Thoughts on Setting: Industrial Age Creative Anachronism

Recently, I started playing Valkyria Chronicles on my laptop. The game, which I may review later, is a perfect example of fantasy moving from the feudal period, which was characterized by an agricultural, land oriented society to an economy increasingly dominated by factories, mass production, and capital. Set in a made up Fantasy World, Valkyria Chronicles is clearly leaning on World War II as both a point of familiarity for the player and as inspiration for the story. As the plot progresses, it becomes more and more fantastic.

I believe, that as the information age begins and societies move away from economies dominated by industry and cities, we seek to mythologize that past in our entertainment and fiction in the same way we once did with the feudal age and agriculture. It merits more thought than I can give it as to why this occurs and how it relates to other genre phenomena.

There are a host of other examples, in games and literature, of the industrial age becoming fodder for Fantasy Fiction. Steampunk would be the obvious example, an entire genre based around clockwork magic with strong urban and imperial age themes. Brian McLellan’s superb Flintlock Fantasy, promise of blood is another obvious example. But one could argue that Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series is post feudal, influenced more by Dickens then Mallory and Tolkien, or that much of the modern sensibility in other authors like Joe Abercrombie come from a grittier feel that can be attributed to industrial age themes as much as gritty realism.

(George R.R. Martin is certainly a notable exception here, but he very deliberately deconstructs modern notions, especially the rational hero, to take us back to a fully realized feudal setting, albeit without the pastoral sensibilities that often mark feudal fantasy.)

I can think of five main points of difference between Feudal and Industrial Age Fantasy

  1. The Setting or The Kingdom versus the City and The World: Feudal Fantasy, no matter how epic, usually focuses on a single Kingdom. Other lands are often visited or involved in the story, but we are generally not meant to care about what happens to them. There is a definite feeling of home in Feudal Fantasy, which is usually based around a rural area or a castle. We are meant to care about this place, which is often presented as awesome before the conflict begins. In Martin this is a clever metaphor for Childhood, similar to TH Whites Arthurian series. Industrial age Fantasy is based around a more ambivalent setting. Cities are presented as wondrous, but also dirty and full of a host of new problems. Industrial age fantasies are often more cosmopolitan as well, since the city is a meeting place for strangers from all over the world.
  2. The Role of Technology or Swords versus Swords, Guns, and Machines: The gear used in Feudalistic Fantasy is pretty set. The Sword is the anachronistic weapon of choice for our protagonists. Interestingly Industrial Age Fantasy des not replace swords, shields, and plate armour with guns, cannon, and so on, but rather adds them to the mix. Technology takes on an interesting role in industrial fantasy, as both enemy and solution, and frequently gets blended with magic.
  3. The Lower Class or The Street Urchin versus the Idealistic Farmboy: In Feudal Age Fantasy the protagonist is a noble, a scholar, or a humble farmboy. The lower class upbringing, the Farmboy is often shown as a kind of pure upbringing that gifts the hero with the strength and moral fibre needed to confront the world (superman and batman strike me as Feudal heroes moving into the city, one is the Feudal Farmboy and the other is the Feudal Noble). In the Industrial Age fantasies, the lower classes of the city suffer and are subject to positively Dickensian treatment at every turn. Interestingly this toughens them up and teaches them the harsh lessons needed to survive which leads right to my next point.
  4. The Resolution of Conflicts or Strength and Moral Fibre versus Reason and Cunning: Traditional Feudal heroes are physically fit, often superior in some way. Blood, noble or otherwise, often figures into their source of power. They overcome conflict through physical prowess and direct means more often than not. Other tests are met with strength of character which can best be described as moral fibre or purity of spirit, This can be subverted in more complex narratives, but usually by placing blood and role above moral purity. In Industrial age Fantasy the protagonist is usually the smart one, be that street smart or book smart. Reason become more of a heroic quality than moral fibre, which allows even sympathetic characters to be deeply flawed.
  5. The Source of Conflicts or the Existential Scourge versus The Ideological Enemy and the Broken System:  In Feudal Age Fantasy the wilderness and the lands beyond the borders of the kingdom or civilization are teeming with enemies. The Others in Martin’s works are a perfect example of this, as are Tolkien’s orcs, or any number of evil forces that threaten the existence of the kingdom, village, or shire. Industrial Age conflicts however are often characterized by enemies that are different only in nationality or creed, or sometimes even just other character who is very similar but just happens to be on the other side. In the Industrial age change systems and institutions can be the source of conflicts as old ways, such as the monarchy and slavery, are overthrown while Feudal Fantasy is often about the return of the kingdom to its pristine original form.

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