Monday, August 20, 2007

Politics and Religion in Fiction

They say that when you want to strike a conversation with a stranger, avoid topics concerning politics or religion: it’s unlikely you’ll both agree and what would have been a friendly chit-chat turns into a heated debate. However, I do think those two factors are quite integral to us as human beings, and they easily shape our psyche and paradigm of the world—which in turn influence what we read and how we interpret them.

Take for example George Orwell’s Animal Farm or even 1984. Why do we easily consider them classics but not the likes of Mein Kampf? I do think modern readers are biased towards texts that are more sympathetic to their political beliefs and in my case and in the case of the West, that usually means democratic ideals more than communist philosophies (of course to be fair to Communism, I think the flaw isn’t necessarily in the intent but rather in the execution in which it presupposes altruism in our leaders and our citizens, while Democracy pre-supposes self-interest).

As a SF&F fan, living in a conservative country and family can be trying, whether you’re Catholic or even Christian. Reading any book that incorporates magic is easily assumed to be evil, just as reading any text that has a pantheon of deities or even the lack of one. It also seems unfair that you can’t have evil antagonists in your fiction to be considered wholesome: you can’t have demons or devils as they are perceived as corrupting forces by zealots. Something as benign as Harry Potter is perceived as blasphemous for the sole reason that the main character uses magic. Don’t even get me started with playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Just because there’s a demon or a devil in the Monster Manual, some fanatics think that the point of the game is to worship them when in fact it’s not—gamers are out to kill demons and devils (and hopefully loot their bodies and plunder their wealth). Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if people were consistent but we can be blind to our own prejudices. The same condemners who are defiant at something like Lord of the Rings praise books like Chronicles of Narnia despite the fact that Tolkien and Lewis were friends, or the fact that the latter work also has protagonists using magic. There’s even an author who was ostracized by his mother for the sake of religion because his latest novel has a protagonist who was a lesbian but she didn’t seem to have a qualm with the previous protagonists who were murderers (and even if being gay was a sin, I’d choose the former over the latter any day). I also remember seeing the Left Behind series in our church’s bookstore and for a good time, that series occupied a good chunk of shelf space in the fiction section of the local bookstore although why it was there and not in the SF&F section (in which it could have easily fit in) I can’t imagine why (actually I can: it’s marketing).

In many ways, it begs the question: is good writing nonetheless good writing irregardless of your political or religious beliefs? Is it even possible to judge writing solely on the basis of writing alone, stripped of any morality or political ideology? Better yet, should literature exist in a vacuum? As much as I’m tempted to stick with an objective truth, that’s simply not the case in the real world. We compare not just with what’s been written before and in the present but similarly how it affects us. If I were to write Neuromancer today for example, it wouldn’t be well received considering it was written two decades ago by William Gibson (or the fact that Philip K Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? before that). And in many ways, Pattern Recognition has more resonance with today’s readers than Neuromancer because of the ideas and concepts the former tackles that wasn’t necessarily evident to the public in the 80’s but a definite hallmark of the 21st century (similarly, if Neuromancer had been published a decade earlier, would it have been as well received?).

When it comes to politics and religion, I do think the two play an integral role in what we deem as good reading. Shakespeare for example wouldn’t resonate so strongly if he didn’t tackle the human condition (and isn’t that why critic Harold Bloom loves him so much?). The Bible is popular not necessarily because of its skillful writing (Psalms and Proverbs aside) but rather due to the hope and ideas it conveys (and if there’s any lyrical prose in the Bible, a lot of it has probably been lost in the translation which has taken a more functional form—just look at the Peter and “rock” pun which probably only scholars would understand). An example closer to home is science fiction. More so than any genre, a lot of readers come to science fiction for its ideas and concepts that typically revolve around politics, religion, or both. Just look at what we consider classics: Flowers for Algernon, Fahrenheit 451, or The Giver. They’re science fiction books not necessarily for the science but because they talk about the human condition, the political landscape of their times, the attempt at finding an utopia (and I think utopian societies are the nigh-unreachable goals of any political system or religious belief—the tragedy of the Knights of the Round Table was that it was a political system that espouses equality in a feudal society and isn’t heaven or Elysium or nirvana the perfect society we’re all looking for that religion conveniently provides?).

Even authors aren’t immune. The Wizard of Earthsea trilogy for example is a beautiful series on the literal level but Ursula K le Guin went about ret-conning the events that took place in the first three books in her sequels because she took offense at what she had written—the newer Earthsea books are definitely a reflection of her new political and religious outlook. Terry Goodkind, on the other hand, was fiercely political when he was writing the middle of the Sword of Truth series and was attempting the fantasy equivalent of Animal Farm (at that point, I dropped Goodkind because his propaganda came at the price of moving the story forward).

That’s not to say that books should be moralistic or worse, didactic, in order for them to be classics or good reads but rather I do think that society’s hierarchy of values certainly plays a significant role in how we read books and better yet, how we react to them. Gulliver’s Travels for example probably wouldn’t have been considered a classic if it wasn’t such a political allegory for its time. It’s the same reason why the church is reacting so strongly towards The Da Vinci Code (and why the masses got caught up in it the first place) even if at the end of the day, the story wasn’t originally intended as counter-propaganda more than a storytelling vehicle. Book banning and censorship is another example of society’s attempt to revise their political and religious belief, as if the political incorrectness of the authors that have gone before them are reflective of their current society: negroes instead of African Americans, Indians instead of Native Americans. And not surprisingly, some modern readers do react so strongly to such bodies of work that simply used the language of its time and reflective of its current society. That’s not to say that these complaints are justified but the heart of the argument can be traced to one’s ideologies and why these books were placed in the canon in the first place.

I think one fact that we readers can take comfort in is that fiction is so highly-prized that such issues can come about: we care enough about the books we read that we want to revise them or failing that, censor or outright ban them. Works of fiction is given the same treatment and focus as we would history books, even if the former claims to be lies while the latter truth. I think that on a subconscious level, people are aware that history is about as subjective as fiction, albeit with more research. And at the end of the day, what character in fiction is devoid of politics or religion, even if these political and religious beliefs are fictional (i.e. psychohistory in Foundation). Perhaps those facts make fiction resonate so strongly to the reader even if the story is something as simple as Humpty Dumpty (I was tempted to use Jack and Jill but I’m sure the feminists would find a way to condemn/praise the portrayal of Jill or simply the title itself—just goes to show that we can read politics/religion into anything).

1 comment:

Melissa said...

It is not too often where I get to come across a science fiction - religion related post. Thanks for putting it here. Personally I don't think that they are very unrelated. I just finished Alex Webster and The Gods, and amazingly funny book on mythology and marketing religion.

I'll have to check back later for more related posts.