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Traditionalist and libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy: Part Two – Utopia, dystopia, fantasy, and reality

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 24, 2009

Insofar as it can be ascertained that the world today is moving in a generally dystopic direction, one might well ask where hope exists for true social change in today's world.

It might be argued that the genres of science fiction and fantasy constitute, at least to a certain extent, a form of protest against late modernity. One can see a whole series of tensions in these works that move beyond questions of mere artistic form and convention. Of course, there is the writing of overtly left-liberal tracts. Either such works portray neo-traditionalist societies in the darkest light (e.g. Margaret Atwood's, The Handmaid's Tale -- the film based on the book was equally dreary), or they raise the possibility of even more intensively left-liberal societies, portrayed as positive, or at least as "not too bad" (e.g. Samuel Delany, Triton). The fact that the society portrayed in Triton is not entirely "utopian" (yet even more radically anti-traditionalist than any currently-existing society) makes it all the more distasteful, as such a society cannot automatically be written off as a "sheer utopia".

However, Margaret Atwood’s more recent dystopia, Oryx and Crake, shows, one could argue, a neo-traditionalist turn in her thinking. There are numerous themes of criticism of the current-day world implied in Oryx and Crake that cultural traditionalists could highly sympathize with.

There appears to be, in much of science fiction and fantasy, a real contradiction between the conventionally left-liberal positions "on the surface", and a deeper level of the work, which seems to somehow attempt to satisfy a more traditional, archetypal sense of life. This can even be seen in much of supposedly "feminist-oriented" fantasy (for example, works by Marion Zimmer Bradley) which, in their evocation of a premodern paganism, seem rather remote from latter-day dogmatic feminism. (There was a television mini-series in 2001 based on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s hugely popular Mists of Avalon, her interpretation of the Arthurian legend from the standpoint of Morgan Le Fay.) One way or another, many of these works in both genres appear to move in the direction of a rejection of left-liberal paradigms. Two outstanding examples are J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Frank Herbert's Dune.

It might well be argued that there is a general tension in these two genres between upholding the current-day status-quo, and the expression of a hope for "something better." On the one hand, these genres offer as their main effect, only a temporary escape from the soulless world of economic determinism and political-correctness. On the other hand, it seems that these genres, especially science fiction, offer the hope of actually bringing into being some kind of better world.

The fantasy genre often offers honorable and noble ideals and models for living, and is associated with the nostalgia for a "greener and less hurried world," but its vision is rather directed towards the past. There are, more-or-less, two main streams in fantasy literature, the so-called "high-fantasy" (paradigmatically represented by J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings), and so-called "swords & sorcery" (paradigmatically represented by the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard - on which two fine movies in the 1980s were based). There is also a subgenre of stories largely oriented to children, with fantastic elements. The paradigmatic example is C. S. Lewis' Narnia stories, which clearly influenced Tolkien. The best-known of the Narnia stories, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, has seen a number of radio, television, and movie versions, with the latest movie based on it, released in November 2005. (C. S. Lewis also wrote a more difficult, science-fiction allegory, the Perelandra series.) The recent, P.C.-driven attacks of Philip Pullman (author of a radically anti-traditionalist fantasy series, His Dark Materials, which has also been filmed) against C. S. Lewis, could be seen as rather snidely deconstructive.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.





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