At the end of last year, I finished a series of writings on ‘Anapnoic Fiction’, one of my first attempts at a greater analysis of our popular fiction. This was the sort of project that I knew I wanted to continue, to find niche genres that readers and creators could make constructive use of. However, an intellectual interest in the Star Wars franchise had already been influencing my writing plans, and the competition between these two topics was keeping me from any actual work. What eventually happened surprised me greatly, for as these disparate directions grew closer together, the only real thing to write became the work you see before you.
Similar to the method of my earlier piece on Anapnoic Fiction, this essay will be an exercise in genre classification. Here I present a genre that works like Star Wars can belong to, one that preserves their essence while also directing them toward a more wholesome future. I call this particular genre “Resistance Fantasy”. Like the name suggests, Resistance Fantasy includes those stories that are at once fantastical and anti-authoritarian. They are set in epic worlds of great empires, strange creatures, and spiritual forces. But at their heart lies the belief that freedom and community can win out over order and authority, and that we are supported in our struggle by greater spiritual forces. It is this philosophical foundation that makes Resistance Fantasy such a distinct and meaningful genre.
Within this genre manifesto I will lay out the main principles of Resistance Fantasy, detailing both their specific features and indispensable contributions to the greater whole. Every part of this conceptual structure is of a necessary but insufficient kind: take one out, and the essence of the genre is compromised. Though there are many interesting commonalities across its founding fictions, the essence of Resistance Fantasy seems to come down to three primary element. I call these the Fantastical, the Spiritual, and the Radical-Political. Let me tell you all about them.
Since it is perhaps the most straight-forward element of the Resistance Fantasy, I will begin by exploring the Fantastical. This principle is at once more broad and more narrow than might be expected. It is broad in the sense that almost any sufficiently imaginative form of fiction can be a Resistance Fantasy; it does not just refer to those themes and aesthetics we associate with the conventional ‘fantasy’ genre. On the other hand, we cannot allow for just any fantastical setting if it would conflict with the spirit of the genre. The very presence of the Spiritual and Radical-Political elements already implies certain features of a fiction’s social and metaphysical world. Generally speaking, a Resistance Fantasy’s setting ought to be socially and psychologically compatible with our own world. If instead it proves so unconventional that terms like freedom and community have no real meaning there, then it cannot be considered a Resistance Fantasy. Put another way, these worlds need to feature struggles and societies that we can actually understand and sympathize with.
Now that we understand the definition and rough boundaries of the Fantastical, it is also important to make note of its relevance. Without this, it might seem that the ‘Fantasy’ of this genre is nothing more than an aesthetic, a fun diversion that gives the political element some flavor. But even if the Fantastical does serve to obfuscate an underlying anti-authoritarian spirit, this is not without its use. For one thing, it can help us discuss social issues that would be too uncomfortable or controversial to bring up within a more realistic setting. To give an example of this, consider that the imperial nature of US foreign policy is still a discomforting fact to many patriotic Americans. However, if we transpose that system of imperialism unto a fictional regime lead by an evil wizard, then the true injustice of it becomes easier to recognize. Generally speaking, the recontextualization of society through fantasy creates a degree of moral clarity, allowing us to assess matters of social justice in a more honest manner.
Beyond the re-appreciation of social reality, the Fantastical element can also lead to the extension of social possibility. The ‘blank slate’ of an uncreated world allows us to entertain impractical or even supposedly impossible socio-political ideas. We might imagine an ecological, gender-egalitarian, or even communist world from the bottom up. This is utopianism, using the opportunity of a fictional ‘no place’ (ou-topos) to imagine an idealistic ‘good place’ (eu-topos). Naturally, the scope of social possibility can also go the other way through the portrayal of new forms of oppression. But whichever way it goes, this expanding pool of social and political ideas only makes the Resistance Fantasy narrative more interesting and valuable.
