One of the most divisive terms that’s been used to tar the fantasy genre is the term “escapism”; the controversy over whether fantasy is fundamentally “escapist” and, if so, whether it ought to be, goes back a long way.
J. R. R. Tolkien famously defended escapism, saying that a soldier captured by the enemy had a “duty to escape”; as a Catholic he saw his own fiction as an escape from a fallen, sinful world, and told his friend C.S. Lewis that the only people who hate escapism are jailers.
Michael Moorcock, who helped found the movement known as the “New Wave” in science fiction and fantasy in the 1960s, ripped into Tolkien’s brand of escapism in his essay “Epic Pooh,” which his literary descendant China Miéville–founder of the 1990s “New Weird” movement summed up as: “Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.”
The argument over “escapism” circles back to the fundamental argument over the purpose of fantasy writing and of the arts in general. Tolkien writes of a better world, an imaginary past when Earth was closer to Heaven, where good shone more brightly in contrast to obvious, supernatural evil–a world where we can escape from the ugly, murky political controversies of daily life, where the idea of fighting honorably for a just cause seems believable and true. “Escapism” in the sense of Andy Dufresne listening to The Marriage of Figaro to remind himself a world outside Shawshank Prison exists.
By contrast, revolutionary socialists like Moorcock and Miéville live in the here and now and regard abandoning the ugly political realities of the world we live in as irresponsibility. Their fantasy worlds amplify the moral ambiguity and horrifying Hobson’s choices of the world we live in rather than erasing them. Unlike Frodo or Aragorn, Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is a sickly, twisted, mentally ill antihero from an evil culture whose power fundamentally comes from oppressing and exploiting others (his sword literally eats people’s souls), and who has to try to find a way to do the right thing and positively impact the world despite this. Miéville’s Bas-Lag series is about a world corrupt and rotten to the core that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, with unlikable protagonists who make an agonizing moral choice every few pages.
They do the opposite of Tolkien’s escapism–rather than make you long for a better, purer world than the one we live in they shove a horrifying, corrupt world in your face and make you wonder how much our world is like that one beneath the surface. “Escapism” in the sense of the river of shit Andy Dufresne must slog through before any chance of actual escape.
If I have to pick a side, I have to reluctantly side with Moorcock. I’m not a Catholic, like Tolkien–I have no faith in the innate beauty or justice of the world. I believe a better world is possible, but I don’t think the path we’ll take to get there is likely to be very pretty.
And yet my problem is that I like Tolkien and Lewis better than Moorcock and Miéville. I have to take my darkness and weirdness in small doses. I want to believe that acting honorably will be karmically rewarded, that God looks out for the virtuous and self-sacrificing, that decency wins out in the end. I can’t take much time in Bas-Lag before I feel the need to flee to Middle-Earth.
I want to have my cake and eat it too–to face the harsh truths of the universe and somehow feel good about it instead of bad. I want to escape the urge for escapism–the most difficult escape of all.
And of all the fantasy writers I love, the person who’s come closest to pulling off that trick is the man who left us last week, Sir Terry Pratchett.
Pratchett was a bundle of contradictions in his lifetime. He was “conventional” and “commercial” in comparison to China Miéville, certainly–his books were wildly popular, and he was wildly prolific, to a degree normally seen only among writers who are actually pseudonyms for several people. Somehow he pushed out an average of two books a year, and his oeuvre, in the 1990s, made up an astonishing 6.5 percent of all books sold in the UK. In the celestial sphere of UK fantasy authors J.K. Rowling is the sun, Pratchett was the moon, and everyone else merely scattered stars.
And yet his books matched or exceeded his more “experimental” and “literary” colleagues in terms of subversiveness–both of fantasy genre tropes and overall. Philip Pullman made headlines with The Golden Compass for writing a William Blake-inspired children’s series where God is the enemy and must be heroically defeated; three years earlier Pratchett wrote Small Gods, a novel about God being turned into a helpless cranky tortoise who needs to learn to be a better God to be rescued.
Miéville writes dark, passionate denunciations of capitalism and the state that are great at starting angry arguments between his socialist and conservative readers but are unlikely to convince anyone undecided; meanwhile more formerly apolitical fantasy fans than I can count quote as gospel the idea of class barriers being self-reinforcing, when expressed in the form of the “Sam Vimes Boots Theory of Economic Injustice.”
Pratchett’s was one of the most “progressive” writers I can think of, not just in the sense of his political positions matching up with what I’d call progressive but in the sense of believing in the idea of progress, of shattering idols and overturning comforting lies, of subverting tropes at every turn. Men at Arms is a direct attack on the idea of monarchy and aristocracy that so much “high fantasy” is based on; Jingo is a fantasy war story that denies the reader the “fun” of seeing a war break out and ends up attacking the concept of war; the character of Rincewind is a subversion of the whole idea of heroism. Monstrous Regiment is a meditation on feminism, Cherry Littlebottom and other female dwarfs a commentary on gender identity and trans people, Thud! a statement against ethnic hatred.
