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

Monday, 26 November 2012

A post/human digression

This week is another departure for me – and one that’s related to what I posted about at the end of September. Tomorrow I am going to the ANZ Shakespeare Association conference in Perth, WA – it’s themed Shakespeare and Emotions. The paper I’m giving argues that Caliban offers an emotional template for the kind of monster used to work out/on post/human anxieties in fantasy. I compare Caliban with Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the truth may be that I really wanted to write a paper about the musical episode from Buffy). It’s not about the singing episode – although that would make for a very interesting paper at an emotions conference, one which I still hope to write. I talk about Spike’s emotions – and Caliban’s of course – as indicative of humanity. A monster that feels the right things stops being a monster and becomes more and more human the more it feels. Caliban mostly feels anger, and fear, but he also has that beautiful speech about the “thousand twangling instruments.” Can he be a monster (he’s called one more than 40 times in The Tempest, although never by Prospero) when he cries to dream again? Spike’s equivalent speech might be the one about people “walking around like billions of happy meals with legs” but the sentiment is, literally, the same: it’s love. Love for another person isn’t the point, although Spike of course feels that, it’s the feeling that matters not who inspires it, or what. The core of humanity in these texts is the ability to feel love.
Many fantasy texts work through post/human anxieties with this type of approach. I've also been thinking about the ways the dragons in Robin Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles slowly develop character and a particular kind of emotion. Science Fiction gets a most of the attention with its robots and cyborgs and hyper-ration Dr Spock and the rest, but fantasy offers a different perspective, one without that obvious overlay of technology. It engages with anxieties that existed long before modern technology made us worry about genetic manipulation and biotechnology and cybernetics and... and... and... I think what really interests me, and what is perhaps important to my bigger project as well as this paper, is that all the monsters which have become more humanised in fantasy over the past decade or more - vampires, orcs, werewolves etc - get closer to humanity, less threatening, when they are given not just agency or a backstory or a voice, but the right kind of feelings, love in particular.


  1. I have three remarks on this, if you will kindly indulge me:

    1) How Hobb treats Icefyre--both dragons, really--in Fool's Fate also offers an interesting emotional picture. Then again, it is filtered through Fitz (a filter to which I am somewhat partial), so that might color matters.

    2) Have you looked at Frank W. Brevik's book The Tempest and New World-Utopian Politics? From what I recall of chatting with the man some years back (his dissertation and mine were directed by the same person, and we lived right around the corner from one another), he at least motions towards some of what you discuss about Caliban. It might be worth considering.

    3) I do not know that I would equate "closer to humanity" and "less threatening" as you do. People are capable of decided unpleasantness--sometimes in the name of love, as Shakespeare shows. Hobb, too, as I think on it.

  2. Thanks Folgha. As you might have guessed from my posts I've been busy in the last little while with conference etc (I;m actually between sessoin at one now). I haven't read all Hobb's work, but I was thinking about her dragons in the Rain Wilds Chronicles as something like AI technology with their copied/inherited memories.
    I haven't read Brevik's book but will have a look for it if I end up turning the conference paper into an article. There's a lot around about Caliban and postcolonialism.
    It's true that humans can reach some pretty spectacular depths of unpleasantness. I think what I was trying to suggest is that vmpires etc aren't universally evil predator types. They've become more human in terms of motivations, actions, and agency.