Resistance Fantasies and Where to find Them: A Genre’s Past, Present, and Future

A great square sat at the middle of the capital, and the capital formed the cruel heart of an eternal empire. All of civilization was contained within its borders, except for us. We had congregated on that square in the thousands, making no demands of the government that would undoubtedly ignore our pleas; we were simply there to manifest our existence. You see, the empire had long been structured into an alienating labyrinth, one which only the bureaucrats knew how to navigate. Its center was the only place we all knew how to reach, for that was where we were expected to pay our tributes. What irony then that it had now become the site of our liberation, cobblestones ripped away to reveal the fertile soil underneath. Before we knew it, our commune was born. There had been no plan for that, but we did it anyway. It’s what our hearts and minds demanded.

 

In my last essay on Resistance Fantasy, I laid out the core precepts of this elusive genre, thereby explaining the ways in which it conveys its most important meanings. But no genre exists purely in the abstract, and so it must always be founded in some concrete inspiration. Such sources have a history to them, an ongoing course of development, and it is that trajectory which I wish to explore in this essay. I will venture from the depths of Daoist philosophy to the pulp sci-fi of the early 1900s, and from the animated shows of yesteryear to the bright future we might work towards. This is certainly an eclectic journey, and I hope you will bear with me as I explore the various nooks and crannies this prospective genre has to offer me. By the end of it, I believe we will have a more complete sense of what the Resistance Fantasy can and should mean, and we will be ready to move from critical analysis into fruitful creation. So let’s go.

Part One: Ancient Mythologies

It need hardly be said that the Resistance Fantasy is a genre with history. Was there ever a time at which human storytelling did not involve the fantastical, spiritual, and radical-political? In their most basic form, politically infused mythologies might be as old as human belief systems themselves. For some examples of this, allow me to turn to the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, the ones I am most familiar with on a philosophical level.

When we compare the core narratives of Buddhism with the tropes of Resistance Fantasy, we may initially be disappointed. With the roots of human suffering-such as ignorance, attachment, and aversion-being taken as fundamental attributes of reality and the self, the cause of resistance seems rather futile. At its best, Buddhism seems to turn the project of liberation inward, psychologizing our suffering until its elimination becomes a practice of passive monastics instead of social activism.

However, this is a rather conservative interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine, which can certainly become more socially engaged upon further reflection. With its emphasis on the systemic spiritual analysis of our worldly suffering, it might be supposed that our social conditions are an irrepressible part of our psychological state. Indeed, the fact that committed Buddhist practitioners follow such a specific lifestyle implies this very idea. As such, radical-political resistance can become just another facet of creating the conditions for ultimate spiritual liberation, which is surely the most totalized process there can be. Thus, Buddhism is only apolitical if one can ignore the world entirely, and that just sounds like more ignorance and aversion.

Once we actually embrace the political potential of Buddhism, we see that its philosophical influence could be quite beneficial. Because its concern with the elimination of suffering is open-ended, we can employ this ethos in a great variety of struggles; wherever there is suffering and oppression, here we can find the spiritual resistance of the Buddhist path. What’s more, its literal preoccupation with selflessness is naturally preventive with regard to hero worship. Although the achievements of great Buddhist saints are honored within the faith, one’s devotion must ultimately return to the Buddhist path itself, rather than any particular practitioner thereof. Finally, both the personal story of the Buddha and the universal nature of its philosophy imply the importance of mass politics. Everyone has a stake in the elimination of suffering, and the doctrine of non-self seems to suggest that as long as one of us suffers injustice, none of us are truly free. That’s a call for universal resistance if ever there was one.

Turning our attention to the spiritual philosophy of Daoism, we find that its political aspects are more obviously libertarian. A good deal of the Daodejing consists of a critique of rulership itself, generally claiming that the best sort of rulers are subservient to their people. Much disdain is reserved for the accumulation of wealth and status, and even the very existence of rites and lawmakers is harshly criticized. And although these negative evaluations are more clearly expressed than any of its positive statements, Daoism appears to align itself with the ideological stream of social anarchism.

The worst I could say about Daoist politics is that its affirmational philosophy is too focused on the individual, and does not give too many recommendations with regard to society’s behavior at large. However, if we take a syncretic perspective about the mythological roots of Resistance Fantasy, then we could easily supplement this lack with input from Buddhism or other such philosophies. My larger point here is not that Resistance Fantasy derives perfectly from earlier mythologies; I merely mean to show that its predilection for “Eastern” spirituality is rooted in more than a desire for moral mystification. There is real meaning in these philosophies, and they inspire our fictions even today.

