adversarial way) & it crystallized something I hate:

The plot of a story about a world where a significant social thing is different (there’s no war; roles are even more circumscribed than in our world; etc) is about a rebellion either in the society as a whole or in the main character that brings their thinking into line with our world.

I know why it’s done (an easy plot to explore the world; holding a mirror up to our world; making the main character more understandable), but it feels similar to both replicating ‘50s social norms in the far future & when alt history characters look at the ‘camera’ & say “wouldn’t it be great/terrible if things had turned out [like they did in real history]?” —

It feels like a failure of imagination (there are other ways to explore the subject & a change wouldn’t necessarily make things how they are in our world) & a little too much like the twist endings that were popular in pulp SFF — the original story “To Serve Man,” for example, where “it’s a cookbook,” which is a horrifying realization in the Twilight Zone episode, reads like a punchline.

The Reach of Medievalism?

Modern fantasy is indebted to the Victorian view of the Middle Ages and is as much a continuation of that view as a reaction to it.

I’m reading Beyond Arthurian Romances: The Reach of Victorian Medievalism, which is a very good collection of essays. The main idea is that Victorians tended to idealize the Middle Ages, especially as an age of faith, but also as an age of heroism. There are two essays on William Morris, whom Tolkien read and whom I’d include among the founders of modern (heroic) fantasy. The first is on Sigurd the Volsung, which is a verse epic based on the Sagas, and it’s definitely about the Middle Ages being a time of epic in contrast to the capitalist, degenerate 19th century.

Another point is the sanitizing of the Middle Ages; this is where the reaction to the Victorian view comes in. The kind of modern fantasy that thinks it’s being realistically medieval by having dirt and murder and rape is reacting to the “purified” Victorian Middle Ages, but it’s still taking part in the view of the Middle Ages as age of heroes – as opposed to the modern world, where there’s no room to be heroic.

Both views, the gritty and the sanctified, simplify the Middle Ages, of course; most fantasy tends to try to write a medieval world without the Church or else don’t sincerely believe in their characters’ belief. And Victorians made the Christianity of the Middle Ages the same as Victorian Christianity.

But in any case, when people write “realistic medieval fantasy,” they’re demystifying the Middle Ages they grew up with, which is still, to some extent, the Middle Ages of Disney (See the book The Disney Middle Ages), which is definitely a derivative of the Victorian view.

Obviously, it’s hard to get back to what the Middle Ages really were, but it’s not just dirt and grit, and it’s not just knights and ladies; right now we’re on the dirt and grit side of the pendulum, but it’s more like putting dirt on the pretty Victorian paintings of knights and ladies than getting back to primary sources.

One thing I think you should probably know about your fantasy country is its national traumas. Not “the Mage Wars that happened eons ago and caused the center of our land to become barren,” which is, for some reason, an enduring trope, but the thing that everyone knows where they were for – “I was watering my magic beans when the news that King Oriens had been assassinated came” or “I was 16 in the first summer of the Famine.”

I am definitely not the first to say this, but I really dislike religions that are actually, in-text, word-of-(ha)-god confirmed to be Right in fantasy – for one thing, they take away from the complexity of your world. If there are gods, and they do care about your main character, or your favorite country, or whatever, then, unless you do something actually interesting with your gods, as many contemporary fantasists do, your protagonists are literally, in your world, Right, which means that the other side is literally Wrong. It also takes away the power of religious faith – I am not, myself, religious, but what I like about people who really believe is that they can believe whether or not they know that their god exists. If you know that the god of wind is watching your ship and helping it, what’s the point of a leap of faith?

Faith, in our world, moves mountains; but it’s entirely possible that it’s moving them to the wrong place, or for the wrong reasons, or even that it’s the wrong mountain – and I think that’s beautiful.

A thing that I do not like in SFF religion:

Ostarios is the God of Storms. This is his only aspect. All his imagery is storm-focused. There’s no question of him as, like, a god of renewal. He does storms. Storms are his life. He has an “I love storms” t-shirt.

The reason this is bad is because I can’t think of a single real-world god/ess who has a single aspect or presentation: let’s take Zeus, because I was a classics major. Zeus has about a million epithets, each a facet of his overall divinity; he’s worshipped differently in different places; his “characterization” varies from myth to myth and from author to author.

Zeus is the king of the gods, but he’s also the god you’d invoke if someone wronged you as a guest, as Zeus Xenios. So it’s not even that gods have a light side and a dark side, it’s that they have many presentations and manifestations; they absorb other gods’ functions and become them; they’re worshipped under totally different names in different places.

Fantasy religions almost never do this well.

Notes on Worldbuilding

I, personally, will not think about, for example, the history of agriculture in your secondary world unless you’ve made an attempt to make it important and failed. Like “said,” food supply should be invisible (unless, of course, you’re in a siege and it’s super important). You can assume that there are fields somewhere that aren’t mentioned because let me tell you, if an author put half the stuff people complain about into their novel, the one star reviews would not end.

Now, I do care about: a) history; b) politics; c) gender; and d) international relations. These are my concerns as a reader.

a) A lot of fantasy feels ahistorical – the only history that matters is the history that makes Our Hero/ine secretly ruler of the main country. And I’m not saying you should go full Tolkien, at all, even though I wouldn’t mind if you did (if you did it right); but you should probably know about and possibly allude to historical figures that don’t have much bearing on the narrative. Do they have a Founder? Are there heroes of the realm? Singers? etc. If you go through a modern conversation, people will refer to pop cultural phenomena – “Pull an [X Celebrity!]”. There is probably some sort of pop culture in your world. And it doesn’t have to be long! your character can make a passing reference, as long as context makes it clear.

b) I love people who are good at playing political games and I love fantasy that has laws and politics and all that. You don’t have to! You can have a court that functions as the narrative needs it to – so what if there wasn’t really absolute rule in the Middle Ages, if you need to have the king unilaterally ban your Hero/ine from leaving the castle, you do that. It all depends on the kind of story you’re telling. But if you do decide to do court politics, read, for example, 18th century court memoirs, which will tell you the concerns of courtiers.

c) this is simpler. Do whatever you want with gender and gender roles – but do question it. Do we really need another story in which women, except your heroine, are obsessed with their self-image and doing household tasks and getting married (all portrayed negatively)? And, like, sure, do we really need another story in which the main plot is war and killing things, even if it’s women doing it? nah, probably not – but if you are going to do that kind of plot, why not include women as warriors?

d) ties into a). Your country does not exist in a vacuum. If the Duke of M– is refusing to contribute his levy to the national levy because the Queen slighted his mistress at the last ball, will the neighboring country take the opportunity to invade? (also, is there a standing army?) Your country probably has history with countries around it. Did it win independence from one of them? Does it have an England/France style rivalry with another? Is there a League of Fantasy Nations?

But this is if you want to write a policy-heavy book! if you don’t, that’s fine, and if you do your plot and character well enough, I at least won’t notice the supply-holes, or I might but I won’t care about them. (Where does Gondor get its food? there are outlying farms, duh, that’s where the women and children are sent at the end of the siege.)

Basically, why do you want to write a secondary world? is it to include magic? then think about how magic would affect the lives of people in your world. Is it to have alt-history type conflicts? Think about politics! Is it to rehash tired concepts of what the Middle Ages were but this time with cooler weapons? Maybe don’t do that. The end.