Monday, January 25, 2010

A treacherous land

Tomorrow is Australia Day, and very new Australian I find myself going to my very first Australia Day barbie on the beach up at Killiekrankie. I'm quite looking forward to it. It's a strange feeling as I have been withdrawing from the concept of patriotism to South Africa for the last few years - which was hard as I come from a long line of people who fought either against oppressors for _their_ country or who volunteered to serve in the wars of their country. You can argue the logic and wax on about territorial imperitives etc. but there is a strong (and often illogical) tendency in many of us to find a group to ID with and to stand with them. This is a powerful arena to write in. Anything that stirs strong, primal emotions is. It's also of course a potentially treacherous land as the beloved of one group is often the bete noir (beyond logic sometimes in both cases) of another large section of the potential audience. So - a strong emotional driver - but a dangerous area where the allegience of the writer - and the reader - can over-run the bounds of common sense. It's a great story - but say the author is so anti/pro American as to alienate a large part of his/her audience (thereby not only losing sales, but the opportunity to show the positive aspects of his 'group'). Yes, the chorus of faithful will enjoy it. And that can be a substantial audience if that's a big group. But it is dangerous country for writers. No, I am not suggesting that you have to avoid it, the opposite - it is powerful stuff and dangerous territory is what makes books exciting and makes enthusiasts out of what might be tepid readers. What I am saying is it is not the country for blind assumptions that everyone (or everyone worth writing for)shares your viewpoint. I wrote extensively about it in MUCH FALL OF BLOOD (because I was very much in flux myself about issues of national identity) and the need of refugees (not economic migrants) to find certain things in order to integrate. I was very much writing about modern migration - with the strong feelings this raises, but I was able to put into an apparently neutral context, and to let the readers into the heads of the protagonists. I think it worked and makes it very strong book. But what do the rest of you think? does patriotism have any place in modern fiction? is it there whether we like it or not? (I've yet to read a single fantasy without some of it). How should it be handled?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


You talk about being able to tackle subjects in fantasy, because they are one step removed from this world.

This what I was saying in my masters exegesis. We can use the fantasy genre to explore discrimination and persecution because we take away the 'loaded nouns' like black, Jew or Muslim and allow the reader identify with the persecuted.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oh, and enjoy your Australia Day BBQ on the beach!

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Dave, this is a great topic to bring up. Holding up a mirror to society can be one of the greatest things a writer can do with their time (in my opinion, anyway, but then I like reading things which make me think. A bit).

The issue of patriotism in books is interesting, and I agree, I can't think of a single piece of fantasy that I've read which lacks it as a feature. No, tell a lie, I've just finished Perdido Street Station, but then that is not a classical heroic fantasy.

I have a difficult time with patriotism in real life, but for some reason I find it strangely comforting and believable in fiction - I suspect because, as you say, its a primal instinct to seek out something greater than oneself to identify with, and its easier to do that with fictional states and people than with the real-world examples of which I have far more knowledge.

I don't think that patriotism naturally has a place in heroic fiction, its just that when you are dealing with rallying armies and clashes of ideals and beliefs, pride in a state often is the driving force behind soldiers' motivations (and I think the books that buck the trend and show more complex motivations on the part of generals, heroes, and the common rank-and-file are the better for it). I think that the reluctant- or anti-hero stereotypes are the natural stomping ground for fantasy without patriotism, since these come pre-loading in readers minds with the expectation that they lack the same motivations as other heroes.

Rowena, I think you are definitely right that fantasy can explore topics without the "loaded nouns" (a great description for them by the way). However, it has to be done with a measure of subtlety - simply applying national characteristics to a fictional group and calling them quizblorgs rather than Yankees lessens the impact of any philosophical exploration the author might engage in.

WangZheng259 said...


I think it does have a place. I think it should be handled well.

