Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Monday, 23 April 2012

Decolonising the past

From the Middle Ages making modern fantasy be racist to modern fantasy re-writing history – I’ve been reading Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in the past few weeks.[i] They aren’t medieval at all – I’m not just interested in medievalist fantasy whatever the past couple of post might suggest. Novik’s books are set during the Napoleonic Wars in a world inhabited by dragons which, with their human riders, form air forces and take part in the conflicts. But they also do more. The protagonists – the dragon Temeraire and his rider Captain William Laurence – repel a French invasion early on in the series, but later books are much more concerned with European encounters with the rest of the world. The Franco-British war provides a backdrop, but to date the heroes have been to China, Africa, Australia, South America, and at the end of the most recent seem headed back to China. The underlying premise of the series is “what might have happened if all the places colonized by Europe had had similar, or superior, armed forces?”

 In the Temeraire series Novik treds a tricky path, and does it well. Rewriting history into “worlds that weren’t” can be problematic if all that happens is the bits that are uncomfortable or politically inconvenient simply get taken out. There are examples of this in Novik’s world – Spanish conquests in the Americas, for example, fails because the Incas have dragons. But the coming of Europeans is not without consequence as disease ravages the Incan empire, vastly reducing its population. Australia, specifically New South Wales, is colonized, but Chinese trade interests seem likely to prevent further predations on the rest of the continent, at least by the British. Cape Town is colonized by the Dutch, who brutalize the indigenous inhabitants of the area – who do not have dragons. Soon after the British have conquered the Dutch colony, however, they are forced to leave by the Tswana, a central African civilisation (who do have dragons), who also destroy the slaving ports on the west coast of Africa, and at the current time in the series have invaded the Portugese colony of Brazil in order to rescue those who had already been taken and their descendants. Although she doesn’t dwell on them gory detail, Novik doesn’t shy away from the brutality and devastation wrought by colonization and slavery – although there is yet to be a book set in North America.

Not everything that fits into the fantasy genre is what I would call speculative fiction, by which I mean that it doesn’t always ask a question,[ii] let alone a significant one. Novik is one of what I think is a growing number of authors writing for the mainstream Western fantasy market that are exploring issues around colonisation. Terry Pratchett’s Nation, and Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles are other examples. And there are others which use feature the not unrelated theme of world exploration: Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas series, and Kevin J Anderson also has one which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.[iii] Explorations of colonization are usually associated with science fiction –Star Trek for example –than with fantasy partly because, I think, the former often gets taken more seriously, and is thought of as being more serious, than the latter. And it’s relatively easy to write a book about colonisation when all you have to do is put your colonisers aboard space ships instead of the ocean-going kind. It seems like a positive thing for fantasy to taking up these types of issues also,[iv] particularly if it’s done well.

[i] Thanks to Derek Newman-Stille for recommending these to me at the ICFA conference.
[ii] There are lots of different ideas about what ‘speculative fiction’ really means, and plenty of people who would say that it’s mutually exclusive with ‘fantasy’. Margaret Atwood springs to mind. Obviously I don’t agree.
[iii] If anyone can add to this list I’d love to hear about it. There are also a lot of non-Western writers, and those whose works are neither aimed at nor read in mainstream markets. Once again I’m thinking about fantasy in its incarnation as simultaneously mass and popular culture. All but Stackpole are authors I’ve found in airport bookshops, and I encountered his series in a general bookstore not a dedicated fantasy/sci-fi shop.
[iv] I’ve recently head of an independent fantasy game Dog Eat Dog designed to explore colonisation, its impacts, and dynamics. It is due for release later this year.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Middle Ages MADE Me Do It

I’ve been spending a lot of time trawling online discussions of fantasy – as a genre and specific works – finding out what people have to say about racism, ethnicity, diversity and lack thereof, and similar topics. There a quite a few common threads, and the discussions – mainly in fan forums and blog comments sections – tend to take similar shapes. I’m still working on how to describe them all, and what they might mean, but there’s a feature I wasn’t expecting, although perhaps I should have: medievalism. This is particularly true in places where some participants have made accusations of outright racism. A common feature is comments along the lines of: “but it’s based on Europe in the Middle Ages, and everyone there was white so it’s OK for this book/film/game to only have white characters too.” The line between fantasy and the Middle Ages is so blurred as to be non-existent in many cases – the orcs in my last post apparently have no problem going both ways! Chuck Wendig blogged about ways people try to excuse/justify racism in fantasy and pointed out the lack of logic in the “medieval” excuse As have plenty of others. Putting aside, for a moment, the question of whether the Middle Ages were as white as lots of fantasy fans claim, I wonder why it is that the idea of a ‘real’ Middle Ages is so potent? Like Wendig says, no-one says there were actually wizards, elves, dragons etc in medieval times, so why should any notion of an authentic past matter so much? But it must, because people keep bringing it up. Even when they are advocating greater inclusion of minorities, like Wendig does.
It doesn’t matter on these forums if the Middle Ages were actually monochrome – little if any evidence is ever given and no-one making assertions gives any kind of academic or other credential to claim authority. To go back to the Orcs movie blurb in my last post, modern culture tends to see the European Middle Ages (and rarely a Middle Ages located anywhere else) and call them mythical, warmongering, monstrous, and sadistic. Why not add racist to the mix? After all, it’s them not us. The Middle Ages can be ‘ours’ but ‘we’ aren’t medieval – these comments always have an assumed audience of youngish white males – so no-one is responsible for any exclusion, offense, or down right racism.
That “the Middle Ages made us do it” is an excuse for modern racism of many different kinds – it features on everything from white supremacist sites on – probably isn’t much of a surprise to anyone. But in the process an interesting thing happens. The Middle Ages are always spoken for and about in these kinds of discussions, but are also constructed with a certain level of agency: they made us do it. “The medieval” is often conceptualised as the opposite, even the Other, of “the modern”, but this aspect of contemporary popular culture depends on being similar, even the same. I think this is a feature of fantasy and its relationship with the idea of the Middle Ages that doesn’t happen in other kinds of popular medievalism.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Medieval orcs?

