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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Capitalist Fantasy: Where’s it at?

I had an interesting though the other day. With the exception of urban fantasy, which tends to take place in an nearby past or version of the present (with varying degrees of separation), the fantasy genre lacks a capitalist vein. Science fiction, of course, has plenty of this, but why doesn’t fantasy?

The obvious answer is: time period. Most fantasy is written in a pseudo-medieval period with significant resemblance to medieval Europe with exceptional variations (the inclusion of magic, fantastic creatures, and different locales). Since capitalism did not exist in such periods, it makes sense that such places would not be run by capitalist structures. To be fair, medieval Europe was not capitalist primarily because of two factors (at least as I understand it): slow transportation and medieval feudalism. It’s difficult to imagine an economic system like capitalism functioning in a place that is not only seemingly run by an authoritarian figure whose personal rules stand for the word of God (more or less), but also incapable of supporting a system that needs to change, adapt, and move at a rapid pace. Fantasy, thus, enacts this real-world lack; capitalism does not exist there because, as in our world, it cannot.

But why not? With magic such a prevalent force in many fantasies, why wouldn’t we see more of the capitalist structures that made up early capitalist America (or Britain, for that matter)? Magic lends itself so well to being a commodity, for good or bad. You can look to some of the strongest examples of late in which a market is given shape, and yet nothing in that shape indicates any sort of logical economic type. Harry Potter, for example, has Diagon Alley, and Gringott’s Bank, but yet we hear nothing of wages. We’re told there are rich and poor families, but it seems that the richest families embody the nobility and the poorest seem, more or less, like peasants. All of this is on purpose, I suppose, because capitalism is not a central theme, or even a side theme; capitalism is not important to Harry Potter. But why shouldn’t it be? Why does fantasy have to ignore these significant social issues in exchange for the adventures and prophecies (not all fantasy does this, but the stereotype of the genre is not unfounded).

I suppose what I’m asking is: where are my capitalist fantasies? Double entendres are clever!

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  1. I find that most capitalist fantasies tend to have a Middle-Eastern feel, or at least the capitalist cities in fantasies do.

  2. Andy: Got any specific examples?

  3. China Mieville has an explicitly Socialist/Capitalist dichotomy of ideologies in his novel Iron Council, which is probably a case of write what you know, as Mieville is a member of the Socialist Party in the UK. The New Crobuzon society is one that seems to be a Capitalist elective tyranny.

    Naturally (due to the development of Ankh-Morpork from fantastic city, to Victorian mirror) the most recent Pratchett novels are flirting with Capitalist interests. Night Watch covers an abortive workers revolt, and Going Postal and Making Money are about the vital needs for a Capitalist society to be constructed.

    Unless one were to consider Dune a fantasy, and the Great Houses as corporations, that's all I can think of at the moment. If I come up with any more, I'll post.

  4. Riadan: Mieville does true second world fantasy when he pulls out the capitalism? I'm not interested in capitalism in quasi-present fantasy (urban fantasy or even second worlds in urban fantasy settings). Mostly just interested in "traditional" second world fantasy set in the "past."

    Pratchett, while great, deals more with satire, irony, and parody. I don't necessarily have a problem with humorous fantasy, just that I find comedy to be far more obvious about its contemporary allegory than other styles.

    Dune is science fiction. :P

  5. Anonymous10:34 PM

    Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" is most definitely a capitalist fantasy -- or at least a fantasy written by a capitalist. (And a pretty zany capitalist, too.)

  6. Lawrence Watt-Evans has some strong capitalist elements in some of his Ethshar series. BLOOD OF A DRAGON and THE SPRIGGAN MIRROR in particular.

  7. Both novels deal with people running businesses that supply wizards with the difficult to find materials used in their spells.

  8. Thanks for the suggestions Anon and David!

  9. Well, if you want rampant pro-capitalist sentiment (even if very little in the way of an actually capitalistic social structure...) there's always Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series.

    Other than that, yeah, most traditional fantasy is going to based in a feudal setting, and any overt capitalism is going to be limited to a small merchant class.

    Sherwood Smith's Inda books also occasionally drop references to the various economic structures, and suggest a degree of economic development, but they're definitely not capitalist yet.

    And Robin Hobb's Bingtown Traders actually have a very capitalist feel, at least in the limited context of the sea ports -- and to go along with what someone upthread mentioned, that part of Hobb's world also has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel, at least to the extent that there are "satraps."

    I think part of the lack-of-capitalism might just be the general habit of having fantasy worlds be governed by kings, and at least in the western tradition, that generally implies some version of feudalism. If there's no king, it's usually a frontier-esque setting, which presents different problems for introducing a capitalist society.

  10. SueSimp: I agree with you. I think it's a travesty, though. There should be more attempts at capitalist fantasy, not because I am a capitalist or support it or anything like that, but because it would be interesting to see how fantasy authors deal with the problems of capitalism in a fantastic setting. Hmm.

  11. Since you offer no definition of capitalism, it makes it hard to really discuss this issue. I would, however, point you specifically to Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series which, while not one of my favourites, is set around the time of the industrial revolution and often deals with working conditions of labourers, equating evil with poor conditions and poor wages, etc.

    There's a host of other contemporary fantasy (including most post-colonial & new weird themed works) that is set in or critiques capitalist society; quite a bit of epic fantasy deals with imperial expansion, etc. in societies with monetary wages (Robin Hobb, Raymond E. Feist/Janny Wurts); steampunk generally co-exists with capitalism or something very close to it, depending on your definition; and science fantasy, especially when crossed over with cyberpunk aspects, definitely takes on capitalism, usually including culture clash between societies with and without conceptualizations of capital (one that is purely fantasy with the culture clash issue and minus an imperialistic society is Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Ring series). Some of Holly Lisle's works have very definite themes relating to capitalism (Talyn especially comes to mind). Other historical fantasies spring to mind, such as some of Guy Gavriel Kay's works.

    Perhaps it used to be the case, but I think that capitalism is definitely there in the genre. Especially since people write what they know... capitalist practices end up in places where they "shouldn't" be historically and logically, because that's how the writer views things. I suspect that science fiction gets to deal with it a little more overtly due to standard genre set ups being an extension of present day practices/beliefs.

    But capitalist practices debatably began and existed in ancient times, so it's not something limited only to contemporary settings.

    PS-I find it odd that many of your generalizations discount only urban fantasy :)

  12. Sara: Thanks for the suggestions!

  13. Ooooh, now you know you're giving me ideas for stuff to write here:)

  14. hyperbad: Happy to help!