Part Two: Modern Histories

When we compare these mythological antecessors with modern Resistance Fantasy, there is one primary difference between them: their relation to the Fantastical itself. Whereas most religions seek to establish a supernatural truth, or at least an allegorical approximation thereof, modern genre fiction appreciates these fantastical elements as something purely fictional. This is an important distinction, for it means that these older myths do not contain the total thematic package of Fantastical, Spiritual, and Radical-Political. Thus, to find something that truly resembles Resistance Fantasy, we have to make a slight detour through the history of the broader fantasy genre.

The way I see it, our modern conception of ‘fantasy’ has its roots in the first decided of the 20th century. Here is where a lot of our foundational popular culture was born, and the fantasy genre is no exception. Starting with pulp authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, fantastical elements such as faraway planets or alien gods came to be appreciated on their own merit, sheer horror or adventure without the need for a deeper metaphor. This tendency was then developed into increasingly sophisticated forms, culminating perhaps with the advanced worldbuilding of writers like Herbert and Tolkien. These were authors who used their academic experience in the pursuit of constructing worlds, leading to the creation of entire languages and ecologies. And along with this, any sense of allegory had been totally rejected.

With these developments, modern fantasy had matured. But it had not yet cultivated all the necessary elements of a Resistance Fantasy. This is because the radical-political element was still lacking, predated as it was by more capitalist, colonial, and patriarchal themes. Let us not forget that John Carter of Mars was depicted as a veteran of the Confederacy, and that most of Lovecraft’s protagonists were as vile in their racism as he himself. Even the worldbuilders of the immediate post-war era were still prone to bad tropes, with various white savior archetypes-think Lawrence of Arabia-taking precedence over actual freedom fighters. There was clearly some ingredient missing in this genre formula, and it would take the youthful tumult of the 1960s to provide it.

By the late 1960s, the first post-war generation was coming of age. These were people who had no first-hand memories of fascism, but still considered its opposition to be fashionable. When confronted with the social iniquities of their time and place, as well as the possibility that they would drafted into a variety of imperialist conflicts, these Western youth rebelled. From Paris to Woodstock, the 60s counterculture expressed itself in many different ways, though always with an artful anti-authoritarianism. Even when this broader movement collapsed in the early 70s, entire artforms were being founded in its wake, including the Resistance Fantasy. For if there was any foundational expression of this new genre, it was surely Star Wars.

Within the spectrum of resistance fantasies, the central power of Star Wars can hardly be overstated. In its creator, George Lucas, we find a near-perfect symbiosis of all necessary thematic elements. Not only had he learned and developed his craft in the radical-political milieu of the late 1960s, but he had also assumed this era’s ancillary interest in “Eastern” philosophy. Thus, when he started drafting his ideas for a fantastical picture in the mid-1970s, the basis had been laid for a proper Resistance Fantasy. To be fair, Lucas was not alone in this historical process, and similar works were being developed in parallel. Take Hayao Miyazaki for example, the Japanese animator whose Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind brought Lucas’ themes of war and humanity to similar if not greater heights throughout the 1980s (more on this later).

Still, the Star Wars franchise remains foundational to the Resistance Fantasy, mostly because so few of its imitators have managed to take the right lessons away from its artistry. To me at least, Star Wars abides in its political element, possessing a radical element that can be augmented or adapted, but never quenched. This is a vital part of what makes it a Resistance Fantasy, and only through our awareness of it might we hope to improve on this type of story. With this in mind, let us now take stock of the contemporary array of Resistance Fantasies, and see how this genre can or should develop in future creations.

Part Three: Present problems

Back when I first started writing about Resistance Fantasy, part of its discovery came as the serendipitous benefit of consuming similar media. I had the fortune of finishing two animated shows within a short timeframe, these being Star Wars Rebels and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Though both were billed as children’s programs, I was struck by the thematic depth of their narratives, as well as the satisfying clarity with which they resolved their main conflicts. These seemingly simplistic sagas shared some interesting and radical ideas, and I was eager to bring those to the fore. This sentiment was further strengthened by my reading of a third work, a manga series called Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Once again I found myself caught up in an epic work about evil empires, insurgent heroes, and cosmic mysteries. It is from these similarities that I constructed my initial essay on resistance fantasy. Yet by studying them more specifically, I believe we can come to another important observation about the contemporary Resistance Fantasy, one which will turn out to be quite troublesome if this genre is to be developed further.

