Sunday, 19 January 2014

Pratchett and the Politics of Fantasy

So I've had a few attempts already (See and at articulating my concerns about the worrying racist assumptions that seem to lurk behind much of Tolkien's fantasy and the genre that he created. The main problem I noticed was the separation of characters into mutually antagonistic races that are fundamentally distinct. Crude physical and social caricatures are used in place of more complex characterisation and certain 'races' are seen as fundamentally warlike and irredeemable. This creates worrying analogies with issues of racial relations and assimilation in the real world which seem to be increasingly a concern of the media and certain political groups.

Having set the boundaries of the debate I intend to consider a writer who pushes the boundaries of this debate in a comic fantasy format and introduces narratives of persecution and emancipation to the traditionally racialised landscapes of post-Tolkien fantasy.

Terry Pratchett is a fantastic author who, a few one-off novels aside, has mainly concentrated on the fantasy world of Discworld (a flat earth that drifts through space on the back of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle). He rejects the traditional seriousness of fantasy with the addition of funny jokes, an irreverent tone and anachronisms such as the introduction of the railway and PDA to a world that has barely developed beyond the Renaissance.

He is at his best when siding with the underdogs of the Discworld. Everybody I've discussed Discworld with has loved Rincewind, the terminally unlucky failed wizard, and in his more recent books he has attempted an alternate characterisation of the oft-demonised goblins and orcs that had been previously been absent from his books.

Thus he by-passes many of the concerns that I have raised in previous articles. His goblins are not the perennial villains of mainstream fantasy but an oppressed and persecuted race who turn out to have many talents when they are allowed to participate on equal terms. Pratchett turns the table by instead vilifying the opulent landowners who exploit them on plantations reminiscent of the 19th century Caribbean. Similarly Dwarves and Trolls are not distant races that live in glorious isolation and racial purity but large immigrant communities in the increasingly modern city of Ankh Morpork.    

However, while Discworld is an improvement on other fantasy series, I am wary of giving Pratchett an entirely clean bill. He rejects racial essentialism by focussing instead on a value-based, meritocratic approach to characterisation. We are frequently presented with heroic, striving characters such as Commander Vimes and Harry King who have overcome their origins through sheer bloody mindedness and hard work. Similarly the goblins and orcs are redeemed by their great capacity for learning and hard work when not being kicked around by oppressive racists.

The problem with this is that Pratchett has to emphasise the heroic characters and virtues of these paradigms by contrasting them with their more stupid and lazy contemporaries who could themselves get on just as well if they were just a little bit cannier and more dedicated.

This approach is preferable to a lazy xenophobia but does require a portrayal of the masses as basically worthless and flawed. In 'Unseen Academicals' he explicitly discusses the crab-pot theory that says that ghettoes of class and race are often self imposed. Those who strive for improvement are held back by the masses who are suspicious of those who try to better themselves.

Such a characterisation of poverty misidentifies the real causes of ghettoisation and disadvantage. Working hard and being smart is a good precondition for social advancement but is not always sufficient if the odds are consciously stacked against you by heartless markets or an elite that merely wishes to cement the status quo and restrict social mobility.

Nevertheless Discworld is a bold experiment in avoiding the traditional biases of fantasy. The commercial success of the series prove that it is as popular and well written as any other contemporary fantasy, While I don't entirely agree with Pratchett's meritocratic focus he has at least made a conscious effort to include narratives of cross-race cooperation and the possibility for those of any race/species to be an individual rather than simply a stereotyped member of that group.