Of course, neither this utopian tendency nor the notion of recontextualization is exclusive to the Resistance Fantasy, or to the Fantastical element within it; both are already implied by the very act of creating fiction. However, since the Fantastical denotes the purest and freest expressions of our imagination, it can exhibit these features to the fullest. The Spiritual and Radical-Political elements would simply feel out of place in a non-fantastical setting, their radical meanings displaced by the cynical eye of realism. In other words, the Fantastical exists for those ideas that are too right to yet be real.
Out of the three main principles of the Resistance Fantasy, the Spiritual element is the only one that is not directly reflected in its title. However, this does not mean that it is to be neglected, especially considering its significance in the various foundational works of Resistance Fantasy. As I will argue in this section, there is a subtle yet satisfying meaning contained within the Spiritual element, one that enhances if not transcends the genre’s more prominent political content.
Let me begin by sketching the average Spiritual narrative of a Resistance Fantasy. Generally speaking, we find a world spiritually unbalanced, its natives perturbed by some past or present calamity. The evil shadow that hangs over this setting is reflected in the suffering of its people, and vice-versa. But hidden within this darkness is a spark of hope, a force for good that lives in all who are willing to drive back the darkness. Quite often, this force will grant certain powers or blessings unto a few special people, those who express such simple virtues as compassion and humility. However, in contrast to their remarkable gifts, these chosen ones will tend to be of lowly origins, eschewing in some way or another the elitist morality of bloodlines. By embodying an honest and unrelenting goodness, the people of light will eventually come to present the plight of their people to the great avatar of darkness. In this confrontation, they reject both the false authority of evil and the temptation of power, all for the sake of a better world. With this courageous deed, evil is exorcised and spiritual balance is restored. This is strictly speaking the end of the Resistance Fantasy, and the beginning of an equally important but oft-neglected narrative: the establishing of cosmic peace. A great Resistance Fantasy will plant the seeds of that coming utopia within its own narrative, so that we may at least imagine it for ourselves.
Among the many themes one can take away from the story I’ve sketched here, I want to discuss a potentially problematic trope known as the soteriological element. To explain it properly however, I do need to get a little philosophical, so bear with me here. Within religious studies, the soteriological is defined as the part of a doctrine that promises salvation from some ill or evil. In some sense we can consider this promise to be a great good; who wouldn’t adopt a certain philosophy if it could legitimately ‘save’ one from ignorance and suffering? However, many religions also suppose that this salvation can be attained through the act of faith alone. In other words, they say that we can find relief through our spiritual subjugation to a higher power, a practice which all too often results in our actual subjugation to whomever is claiming to speak for the divine authorities. A philosophy of salvation now seems to have turned into a justification of political authority.
While I might be phrasing my problem with the soteriological a little too harshly, I do so to contrast this tendency with the political priorities of a Resistance Fantasy, which are inherently anti-authoritarian. If we unwittingly replicate this trope while incorporating the Spiritual element, we would create a story where the salvation of the world depends on the personal authority of divine agents, rather than the collective spirituality of the faithful masses. Such a narrative does not inspire Resistance so much as obedience, and ought to be rejected out of hand if this genre is to be a thematically consistent one.
So what can we do to keep the Spiritual element thematically satisfying, to mitigate unfortunate meanings like this one? There are several ways to go about it, some of which are already contained within the standard form of the spiritual narrative. A first technique would be to associate spiritual efficacy with certain moral virtues, such as humility and the abhorrence of authority, thereby guaranteeing that the avatars of light cannot become rulers themselves. Next, we deal with the seeming exclusivity of spiritual ability by emphasizing the universal nature of its underlying truth: wisdom and freedom can be attained by anyone. If the granting of particular spiritual powers is to show any preference, let it lie with the most poor and oppressed beings, serving in this way as the catalyst for positive social change. Finally, it may also be important to not make the Spiritual narrative appear too important to the resolution of the central conflict. While it’s a good way of dealing with the larger philosophical and moral questions of one’s narrative, the Spiritual element is a little too detached from the direct socio-political question, and so unable to resolve the entire issue all by itself. You could say that this is where the Radical-Political really takes the spotlight, as it is the more down-to-earth manifestation of the Spiritual element’s greater meanings. But that is a story for the next section.
