On the Reality of Fantasy

I was wandering around the internets when I came across this quote from Hayao Miyazaki (Golden Times, English translation from RocketNews24).

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life. If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.

This got me thinking, and the problem is more widespread than just anime. I get the feeling that in some ways, all fantasy media is headed in a direction that is more navel gazing, more insulated, and more distant from reality.

Disclaimer: I really enjoy a lot of modern fantasy. I read Brandon Sanderson all the time, and I play fantasy games almost constantly. Many current fantasy creators are extremely talented, and I tip my hat to their abilities. That doesn’t mean that the current state of the genre is above criticism, though.

My criticism is that modern fantasy fiction is being written for and by people who have a hard time with reality, and fantasy is their catharsis. This is shown in how these stories use fantastical elements to abstract away and simplify reality, or how the protagonists often have super powers (or super features) that make them “better” than the normies.

While part of the point of fantasy is to talk about reality using symbolic or abstract metaphors to simplify otherwise difficult ideas to express, I feel like many of the abstractions in modern fantasy simply blur reality rather than illuminate it. Rather than put an idea in a new light that makes it easier to see, these abstraction simply paint over the stuff that the creator doesn’t want to deal with. Are the realities of intergender relationships too hard? That’s fine, have your protagonist take three wives and have nobody care. Is it too inconvenient that in your medievalist setting that information spreads slowly? No big deal, just have a wizard make fantasy email. Are you stuck in a situation with no rational way to the conclusion you want? Better write a fantasy where your characters can become gods whenever you want.

The problem with this is that it makes stories boring in (at least) two ways.

The first is that when all conflicts are solved by godlike powers, there’s basically no stakes. The drama is completely gone. Even in stories where you KNOW the protagonist is going to succeed, even the satisfaction of finding out HOW they succeed is gone. In a better story, the slow revelation of new information, new aspects of the setting and characters creates an ongoing trail of discovery. In worse stories, the people who are “supposed” to succeed simply gain the ability to do so (or in some particularly stupid stories, had the ability from the beginning) for no rational reason.

The second problem is that it creates art that is meaningless. This is similar to the problem of coming up with “original” ideas. If an idea is completely original, completely disconnected from prior experience, then it’s going to be basically meaningless. This is because meaning only comes from connecting new experiences to previous ones. Likewise, if the creator uses fantasy to gloss over human experiences–either because they don’t understand them or find them too difficult–then that removes a connection between the creation and experience. It makes it harder for the fantasy creation to be meaningful.

This may, however, be simply a symptom of wider cultural trends than a problem specifically with fantasy. As humans amass into larger and larger groups, and streamline our lives with technology, by necessity we have to simplify the kinds of interactions we have. To do otherwise would be to live in an increasingly and unmanageably complex world that we are not equipped to handle. Abstraction is used to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps that’s all this boils down to then, the improper use of a necessary tool. Let’s leave it there for now, and I’ll let that thought simmer. Maybe I’ll make another post later.

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