Imagining the world as a better place - how common in fantasy as compared to sf? (And I don't mean winning the battle against dark armies.)

Montero

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I've just been reading Victoria Goddard again, in particular her Lays of the Hearth Fire series, which is centred around Cliopher Mdang who left his home in the Wide Sea Islands, to go to work for the Imperial bureaucracy at the capital of the Empire of Astandalas. In part because he was a romantic who was following a path in his peoples' aural history regarding travel and quests, and in part because he wanted to make the empire a better place for everyone - using his skills as an accountant and an organizer. The first book, The Hands of the Emperor starts when he is nearing the peak of his career and gives some flashbacks of how he got there plus where he goes next. I've seen one review that delightfully described it as "competency porn". (Wish there was a slightly politer word for porn, but there you go.) BTW it is not at all dry - sounds like following the life of an accountant and bureaucrat could be dry, but it is about people, and pushing boundaries; friendship, work relationships and the complexities of family life. He is someone who changes the rules, more than someone who obeys them. Though he does obey his own rules once they are changed to his satisfaction. :)

That got me to thinking. Redesigning society whether through resources or law or social engineering is quite a common theme in science fiction, whether the book starts in a re-imagined world or whether it is a work in progress - I can think of John Barnes (especially the series starting A million open doors) or Sheri Tepper or indeed there is a strong theme of that underlying the adventures in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. In fantasy there is often a theme of good vs evil whether it is overthrowing the invading orcs or fighting vampires and werewolves in dark alleys. But how many fantasies are there where good is achieved through making government more efficient, removing corruption, and doing public works from sewers to street lighting? I'd be interested in hearing about books like that. The third book in Lays of the Hearth Fire is going to be called "Common and Ordinary Goods" - which kind of sums it up.
 
Interesting topic. I don't have any answers. (The basic society of The Land in the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is more attractive than ours in some ways, though heavily dependant on magic and very idealised. But there's no real sense of people trying to improve it further.)
 
I think one of the problems is that fantasy often takes a settled historical way of running a society - the medieval feudal system is the obvious example - and decides that this is "good" provided that it's stable (in the medieval times, that stability was seen as ordained by God). In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, nobody tries to turn Gondor and Rohan into representative democracies, but instead tries to put the right king in charge. That's fine, because LOTR and other fantasy novels work by their own rules, but it isn't about improving things in a modern political sense. Being a peasant in, say, Rohan is probably always going to be hard work at best, but caring about peasants is a pretty modern concept (the idea that all human life has value seems very modern to me).

I suppose there are fantasies like Tad Williams' Memory Sorrow and Thorn where evil makes the land become unnatural and dangerous, and defeating evil sets things back to their natural, wholesome state. More conservation than politics or civic improvement, but I still think it would count. There's an Arthurian theme of Arthur being part of the country ("You and the land are one" as Percival says in Excalibur). But again, that's about restoring the former state and not improving on it.

However, LOTR does involve removing corruption, both human(ish) (Wormtongue in Gondor, the Scouring of the Shire etc) and magical. The evil counsellor, scheming grand vizier, greedy merchant etc is a familiar figure in a lot of fantasy. There are surprisingly few fantasy peasant risings that I can think of. I wonder if Terry Pratchett's Discworld might be an example of a setting that becomes a better place as it goes on (sort of)? Maybe the Robin Hood stories would count (depending on who's telling them, and perhaps less so when the rightful king appears)?
 
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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

The main character tries to civilize Arthurian England with his advanced knowledge. (he starts with dental hygiene)
 
@Toby Frost
Thanks for that. I wasn't looking for peasant uprisings, but now you are mentioning it, I can't think of any at all in Medieval type books. Peasants are either heroically rising to the occasion and may or may not be rewarded for it by becoming richer or higher rank, or running like heck from the invasion. Or just maybe sheltering the hero. Or turning out to be a Prince/ess in disguise. Or someone special anyway.
I have thought of one example from my own reading - T Kingfisher - world of the White Rat as it's become known. Swordheart and the Paladin series. it isn't the whole world is becoming benevolent at all, but there is a theme in it. There is the religious order of the White Rat and they have two main aims - providing medical care and legal aid. They make money as lawyers where people can pay and do as much pro bono as they can. They intertwine in the plots all the way through, to a greater or lesser extent. In Swordheart a woman inherits her uncle's house and estate and the wider family are about to forcibly marry her to the person they think should have inherited - and the Order of the White Rat are part of the solution in terms of going to court to get the estate for her. In Paladin's Grace, which is a combined romance (between two very bad at forming relationships people) and murder mystery, the Order of the White Rat pops up in various places, including providing a free defence for someone accused of murder. They also provide a home for the Paladins of the Saint of Steel whose god died before the start of the book. The Paladins are involved in solving the murder and there is also a lovely court scene with some of the Paladins acting as body guard to the Bishop of the Order of the White Rat (the Order doesn't run to their own Paladins or warrior types, too busy being lawyers and doctors) and being gently snarky about the rest of the room. In particular discussing how, if there was a fight, they could weaponise the ice sculpture on the buffet.

