Are you aware of the YA Shot event? It’s a fantastic Arts Council-sponsored event taking place next week in celebration of libraries and young people’s literature. 71 YA and MG writers are appearing in 3 venues across Uxbridge on Wednesday 28th October. There is also a programme of blogging and vlogging workshops for those who want to learn more about this area.
This thought-provoking post on the world of fantasy writing from Ellen Renner appears courtesy of YA Shot and demonstrates the high quality of material that you can expect on the day.
Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues
I write in order to understand. Writers stand outside the world and watch it spin. We study this amazing, contrary world we live in and ask: Why?
Why do some people do bad things, and others good? Why is society organised the way it is? Does power always corrupt? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where do I fit in? Can I make a difference?
These are the very questions children ask of themselves and the world as they grow up. Writers simply never stop asking. Perhaps we never truly grow up. The first job of a story-teller is to entertain (otherwise no one will listen!); the second, to ask the hard questions.
All of this is why I predominately write fantasy, although my debut novel, Castle of Shadows, could more accurately be described as alternative history. I wanted to write about power and politics set in a time of great technological and social change. In fact, I wanted to put a mirror up to our own world while keeping a necessary distance. So I created a world based on 1830s England but free from its history. Castle of Shadows was written just after the Iraq War and, not surprisingly, features political shenanigans and a weapon of mass destruction.
My most recent books, Tribute and Outcaste, are straightforwardly within the fantasy genre, with all its related world-building. It was both liberating and terrifying to realise that the only limits were those of my imagination. But too much freedom can be a trap and I chose my ‘magic’ carefully and made sure it had logical limits within the story. Instead of potions and spells, my magic-users have a genetic ability to transform matter (telekinesis).
I wrote Tribute because I wanted to explore issues that have haunted me since I was a child: racism, sexism . . .all the ‘-isms’ which are an excuse for the all-too-human tendency to scapegoat segments of a society as ‘other’. In other words: the failure of empathy. It is no coincidence that my main character, Zara, is gifted – or cursed – with extreme empathy. She has no choice but to rebel against the evil she not only sees, but feels.
In this book – and especially in Outcaste – I explore the group-think mentality which allows genocide to happen, which enables members of a self-defining group to de-humanise those who do not belong. I’m extremely proud that Tribute is endorsed by Amnesty International.
Fantasy, for me, is a Petri dish in which I can place elements of our own society and culture them in isolation and watch them develop. Sometimes unexpected things grow in the dish. It isn’t surprising that the world of Tribute is unfair and violent, or that the non-magic are enslaved by those with telekinetic power. But I was shocked to discover that this terribly dark society had a single positive aspect: one silver lining to the cloud of oppressive evil. As I explored the logic of my world, it became clear to me that since women mages are as powerful as men – and cannot therefore be dominated physically – that there would be little reason for sexism to exist inside their society. Which means that when the main character – magic-user and rebel Zara – flees to the non-magic world of the Makers, she is in for a rude shock. That story is told in the sequel, Outcaste.
Sadly, fantasy still seems to suffer from a twentieth-century bias amongst the critical establishment. This, despite the fact that, when used well, fantasy is one of the best literary tools for asking those difficult questions. It is a device which allows writers and readers sufficient distance from our messy, complicated lives in which to think more clearly. Fantasy, used well, is a direct descendant of the great world mythologies. The best examples of its practice deserve to be read with thought and care, in the realisation that – in the hands of a good writer – nothing is more ‘real’ than fantasy.
How brilliant was that? Thank you so much, Ellen – and YA Shot, for that great post. If you want to find out more about Ellen’s writing, she is published by Hot Key Books and there is a fabulous review of Tribute by SF Said on the Guardian Books site, in which he says:
Two things make or break a fantasy novel: the magic and the world. In both these respects, Ellen Renner’s Tribute shares something with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, stories that gave us an original conception of magic and a richly imagined world, using the genre to say something deeply resonant about our own world.