I dedicate the following post to Robert E. Howard scholar Rusty Burke, who back in February, 2010 wrote this response to one of my posts on the REH Forum: “I wonder if it might be worthwhile for someone — you, Taran? — to specifically tackle Alpers’ essay and the seeming effect it had on attention to heroic fantasy in SFS, in an essay for SFS or, if they aren’t interested, some other journal, or even a website?” (To clarify, I post under the name “Taran” on public forums)
Spacesuit, Blaster and Science(!):
Confronting the Uneasy Relationship between Science Fiction and Heroic Fantasy
by Michal Wojcik
But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another. (Charlie Stross, Genre Neuroses 101)
The above thought is neither new nor shocking. A significant number of science fiction authors have denigrated fantasy for years. What is surprising, and to my mind slightly disturbing, is the bleed of genre superiority into academia. Imaginative fiction has only recently found acceptance in universities; but even the mass of literary criticism available on J.R.R. Tolkien or Philip K. Dick cannot convince some that science fiction or fantasy deserve any serious study. Yet, in the work done on imaginative literature, it seems as if those studying science fiction have to legitimate their academic interest by taking the accusations of escapism, adolescent wish fulfillment, sexism, or just plain silliness and shifting those long-held prejudices to fantasy. We’re not like them, they seem to scream, what we study is serious. The relationship becomes oppositional, and nowhere do we see this more often than the general dismissal of one subset of fantasy in particular: heroic fantasy, or as some may know it, sword & sorcery.
My focus turns to Science Fiction Studies, one of the first peer-reviewed academic journals on science fiction and one of the most respected. Founded in 1973, Science Fiction Studies marked a major step in giving science fiction some intellectual credit. The quality of the academic work made a strong case in of itself. Science Fiction Studies also set a clear demarcation in imaginative literature—take, for example, Frederik Pohl’s exhortation that “[a]bove all, science fiction is not, is positively not, fantasy” (“The Study of Science Fiction: A Modest Proposal”); Pohl, however, was at least quick to defend fantasy as legitimate in itself. Science Fiction Studies was about, well, science fiction. Why, then do we come across a discussion of heroic fantasy? I refer to the 1978 article “Loincloth, Double Ax, and Magic: ‘Heroic Fantasy’ and Related Genres” by Hans Joachim Alpers.
I should preface my examination by stating that I don’t believe any of the ideas that have become so entrenched in academic dismissals of fantasy originate with this article. Rather, I approach Alpers’s survey as an indicator of trends within the academic study of science fiction at the time, ones that still resonate today. We can blame the ideas articulated by Alpers for the difficulty in finding an undergraduate-level course on fantasy in most English or Comparative Literature departments in North America, let alone a course in sword & sorcery.
The Historical Argument
Alpers presents fantasy as a mere offshoot of science fiction. “H[eroic] F[antasy] is regressive S[cience] F[iction],” and “SF motifs in regressed form can be found in the content of HF as clearly as in distribution, where HF always rides piggy-back on SF.” Thus, in a cursory study of heroic fantasy’s origins, Alpers charts a clear progression: first science fiction in the form of the scientific romance (though Alpers never makes this connection, nor uses this term), then science fantasy as exemplified by Edgar Rice Burroughs or Clark Ashton Smith, and finally heroic fantasy in the 1930s and onwards. By imposing such a structure on imaginative literature, we can easily say that heroic fantasy draws “a large portion of its legitimation from the repertoire of SF” and cannot stand on its own. Heroic fantasy cannot be progressive; it is a slide towards the past, an anti-science fiction somehow derived from the same genre:
The crucial difference between SF and HF is that SF assumptions for alien worlds or for the future do not contradict the present state of knowledge…HF…makes assumptions which disregard scientific knowledge or contradict it in frankly unscientific ways. On the one side, speculation, on the other, irrationality.
A nearly identical argument to that made by critics of the gothic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (as an aside, we might note Mervyn Peake’s fantasies fit firmly in the gothic tradition). The rationalism/irrationalism argument is central to Alpers’s case against heroic fantasy.
As we might expect, Alpers’s history of heroic fantasy is grossly simplistic. There is no clear point from which we can trace “modern” fantasy, neither a clear cultural milieu that created it. The fairy tales told in the Victorian period were once the very adult tales penned by Straparola and Basile in the Renaissance, in turn inspired by the oral tradition of the Arabian Nights; the Salon tales of the eighteenth century were clear fantasies in an age stressing rationalism. The “bridging” genre of science fantasy occurs concurrently with many works of pure fantasy—witness the works of Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), Arthur Machen (1863-1947) and Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936)–while the likes of William Morris (1835-1896) predate it by a significant margin. Alpers disregards such a varied heritage in favour of a linear narrative with a very clear purpose. The “piggy-back” assertion persists today, though no longer accompanied by Alpers’s regressive timeline; irrationality makes fantasy seem a less developed genre, one stuck in the past while science fiction marches towards the future and, presumably, a better world.
