By Scott Bury
“…the possibility of having to deal with mental illness or disability doesn’t arise enough in genre fiction storylines, fantasy included – at least not as much as a proper attempt at realism would demand.”
Chantal Boudreau’s post last week got me wondering: else is often left out of fantasy writing?
I heartily agree with her thesis: mental illness is a major problem in our world today, but it’s almost never reflected in fantasy writing, except in villains and anti-heroes. This is a powerful demonstration of the stigma that mental illness carries.
In fact, it’s rare to see mental illness treated honestly and sympathetically in any kind of fiction. Genre writing may be more susceptible to this problem, because any genre has to have some conventions.
One of my goals in writing fantasy is to break conventions. The hero of my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, is on the autism spectrum. I have never seen that in a fantasy book before.
One convention, down. But what else is absent from most of the work in our genre?
The purpose of fantasy
Fantasy fiction often abstracts or symbolizes the issues of the real world, today. Reflecting our everyday reality helps us understand issues, problems, relationships and phenomena by presenting them from a different perspective.
An excellent example, albeit from science fiction rather than fantasy (a fuzzy border) is Dune by Frank Herbert. In that interstellar opera, “Spice” is an analogy for oil in today’s global economy: they’re both scarce, expensive and the basis of transportation and development of civilization. The author displayed deep insight by depicting the addictive properties of Spice. Our civilization has been addicted to oil for over a century: even though it’s killing us, we make huge efforts to procure it, like a junkie after his next fix. Like an addict, we outright reject giving it up — we know going cold turkey would destroy us. And the efforts to develop alternatives are well-intentioned, but ineffective.
What are some major elements of today’s world that could be reflected in our books and stories?
Addictions – How can fantasy reflect the scourge of addiction in a fantasy world? Addiction can be like possession – the addict is not in control of his/her actions anymore. But for fantasy to really achieve its potential, we have to go deeper. We have to examine how addiction or possession affects other aspects of the addict’s/possessed’s life, how it affects others those in relationships with the addict/possessed, how the addict often protects the addiction, how it can be supported and furthered by other elements in the world around it, and much more.
Religious fundamentalism – I cannot be the only one who has noticed a hardening of faith-based attitudes and increasing intolerance for people who act differently than others — not just Wahabi Islam, but among some Christian groups in the West, and other religions, as well. Autumn Birt’s Rise of the Fifth Order series has a strong theme of religious oppression, but I don’t know of many books that get into how a society can be divided and transformed by competing, intolerant religions.
Environmental degradation – There may be more books about the gradual destruction of the natural environment — I just can’t think of any right now. Stephen Montano’s Blood Skies series has a strong environmental message, but it’s more about how war has destroyed the environment.
Poverty – so many fantasy books deal with royalty. It’s understandable, but we as a genre, as the authors of this genre, need to branch out and write more about ordinary people and poor people. Bruce Blake’s Khirro’s Journey takes some good steps in that direction. While a medieval-style king, nobility, warriors and wizards who want to rule the world are key features, the focus on the hero’s peasant background and the poor origins of the other characters is refreshing.
What about you? What new issues, ideas and problems from our real world would you like to see reflected in fantasy novels? Which ones are you going to tackle in your next book?