WFC Post #2: Fantasy Gun Control

So I decide I’m going to do a sequence of posts / tweets about stuff I wrote in my notebook while at WFC… and then I get massively sick with stomach flu, delaying my delayed tweets even further. It points, I suppose, to my need to get myself a smartphone if I’m going to properly participate in this social networking thing (but I hate the idea–I waste enough time as it is surfing the net when I should be writing; I don’t need to make it even easier to do so).

In the meantime, I’m not sure if anybody cares any longer what I thought of WFC, the world having moved on two weeks’ worth, but I’m going to post my stuff anyway, ’cause I said I would.

Friday morning:

I was torn regarding which 10am panel to attend–both “The Fairy Tale as a Specific Form” and “Fantasy Gun Control” appealed to me in different ways. The phrasing of “Gun Control” was what made it win out: “Wheel lock pistols have been around since the early 16th Century. Hand cannons have been around since about 1400. Why are firearms so often absent from quasi-medieval fantasies?” An intriguing question. So off I went to discover why Walter Jon Williams, Charles Gannon, Elizabeth Bunce, Lee Martindale, and Ian Drury thought that was.

They raised some interesting points:

1) “Generic secondary world fantasy” takes place in the Renaissance… but without guns. This may well be connected to “Fantasy as a rejection of the modern age”, as discussed at length in the panel of the same name Thursday night. But it points to a weakness in the genre, something to which the current generation of fantasy writers should give some thought. I neglected to write down who said this, but I did capture the quote, which I enjoyed – “The Middle Ages was not a monolithic period! It was a period in which huge technological changes occurred! Where and when specifically are you setting your story?”

2) “Generic secondary world fantasy” has traditionally been heavily influenced by Tolkien, and Tolkien was pretty anti-anything-like-a-modern-weapon. Ian Drury, commenting with that characteristically-British dry humor: “Tolkien was reacting to the First World War–thus sneaking right past the question of just how jolly war was before German industry got involved.”

3) Particularly in YA literature, there is an understandable reluctance among writers (and their publishers) to arm children–and an even greater reluctance to point a gun at a child. Pointing a crossbow is a different thing, somehow.

4) This was either Elizabeth or Lee, I forget: “Steel is just more elegant than something that goes bang.” A gun allows you to kill a lot of people at a distance, impersonally, and fantasy requires the personal. Swords represent personal courage in a way that guns do not.

That final point, interestingly, was the one with which I found myself vehemently disagreeing. Perhaps it is only because my taste in literature tends to the historic rather than the strictly fantastic–perhaps it’s the fact that I took a film class on Westerns when I was in college, or that I’ve recently absorbed a whole lot of information on naval culture in the era of the Napoleonic Wars and Scottish culture during the hundred years of the various Jacobite rebellions, not to mention spending Fourth of July weekend watching a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg–but I call bullshit, strenuously, on the idea that pistols are not a representation of personal courage. I agree with you that a gatling gun is impersonal. But meeting on Main Street in front of the saloon, at high noon, to have it out man to man? Meeting to defend one’s personal honor at dawn, walking twenty paces and then turning and firing? Kneeling on a battlefield to reload your musket–a nervewracking two-minute process–while your comrade-in-arms covers you by firing over a fence at the opposing side, the whites of whose eyes you can see? Not only is this (to me) an obvious expression of personal courage, I didn’t think it was a particularly new idea for the fantasy genre. I mean, Stephen King went here twenty years ago, didn’t he? What is the entire Dark Tower series except high fantasy with all the high fantasy tropes including that of intense personal courage, with a six-shooter instead of a blade considered the tool best fit to the hand of a knight?

So I was frankly a  little surprised that the panelists so easily dismissed firearms. I was not, however, quite secure enough as a first-time WFC attendee with no publishing credits to speak of attending Friday’s very first panel, to stand up and challenge them. 🙂 The gentleman behind me did, more or less in the same terms I was thinking (I believe he even mentioned The Gunslinger) and the panel acknowledged that fantasy tends to draw its mythology more from Europe than from America. But their conclusion (if I remember correctly) was something like, “So maybe that’s something new someone could do!” instead of “you’re right, Stephen King totally already did that.” Which perplexed me a little.

Comments (6)

SaraNovember 17th, 2010 at 12:01 am

This was a panel I didn’t go to, and I’m excited to see the notes. Thanks!

Shauna RobertsNovember 17th, 2010 at 12:18 am

Thanks for posting this. I still have one last post to do on the panels at WFC, so I’m glad to have another post to link to for a panel I missed.

Based on your description, no one seems to have mentioned that a man who wields a sword well is really sexy, to the point that it doesn’t matter what he looks like. A man with a gun isn’t (although the duel with pistols, as you mention, requires so much courage that it can be an exception).

Also, swords are usually beautiful weapons. Modern guns are really ugly—when I look through my husband’s gun magazines, I never see a gun whose appearance appeals to me—and even antique guns, though more ornamented and better shaped, still do not have the intrinsic beauty of a sword.

BeckyNovember 17th, 2010 at 8:03 am

I love Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, too, and I love the way he builds up a military aristocracy based on guns, right on the border between medieval and Western.

But actually, the argument about ranged weapons being less chivalrous/brave/etc is a medieval one. At least as far back as the twelfth century, people objected to crossbows on those very grounds – it’s cowardly to kill someone from far away. On the other hand, part of that objection could also have been that the aristocracy trying to keep their exclusive hold on their status, which they derived from their role as warriors – and specifically mounted warriors who fought with sword and lances. So they had a vested interest in claiming that ranged weapons were less legitimate than swords.

Which isn’t to say that that argument is _right_. Just that it’s medieval 🙂

HeatherNovember 17th, 2010 at 11:24 am

Shauna: Swords are beautiful, sexy things, I agree with you there. But I think guns have their own beauty. Antique ones, anyway–I haven’t spent enough time around modern guns to have formed any opinion. But I like antiques in general, and I’ve been seriously tempted by the occasional beautiful old pistol.

I think the beauty we see in swords / I see in both has to do with romanticizing the past, as per the Thursday night panel.

Becky: And maybe, as we develop more and more efficient modern ways of killing many people at a distance, the flintlock becomes relatively more dangerous to use and thereby joins the sword as an expression of personal courage? Maybe?

BeckyNovember 17th, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Yes, I can see that. A six-shooter doesn’t mean that you have to be right next to the person, but it’s certainly more personal than a bomb dropped from an airplane. You have to _see_ the person you’re shooting at…

HeatherNovember 27th, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Sara – hi! Your comment got caught in my spam filter until today; sorry about that!

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