Adam Roberts, back in 2014:

There is, I think, a genuine human fascination with outer space. Apollo could have capitalised upon that fascination and expanded into broader and better conceived programmes. But it didn’t, and the real reason it didn’t is that people found a more satisfying way scratch their metaphorical itch. Like a diet of sweets and pastries instead of spinach and brown rice, big screen sci-fi quelled our appetite for space travel in a way both delicious and fundamentally unhealthy. Why should people around the globe give up a significant fraction of their respective gross national products to pay for actual space travel when Hollywood could give them all the thrills of outer space in virtual form?

I think this point — which I missed back when it was published — harmonizes nicely with the argument I made in my essay from the same year, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”:  

Fantasy — in books, films, television shows, and indeed in all imaginable media — is an instrument by which the late modern self strives to avail itself of the unpredictable excitements of the porous self while retaining its protective buffers. Fantasy, in most of its recent forms, may best be understood as a technologically enabled, and therefore safe, simulacrum of the pre-modern porous self. 

Stories as distractions, as substitute satisfactions, as soma.  


How much of fantasy, I wonder, is revenge fantasy? I’m asking this question, of course, because there’s a new Tarantino movie, and revenge fantasy is His Thing. But this does seem to be one of the primary functions of the fantastic: to create fictional worlds in which moral dramas can play out in ways that the authors like — and especially in which enemies are exposed and punished.

In Tarantino’s case this tends to involve simple rewriting of history, but this mode, or perhaps mood, of storytelling can take several forms.

The future fantasy, as in The Handmaid’s Tale: My enemies don’t have absolute power right now, but if they ever got it here’s the kind of thing they would do.

The alternate worlds fantasy, as in Pullman’s His Dark Materials: In our world the Catholic Church did not rule all of Europe with an iron anti-science fist, and John Calvin did not order the execution of children, but they very easily could have and might have, and see, in this universe right next door to ours we find the cold ugly logic of their position carried to its natural conclusion.

The feigned history fantasy with allegorical overtones: In The Lord of the Rings Saruman is a modern industrialist avant le lettre, and through him Tolkien gets to demonstrate how “a mind of gears and wheels” works and the kind of damage it does if its power is unconstrained. But we also get to see how that mind undoes its own plans, and how the natural world acts to restore a proper equilibrium. There’s a palpable longing in that strand of the tale: If only something like that could happen here and now.

The satirical fantasy, as in the this-world frame-story of The Silver Chair, where Lewis develops his idea that self-consciously “modern” education produces people “without chests,” without a moral foundation, and thereby unleashes the natural human propensity to nastiness. But a visit to Narnia gives Jill and Eustace the moral clarity to see and act (rather violently!) against the absurdities of Experiment House: “For, with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords on the boys so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running like mad, crying out, ‘Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair.’”

So, again: fantasy as a means of exposing and/or punishing the author’s enemies. You could put a positive spin on this and say that fantasy is preoccupied with justice; and sometimes that would be right; Tolkien’s treatment of Saruman seems the least vengeful, largely, I think, because Saruman is so often and so explicitly given the opportunity to choose a different path than the one he settles on — an opportunity Tolkien doesn’t give to Orcs, as Auden was I think the first to note. It’s when enemies are portrayed as unreformable, as incapable of repenting or in any significant way changing, that the love of justice tends to be transformed into a crowing over their wickedness, or a delight in vengeance taken upon them.

(I got an email in response to the above from my friend Adam Roberts, and realized that I needed to be more clear. Here’s my response to Adam. I hope to develop these thoughts in more detail later.)

First of all, I think dreams of revenge are always moral — but of course are dreams of power too. We dream of revenge when we believe that some injustice has been done and we want to make it right, or at least redress it in some way, but can’t. Surely — to put it in Augustinian terms — the root of every dream of vengeance is a love of justice, even if the flowers thereof are fleurs du mal. I love that moment in Lord of the Rings when Sam tells Galadriel that if she had the Ring some nasty people would be paid out, and put in their place, to which she replies, “Yes. That is how it would begin.”

I’m thinking that one form of vengeance is exposure: I may not be able to stop you, but I can expose you. I see that in various ways in all the examples I give, but it seems to me especially clear in Atwood and Pullman. Atwood isn’t taking vengeance on reality, she’s taking vengeance on fundamentalist Christians who have done so much damage to women over the centuries. She is saying, “I will create a world which will give you the power you crave and in that way I will enable all my readers to see you for what you truly are, and to condemn you.”

