Monday, 19 January 2015

Of Dragons and Helicopters: Fantasy and Metaphor

I recently read a military fantasy novel called "Of Bone and Thunder," in which soldiers from a powerful nation called the Kingdom are sent to a jungle to hunt down and destroy an elusive peasant insurgency.

There's plenty of supernatural elements - for example, and the Kingdom uses dragons as transportation and to attack the insurgents, much like our modern military uses helicopters. But despite the high fantasy trappings, for most of the novel's protagonists it's about trying to survive a bitter, pointless war, slogging through humid jungles to chase an invisible enemy.

It's a well-written novel, with sharp, descriptive prose that quickly sweeps the reader along with it. The writer is adept at putting the reader in the boots of Kingdom soldiers, making us feel every detail of their world – the sleep loss, the heat, the dull tedium.

But despite strong writing, I couldn’t really get into this novel. Why? Because it's not a fantasy novel at all - it's a Vietnam War novel.

And I don’t mean that metaphorically – "Of Bone and Thunder" has dragons instead of helicopters and crossbows instead of rifles, but that's about as deep as the changes run.

As a genre, fantasy is quite open to metaphor and interpretation. Fantasy worlds are built from elements ripped straight from mythology – dragons, elves, magic, prophesy – and are filled with archetypal heroes battling dark forces. More often than not, fantasy novels take place in a charming medieval landscape that is blessedly free of complex technology or sophisticated social structures. Such fairy tale worlds are ripe for metaphorical interpretation, because they treat many philosophical concepts we have about the world – ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ for example – as literal realities. 

And the ‘meaning’ of a fantasy novel is often not a simple thing to determine. Take the original modern fantasy series, Lord of the Rings. Some interpreted Tolkien’s epic as a metaphor for World War Two, with Sauron and the Orcs standing in for Hitler and the Axis powers. Others saw the novels as a fable about the dark side of technology, with the One Ring standing for the corrupting influence of the modern world that only the contented, simple-living Hobbits of the Shire can resist. The series has been called pro-Christian, pro-Pagan, pro-white supremacist. For a story about intrepid heroes fighting a generic bad guy, there's quite a bit to interpret.

How about “Of Bone and Thunder”? Even if you don't read the cover flap (which specifically states it’s a fantasy take on the Vietnam War), most readers should figure this metaphor out quickly . In this novel, disillusioned draftees trek through the jungle, taking drugs to cope with their tedium. Arrogant officers downplay civilian casualties and cite high kill ratios to impress their commanders. Local spiritual figures set themselves on fire to protest the political situation. Soldiers chase enemies through complex underground tunnel systems. There's nasty racial slurs for the enemy, naive new recruits getting a dose of reality, and political tensions both home and in the military itself.

The imagery is so Vietnam-like, the novel barely feels feel like fantasy at all.

Being both a fantasy fan and a history buff, I don’t have a problem with basing a setting on real-world historical conflict. But I feel that fantasy needs some element of interpretation. If a story just swaps helicopters for dragons but leaves nothing else unchanged, it’s hard to get immersed (part-way through the novel, I realised I was consciously noting the real-world references – “Oh, that’s his fantasy equivalent to heroin” – instead of being fully engaged with the story). When you take so much from the real world, you don't really have a metaphor at all - you've just got something that's exactly the same as reality. It leaves me, as a reader, with nothing to think about after finishing the book. Nothing to debate and mull over. No subtext to interpret, just text.

If this all sounds overly harsh, I should emphasize that "Of Bone and Thunder” was very readable, with tense scenes and lots of gritty details. But I finished the book thinking it all felt a little hollow. I just wish the writer had chosen to make his world a little more fantastical. Give the reader something to interpret, some metaphor to puzzle over, and I think you've got a far more interesting novel.


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