But all this deconstruction and subversion didn’t come across as having to eat your vegetables, the way literary fiction often does. And it didn’t come across as a bitter, guilty pleasure either, the way people geek out about the horrifying viciousness of “low fantasy” worlds like A Song of Ice and Fire’s Westeros.
Pratchett somehow made his progressive, subversive work as tasty a snack as any of the high fantasy he was subverting. Much of that candy coating was humor–the ability to laugh, as he once argued, being our brain’s way of extracting pleasure from the otherwise painful process of recognizing uncomfortable truths.
His work was a sort of Trojan horse; as someone who wrote 40 books over the course of 32 years, he was the rare case where readers could watch an author’s work evolve in real time, book by book, page by page, and evolve with him. Discworld started with The Colour of Magic as a member of that least essential genre of fantasy, the parody of stock fantasy clichés–and although The Colour of Magic is a very high-quality example of that genre, by the time of Sir Terry’s passing Discworld was as far beyond a “parody” as The Wire was beyond a “cop show.”
If you want a roadmap for how to escape from escapism, the evolution of the Discworld provides one. It starts with the most basic kind of deconstruction, raging against the inadequacy, the hollowness, the cheesiness of the form of escape we’ve been given. Tolkien’s vision of a world nearer to Eden where the law of God was truly visible in nature given way to a cheap, commercialized escapism in the form of tawdry blood-and-guts violence and sexy ladies in chainmail bikinis.
But Pratchett didn’t stop with mocking the apostrophe-laden nomenclature of the Pern books or the inflated body count of the Conan stories the way lesser authors would (and frequently have). Discworld kept going, and went beyond parody to deconstruction–went from mocking how easy it is for random heroes to get crowned king to questioning the legitimacy of monarchy itself, went from lampooning the ridiculousness of high fantasy warfare to pointing out the ridiculousness of warfare, period.
And Pratchett took the final step so many authors didn’t. He didn’t just deconstruct, but reconstructed. Discworld–a parody fantasy world designed to be ridiculous, a flat planet sitting on four elephants standing on a giant space tortoise–became a real place, inhabited by real people. Much like Shakespeare is said to have been incapable of fully dehumanizing any character, even ones intended to be hateful caricatures like Shylock or Caliban, Pratchett gave agency to everyone–the nameless city guards (Sam Vimes and the other Watchmen), the wise old oracular crone (Granny Weatherwax and the other witches), and even the personification of Death, originally introduced in The Colour of Magic as a joke character.
One Pratchett quote that sticks with me is Granny Weatherwax’s definition of “sin” given in Carpe Jugulum—”Sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself.” All of the progressiveness, the subversiveness, the deconstruction came from that–realizing that the tropes he was subverting needed subverting because they treated people as things.
Discworld started as a criticism of how literally flat fantasy worlds are, how unsatisfying they are as an escape destination–how the fantasy being fulfilled is the one where people can be treated as things without consequence, where women can be treated like pretty objects and “the peasants” can be treated like an expendable resource and “the enemy” can be treated like target practice.
Discworld became a demonstration of the alternative–a world that’s deeper and richer and more real than most fantasy worlds, despite its quirky, parodic origins, because it’s a place where everyone, the women, the peasants, the goblins, the orcs, has a voice and matters.
Most petty escapism is an escape from–escaping from the horror of real-life war to a world where warfare is noble and justified, escaping from politics to a world where politics is unnecessary. Discworld is an attempt at an escape to–a world where, with hard work and sacrifice and empathy, war could be avoided, political problems could be solved, progress could happen. Rather than the Stock Fantasy City where technology and society remain frozen in pseudo-medieval stasis, Ankh-Morpork modernized and changed as time went on, and each change made the world a more interesting place to be in, because each change was a change that rescued more people from being treated as things.
The escapism I always sought to escape from was the seductive escapism of the just world fallacy, the fantasy that Eru Iluvatar or Aslan is watching over the world and everything will turn out all right.
But it’s not enough to escape from. I also need something to escape to–not just relentlessly grim and cynical “realism”. If I can’t believe that God can fix the world and make things fair, I need to believe we can.
The other Pratchett quote I hold in my head all the time is from The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, when the titular intelligent rats learn that the picture book from which they learned of humans and animals living in harmony was pure fiction:
“It’s a lie,” said Peaches.
“Maybe it’s just a pretty story,” said Sardines.
“Yes,” said Dangerous Beans. “Yes.” He turned his misty pink eyes to Darktan, who had to stop himself from crouching, and added: “Perhaps it’s a map.”
Rest in peace to Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE, satirist, worldbuilder, escapist, and, most of all, cartographer.