Most fantasy works (also many strains of science fiction, of course) are explorations of power, especially power of the great or unusual variety: where does it reside? How can it be gained? How can it be defeated?
But one of the problems with most fantasy is that it situates power too much in extraordinary individuals (heroes and villains). I chalk that up to it descending from the epic and the fact that the novel, in its popular form, is a form that focuses on individuals.
But as I read the following passage from Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rodgers, I wondered if the fantasy genre, and specifically fantasy as a secondary world setting, could be deployed to play with, interrogate and explore 20th/21st-century theories of power in more rigorous, interesting ways. In other words: what happens if you write a fantasy novel that takes one or more of the theories of power found in post-modern thought seriously in the way that draws directly on the strengths of the genre?
What then was power? The class theorists on the left and the right had imagined power instantiated in the material structures of class. The neo-Gramscians had imagined it hanging, like a veil over the yes of the many, in the dominant class’s construction of reality. Geertz and the cultural historians had vested it in rituals and theaters of meaning. The rational-choice political scientists had located power in the strategies and resources of individual actors. With the transit of Foucault’s work and reputation into English came a much subtler language of power in all its minute and capillary workings. Power had moved decisively into the spheres of culture, ideas, everyday practices, science. But if power relations were everywhere and saturated everything, not only investing individual subjects but producing them, if power were indistinguishable from resistance, incapable of being held by any identifiable group or institution, unlinked in any sense to “agency,” had not the long, complex search for power’s ever more subtle faces succeeded, at last, in finding nothing at all? (106-107, Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rodgers)
I’m sure if I looked closely enough at post-1990 fantasy, I’d find that some of it does actively respond to these theories of power (especially Foucault). But my gut tells me that that’s happened more in short fiction than in novel form. Although, of course, China Miéville is the obvious exception that proves the rule, especially with his Bas Lag novels. But because Miéville is so solidly within the Marxist camp, his works (I’m thinking especially about Iron Council and The Scar here) think about power in a specific way. It’s an interesting way, to be sure, and I often like the way his political point of view morphs into metaphor (even when I disagree with it). But I also often find myself wishing that the same settings, characters, metaphors had been approached by an author with different notions of power. Or even the same notions but with a different flavor.
All this, of course, is sidestepping the final sentence in that excerpt, a sentence that, perhaps, explains quite a bit about where SF&F finds itself. On one side the reactionary authors who cling to rational-choice theory. On the other the progressive authors who are always grasping for the elusive. I enjoy works from both, but the more I read in the genre the more I also find that enjoyment is not the same as satisfaction.