As a keen consumer of the sci-fi fantasy genre, there are a few things I have come to expect each time I stumble upon a poster, cover, or Netflix icon hinting at some strange amorphous mist, shadow, liquid, light: power.
I expect worlds and wonders unknown (yet known enough to be as relatable for me as it will be for the next person, and the next, and the next). I expect noble characters, infused with a whiff of amorality (for complexity, for tension). I expect complex magic systems, hierarchies, and histories (brief enough to be relayed in a scene, or two). I expect an escape; to run from the horrors of our world into the arms of another’s, find solace in fantasies of impending doom, in spectacles of violence dressed in magic and undefined archaism, in the blood, the dust, the gold, the glory.
I expect dragons.
I expect all these things—they appear to me as prerequisites of the genre—yet I’ve never asked the question: why? Or, what’s more, if these things that I have come to expect, are even what I want? Are they how I want to escape?
In grappling with these questions, my thoughts catch on one thing in particular: violence.
I am a somewhat squeamish person. My stomach churns at fingertips sliced open with the sharp edge of a page, or a grazed knee oozing beneath a band-aid. Yet somehow, I am accustomed to the beheadings, the torture, the spilled guts and dashed brains, that spring from the page of a novel or flicker onto a screen.
I have become desensitised to the violence constantly depicted in the supposed ‘escapist’ media I consume; so much so that I never thought to wonder: does it have to be there?
Of course, there are a few possible answers to this question.
The first would, rightfully so, challenge my perception of the sci-fi fantasy genre as ‘escapism’ entirely. Fantasy worlds are a uniquely situated tool for revealing and challenging the oppressive structures and ideologies operating within our own world.
Fantasy can render the harsh realities of our world easier to digest—it creates distance between the individual and the issues they are confronted with, allowing them to reflect with empathy, but also objectivity. For example, The Fifth Season: a high-fantasy novel by N. K. Jemisin that actively critiques the pervasive presence of gendered and racialised violence in our own world through the hierarchies, prejudices, and power-imbalances of the novel’s.
In media like The Fifth Season, violence is necessitated by critique. It is violence within such fantasy worlds that intentionally draws out the horrors of our own. Such fantasy worlds act as a mirror; our condemnation of and disgust at the imagined world is reflected back onto ourselves and our reality. The ‘escapism’ is illusory.
But, I’d argue this isn’t the case for all texts of the genre. It doesn’t take great discernment to see the trail of pure escapism elsewhere in the sci-fi fantasy canon, even where the presence of violence and trauma is extensive. This is perhaps most obvious in media like the Netflix series Stranger Things, which situates itself within some known version of our own reality and history. Stranger Things’ escape into nostalgia is blatant. We are presented with a version of history captured through a rose-tinted lens: all-fluorescent arcades, board games, and capitalism, invaded by supernatural threats. Yet despite this clear aim of escaping into a romanticised past, we see violence wielded again and again against the few marginalised characters in the show, outside of the supernatural context. Nevertheless, when the exploitation of such traumatic experiences is levelled as a critique of the show, it is quickly met by an onslaught claiming ‘realism’ and ‘historical accuracy’. In the show with an alternate dimension.
While media like Stranger Things are provided the benefit of the doubt by its situation within our own world, the same cannot be said of the entire genre. It seems as if these stories were ones plucked from our own world, that violence, particularly violence exacted on women and other marginalised groups, has become an inherent, undeniable factor of the worlds we make up.
This was a sentiment expressed in a recent Hollywood Reporter article advertising the Game of Thrones spin-off, House of the Dragon, in which showrunner Miguel Sapochnik was quoted as saying the show doesn’t “shy away from” violence against women, claiming that “you can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time”. The problem is, the ‘time’ to which violence against women was inherent, is entirely made up.
Aspects of a text cannot be attributed to ‘realism’ when the world of the text is devoid of reality. Why do we argue that sci-fi fantasy media shouldn’t ‘sugar-coat’ the violence we pretend to be ‘realistic’ in these other worlds?
It seems to me, we demand ‘realism’ in fantasy only as it corroborates pre-existing notions of whose stories deserve to be told.
So really, it’s impossible to sugar-coat a world with dragons.