Fantasy worlds as thought experiments

Reading a fantasy or science fiction novel gives your imagination a good workout. Not only are you constantly watching for clues to help you paint a coherent picture of the story world and how it works, you’re sharing the viewpoint of a character (or several) whose problems are probably very different from your own. As with reading any fiction, you gain empathy for others – you are literally practicing perspective-taking. With fiction set in other worlds, however, you also learn to see your own world differently, experiencing this world’s problems without the biases that would intrude from mapping your own identity into the story (as one may do with historical fiction), and potentially gaining real-world insights. Also, spending the time mentally inside another world gives you a refreshing break from your own, especially if this other world is somewhere wonderfully strange.

Of course, if the world you’re having to learn is too strange, spending time there becomes more work than fun, and you might give up. Authors have to make tradeoffs between originality and familiarity. Fortunately, there are – well, not tricks exactly, but techniques – that authors can use to help. They can model their world on ours, hence the endless stream of fantasy novels featuring European-style castles, knights, et cetera. They can give their characters problems that, although challenging, are also very simple – all it takes to save Middle Earth is the destruction of Sauron’s ring. Or they can give us a point-of-view character who’s naïve and has to learn how things work too, alongside the reader.

My partner and I both love the Murderbot books, Martha Wells’s series about a human-shaped, artificial intelligence “Security Unit” that illegally hacks its governor module to get control over its body, manages its intense anxiety by binging on soap operas, and finds itself (to its horror) making friends. To be honest, Wells doesn’t use any of those “help the reader” techniques in this series, so it takes some work to follow the story at first, but the books are short and immensely fun. Since I liked them so much, someone – I’m pretty sure it was local author Nina Kiriki Hoffman – suggested I also try another series by Martha Wells, The Books of the Raksura. I did and I loved them. I’ve read the five main Raksura books twice now, and this week I was delighted when my partner decided to try them too.

The Raksura books, which begin with The Cloud Roads, are a series inspired by its author’s background in anthropology. There are probably dozens of intelligent species sharing a world in which magic is real but rather limited, and which is most definitely not Earth. Our point-of-view character, Moon, is so naïve that he doesn’t even know what his shapeshifting species is called, but, as any reader might guess, he soon learns that he’s Raksura. A Raksura can just look ordinary and fit in well with other ordinary folk, but they (at least some of them) can also transform into a winged predator that apparently looks something like a gorgeous, glorious cross between a dragon and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Cover art from The Cloud Roads:


Not long after he started reading The Cloud Roads, my partner started telling about parallels he was noticing between the world where the Raksura live and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. I hadn’t noticed them at all. The Sharing Knife books are set in an alternate version of North America – we start the story among farmers living in a fantasy version of Ohio (though it’s not called that), spend time both with Anglo-types and Native-types, and eventually travel the entire length of the Mississippi River (though again, it’s not called that).

But he had a point, and that brings me to my own point. I hadn’t really considered before that, just like real-world societies, fantasy societies have meta-narratives too! If the characters are aware of living in a society, they also share a collective story about where that society has been and where it’s headed, and the problems it faces.

As my partner noted, most fantasy societies face one major problem, one primary source of evil that must be defeated. I mentioned Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. In the Wheel of Time series, the heroes oppose the Dark One and those he’s inspired. Tad Williams has his fantasy characters face off against a malicious undead Storm King. Even in the Earthsea Cycle there’s a single, powerful villain to defeat, although this time it’s a Jungian Shadow version of our hero. In other words, it’s the “simple problem” technique – all they need to do is overcome a single (massively overpowered) target, and our heroes can go back to leading ordinary lives. Closure is immensely satisfying.

In The Books of the Raksura and Sharing Knife, though, there’s a decentralized evil, an entire species or set of species in multiple forms, with no overall ruler, but so dangerous that our protagonist societies must always be vigilant. This evil can secretly corrupt an ordinary person without other people realizing it, too, increasing the need for caution and undermining community trust.

In The Sharing Knife, it’s the Malice, a form of life that can hatch anywhere and, as it grows and evolves, it sucks all the life out of its surroundings while it infects and learns from progressively more complex life forms.

For the Raksura, it’s the Fell, a species that loves to eat other sentient beings, and that will even feast on its own, if no one tastier is handy. Unfortunately, they look enough like the Raksura that much of the world is afraid of them too.

In both cases, the good guys have some magic on their side too – as my partner put it, they are supernatural tribes that fight the evil, while sharing a historical connection with it.

From his perspective, this different way of handling evil – with a rather different meta-narrative – is something novel and cool. I hadn’t really noticed, except to consider that this situation seemed more realistic and, in a sense, more mature than the usual fantasy novel scenario. In the real world, evil can’t be vanquished once and for all; it has to be lived with.

Basically, the Raksura / Sharing Knife meta-narrative is the same meta-narrative that many evangelical Christians live with today, where evil surrounds them and any seemingly innocent contact with the secular world might tempt or corrupt them away from their pure faith. Protection comes from prayer, the sacraments, and other practices that look, to outsiders, very much like magic.

But evangelical Christians aren’t alone in taking this approach. Living in Eugene, Oregon, where the 1960s still casts its magical spell, it’s obvious that the hippie movement had a similar belief system. In a nutshell, the military/industrial complex, capitalism, and such were evil, yet tempting; the psychedelic Flower Power community resisted as best it could.

Here’s our local “country fair” keeping the spirit alive:

Today’s evangelicals and yesterday’s hippies have something important in common. Both are countercultures, oriented in opposition to mainstream society. Also, both movements are non-violent, in principle and – generally – in practice.

In the Raksura and Sharing Knife books, the species described as evil actually, objectively, are. The Malice drain life from their surroundings, suborning the animals and people they encounter so they can spread their disastrous effects even further. The Fell – about whom I may write more once my partner’s finished the series – gleefully feed on civilized people.

But no human society is evil. Certainly many cultures promote values and sometimes behaviors that we don’t share, which we might find primitive or barbaric. But consider how universal the Golden Rule is, from ancient Egypt to traditional China to the religions of West Africa. Philosopher Mark Alfano and his colleagues have identified seven moral universals that all societies tend to honor, which he summarizes as “family values, solidarity, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fair distribution, and respect for prior ownership.” International law generally recognizes that individuals may commit crimes, even on a societal scale, but no group is inherently bad.

So that while in fantasy novels it’s fine to label another group (like the Malice or the Fell) as threatening and corrupting, in real life the threats may come from the non-Christian, or the rich and conventional. Labeling the latter as evil may be harmless enough for a non-violent counterculture, like today’s evangelicals or left-wing alternative lifestyle folks.


When you’re counterculture and consider a dominant culture to be threatening or corrupting, and you’re okay with violence, what often results? Terrorism.

When you’re part of the dominant group and afraid of the influence of some other group but not willing to use violence against them, you get something like the Hollywood blacklist – persecuting others and sometimes destroying their lives.

And when your dominant group thinks another group is threatening or corrupting? Potential outcomes now include war (if those others are outside your country) or genocide (if they’re alarmingly among you). Many of the most violent regimes of the 20th century started with a counterculture group taking power and deciding that their enemies were entire “evil” groups of people… Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China.
2x2_counterculture_cropSo, bottom line: In the real world, it’s dangerous to tar an entire group with labels like “evil”! If we’re worried about others’ corrupting influence on our children, let’s focus instead on giving our children the skills to make solid critical judgments of their own.

And the other bottom line: If you’re looking for summer reading, today’s fantasy literature offers many high-quality options. Whether you’re interested in for thought experiments that could better illuminate our real world, or escapist self-care, I am sure there’s a book for you.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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