Breaking Barriers: Against Restoring Monarchy in Epic Fantasy

When I first began worldbuilding Crossroads of Canopy in winter of 2012, one motive was to hide from real-life deforestation statistics in a fantasy rainforest that was indestructible.

Imaginary trees, after all, can never be cut down.

Just as imaginary deities can never be slain.

Tallowwoods, bunya pines, strangler figs and rimu trees were holy in the real world, once. Maybe they could be again, but in that moment I had thought: If we don’t stop climate change, limit our population and preserve a respectable ratio of wild areas to urban or industrial ones, every species, including humans, is going to crash horribly, and all the other fights – for truth, equality, faith, compassion, literacy, life expectancy, a voice – will be subsumed, in the entire world and not just parts of it, by a desperate fight for survival.

Five years later, while my city swelters through its hottest summer and Western Sydney bears the brunt of this weather, I wonder why the kids who went to the same public schools as me aren’t worried more about the heat than about businesses having non-English signage.

As Canopy’s plot took shape, more human-centered preoccupations began permeating the manuscript. It reminded me again, as my short stories constantly remind me, of various riddles of our existence; of monarchies, meritocracies, class divides and the social barriers people refuse to see.

***

Why does epic fantasy default to the restoration of the monarchy? It’s pretty glaring when you compare it to science fiction’s eager exploration of and advocacy for meritocracies.

Australia’s head of state is the Queen of England, did you know that? We pretend otherwise, but there’s her representative, the Governor-General, ready whenever a new Prime Minister of Australia needs swearing in. We act like she’ll never interfere with our politics, yet we’ve had a Prime Minister and a NSW State Premier dismissed by representatives of the Crown, one of whom presided over the introduction of publicly funded healthcare in 1975, and one who presided over the introduction of pensions, worker’s compensation and fee-free education during the Great Depression.

Is that an accident, that it was those specific two men? Why do we still feel that dictators can be benevolent? Why do we feel it so strongly that we can cheer on the likes of Aragorn, Rand al’Thor and Daenerys Stormborn? Even when they’re dressed up as forest hobos, farmboys and barefooted child brides, it’s their royal lineage that’s important. It’s their power and their destiny and we want them to “take back” what belongs to them, just as much we want them to fight off the forces of evil.

(I don’t make an exception of myself. I love those books.)

How nice it would be, to trust somebody who had all the answers.

Science fiction seems to me more likely to advocate a meritocracy. But what happens when artificial intelligences are shown to have more merit than us? What’s the use of us, then? As much as I like to get lost in the worlds of Tolkien, Jordan and Martin, I’m fascinated by the AI thought experiments of Leckie, Banks and Stephenson.

Charlie Jane Anders’ “Rager in Space” (Bridging Infinity, 2016) posits one possible reason for the singularity to want to keep us around.

But it’s easier not to think about that.

It’s easier not to think about a lot of things.

***

It’s so easy to live obliviously, here and in similarly wealthy communities.

Cutting funding to our national broadcaster (by 254 million Aussie dollars over five years) undoubtedly helps. Does turning off the Syrian conflict and turning on dramatized battles between truffles and duck fat truly make us happier?

Having the luxury of ignoring world events, greeting the same well-off neighbours, having failures move away with new successes ready to snap up their fleetingly vacant mansions, reflects the world of lost nobility we often see in epic fantasy.

Is it reasonable to be angry? How can they understand what is so far outside their experience? Yet if they don’t want to learn, whose job is it to teach them? It’s true that our ability to learn about injustice in the world has grown exponentially, via the internet, while our power as individuals hasn’t changed. But why should it be the job of the oppressed to exhaust themselves into illness while their shouts fall on deaf ears?

And how is it that ambitious risk-takers who see morality for what it is (highly subjective) and successfully pass through barriers as a result, can then turn around and react with scorn to those who can’t or won’t do the same? Why act like there was no barrier to begin with?

Yes, all experiences are different. Yes, some barriers are more permeable than others, and at different times. Gender barriers may fall, post-disaster, in times of low population. Barriers to migration, education and the workplace are all highly dependent on whether a society’s surplus relies on people to generate it – and whether health and happiness increase the rate of generation – or not.

***

Art by Marc Simonetti for Crossroads of Canopy

Art by Marc Simonetti for Crossroads of Canopy

In Crossroads of Canopy, as is tradition for epic fantasy, I’ve depicted a wealthy community, no meritocracies, rife with ignorance, monarchies and social and physical barriers. Yet the people are necessary, because their tributes in the Temples are what lends power to their gods. I hope I’ve asked the same questions there that I have asked here, and more.

Is the spectacle of modern day wealth, youth, attractiveness and celebrity any different to the thrall in which ancient peoples were held by their gilded pantheons? How do the holders of power convince those in their power to love them, everywhere from organised religion to family patriarchs to the talentless descendants of conquerors? Sometimes education disrupts our adoration, but often not. Why? Are we, as Octavia Butler speculates in Dawn, truly so irredeemably hierarchical that only magic or aliens can change our ways?

I have so many questions, so few answers. But I intend to keep reading in epic fantasy – and science fiction – for as long as I can, so that my fragile, imperfect, human society can help me figure it out.

Thoraiya Dyer is an Aurealis and Ditmar award-winning, Sydney-based writer and lapsed veterinarian. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Cosmos, Analog and various Australian and US anthologies. Four of her original stories are collected in “Asymmetry,” available from Twelfth Planet Press. Her first novel is Crossroads of CanopyShe is @ThoraiyaDyer on Twitter.

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