We do learn at the end of the book that the Gilead Period eventually comes to an end, to be replaced by something not quite as bad perhaps, but there’s no real punishment for the wicked characters. That’s where Pullman goes a step further. Mrs Coulter and Father Gomez and Metatron are all killed, and Metatron’s afterlife Gulag is dismantled. So there is exposure — Pullman has said in interviews quite explicitly that Christians haven’t done the things that they do in his book only because they haven’t had the chance — but also punishment. We get to exult in the destruction of the wicked. (Lewis is playing the same song in a sillier arrangement when Eustace and Jill put the bullies to rout.)

race and ethnicity in the Potterverse

Race and ethnicity are pretty weird in the Potterverse  because of the peculiar ways that fictional world overlaps with our own. This weirdness emerges frequently in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, as my friend Adam Roberts recently commented to me. What follows is an expansion of my response to Adam.

Consider Lela Lestrange: a member of a family notorious for its obsession with purity of wizarding blood, and yet also a mixed-race woman. If you were reading her story in a book, you’d be able to focus on her pure-blood status; watching her in a movie, you are continually reminded of the color of her skin and how it differs from that of the very white Scamander boys who love her.

Or think of Nagini: a Maledictus, a woman under a curse that transforms her into a snake, a woman (we are told) from Indonesia — and who is played in the film by a South Korean actress. That she is a Maledictus is the only thing that matters in the context of the story; but that may not be the only thing that viewers see.

Strangest of all, note this scene: a group of Aurors from various Ministries of Magic find themselves in the midst of a rally led by Gerrit Grindelwald. There is also among them one Muggle, Jacob Kowalski, and one might think that he would be especially frightened and endangered, since Grindelwald’s message is implicitly anti-Muggle. (Grindelwald keeps saying that he doesn’t hate Muggles, that he only wants wizards to live freely in the open — to have Lebensraum, one might say — but come on.) Yet when the camera looks away from Grindelwald, it tends to linger on the anxious face of one of our lead characters, Tina. Why is she so anxious?

The immediate and obvious reason is that she is an Auror, and Grindelwald has just announced to the crowd that there are Aurors among them. (This leads one witch to pull her wand threateningly on someone she perceives to be an Auror, which leads in turn to his killing her — an event which suits Grindelwald’s purposes very nicely, because it allows him to portray his movement as a peaceable one, its members constantly under threat from the violent policing of the magical world’s official bodies.) So Tina could well be fearful that the crowd will turn on her.

Might there be another reason for her to fear? Well, the sleuths of Potter fandom have discovered that she is a half-blood. (Their primary evidence: this.) Does that make her vulnerable among Grindelwald’s supporters? Maybe not: so far he has not sounded the pure-blood clarion the way Voldemort will later do — at least, not that I recall. His emphasis is strongly on the Magic-Muggle dichotomy. So maybe half-blood status doesn’t matter. Yet.

But then there’s this: Tina’s full name is Porpentina Goldstein, something that’s very hard to forget when she stands in a crowd of people who follow the extravagantly Aryan Grindelwald. Does being Jewish matter in the wizarding world? Do the various prejudices and racial identifications that do such powerful work in our Muggle world have any purchase among the magical? The general tone and tenor of the Potterverse would suggest not, but at moments like these….

Adam Roberts also recently pointed me to a series of poets by Phil Edwards on Rowling’s worldmaking. Edwards posits a rough taxonomy of fantasy worlds — the nuts-and-bolts, the numinous, and the satirical/polemical — and suggests that the Potterverse is “a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them.” This seems right to me, and it helps to explain why the racial logic of our social order keeps floating in and out of view. It’s a rather disorienting phenomenon.

To some extent this kind of thing happens in all Fantasy — thus the permanent tendency of readers to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the Second World War, and thus also Tolkien’s endless frustration with that reading. In Edwards’s terms, Tolkien had, he thought, done enough nuts-and-bolts work to rescue his story from such easy analogies. But Rowling seems positively to court such allegorical readings — only to swerve away from them later.

Le Guin’s golden age

Between 1968 and 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Tombs of Atuan
The Lathe of Heaven
The Farthest Shore
The Disposessed

— along with a series of classic stories, including “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” “Winter’s King,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That would be quite a literary career. She did it in six years.