Power and Privilege in Fantasy

I’m going to start off my first blog post for Orbit with a non-sequitur. Because that’s how I roll.

I’m going to talk about movies rather than books. See, I can’t really call myself a fan of movies. I’ve seen a lot of the classics, love a good kung fu flick, occasionally get roped into seeing whatever blockbuster is new/hot/now, but I’m rarely actually excited by anything that’s coming down the recent-film pipe. I’m more “meh” than anything else. They pass the time. But I’ve found myself having unusually strong reactions to two new/forthcoming films: Avatar and Daybreakers. Very different films, and each elicits a very different reaction in me: I’m planning to see Daybreakers the instant it comes out, even though I’m not at all a fan of vampire stuff. While Avatar, despite being right in the sweet spot between my twin loves of beautiful visuals and stuff!blowing!up! space opera, has repelled me so fiercely that I don’t ever want to see it.

I’ve been puzzling over this for the past few days — especially my reluctance to see Avatar, which is making me unpopular with my skiffy friends right now. Finally, though, I figured out the common thread: both films deal with issues of socioeconomic power and dominant privilege. My reaction to them seems to have something to do with how each film handles this subject matter.

The plot of Avatar evokes, maybe deliberately, the worst of New World history: colonialism, industrialism at the cost of the environment and human lives, biological warfare, and genocide. This is a good thing; I like to see this stuff addressed in fiction. But by many reports Avatar also employs some of Hollywood’s dumbest and most offensive storytelling devices in dealing with this material, and that annoys me. Stories that touch on actual human suffering that’s still taking place in parts of the world should not be trivialized with Story Cliche #879-J. Anyone writing about stuff like this needs to think about what they’re doing, not just throw darts at a stock-plot target.

Then we have Daybreakers, a near-future film that seems to be a blend of classic spec fic and thriller tropes: a virus outbreak, humanity being supplanted by another species, vampires and vampire hunters, the need to cooperate with one’s enemies for survival. Also clearly touches on some of the same issues as Avatar, but — as far as I can tell — it addresses them more thoughtfully. Looking at the trailers, I find myself intrigued by Sam Neill’s character, who seems to be profiteering in the midst of a food (well, blood) shortage; and the cop played by Michael Dorman in this clip, who has clearly chosen to embrace his privileged status regardless of the ethical cost. There’s still the potential for trouble here; I’m always wary of stories that make a hero out of the lone good guy on the bad guys’ side. Not because such heroes don’t exist — we should all be thankful that they do — but because, as the io9 review noted, these kinds of stories seem designed to make the audience feel better about its own privileged state, without actually asking the ethical questions that the story merits. They’re a cop out; a cheat; a feel-good heavy-handed non-solution to a problem that deserves complex, nuanced treatment. Plus, they’ve been done to death.

So the common thread in both films is that they address power and privilege, but one seems to be trying to do a good job, and the other isn’t bothering.

I mention all this because I’ve been reacting the same way to fantasy for the past few years. When you really think about it, a lot of fantasy has kind of creepy subtext. All those stories about restoring a deposed king to a usurped throne, for example — well, what makes the deposed king any better than the usurper? Why must power be kept in the hands of the people who originally had it (and weren’t competent enough to hold it) as opposed to someone new, with better organizing skills and possibly fresh ideas? The message in these fantasies seems to be support the status quo! Don’t question it! Change is bad! What does it mean that we readers find such comfort in these fantasies that we’ve made quite a few of them bestsellers?

And what about all those fantasies which feature magic-users with inheritable, as opposed to learned, skills? I’m all for the idea of talent running in families; I’m a writer who’s the daughter of a painter/sculptor who’s the son of a jazz pianist. And I’m all for the fantasy of being “special”. Special people are exciting; I completely understand why those kinds of stories are so popular. But a creative bent is not the same as the ability to blow up a mountain, summon a dragon, etc. — and whenever the “specialness” transcends humanity in this way, it takes on an unpleasant whiff of eugenics.

I say all this, by the way, having finished the first two books of a fantasy trilogy that plays with these very concepts. The protagonist of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is special. She has inherited power and privilege, and even though she doesn’t want this power, she nevertheless uses it in ways that are less than ethical. Among other things she takes advantage of slave labor, uses magic to torture and kill, and is quite blatant about her desire to make sure her people survive a coming crisis even if the rest of the world goes to hell in the process. (And she’s the “good guy” of the story.) The second book of the trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms, has a different protagonist — less privileged, but more special. She’s even got inherited magical abilities! Which are again used for terrible purposes.

But like I said, it’s not the presence of these themes that bothers me, but seeing them mishandled. So it’s my hope that the Inheritance Trilogy will deal with these complex, nuanced issues in a suitably complex, nuanced way.

But also fun. Because while I believe power and privilege topics shouldn’t be trivialized, I also understand we’re dealing with fiction, here, and fiction is meant to be entertaining. Which is doable, IMO; it just takes thought and a willingness to question the subtexts we’ve all absorbed. There’s a lot of room between the extremes of entertaining but stupid cliche and harsh reality, after all, and my favorite authors — Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee, China Mieville — have been the kind who successfully navigated this middle ground. Hopefully I’ve managed to do the same in my own work.

(Oh, and you can read the first chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on my website, if you want a taste of how I’ve handled this. Let me know what you think.)