Monday, March 19, 2012

Why are we stuck in the Middle Ages?

Something has been picking at my brain for a while, and it's something I will fully cop to being somewhat complicit in myself.

Why is the fantasy genre stuck in the Middle Ages?

More specifically, why is most secondary-world fantasy set in a technological and sociological equivalent of the Middle Ages?

I mean, sure, there's some variation-- for some books it's more of a Renaissance, and some move out of a Western European mold for Arabic or Asian flavors, but the technology and sociology is pretty much a given.  I remember being slightly thrown reading Amanda Downum's Drowning City when she had characters using single-shot pistols, and then I thought, "Well, why not?"

Now, I've tried to tweak that, personally.  Maradaine, and by extension the rest of Druthal, has more in common with Dickensian England than Elizabethan England-- save a lack of gunpowder weapons and steam engines.  (Though, to an extent, I have created it as a world where either of those things could be poised to emerge in the very near future.)  But, even with that worldbuilding flavor, it's not so out there that people won't be able to latch onto its Traditional Fantasy/Western Europe/somewhat clock-punky vibe. 

What's funny is we DO accept fantasy of a different tech level just fine-- fantasy tropes in the modern world is what Urban Fantasy is all about, after all.  But those are consistently set in our world, tweaked with magic and vampires and other fantasy elements. 

Is anyone doing secondary-world fantasy that really hard-twists this paradigm?  I can think of two: China Meiville is one.  And Neal Stephenson with Anathem.  But the latter was more alt-Earth sci-fi than fantasy. 

I'd really love to see something in full high-fantasy mode, but set with WWII tech.  Or science-and-magic fueled Race to the Five Moons. 

Which brings me to another point.  Not only is our idea of technology in secondary-world fantasy somewhat stagnant, but secondary fantasy worlds tend to be technologically (and sociologically) stagnant.  For how many books are things more or less absolutely the same for millennia?  Even to the point of the same borders. 


Daniel Fawcett said...

I would point you to James P. Blaylock's "Balumnia" books (which I am including in my next blog, actually). The tech level there is hard to pin down. There is certainly a Tolkien-esque vibe (particularly _The Hobbit_), but there are references to 18th Century tech, steam-driven oddities, and a submarine. The technologies are anachronistic, but it is fine because his world-build is engaging.

Michael Caton said...

Thank you. This is exactly my complaint about the fantasy genre. Most of it seems to be transparently the early Middle Ages, with the names of the countries changed, and the reports of miracles and magic taken literally (but the Christian language and symbolism taken out), complete with barbarians on the borders and often the looming shadow of a fallen empire. The genre's inventor was a medievalist, so big surprise there. As to why medieval times specifically are more interesting - have there been Sumerian scholars that tried to do the same and their stories didn't spawn a genre? - I don't know, although to be exciting to us moderns I think
you need a) some kind nation-state identity so you can engage the tribal loyalty circuit, b) 1:1 combat, c) recognizable values that you think were carried by people who you think basically looked like you (even if they weren't) and d) it's far enough away and long enough ago that the endemic disease and violence in these times and places can be ignored (hence, no fantasy in modern sub-Saharan Africa, because it's hard to escape the realization that it's just miserable.)

Boiling down my complaint, "early medieval" seems unnecessarily restrictive, and it strikes me a damn shame that when someone is writing speculative fiction where they're allowed to bring the setting into play and use it for any authorial purpose they want,
they go to Home Depot and buy the same old backdrop. Not that science fiction stories avoid this same problem or consider the point of why they're using the setting they are, but when a genre is *defined* as using one type of setting, I think it's going to get in trouble. (Hence why I like China Mieville as well.)

Michael Caton said...

I expanded my comment at my own blog, Daniel, I picked on your comment a little, so only fair that I warn you.

Daniel Fawcett said...

Michael, I don't consider it "pickiing on" me at all. There is context here (Marshall and I have talked about this very thing before, and I've pointed him toward _The Elifin Ship_ over it), but it's not "picking" to point out that my response merely kicks the can a few feet further down the road.