Our analysis begins with the auspicious fact that these three Resistance Fantasies are all considered to be children’s stories. It is not entirely clear to me why this would be the case, as none of the features I have or will mention are essentially infantile. If anything, these fictions are willing to explore quite serious topics, from the terrors of war to imperialist oppression. In this darkness, they are perhaps similar to the fairy tales of old, which never shied away from the horrific if it made for a decent morality tale. However, instead of scaring its audience straight into a stultifying filial obedience, the Resistance Fantasy has more nuanced and critical matters in mind. For example, each of the three works I have mentioned has concerned itself with the question of insurrectionary violence: what form and amount of force is permissible in the fight against injustice? While most of these narratives try to distance themselves from the revolutionary extreme, their willingness to have these discussions is already quite radical.

From the elements I have described above, I believe we can derive a vital conclusion about the nature of the Resistance Fantasy. Concerned as it is with telling morally engaged stories in a dark and complicated setting, this genre can rightly be called didactic. The Resistance Fantasy deliberately explores the boundaries of injustice and its opposition, so as to cultivate in us a moral sense of the wrongs in our world and the good we might do to resolve them. This stands in sharp contrast to the ‘adult’ fantasy tales which put moral apathy and dark endings before a serious exploration of power and its consequences. These are the result of pessimism being taken for cleverness, or more importantly, of a committed anti-authoritarian narrative being perceived as morally simplistic or politically unrealistic. If one doesn’t believe that resistance and community can win out in the real world, then of course any such story will be condemned as childish. As it stands, such stigmatization is the main problem afflicting the contemporary Resistance Fantasy, one it must overcome to truly flourish. Let us now attend to its solution.

Part Four: Future Flourishing

The cynicism of ‘mature’ speculative fiction is a narrative poison, one which has kept the Resistance Fantasy from living up to its didactic potential. We have effectively condemned the teaching of morality and liberation to the realm of children and young adults, as if these matters are any less relevant to those with jobs and families. Anyone who is interested in radical social change should know that the resistance of oppressive norms is a lifelong process; we cannot afford to limit our access to stories or theories, for it is through these channels that we maintain our social imagination. Thus, if we are to keep the narrative promise of the Resistance Fantasy alive, we must learn to accept its liberatory message as serious and respectable. As dedicated enthusiasts or authors within this prospective genre, promoting this defiant appreciation is should be our first concern. “We like the Fantastical, the Spiritual, and the Radical-Political, and we believe that this genre can be of real meaning to ourselves and others.” Such would be our message, simple but satisfying.

Of course, I don’t believe the Resistance Fantasy is a perfect genre as-is, and broadening its appeal into more ‘mature’ markets might require certain augmentations. Just as the modern fairytales I’ve mentioned try to challenge their youthful audience with appropriate frights, so too should we be willing to broach darker or more complicated topics. The caveat here is that we should not let such darkness overwhelm the work into full-blown cynicism; the path to liberation should always be in sight. Still, I believe there are some specific areas in which the Resistance Fantasy has so far been lacking. For example, the environmental themes of Nausicaä appear to have gone frightfully unrivalled in the last two decades, even as they continue to grow more relevant by the day. If newer, more ecological forms of social liberation are to become popular, then we should work to incorporate their ethics into our stories. Furthermore, we can no longer afford to play coy with regard to our anti-capitalist themes. We need to claim and escalate the few kernels of socialist sentiment that exist within our popular culture, or they will continue to be co-opted by the monopolistic entities that put profit before art.

Taken together, there is a great challenge before us, to develop the Resistance Fantasy into a greater and more deliberate form. While we may continue to be inspired by those that came before us, the time has come to create some stories of our own, to give form to the Fantastical, the Spiritual, and the Radical-Political. That sublime confluence is at the core of our endeavor, and I hope these past two essays have given you some impression of its power, its history, and its potential. Whether you mean to write within this genre or not, may its meaning inspire you in some way or another. I’ll be sure to make use of it in future work, as I already have in my ongoing fantasy serial. But for now, I would just like to thank you for your attention. It’s been a pleasure.

 

It’s certainly true that a great open space can make you feel like a free being. But as it turned out, the reverse held true as well. The more people flocked to our little square encampment, the more space seemed to be afforded to us, until the grey concrete buildings which surrounded it had fully dropped out of sight. A great garden was built in this emptiness, our work only ceasing when we had to beat back another wave of anonymized enforcers. However, once our area grew too large to conceivably control, the state’s offensives slowly ebbed away, only leaving a trickle of immigrants and deserters. Free at last, we basked in the strange energies our exercise had unleashed: even such terms as ‘imagination’ or ‘community’ seemed incapable of describing this ineffable experience. It was good.

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