“What kind of books do you write?”
It comes even before “What is the title of your book?” In a way, that’s perfectly all right, there’s only so much you can deduce from a title. I mean, Incompetent Gods could be about anything, fiction or non-fiction: a tsunami in India, the tribulations of an animist priest in Africa, the banking fiasco in Iceland… Name it, I’m sure there’s a way to blame the gods for it.
I answer, and there it is: the blank stare, the Huh?, the what the *&?%$#@ is Satirical Fantasy? I guess I could be condescending and say that it’s Fantasy mixed with Satire, but most of the time, the person I’m talking to is smart enough to have gotten that. No, I think they just don’t quite understand how the two genres can blend together. So I give the Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams reference, but sadly, in the United States and Canada, they are not the literary idols they should be.
If I have more time, I try to explain: “It takes place in a world that is different than ours, and in poking fun at its society’s quirks, actually points out the absurdities of our own.” I personally feel it’s a pretty good explanation, but it doesn’t seem to help, the blank stare is still there (despite the ardent nodding accompanying the fixed smile).
And I have to ask myself: why is that? In a way, this mix is almost as old as the written word. If we remember the Ancient Greeks more for their tragedies, they wrote just as many comedies, and the most constant thing you can say about their plays is that the fantastic was always involved somehow. Even at the birth of European literature we find examples of it: Aesop’s Fables led to the stories of Reynard (a multilingual corpus of fables that pits a malicious talking fox against medieval society). Later Rabelais shook the world with his giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. In modern times, the genre crossed the channel and gave us Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm.
These books are all well known, great classics of literature even, so what is it about Satirical Fantasy that bothers people to the point of having difficulty acknowledging its existence?
First, let me specify that none of the aforementioned novels was ever classified as such. Usually, they were stuffed in an uncomfortable category, like Gulliver’s Travels – and its almost savage satire of British contemporary society – finding itself in children’s literature… And yet, they all make use of the fantastic (gods, monsters, sorcerers, talking beasts, magic, giants, Lilliputians, fairies, and so on), they all make you laugh, and, most importantly, they can all make you think (if you feel so inclined).
Of course, it doesn’t help that the term Satirical Fantasy is not official. Most Satirical Fantasy novels are classified in opposition to heroic High Fantasy (which is inherently hostile to laughter), and so dubbed Low Fantasy – a derogatory term if I ever heard one – or Humorous Fantasy. This last actually works quite well as a classification (maybe I should use it – make my life simpler), but feels a little too large and vague.
Satire is not quite comedy. While it is often confused with parody or pastiche, it is fundamentally different: if they are meant as funny imitations of a (usually) more serious work, satire aims to be an ironic parody of society itself. It exposes the difference between man as he is and man as he should be, and can be tragic in its humor. This brings us back to our main issue: if satire is meant to laugh at our society, our institutions, how can it be layered onto Fantasy?
The problem stems from the many misconceptions that plague Fantasy and Science Fiction. Both genres are usually considered with disdain as paraliterature, or mere fluff, and while sometimes this reputation is fully deserved (there is plenty of mind-bogglingly bad fantasy out there), many authors have managed to rise above it to give us thought provoking, beautifully written prose.
However, the most important thing people forget about Science Fiction and Fantasy is that the worlds they present are meant to be transcendent images of our own. They can help apprehend reality, pierce through its illusions. Like Tolkien posited, Fantasy is in fact about simple, fundamental things, but these banalities are valorized by their environment. Another advantage is that if the inhabitants of these other dimensions have the same moral and spiritual concerns as we do, these can be more clearly defined, making the necessity for a solution more vital. In building a world, writers of fantasy study questions that have preoccupied political philosophers since the dawn of organized society.
Think of the incredibly complex universe of the Dune series (to my taste, the best mix of Fantasy and Science Fiction ever written). Jumping across large spans of time, Frank Herbert explores one salvation after the other (creating systems that are often eerily familiar), then debunks each one, extrapolating its end or eventual limit. He shows us that maybe there is no single or simple solution; that we are doomed to always be searching for what will inevitably become a temporary fix-up.
When you think about Fantasy that way, then adding Satire to it doesn’t seem as far-fetched. What’s more, irony, far from invalidating Fantasy, adds dimension to the often over-simplistic ethical commentary of the genre, bringing it closer to real human preoccupations. And in return, Fantasy, with its intense moral aspects, allows the critic to address issues at a more profound level.
Satire coupled with Fantasy brings us to the realization that no matter what world a sapient being inhabits, life remains a constant source of frustration, tragic ridicule, and comic absurdity. Through that Other’s eyes, you can turn preconceptions around: the impossible becomes logical, logic reveals its absurdity, and the absurd suddenly seems familiar.
Turn evil into ridicule, and it disappears; evil has its pride. Laughter destroys fear and veneration, but it needs, and creates, familiarity. To make you laugh, the writer of Satiric Fantasy must anchor the imaginary in reality. And herein, perhaps, lies the problem: is Satirical Fantasy too real? Realer even than reality? Does it touch a nerve?
Fantasy is free-form, and in that mirror image of infinite possibilities, the reflection Satire shows us can be difficult to accept.
Brave enough to peek? Here are a few suggestions:
Terry Pratchett – All the novels of Discworld
Tom Holt – Pretty much everything
Douglas Adams – the Dirk Gently books
(The Hitchhiker series is wonderful too, but more Sci-fi than Fantasy)
And, of course, Yours Truly – The Gods Inc. series.
Mikhaïl Bakhtine, Esthétique et théorie du roman.
John M. Bullit, Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire.
Andrew Butler, Theories of Humor, in Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Litterature. 2nd Edition.
Jean R. Sheidegger, Le Roman de Renart ou le texte de la derision.
Ann Swinfen, In Defense of Fantasy. A study of the genre in English and American litterature since 1945.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf. Including the poem Mythopoeia.