As we head into that section, I would like to dwell on one last philosophical question about the Spiritual element. We might after all wonder why it should even be included in a genre that seems mostly concerned with concrete political goals. What good does spirituality serve in an anti-authoritarian story? My personal answer to this is that it lends the narrative a sense of spiritual comfort. No matter how great the powers arrayed against the Resistance, they can be safe in the knowledge that God, or history, or whatever greater force that might operate the universe, is with them. Naturally, this spiritual comfort can also be dangerous, since righteousness easily escalates into fanaticism. However, when the core values of one’s spirituality are freedom, community, and compassion, I do not see how any amount of faith in it could be too much.
The Radical-Political element is the moral center of Resistance Fantasy, the anti-authoritarian sentiment that underlies every individual act of Resistance. It is man’s unwillingness to bow down to tyrants, to be subjected to the spiritual violence of totalitarian regimes. When followed to its logical conclusions, the Radical-Political sentiment becomes near-anarchistic in its ambitions, seeking to topple all manifestations of unjust rulership. The Radical-Political is always working towards the distillation of Resistance from tyranny, of hope from hopelessness.
Unfortunately, it seems that few Resistance Fantasies have truly considered the scope of the Radical-Political. Instead, most take the logic of Resistance for granted; while they correctly assume that the actions of the Evil Empire are evil, they fail to extend this intuition about social injustice into their greater worldbuilding. What this generally leads to is a moral confusion between systemic and individual injustice, as manifested narratively in the restoration of an earlier regime. As long as the ‘evil ruler’ is done away with, the heroes apparently do not need to question or resolve the causes of evil rulership. Instead, they merely put the ‘good ruler’ back in charge. This is a short-sighted narrative at best, and a fundamentally hypocritical one at worst. How can one realize a better world by constantly returning to the old, evidently corruptible one? To put it in Buddhist terms, this flawed form of resistance is more samsara than nirvana, more cycle of suffering than actual liberation.
It is the propensity of this corrupt theming that makes true Resistance a Radical-Political exercise in comparison. It asks us to take the cause and resolution of social injustice seriously. If we wish to write compelling Resistance Fantasy, we must continuously critique the world we’re creating, from divine top to mundane bottom. This is a difficult creative exercise, for it reaches deep into the heart of our own imagination and philosophy in order to complete itself. Perhaps our use of the Fantastical and Spiritual is a reflection of that inner critique, of us trying to figure out how to realize Resistance while staying true to our conceptions of society and morality. Despite or perhaps because of the effort it requires, I consider this to be a wonderful and worthwhile process. For with these three elements combined, the Fantastical, Spiritual, and Radical-Political, what evils are there that we cannot question?
Despite these philosophical discursions on Resistance Fantasy I have shared with you, you would be excused for any remaining uncertainty you might feel about its meaning. As with all genre manifestos I have written so far, this is still a genre in becoming, and even I could not claim to know its precise themes or boundaries. Nevertheless, I do believe that the three principles I have laid out above are a useful way of centering our conception of Resistance Fantasy. If a work is Fantastical, Spiritual, and Radical-Political, then we can be reasonably sure it fits within this genre.
Still though, it would be nice to get some actual impressions of this genre, of the inspirations and examples that inform its existence. This, then, will be the task of a follow-up essay. Here, I will lay out the mythological origins of the Resistance Fantasy, give an account of its modern historical roots, and present the present state of affairs. That is how we will gain a sense of the genre’s trajectory, as well as its future potential.
Personally, I’ve found that this manifesto has helped anchor some of my intuitions about speculative fiction, and I am sure to return to its precepts in future creations. As for you, dear reader, may this series cultivate in you a sense of Resistance Fantasy, of its meaning and significance. If it wasn’t obvious before, I am quite enamored with this new genre of mine, and I hope it inspires you as much as it does me.