Regarding Victoria Goddard, yes, you are correct in your inference that all human life has value in that book. That concept actually came to the capital with Cliopher Mdang, arising from his own Wide Sea Island culture, which is matrilineal, and has two threads of power - the chiefs and the tana - the tana being basically advisors to the chief and to the population - mediation, big picture view, and they are a part of a separate power structure so not controlled by the chiefs. There is a difference between rank and social status, with a barber for example having relatively low rank, but because he is also a tana and people come to him for advice, he has quite high status. Family matriarchs also have a fair chunk of influence. The centre of the Empire is all classic aristocrats, inheritance and arrogance. Cliopher is working on adjusting the power structures, but it is never through violence. Occasional rude language, a vast persistence and well argued statistics, but not violence.

Terry Pratchett - that does get to be a bit better, you are right. it is also all about the practical details, from mentioning where food arrives from to the development of steam trains. Vimes is a guardian of justice and a remover of corruption from the law, and I think you could in an oblique way call him a risen up peasant.

Robin Hood - meh. The robbing is violence and isn't really a viable long term system, despite being done with wit and restricted to those who thoroughly deserve it. There are an awful lot of fantasy books about thieves, whether they are being benevolent to the locals or not. RH is someone who finished up in a hole, and is trying to climb out of it. He is trying to help others at the same time, but...... it is different to the concept of someone turning up to help through good government. Robin Hood might have been a decent landlord if he'd not been robbed of his lands, but there is no way of knowing his level of sympathy for those that would have been his employees, if he'd not been robbed.

I have a second example that occurred to me which is Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswomen books - the Steerswomen are an order of explorers, mappers, educators and message carriers. They set out to explore the world, map it, also update nautical charts and carry news. One of their guiding rules is that if a Steerswoman asks you a question, you have to answer or you will be banned from asking questions of Steerswomen, but they have to answer your questions. They are not directly reforming society and are not intended for that, but providing reliable information, messages and maps certainly benefits all in society.

No examples yet on the contemporary/urban fantasy front rather than the feudal front....
 
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....Mmm I've always classed Superman as science fiction myself....

However that is an absolutely superb comic. Load on the irony and sarcasm. Poor Superman.
 
I could imagine urban fantasy could do this pretty easily. A character could work in a soup kitchen or the like in between being a werewolf, hunting/sleeping with vampires and so on. Some urban fantasies have subplots about the rights of supernatural creatures that have become publicly known: whether they're citizens and so on. Maybe that might count.

There was a peasant rebellion in a Joe Abercrombie book but - guess what! - they were all bloodily murdered.
 
Virtually all adventure fiction relies on conflict. So even if you start with a utopian society (Trek, Culture), you end up depicting war or other calamity in the process of telling an exciting story.

So almost nothing in SFF really qualifies as depicting a better place, because that always seems like a set up for things to go very badly. Unless it is a straight up romance.

SF does have the advantage of telling engineering stories (Fountains of Paradise) that would seem strained depicting as the result of fantasy forces.
 
Virtually all adventure fiction relies on conflict. So even if you start with a utopian society (Trek, Culture), you end up depicting war or other calamity in the process of telling an exciting story.

So almost nothing in SFF really qualifies as depicting a better place, because that always seems like a set up for things to go very badly. Unless it is a straight up romance.

SF does have the advantage of telling engineering stories (Fountains of Paradise) that would seem strained depicting as the result of fantasy forces.

The conflict doesn't have to be a war. The example I started with, The Hands of the Emperor - there is a lot of conflict and tension, but it is conflict in trying to achieve policies, the main character's internal conflicts, being misunderstood by his family, being picked on by political opponents. Or things just going wrong.

Regarding science fiction I think we must have very different reading backgrounds because there is an underlying theme to that in quite a few things I've read, whether it is societies colonising planets and trying to create a better society in a new place, or an existing society such as Bujold's Barrayar where underlying all the adventure, certain characters are most definitely working on reforming society. Tepper is all about reforming society and saving the planet - with the tone varying from dark to light hearted and the impetus coming from humans or coming from aliens, some benevolent, some dictatorial. John Barnes is all about inventing new forms of society such as in A Million Open Doors, some colonised planets were settled by groups with a particular culture, or with an invented culture - such as Hedonists, or a romantic concept of the age of the Troubadors. He has a book where a culture was invented especially for running a space station (Orbital Resonance).
 
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The conflict doesn't have to be a war. The example I started with, The Hands of the Emperor - there is a lot of conflict and tension, but it is conflict in trying to achieve policies, the main character's internal conflicts, being misunderstood by his family, being picked on by political opponents. Or things just going wrong.
And we know how readers love stories with lotsa political conflict!
:unsure:

Might look into more comic stories for that sort of thing, though. I'm thinking along the lines of a Peter Sellers-ish protagonist setting up new laws or systems, the consequences of which are other than expected.
 
And we know how readers love stories with lotsa political conflict!
:unsure:
Erm, not talking party political, I am talking surviving maneouvering at court (which is a fantasy staple), and persuading councils and committees to your point of view. It is done in an interesting (to me) tactical way - doesn't go on at great length but is setting up the key moments for winning - or not quite winning. I found it absorbing and I am not that interested in modern politics.
 