The “science fiction to fantasy” structure for imaginative literature collapses when Alpers turns to historical fantasy. Historical adventures in the tradition of Walter Scott should have little bearing on the development of heroic fantasy in Alpers’s formulation. Examples where historical realism and fantasy coexist baffle him, particularly those from Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan and the oft-cited inventor of sword & sorcery. Alpers comes to a rather simplistic conclusion: “in the Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane adventures the fantastic elements in their monotonous repetition feel rather like superficial décor; her a cliché demanded its due.” In other words, these stories are not, at their core, fantasy at all. Yet a look at the Solomon Kane tale “Wings in the Night” reveals a narrative clearly centred on the fantastic: without the harpies who attack the African village, there is no story; yet without the historical setting, we cannot obtain the unique character of Solomon Kane, shaped completely by the historical context of the Elizabethan period. The debt of fantasy to historical romance becomes strikingly apparent when we examine the narrative devices of The Lord of the Rings or The Worm Ouroboros (here I defer to the real scholars, they have done a much better job than I ever could).
Heroic fantasy, however, is not merely a dead or static genre according to Alpers, but a dangerous one. While “SF…contains in principle the germs of revolt and change…HF defends rigid structures of dream worlds, especially those that have their roots in long obsolete types of society” — as opposed to the rigid structures of scientific positivism or modernity present in early science fiction. Those, sadly, are still not obsolete. Science fiction did not begin as any sort of protest literature: the scientific romances of the Victorian era emerged, in part, from imperialistic ventures, literary “proofs” for European ascendancy. John Reider, in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, notes the ideology of progress articulated in early science fiction emerged from the discourse of Imperialism. As Reider puts it, colonialism “is part of the genre’s texture, a persistent, important component of its displaced references to history, its engagement in ideological production, and its construction of the possible and the imaginable.” Science fiction often replicated ideologies under the same mechanisms as Alpers attributes to heroic fantasy: “here is what HF fans see as ideal: naked ideology transformed into literature, shucking as much as feasible all details suspected of having truck with reality or reason.” Similarly, we might see science fiction as “ideology transformed into literature” that shucks all objections to present a (false) image of a rational universe.
We need look no further than Alpers’ citation from H.G. Well’s short story “The Lord of the Dynamos,” where “a superstitious black African thinks he has discovered a deity in the generators that produce electricity,” this “demonstrated the barbaric consequences of mystifying the concepts accessible to reason: human sacrifice to the fetish” (emphasis mine). Wells was a known critic of racism, but that did not stop him from unconsciously reproducing accepted anthropology in his works. The key here is not that we should abandon our reason for fantasy, but that a black man embodies irrationality. Because Alpers does not recognize this, he can blanket heroic fantasy as a racist genre without considering the implications towards science fiction. Are we to dismiss H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and others, as Alpers has dismissed heroic fantasy, for encoding outdated or offensive ideologies?
Heroic Fantasy as Fascism
Still, Alpers does make the case for consigning Heroic Fantasy to oblivion. The ideology of heroic fantasy uncovered by “Loincloth, Double Ax and Magic” consists of a magic-mystic hero, the glorification of violence, fatalism and “an uncompromising commitment to the ideology of man over man.” To make that conclusion, we must ignore the prominent place of rebels who often deride and overthrow authority in heroic fantasy, the very heroes used as examples—Conan or Elric or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. In any case, the four elements mentioned above match with the very specific worlds Alpers attributes to heroic fantasy, “‘barbaric’ worlds beyond intervention… static, vegetating along in a haze.” Here, we must also ignore the focus on constant historical mutation in the works of Robert E. Howard, the passing of magic and faerie from Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, or an earth descending into chaos in Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer—worlds that come to an end (quite literally, in the last case), worlds that pass, not ones that remain. No, we must ignore all such contradictions to reach Alpers final point: “[w]hat is, then, being glorified by HF? There is but one word sufficient to sum up all these ideological elements: fascism,” in which case “HF might have the task of providing ideological preparation for the road to a new fascism.” A bold claim, but one not given sufficient investigation, and appended to Alpers’s study as an afterthought.