I am entirely too interested in the subject. I consider nationalism to be a part of a concept I call the unit of loyalty. Family, tribe, region, ethnic group, and nation are all units that a person can be loyal to. Then there are all the others you can add in, like friends, ideology, humanity as a whole, intelligent life as a whole, the end of all things, one's master, one's minons, one's sports team and so forth. There is all sorts of power in asking which is the primary loyalty, and if it really exists, can exist, or will continue to exist.

It might be possible to write a story without it, but a protagonist entirely devoid of any true loyalty might tend to be fairly contemptable.

In a setting with nations that exist as more than a formality, and which has any conflict whatsoever between them, it is likely that some measure of patriotism exists somewhere. (I expect conflict between units of loyalty, but it doesn't have to dominate the story.)

I have found that a lot of urban fantasy, for example, does not look at the nation unit of loyalty enough to really fill my appetite. (It is possible that something which could fill it would have too small of a market.)

Probably it is a matter of things in writing being like medicines, where if it has the power to be of great use, it can be very harmful when done improperly.

Anonymous said...

Another aspect of patriotism in writing, or any other media, for that matter, is makeing the reader aware of his or her own feelings. Our desire to belong to a group is primal, and often not consciously recognized.

I think that's one of the reasons _Starship Troopers_ had such a lasting impact on me. I had not consciously examined either the relationship between a people and their country-and-government nor my own relationship with them. The realization that the responsibility goes both ways, was new to me, at that tender age, probably thirteen or fourteen. Our relationship to our country changes as the whole body politic changes the country-and-government. We can only control the part of the relationship that is inside our heads. A whole bunch of us have to think roughly the same, for a good long time, to effect a change at the other end.

In the case of SA, the majority of the populous recreated the government and led the country someplace that Dave, among others, wasn't willing to follow or support.

Just as SF often explores the results of scientific breakthroughs, both SF and Fantasy can show bluntly what is right and wrong in governments.

A lot of the passion and fury in a Fantasy comes from the passion we all have inside for our homes.

Dave, I hope that you look over your new found country, and find everything you need, to engage that passion again.


Dave Freer said...

Rowena - while I agree that fantasy can indeed allow these things - my pet bugbear with exploring say discrimination and persecution in Fantasy is that most fantasy is like-it-or-not set in some form of medieval society... which as almost any historian will tell you was mostly a very narrow, bigoted, sexist, stratified, dirty, poverty-stricken unpleasant world for good socio-political reasons. (Note I am not defending these things, merely stating whether in China or Europe medieval societies were the present day citizen's idea of unspeakable, and for those on the bottom of the pile, often close to hell.) I am just saying there are good reasons WHY these conditions existed and were replicated in many places -from India to Lithuania. Yet countless fantasy authors conveniently ignore these realities, _WITHOUT_EVEN_THE_ BENEFIT_OF_'HANDWAVIUM'_ logic as to why the castle laundry maid has days off and can go shopping for some new clothes, and why lady-knights can be the equals of men, and why strangers of a different color or creed or language are not murdered out of hand etc. Then it's not exploring these things - it's a poor grasp of history, a worse grasp of socio-politics and an overdose of political correctness.

Dave Freer said...

Jonathan - I suspect many writers - like myself - involve socio-politics int their books because that is who they are and they too are product of their times and environment. Some books set out to preach, and are usually boring. Others weave the philosophy of the writer into the prose - some more subtly and palatatably than others. A book is seldom actually just one thing (it's a mirror to society, it's a piece of entertainment, it's a potenial piece of toilet tissue...) The trick is not being the third because you neglected the second.

Patriotism - why I brought it up specifically - is that is a reality and a strong motivator... and yet it's become 'unclean and uncool'. Hmm.

Dave Freer said...

WangZheng259 - I suspect the issue is as germane as say sexual liberation was in the sixties. It's real, and sharp and potent among the young nations. It's time we stopped blinkering on it.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, the concept of loyalty (of any kind) being a two-way street is one the political establishment of South Africa has been at pains to dispel ;-). I found the statement of Australian values in migration information was able to make me passionate in their defence. (chuckle) I am already finding some of the nanny-bits (the latest - a law saying you have to lock your car) enough to make me angry.