Everyone likes different books. I tend to like books that speak to being human. I think that’s why I read so much fantasy literature. To blatantly steal a concept, they use the impossible to examine the probable. When you strip away the requirement to make the setting accurate you allow yourself the ability to more easily examine Truth.
This is true, I feel, of all fantastic literature, though the two main streams (fantasy and science fiction) tend to approach it differently. Science fiction tends to look at society. The futuristic setting allows this because it lets them take for granted our shared past and project into the future a possibility of what our society might look like. This can be in an explicit way, such as with The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, or in a more subtle way, such as with Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, or a hybrid like the Ender books by Orson Scott Card. Whereas fantasy novels tend to focus on what it means to be human. When you are looking at a world of Elves, Dwarves and Orcs you get to see various takes on the impulses of humanity. The warring of races can be looked at as an analogy for the warring of our impulses: greed vs. charity, action vs. passivity, change vs. stability. And of course fantasy literature looks at good vs. evil, but not just looking at a generic good and a generic evil, it allows us to examine what is good, what is evil, and what can we accept that falls in the middle.
Even without using various races as stand-ins for human impulses fantasy literature allows us to examine important topics. They let us see the changes in a man over time as he is effected by his choices, good and bad, and the choices of those around him (Jordan, Feist, any long fantasy series). They give us a look into the minds of the characters and we get to see characters deal with psychological issues while at the same time trying to function as a professional (Arrows of the Queen series by Mercedes Lackey).
One of the most important topics in modern fantasy today is how it lets us examine the shades of grey that exist in our world without being encumbered by outliers and vague history or reducing a complex topic to a straw-man or anecdote. For example, with many of Brandon Sanderson’s novels he examines what happens when someone does evil for the sake of good, and what happens when you do good but are serving an evil cause.
Brent Weeks has spent six books now (between two different series) examining the grey areas. His first series (Way of Shadows) examines what actions are morally wrong, evil, misguided, or unfortunate necessities and what the differences are, along with a large number of other humanistic issues. The issue with the books isn’t that they aren’t good, because I quite enjoy them, the issue is that his second series (Lightbringer) is so much better that they overshadow his early books. The Lightbringer books focus on dealing with a corrupt political/religious system without being corrupted yourself and also looking at if it is better to oppose one corruption and perhaps being caught up in another. It looks at the intersection of corruption and power and whether the sins of one group excuse the sins of another.
This all isn’t to say that all fantasy deals with big topics. Sometimes it is just as important to remember the other purpose of fantastic literature and so I’d like to leave you with this:
Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
G.K. Chesterton (as paraphrased by Neil Gaiman)
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