Perhaps Alpers did not believe the claim would come under much scrutiny; as I mentioned before, academics who study science fiction often dismiss fantasy as reactionary. Take Norman R. Spinrad’s response to the article, where he applauds someone finally examining “the relationship of heroic fantasy to the psychotic pathology of the Nazi era.” Alpers does not seem to realize that the authors he cites for support were opposed to fascism in their personal lives. J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, made his views of Nazism and “that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler,” (Letters no.45) quite obvious. Michael Moorcock describes himself as “an anarchist and a pragmatist,” (Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction) who goes out of his way to critique British Imperialism and yes, Nazism in many of his novels. Robert E. Howard, whose work scholars often mislabel as latently fascistic, held a long correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft decrying fascism and Nazism; the groupthink of Nazism and obeisance to authority did not gel with Howard’s extreme individualism. We are more likely to find empires fall than get built in Howard’s works.[*]
Fantasy at the End of Modernity
The objection to fantasy as irrational and therefore devoid of meaning ignores the complexities of this postwar, postmodern era. To classify it as an ideological tool for fascism, on the other hand, is insulting. By 1978 scientific positivism and the worship of rationalism already received a severe blow in academia with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Yet what makes “Loincloth, Double Ax and Magic” so offensive is that science fiction at the time diverged significantly from the pro-technology and pro-science themes found in the Campbell era, and even actively explored the issue of science as a human construct. In fact, Stanislaw Lem manages to prefigure many of Kuhn’s ideas with Solaris, published a full year before Kuhn’s book made print. Alpers’s identification of science fiction as a rational enterprise was already out of touch with developments in science fiction taking place in the 1960s and 1970s. The firmly oppositional nature Alpers sets between science fiction and fantasy, as well, makes it seem impossible that an author could possibly write both. Yet many science fiction writers also write fantasy; even among Science Fiction Studies’ contributors, we have Ursula K. LeGuin, who moved seamlessly between both genres.
Yet still we find the continued dismissals of fantasy long after 1978, the “echoes of Alpers”, if you will. Howard scholar Steve Tompkins tells us that Howard and Tolkien, and by extension the heroic fantasy they spawned, “have been and will continue to be pilloried as escapist, racist, reactionary, phallocentric, juvenile, and even fascistic” (“The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers”). The list should sound familiar. Such accusations are at once vehement and cursory, often unnecessary asides in discussions of completely different topics. The irrationally argument, principally, forms the strangest accusation of them all.
In “Loincloth, Double Ax and Magic” and similar attacks on heroic fantasy, we see a fear of fantasy as a rejection of modernity and progress—ideologies both inherent in and propagated by many works of science fiction. The descent into irrationally evokes a longing for the past which should not exist. Progress dictates that the world is constantly getting better. However, to make such an assertion we need to dismiss that the world has moved beyond modernity, beyond progress. Scientific positivism and the linear view of historic progression no longer work as models in a post-modern world. Science fiction, in the classic, Campbell-era mould becomes a fantasyland in itself, a wilful ignorance of where the world has been—and where it is going. Heroic fantasy acts as a defense against secularization, industrialization and commodification: the effort to turn us into “rational” and unquestioning followers of the state with no imaginations of our own.
I leave off with a quote from Terence M. Green that stands in stark contrast to the claim that opens this article:
But Literature, at its best, as a reflection of what makes us human, goes the extra mile—the mile found too seldom in SF. Too many SF writers don’t even bother to give it a try. (Fantasy often fares better; the often-dominant obsession with verisimilar explanations that marks much SF is absent.) (“Family, Identity, and Speculative Fiction”)
I hesitate to take either extreme. The rigid structures of “traditional” science fiction have long since passed, though many writers seem unaware of the fact. What surprises me is the alarmism that creeps into dismissals of heroic fantasy such as my limited example. “HF thrives on the reader’s latent readiness to change his unsatisfactory situation, but it simultaneously bars him from the crucial insight that societal conditions determine the reader’s situation and can be changed,” Alpers tells us, as if heroic fantasy is an instrument of repression while science fiction leads to enlightenment. It is true that a good portion of popular literature does impose cultural and political values on the reader, but generalizations of this sort are useless. We could just as easily turn the argument against science fiction.
The most effective response to the long history of denigration of heroic fantasy in academia has been, I believe, the long-due revival of academic interest in the fantastic. Where Alpers would reject Tolkien and Howard as unworthy of study, we need only respond by displaying the sheer amount of academic work on both authors from recent years. Science fiction has found academic legitimacy by its own merits; scholars need not step on fantasy’s fingers to bolster its reputation.
[*] Alpers’s belief that heroic fantasy’s barbarians mirror “the barbarism of concentration camps and aggressive war” comes as an unimaginative conflation; the “barbarism” he refers to and the barbarism found in sword & sorcery constitute two completely different terms, one modern, one historical. Barbarians, in heroic fantasy, would never stoop to the excesses of the Nazis—that only becomes possible with the decadence of civilization. I believe the Holocaust would have come as no surprise to Howard, had he lived to see it. It is the ultimate example of modernity gone wrong.
Spacesuit, Blaster and Science(!): Confronting the Uneasy Relationship between Science Fiction and Heroic Fantasy by Michal Wojcik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.