Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let's Get Whimsical

In comments on the last post I stepped into Large Predators enclosure at the zoo by remarking that the idea of 'uplifting' - genetic fiddling to produce animals with human-level intelligence - struck me as essentially whimsical. (More specifically, I said that it was all about the coolness of talking animals.)

Whimsical is probably not entirely the word of choice for a trope that has firm roots in the early days of self-aware SF. And no, I do not plan to discuss uplifting here. If I did, the post would have a different title ... say, House of Pain.

In fact, 'whimsical' is not the most accurate, fully inclusive term for what I do intend to discuss, but that is the word I thought of, so I will stick with it. The topic is, roughly, the sort of fiction that does not even pretend to be Realistic[TM]. Which, comes to think of it, specifically excludes uplifting, which at least makes a claim to realism.

But we will stick with talking animals for the moment. In non-sfnal form they go back at least to Aesop's Fable, but last century must have been a golden age for the talking animal trope. In spite of Mr. Ed the talking horse, and his progenitor Francis the talking mule, rabbits seem particularly favored - and, as we shall see, notably significant.

At least in American popular culture the most famous talking animal is surely Bugs Bunny. (Not Mickey Mouse, a corporate logo that is all but forgotten as an actual character.) While I don't exactly think of Bugs as whimsical - a term that, at least to Americans, has distinctly British connotations - surely he and the rest of the Warner Bros gang qualify in practice.

Realism, in any ordinary sense, is not even dimly in view here. Yet whatever is going on, it certainly works, and has stood up to time pretty well.

I do not know whether The Wind in the Willows is whimsical, though it is certainly British. It is, sad to say, on that dreadfully long list of books that I have not yet managed to read. The part about simply messing around in boats sounds whimsical - and also a good enough reason to get off my aspect and read the book.

Bugs Bunny and the Willows crowd have in common that they are nominally aimed at children. The Warner Bros cartoons notoriously have plenty for the grown-ups, supposedly flying under the kiddie radar. (This is surely true of most great kidlit, yet probably less important than claimed. It merely gives us permission, as adults, to still watch or read.)

Are children actually more open to, say, talking animals as characters? Because they don't yet know the boundaries of Realism[TM]? Or, like the pop-culture references in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, is this just a pose designed for adults so that we can pretend we are above the talking-animal stuff?

What we call realism is, after all, itself a pure literary convention. This applies both to the kind of realism I deal with on this blog, details of spaceship design and such, and also - I will cheerfully assert - to the 'higher realism' to which serious, non-genre literature is presumed to aspire.

The 'willing suspension of disbelief,' as Tolkien called it, seems in fact to be only loosely related to any sort of realism. There may be benighted souls who can't come to grips with Bugs Bunny because rabbits don't talk. And we can pity them, but they are surely not typical. Most of us have no difficulty with such tropes, any more than we do with the idea that a private detective probably will solve the murder by the end of the book.

The entire Evil Website is, in a way, a meditation on the place, and non-place, of Realism[TM] in fiction.

But to bring this discussion around to the more typical themes of this blog, consider one of the more interesting talking non-rabbits in children's literature: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien, whose opinions on the subject of hobbits are reasonably authoritative, does not mention talking bunnies as part of their background. (Quite surprisingly, he does mention Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, a character I'd never have thought of in relation to hobbits.) The word hobbit fits into a tradition of English words for mythical creatures; compare hobgoblin.

Still, it is hard not to imagine that at some subconscious level, at least, The Hobbit shared some kinship with The Wind in the Willows, and distantly with Bugs Bunny himself.

Having said that, it is hard to see much whimsical about Middle-Earth.


Note: For the first time I have a good excuse for being behind in posting here: I am working on editorial revisions for Catherine of Lyonesse.

The image of messing about in boats comes from a blog by 'An English lady in Prague.'

Sunday, March 3, 2013

High Kings and Galactic Emperors - Monarchy in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science fiction has been rather curiously given to monarchical government. 'Curiously' in the sense that (at any rate to 'Murricans) it is a form of government associated with the past, and certainly not with rocket ships, monorails, food pills, cyborgs, or the rest of the retro-future paraphernalia that sci-fi still loosely connotes in the popular culture. And even, with a reservation or two, in SF fandom.

The situation in fantasy is somewhat different. In spite of urban fantasy and all the rest, fantasy still connotes first and foremost a setting rooted in a medievalesque past, where kings - and the occasional queen regnant - are perfectly at home.

I have read a number of arguments over the years suggesting that the widespread practice of monarchy in SF says something about the authors who use the trope, and probably not to their credit. (Sorry, no links, but if you want examples, Google is your friend.) Similar critical remarks have been made not just about fantasy authors, but its readers, and the very existence of the (sub)genre.

For my purpose, the virtues or defects of monarchism as a political position are fairly beside the point. Kingship has certainly been widespread, suggesting that it was a workable default position, at any rate in the agrarian age. For an intellectual defense you probably still can't do better than Hobbes' Leviathan. Not to mention that as a critique of anarchism and its cousins, it is hard to improve on solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But I would argue - in fact, I will argue - that the roots of monarchism in SF have less to do with political philosophy than with basic story considerations.

Bourgeois representative democracy, classical Athenian-style democracy, classical Roman-style republicanism, medieval oligarchical republicanism a la Venice, military juntas, fascistic fuehrerprinzip, Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat, nominally Communist party-committee oligarchy, pure bureaucratic functionary-ism, and both Iranian and al-Queda style theocracy, all have at least one thing in common: The likelihood of a teenage girl becoming head of state under any of these systems is pretty much nil.

Yes, that particular consideration has rather narrow applicability. But it is part of a broader point: Leadership in all of those systems is in some broad sense a workday job. To be sure, rulership is, in contemporary biz-speak, a 24/7 position. But it is walled off, at least in principle, from all the other dimensions of a ruler's life.

Yes, that principle may be honored in the breach: Presidents and dictators do indeed have personal lives that can and do spill over into their official roles. The spillover can even, at times, be substantial, and have some real consequences. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.   

Hereditary monarchy is a different beast. Quoting myself from an earlier post here (and, originally, a now-defunct website), hereditary monarchy is a political system that takes sex out of the bedroom and puts it in the history books.

Admittedly there was not much sex in midcentury SF or F. But the authors of these works knew their history, at any rate Western history. Which, from the Julio-Claudians to the Tudors and beyond, offers ample enough demonstration of the uniquely colorful potential of hereditary monarchy.

Someone in the back row is pointing out that the Principate under the Julio-Claudians was not really a hereditary monarchy. (Nor did the Empire ever quite become one, even under the Paleologi more than a thousand years later.) But that was sort of the problem, wasn't it? With no other constitutional mechanism at hand, a kinda sorta hereditary succession was the least worst alternative, with an added element of uncertainty that ramped up family dysfunction even above the usual royal standard.

And on the flip side, monarchy brings grandeur to family dysfunction. Consider The Lion in Winter. The actual story line has all the makings of a squirm-inducing soap opera. But because it is the royal Angevins (and, yes, brilliantly written) it transcends its soap opera plot.

Or, to put it another way, hereditary monarchy is singularly well-suited to Romance. By fully entangling the personal and the political it provides great story fuel. And story trumps futurism, or even political philosophy, every time.


The Flickr page for the royal headgear above describes it as 'Not THE crown, just a crown.' But the lighting is appropriately cool.