I have been thinking about colonisation, medievalism, and fantasy all at once in the past couple of weeks. One of the things I’ve noticed is that fantasy stories that critique colonisation and imperialism very rarely do it in medievalist settings. Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik whose work I’ve mentioned in other posts don’t use them. Neither do Terry Pratchett in Nation or Snuff (which is in part about indigenous peoples), Nora K. Jemisin in her Inheritance trilogy, or (from memory) any of the authors in Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan’s So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is a quick, and definitely not exhaustive list. And there are a lot of people whose writing isn’t part of the western publishing genre that I’m working with.
Hobb, Pratchett, and Novik all use nineteenth-century-type worlds; the latter two creating alternate histories (in Nation for Pratchett, Snuff is a Discworld book). There’s some logic to this: the nineteenth century was the heyday of European imperialism around the globe, what better time to draw on for a critique of the practice? None of the works I’m thinking about – or have mentioned here, are Steampunk as such, but the discussions that have been going on around that sub-genre and its ability to critique and be transgressive are reasonably applicable. Like medievalism, Steampunk has been accused of having inherent racist nostalgic leanings – of yearning for a time of ‘white power’. And not without some justification. Although I won’t link to them, there are white supremacist web-forums which praise both for their supposedly monochrome visions. But Steampunk also has its defenders. Probably the most active is Jaymee ‘Jha’ Goh, a self-described steampunk postcolonialist who blogs here.
The decision not to use medievalist settings is uncommon enough to rate comment. Readers who reviewed Hobb’s Soldier Son books on Goodreads, for example, often commented on the unconventional setting. I wonder how much the use of non-medievalist setting to critique imperialism is a deliberate tactic on the part of the authors. Whether they turn to a ‘Victorianist’ setting or not, they certainly tend to turn away from medievalist conventions. Looking at my list of examples in the first paragraph, this probably isn’t surprising – none of those authors are genre hacks; most if not all are known for being unconventional. Even if none of them made conscious decisions to be non-medievalist, the settings are telling. They work against genre expectations on multiple levels. I’d really like to know if there are books out that use a medievalist setting but are significantly engaged in critiquing colonisalism.