Voyage from Yesteryear by James P Hogan


Interesting comparison for The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin.
 
A few high magic fantasy role playing games (pen and paper) I've participated in turned to that. Social improvement and politics came to the forefront in the games that went on for numerous years. One friend had a continuous world for twelve years with probably a hundred players rotating in and out over the time and players there set up things like soup kitchens where the clerics summoned food for the poor or the wizards provided spells in community service.
 
Erm, not talking party political, I am talking surviving maneouvering at court (which is a fantasy staple), and persuading councils and committees to your point of view. It is done in an interesting (to me) tactical way - doesn't go on at great length but is setting up the key moments for winning - or not quite winning. I found it absorbing and I am not that interested in modern politics.
I meant to use political in its broadest sense. I've seen readers complain about the sort of story you describe, too, looking for fantasy to be more of an adventure story than a story of political (again, broadest sense) intrigue.
 
I've always classed Superman as science fiction myself....
Virtually all adventure fiction relies on conflict.
Yes, we will always revert back again to a discussion of what exactly is Fantasy, what is Science Fiction, and what is Speculative Fiction with these questions, and obviously conflict will always imply a society that is imperfect.

I was going to suggest Michael Moorcock and The Dancers at the End of Time myself but is it fantasy or science fiction, and does it matter that all his books whether SF or F are set in the same universe, and that most of those do have conflict, and therefore it is actually a world with conflict anyway?

Is it because Fantasy has an inbuilt conflict because of the more rigid definitions of Good and Evil, Lawful and Chaotic, based upon religious or pagan principles, but that much SF which is set in the future, is generally without such considerations? Neither of those are absolutely true statements either.
 
Well, Goddard's world has magic, and technology based on magic, so that is pretty firmly fantasy,(doesn't play as a contemporary world, maybe mid to late19th century at most in terms of amenities (safe cookers, hot water systems, some long distance travel by magic based public transport but horses still in common usage)) but in no way Victorian in form and I was picturing a lot of science fiction of the colonisation elsewhere or aliens arriving on earth sort when I started posting this thread.
 
The conflict doesn't have to be a war. The example I started with, The Hands of the Emperor - there is a lot of conflict and tension, but it is conflict in trying to achieve policies, the main character's internal conflicts, being misunderstood by his family, being picked on by political opponents. Or things just going wrong.

Regarding science fiction I think we must have very different reading backgrounds because there is an underlying theme to that in quite a few things I've read, whether it is societies colonising planets and trying to create a better society in a new place, or an existing society such as Bujold's Barrayar where underlying all the adventure, certain characters are most definitely working on reforming society. Tepper is all about reforming society and saving the planet - with the tone varying from dark to light hearted and the impetus coming from humans or coming from aliens, some benevolent, some dictatorial. John Barnes is all about inventing new forms of society such as in A Million Open Doors, some colonised planets were settled by groups with a particular culture, or with an invented culture - such as Hedonists, or a romantic concept of the age of the Troubadors. He has a book where a culture was invented especially for running a space station (Orbital Resonance).
I guess I'm not sure what we're talking about. A lot of SFF has some sort of "good place" depicted, but the plots are more often about the mortal danger to the characters because something is changing or they left home or are trying to get to that place. LOTR is about the restoration of the good kingdoms. But it is a violent war story.
 
I recently read an academic book on Epic Fantasy that took the point of view that the genre, and probably a lot of fantasy in general, is inherently anti-utopian. The heroes will restore balance to the land and create a moment of utopia, but bad things will keep happening and the balance will swing again.


Anyway, some fantasy books that might fit what you're talking about

- Lud in the Mist by Hope Mirrlees - While very much a conflict resolution book, the conflict is that of a smuggled drug from faerie, and the answer lies in a better understanding of faerie

- The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone - Gods and Sorcerers as CEOs Cults as Corporations, and a whole lot of looking at how corporations function in the modern world and how people do try to make it better. Maybe a bit pessimistic at times, but focused on the stuff you're talking about.

- The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts - The story of a young woman suddenly thrust into leadership of her house in a world full of deadly dynastic intrigue, and her use of the tools of intrigue to not only try and survive, but make the world better

Discworld has been mentioned. I've never Orconomics but the name suggests a focus on the nuts and bolts of life. The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson is very focused on reimagining societies, how they work... but very, very pessimistic and dark.

Anne McCaffrey's Pern has a lot of societal reform baked into them. Samuel R. Delany's Neveryon also has a lot of social talk, and focus on everyday life... but again, quite pessimistic in places.

I'll rummage around my brain for more.
 
@The Big Peat
Thank you for that. Funnily enough I've already read or tried everyone of those except Orconomics, The Traitor Baru and Neveryon and pessimistic and dark isn't what I'm looking for. Max Gladstone I tried one or two if I am correct
a god clinging to life in a small fragment of fire in a cigarette end ?.
The Empire Trilogy, mm yes, sort of see why you are including it. Years since I've read it. If I am remembering it correctly it is more about her household and immediate circle, rather than the wider world or do I have that completely wrong?
 

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