Fantasy, Apocalypse, and the Industrialized World

Why is most of the fantasy literature set in a pre-industrial environment?

This question has crossed my mind numerous times over the last few years. Some people I have asked think it is a characteristic defining the genre. But then, I have come across Fantasy set during the industrial revolution, and even modern New York City. Others think it is because superstition was widely spread and normal. That is not so different from the very real world we live in!

Beyond the simplistic answers, it is worth contemplating the place of Fantasy in the literary world. What are its immediate relatives? Science Fiction comes to mind. The major distinction between Fantasy and Science Fiction is their location on the arrow of time. Fantasy is set in the past, SF in the future. One might also say one incorporates magical thinking, the other the extrapolation of scientific discoveries into the future. However, I do disagree somewhat with this notion. To illustrate my reasoning, let us take robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series as an example. Magic, the One Power, appears in a variety of forms. But if we think of magic, magical tools and their effects not from our, current, scientific knowledge base, but put ourselves in the shoes of Two Rivers Folks: is the magical healing of battle wounds by Aes Sedai not simply a glimpse into the future development of the village Wisdom’s skills as a healer? Maybe the better distinction would be the that Fantasy deals with scientific imagination of the time it is set in, whereas Science Fiction employs scientific imagination of the time the author is writing in.

As with any rule, there are exceptions. I am starting to come across novels which I think clearly belong in the Fantasy genre, but are set in present-day times. In those novels, the scientific imagination is not so obvious. For example, what shall we make of the parallel New York City in “Stalking the Unicorn” by Mike Resnick? Well, my friend Aron, here may be one answer to your question of what is behind the Event Horizon. (For those readers not familiar with Relativity: The Event Horizon is a cone in space-time defined by the largest distance from which information can reach us at the speed of light). I will postulate that the hero of the story found a way to travel faster than the speed of light and crossed an event horizon. Not possible, you say? There are early scientific studies indicating information may indeed be able to travel faster than light-speed.

To get a better feel for how the scientific imagination of our times could well be labeled as magical thinking by future generations, try reading scientific papers from the 18th and 17th centuries. The closer you get to the onset of the enlightenment, the better. Take the cosmology of Jacob Boehme. He was considered by some one of the foremost thinkers of the time. To us, now, we have to wonder what he was thinking. We cannot imagine any more what the natural sciences, called natural philosophy now for good reason, was like before the scientific method was developed.

What has Apocalypse got to do with it?

A lot. Now here is an example of how one can be raised in a evangelical christian church, go to protestant Kindergarden, nine years of Catholic High School, and still not get a basic education on the Bible. About two years ago, I decided to take advantage of my local Unitarian Universalist congregation’s religious education program. The topic was on the making of the New Testament. In the first lecture about the Revelation of John, I learn that apocalyptic writings were quite the rage at the time. Nothing unique about John; I guess it was just the one the participants of the Synod of Hippo in 393 found the most convincing. I digress. So, how is an apocalyptic writing defined? It contains:

  • A disclosure of a hidden truth to a small group of chosen people
  • An imminent final battle against evil or the destruction of the world (Armageddon)
  • And often, the figure of a savior who defeats evil to either avoid the Armageddon, or rescue his group of supporters across the destruction to the start of a new world.

I had started reading Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series at the time. Well, if that is not the schoolbook text of apocalyptic writing, what is? Actually, a lot of Fantasy literature is: Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, to name just the most popular ones.

In turn, the Revelation of John has elements of Fantasy in it as well. Take the descriptions of the two beasts, one rising from the sea, the other from the land, in John 13.   A drawing of this beast in a modern text (i.e. website) is not so far from how I imagine a trollock or orc to look like. But have you ever thought about the Revelation of John as Science Fiction? I did not, until I remembered the following from my childhood. The priests who preached and taught in my church in the 1970s and early 1980s did, although they did not realize it. Here is John 13, verse 13: And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men.” We were taught that this fire John saw were the firebombs used in World War II, and the same bombs would fall during apocalypse. John, we were told, had the vision (or better, scientific imagination!) to predict the development of weapons technology 1900 years ahead.

Interestingly enough, there is a popular Fantasy author who writes Fantasy in a post-apocalyptic setting: Ann McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern”. In the later books, Pern is pure fantasy, set in a pre-industrialized society on an unspecified planet. However, the earlier books do mention the arrival of the (then not yet) Dragonriders on Pern via space travel. Sophisticated computers were brought to Pern, although at the time the first novel is set, these devices have ceased to function and technological knowledge has been irretrievably lost.

In conclusion, I see a large majority of Fantasy and SF writings as closely related subcategories of the genre of apocalyptic writings. While most of these works can be fairly easily categorized as one or the other, very creative blending of these categories occurs more frequently as the genres develops.

Back to the question

So, why is most fantasy set in the pre-industrial world? for one, the gaps in knowledge of the world in those times were greater, which makes it easier to fill them with imagination. In industrialized countries, most of us have lost the sense for the magical. With so much information at hand, we have lost a sense for how much we do not know, how much of this world is still shrouded in mystery. Communication has become incredibly fast, which eliminates a lot of plot developments which rely on information not getting to the characters immediately. Fantasy often requires the hero to travel large distances to strange lands. No Lonely Planet, Expedia and GPS for them! We have taken mystery out of travel. Where once travel was true adventure, we now have to make an effort to let us discover the unknown instead of checking off the highlights of the travel guide. The pre-industrial world with its slower pace and lesser knowledge of the world at large is a more conducive setting for creating the Fantasy world. Setting Fantasy in the future is a whole different challenge. How could we possible distinguish what, in the future, will be the scientific and what the magic?

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