A Tattered Thread

To expand on the half-formed thoughts on Fantasy in my last post on the subject, what becomes more interesting is the thread that connects it to reality. Rather than the refuge, the blueprint or diagram, perhaps more accurately the circuit-breaker. Reading this short reflection from Paul Raven over at Velcro City Tourist Board [a recent discovery I can happily point any readers towards] accentuated and drew out some more of my own uncertain probing in this area so far…

Put simply, sf has always been a deeply nostalgic genre, and the UK is deep in a period of nostalgic escapism more broadly—one that affects its soi-disant liberal left just as much as its Brexit-exceptionalist right, if not perhaps more so in some respects. Maughan and Hill refuse both British exceptionalist nostalgia and the comforts of technological utopianism; there is a market for that refusal, but it is probably too small for the already-struggling publishing houses of the UK market to gamble upon, when they can make more reliable returns with more traditional material.

This observation strikes at what in some sense is a broad truth about the culture industry; it tends inexorably toward nostalgia and the familiar. Where science fiction for instance has long been connected to the futuristic, the seemingly counter-intuitive notion that it is a nostalgic form seems to undercut this claim, often made for and about it. SF, like any other form, is subject to the determined logics of markets, hinging on the illusion of an indeterminate system yet locking it into an eternal return, a melancholia in which literature loops back around to what has been established, finds comfort in prior archetypes and sidelines the perhaps brilliant but untested waters of the speculative or innovative that might be plugging away somewhere in the background.

In this manner, it becomes evident that the fantasy, utopia, speculative futures, if they are to remain a viable popular commodity, must remain passive, an act of wild imagining and pure escape. This is perhaps the key problem with any discussion around “Utopia” or even “Dystopia” today, that of distance. The issues we have with these terms seem to revolve around distance, around some conception of realism. The fantasy/utopia is not only an extrapolation from the real, or so we have come to understand it, but the thin link that this provides has been shorn entirely, the speculations have become so wild as to depart from any serious consideration and become the mere act of “imagination”, a daydream conjured from a brief flash of light. We like to speak, especially now, of imagining new worlds, inventing the future, but all too often this devolves into a kind of flabby and innocuous rambling around ideas that will never see the light of day, a kind of imaginary that exists in tandem with the secret knowledge that its confabulations will never come to pass…

Rather than abandon these forms where they stand, monuments to our failure to construct new realities, I suppose a lot of my writing and research is interested to some degree in reconstructing that link, even seeing if it still exists, no matter how tattered and prepared to snap, sending the whole fragile sculpture hurling into the abyss. The key issue here has often been that we cannot think past the term “Utopia” when we talk about world-building, and in it we see a static framework; an eternal present just like that of late capitalist civilisation. This leads me to think of Raymond Williams essay on Utopia and Science Fiction, in which he assesses William Morris’s Utopian novel News From Nowhere, and remarks specifically on the way in which it sets itself apart from prior Utopias largely in the detail it affords to the revolutionary process itself, the way in which one society became another and the ideal society he goes on to describe at length came to be constructed. This new focus, while it doesn’t pull Morris’s imaginings out of the daydream in which they remain locked, remains key to any understanding of thinking world today.

I recently returned to watch Children of Men, and something that arose as a central concern today was its proximity to reality. Indeed, we like to describe such films as dystopian, but the question began to arise; is there a degree to which a world has to depart from this one to be described as a dystopia? If we described as a Utopia a society which bore a close relation to ours but with positive accents heightened, issued shifted around, geography and chronology confused, what weight does the term or its opposite continue to have. Indeed, it’s often mentioned when we look at fantasy, that genre of pure detachment, in which we find probably the most glaring examples of what could be termed “retrotopian” impulses, the worlds created often bare a far closer resemblance to ours than intended.. so is the thread that connects worlds here as thin and unsubstantiated as we are led to believe?

The problem here is in which direction the connection is established, and we can find a key example in the problem of intention. J.R.R Tolkien famously despised allegory, and rejected any suggestion whatsoever that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a metaphor for world war 2, as some had speculated. The problem is glaring; whether Tolkien intended this to be the case or not, he has less control over the work he produces and certainly how it is read than he thought, and any intention of allegory or message on the part of the creator is bound and subordinated to the reception and the interpretive matrix within which it exists. Whatever merits or otherwise we might attribute to Barthes death of the author today [and oh boy has that essay been used and abused] the “original intention” of the creator is often far less relevant than we like to assume. A work then becomes not an intervention from the author, a means with which to shape their surroundings, more a reflection and cipher for the ideological, political and social mores of its environment. The reason fantasy might tend to mirror reality is less that of a purposeful interjection than an unconscious determination, the work becomes, through its wish to escape and to take refuge, a simple reiteration of pre-established values under the augur of detachment, we find a separate world which feeds our presumptions, filters values precisely through the justification of the fantastical – anything that happens in reality becomes justified once it is realised instead in the form of a reflexive daydream.

So, fantasy simply becomes a mirror, a place into which we can pour our fears, hatreds and otherwise unjustifiable inclinations as well as our hopes and dreams. It tends towards a kind of unconscious baring of fangs behind an oneiric barrier. Once the thread which connects something to lived reality dissipates, it more than ever begins to re-construct itself in the image of that reality, untethered from it but obscuring the entire topography in the manner of Baudrillard’s re-appraisal of Borges map overlaying the landscape as the simulacra, the effacement of the original entirely. In middle earth, the epic struggles of good and evil, we find more of a refraction of reality than an escape from it; again like Baudrillards beloved image of the moebius strip, the fantasy loops back onto reality, one only reasserts the other, and the “original” recedes from view. Rather than a site of construction, the fantasy in its purely detached form is a realism, a fatalism of real possibility than leads only to a failed escape. In the same manner in which it’s been reiterated that capitalism was a failed escape from feudalism, the fantasy world is all too often a failed escape to feudalism.

In this manner, its opposite number, realism, the attempt, as best we can, to represent reality, and, often to confront ourselves with it, refracts back into its opposite. Realism, directly opposed to the fantastical in any regard, has often been attached to politics in the same manner as fantasy authors have attempted to maintain an essentially apolitical character in their work, and yet the more it unfurls the more the representational characteristics fall apart, the 10-pints-a-day everyman often presented in a lot of classic social realism as an archetypal prole is and always has been just that, an archetype, a construction against which we can model our beliefs or preconceptions rather than a straightforward unveiling. Rather than a demystification, realism, the closer it reaches for the fabled land of direct representation, provides us with a kind of naive anecdotal reality in which what we directly encounter becomes a thin film stretched over reality.

So rather than a thread connecting the fantasy to reality, it is more of a folding, in which middle earth becomes middle England and middle England middle earth in a perpetual reflexivity of reality and imagination. Rather than an exit, a schism through which we can peer or enter some other world, or through which something might leak, the fantasy is a totality, and in this it is reality itself, the thread disappears entirely as the topography of one starts indistinctly melding with the other, and the perpetual struggle of good and evil, the denizens of Minas Tirith or Mordor, start to resemble those we see around us, and vice versa. The main characteristic of fantasy is its all consuming realism.

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