I found this trailer for Orcs the movie late last year (it has no connection to Stan Nicholls' books),
and used part of it in a paper at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of the movie yet (and am not sure how much I really want to), but the blurb that goes with the clip on YouTube feeds into an idea I’m working on at the moment: "They are savage, bestial and barbaric. They are mythical, medieval and warmongering. They are monstrous, sadisitic creatures devoid of human emotion... they are ORCS! Hordes of rampaging orcs! And they're here to kill us all! The fate of the world is left up to two park rangers. Can they defend us?" Orcs are medieval? Well, yes and no. It depends a little on how you define medieval. If teh blurb is worthy of the tongue-in-cheek b-grade horro style of the movie, not everyone took it that way. One viewer commented: "What are medieval orcs doing in the US, a country that had no medieval culture of iron and steel? If it was set in Europe, I'd understand somewhat.” I’ve written about the influence of medieval romance depictions of Saracens on Tolkien’s orcs,[i] but as far as I know Europe in the Middle Ages was not over-run by them – however much iron and steel was part of Western culture at the time.
But how do you define “medieval” in this sort of context? Or at all? It’s as hard as coming up with a workable definition for fantasy. The Orcs blurb  offers some solid insights into connotations of “medieval” in modern popular culture: savage, bestial, barbaric, mythical, warmongering, monstrous, sadistic. The only that that’s missing is "covered in shit". It wasn’t for the rhetorical impact of listing all those other words “Orcs, they’re medieval” would have covered everything.
One of the things I’m trying to unravel a little at the moment is the dependency so much fantasy has on medieval material.[ii] What is it that’s so appealing? And how does being “medieval” shape, or change, fantasy? If ‘medieval’ connotes savagery, barbarism, monstrosity and the rest, is the fantasy that depends on it all those things too? If our ideas about what medieval is changes, will fantasy?As a genre fantasy, particularly the epic fantasy that makes it to the mainstream, is often still very reliant on medievalist material. What's more, current popular ideas about the Middle Ages are often heavily inflected by what is presented in fantasy works. It's a mutually informative relationship - even if the facts are questionable.

[i] Cross promotion here.
[ii] Yes, of course there is lots of stuff out there that doesn’t eye off the Middle Ages like a crack addict after a fix, but I’m working with some pretty distinct trends.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

In the beginning

I used to be a medievalist, but now I’m a fantasist. Try saying that next time someone you don’t want to talk to at a party traps you in a corner. If they give you a look of blank incomprehension you can escape in the confusion, but if not you can reassess your flight instinct.[i] The truth is that lots of medievalists are fantasists too – not that we all run around in chain-mail pretending to be Lord Jan of Unanderra or such-like – but lots of scholars of the Middle Ages are interested in fantastika as well, as readers, writers, and scholars. I heard Jeffrey Jerome Cohen speculate recently that people become medievalists because there are more jobs in it than in studying fantasy literature (and etc). Five years ago that might have been true, but as being ‘relevant’ becomes more and more important to universities – in research and teaching – it’s a trend that could well change. To rely completely on anecdotal evidence, like I said before, I used to be a medievalist and now I’m a fantasist. My PhD was about Middle English romance and postcolonialism,[ii] but 4 ½ years of working in every department from education to nursing later, I’ve just started a 3 year postdoc studying popular fantasy. 

The project is called Imagining Diversity: Race and Ethnicity in Popular Fantasy and it’s a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award funded by the Australian Research Council. I’ll examine representations of race and ethnicity in fantasy literature, film, tv, and video-games, to explore the genre as a type of popular culture that reflects but also shapes Western social norms. Fantasy has long had a bad reputation - for outright racism at worst, and Eurocentricity at best. It’s easy to dismiss as uninteresting or undesirable on those grounds, but there is more going on. And even it is at times what might be termed monochrome, the nature of that single colour is worth thinking about, because lots of people like it, lots of people see it, read it, and play it, and we learn from our culture. This blog is part of my exploration of the ifs and whats and hows and whys. I’m hoping people will find it, and that if they do they will find something of interest, may be even of enough interest to comment – or that they’ll get in touch with me.

This blog isn’t just about the project itself though. It’s also about the experience of being an early career academic working in full time research in Australia. In the meantime, fantasy and medievalism actually aren’t so far apart of course; it’s often difficult to have the former without the latter. To illustrate, and since no blog is complete without a lolcat, here’s one that’s been tagged ‘viking,’ but has all kinds of fantasy layers as well.

Original here

[i] And if they respond with ‘oh, Tolkien’ in a disapproving tone you can pretend you think you have a ring of power, feign belief in your own invisibility, and walk away.
[ii] Self promotion here