A Theory: Fantasy is conservative while science fiction is often liberal

LEGO Hobbit 79000: Riddles for the Ring 

J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Profoundly Conservative’ Myths
[Via Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines]

“Both ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ turn on the ‘return of the king’ to his rightful throne,” and in both stories ” ‘victory’ means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by ‘evil,’ ” fiction author Damien Walter writes of some of the 20th century’s most celebrated works of imagination.

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While science fiction may be liberal and fantasy conservative, they both use a similar narrative – the battle between distributed democracies and hierarchical authorities. Because those traits follow a different axis than left/right.

With few exceptions, high fantasy examines the rightful return to power of a monarch, with a return to the status quo.  The protagonists are those seeking to re-establish order against the antagonists who are being disruptive. Authority must be restored. It often looks back to another time and place.

Much classic science fiction deals with the opposite. The protagonists are those doing the disruption as they overturn hierarchical authorities. It looks forward to another time and place.

To me, it is often easier to separate fantasy vs science fiction along these lines: restoring the previous order using the antagonists as the disruptive agents – fantasy; the protagonists are the disruptive agents to the social order – science fiction.

So, Harry Potter is fantasy as the heroes work to maintain the status quo from Voldemort’s efforts. Hunger Games is science fiction as the heroes work to overturn the social order.

In both cases, though, the fundamental battle is between the distributed democracies used by the protagonists and the hierarchical authorities of the antagonists. The difference is on who has the power driving the conflicts. 

Katniss and Harry, as well as Frodo, Bilbo, et al. all work to route around the damage done by hierarchical authorities by using teamwork and distributed approaches, by being more adaptive and resilient than their foe.

Fantasy and science fiction are really just different descriptions of the same battle, at least here in the US. We loathe the deprecations of too much centralized authoritarian power and yearn for distributed democratic solutions.

2 thoughts on “A Theory: Fantasy is conservative while science fiction is often liberal

  1. Not especially compelling. If you cherry pick your examples, and use a definition of conservative from the 1700s, you may have something.

    In my experience, a lot of science fiction is quite libertarian in outlook, particularly classic science fiction. Many science fictional settings are Old West style frontier settings, in which people have to rely on themselves and can’t rely on the state for help. From Heinlein to Asimov, the heroes demonstrate triumph of individual initiative over collective enterprise.

    Now, I’d hardly call sf conservative, either. But liberal it is not. As for fantasy, I don’t read it (other than Tolkein) so I can’t comment. But again, there aren’t too many Republicans (or Tories) out there fighting for the restoration of the monarchy. Indeed, if the modern monarchy is the centralized state, than arguably fantasy is left-leaning in terms of modern politics. But that’s playing your game of pick-and-choose-define-as-you-want, which doesn’t get one very far.

    1. I appreciate your reply.Just playing with a model not looking to prove anything. This was mostly a quick post, one I put up more to help my thoughts than to prove things to others ;-) More something I wanted to be able to find later and look at more deeply. It was an “in the moment” post.

      I will say that there seem to be plenty of Republicans who want a single person running things, just as there are a lot of Democrats. When the President is from their party, they are happy to see him act as a central authority, to cut through all that Congressional red tape with signing statements and Executive orders, to unilaterally undertake military action without the consent of Congress. The rise of the Imperial President over the last generation has been abetted by members of both parties, while working to make Congress irrelevant.

      The authoritarian wish for a wise father running things is a human trait, not a political one. Just as the distributed approaches that oppose them. I expect that soon we will begin to see people in both parties begin working together on distributed approaches to battle the authoritarians from both parties.

      Perhaps going after the bankers and Wall Street will be the path.

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