So, if you attended any English class between ages 14–22, chances are you were exposed to Moby Dick (hopefully the book and not your creepy Freshman Lit professor)(this will not be the first time an obvious, crude joke will be made), and the idea that the whale is symbolic of something else. We’re introduced to the idea that art is somehow some sort of metaphor, rather than a very human coping mechanism to the horrors of reality. A few things, first, there’s some solid historical evidence that Moby Dick probably was meant to be taken literally (look up Mocha Dick, the whaleship Essex, or any number of incidents where wounded whales got a last bit of revenge by sinking whaling vessels)(and there’s also the unfortunate fact that the book tanked when it was first published, and didn’t gain any traction until a commemorative publishing upon Melville’s death, when it was “rediscovered”); secondly, it assumes that art somehow has to be “relevant” to reality. Leaving beside the philosophical issues of objective vs subjective reality, and the unfortunate neurological fact that we literally can not perceive reality objectively; it ignores the most basic fact of human self-expression I’ve encountered in the last year; art is always, first and foremost, for the artist. Some of us are talented and lucky enough to turn it into a career, but that misses the point: JK Rowling was writing long before she had an agent; Neil Gaiman accidentally writes novellas to his wife just because he has an extra half hour (on the Big List of Reasons why N. Gaiman is Amazing, BTW, that isn’t even going to crack the Top Ten). I got to see the fantastic documenary, Echo in the Canyon, which I highly recommend (it opens with an interview with Tom Petty in a guitar shop), and which has stories of Brian Wilson filling his living room with sand while writing Pet Sounds — that’s not someone who’s going to do well in a 9–5 retail job. And, for everyone desperately searching for some relevance between fiction and reality, let me remind you of Our Lord and Savior, Bruce Springsteen’s statements during his Broadway run (I’m paraphrasing), “Despite what I sing about, I have never worked in a factory, before I came to Broadway, I never had a job with regular hours (and I hate it); I’ve made a career singing and writing about other people’s lives without ever having lived them; I am just that good.” In other words, if you ever got home from the plant and popped in Factory, you were listening to lies.

Here’s the take-away: it doesn’t matter. I’ve read (and heard) diatribes against escapist literature or fantasy and sci-fi (we’ll ignore the countless scientific and engineering careers that were directly inspired by Star Trek). Being human sucks. Not necessarily all the time, but frequently enough to make us need something to take us out of our own wretched lives and sordid problems. And fiction, in addition to letting us climb out of our own skins, can be aspirational. We have to believe that the cave paintings at Lascaux were some sort of primitive magic, instead of the most basic, intrinsic part of being human: telling ourselves stories to distract ourselves from reality. No one caught any aurochs today? Well, maybe if we just draw some on the wall from that great hunt last week, we’ll feel a little less hungry, and we might catch some tomorrow. Fiction is how we make it through those long, hungry hours of darkness until the dawn arrives with further promise. There is no real Captain America (one of my favorite fictional characters), nor is there a Wakanda or Black Panther. However, I can not tell you how deeply impactful it was to see Steve Rogers — another cripple — transformed into the pinnacle of human physiology on the big screen, not despite the troubles and prejudice he faced due to his disabilities, but because of them. Somewhere, some geeky black girl from Richmond will see Shuri in Black Panther, and work her ass off to get into MIT. In short, if you eschew sci-fi and fantasy in favor of more traditional fiction or non-fiction, that’s probably because you’re not the target demographic. Those of us with minority classification are forced to turn to these genres for escape because history has been varying shades of awful to us, and these are the last genres that offer a semi-realistic narrative and portrayal.

Fantasy nerds, in particular, have it rough, what with the genre being represented for years by Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, or Roald Dahl’s books. For years, we were the nerds that other nerds looked down upon, largely because there are no direct, obvious correlations between the genre and reality (I blame the lack of unicorns, myself). Introducing yourself as a Roger Zelazny or Robert Sheckley fan at a cocktail party was out. Admitting to knowing about D&D was uncool. The best defense for the genre, came from within it, from the immortal Sir Terry Pratchett in Hogfather (a novel in which Santa Claus is incapacitated by insidious dark forces, forcing the Grim Reaper to take his place, temporarily), in the exchange between Death and his adoptive grand-daughter, Susan, and why it’s so bloody important to keep children believing in Father Christmas:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little — “

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET — Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point — “

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

You liked “Nightmare Before Christmas” and Tim Burton? You’re adorable.

Harry Potter and American Gods changed all that for the better, with HP’s firm (and obvious) stance that the villains were stand-ins for modern racism and neo-Nazism, and American Gods being a very obvious discussion of the immigrant experience in America using folklore and Old World beliefs that made it here (undoubtedly influenced by Gaiman living in the Midwest, and there being some odd universal zoning ordinance that every single town in the region with a population of less than 10000 have a statue or carving of a Scandinavian troll). Suddenly, fantasy took on the same fictional niche traditionally inhabited by science fiction — you could tell true stories that were too painful, too real, too dangerous now, under the guise of faeries and magic, and let the audience connect the dots and draw their own conclusions, that maybe racism is a bad thing; that maybe immigrants are just like us, with some odd religious rituals and weird variations on coffee.

Amazon’s Carnival Row is a direct outgrowth of those two works. It’s the classic story of humans finding a magical continent (Tirnanoc), then immediately setting about conquering and colonizing it (the inhabitants of this continent, BTW, are just as strange and magical as you would expect) with modern (or late-19th century steam-punk) technology, which has outstripped the Fae’s abilities with magic. The Republic of the Burgue is the first foreign power to get there, but are quickly overtaken and expelled from the continent by their political and economic rivals The Pact (who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Russian military in the Crimea)(there are also lots of obvious parallels to European colonialism building up to the first world war). The Pact quickly set about colonizing and exploiting this territorial gain using methods developed by the British during the Boer War (and later perfected by the Third Reich), causing an influx of magical refugees to The Burgue. I’m drawing obvious parallels to historical situations based on the obvious scenery and technology suggesting Victorian London, but you could just as readily make comparisons between Ireland in the 19th century, Syria right now, Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s (there’s a line from one of the characters about “Our ill-advised experiment in colonialism” and another that, “You can’t tell the difference between our faeries and their faeries that immediately made me think of the Hmong and Montagnards and French Indochina), anywhere. It’s the hallmark of good storytelling that anyone, anywhere, can hear your story and find something relevant in it (we’re still visiting those cave paintings, folks).

However, even though the story-telling in this series is superb, that’s not what makes this series great. It’s the world-building. People harp on about how the undisputed master of this, JRR Tolkien, invented multiple new languages to make his fictional world more believable. The developers of this show have developed entire cultures for their characters (pay close attention to the main character’s braids) and entire fictional stories for their characters to read, (“It’s a fairly standard science-romance.”) The plot — and I’m only a few episodes in — centers on recent-refugee from Tirnanoc, the faerie Vignette Stonemoss, and her former lover (and former Burgue soldier-turned-police-inspector) half-fae Rycroft Philostrate, who has gone to great lengths to hide his linneage from the overtly racist, xenophobic government of The Burgue (they literally reference the “one drop” concept/laws at one point). These star-crossed ex-lovers (and the reasons for Philo abandoning Vignette in Tirnanoc are examined and revealed to be utterly heart-breaking and, if you’re at all familiar with the fanatasy genre, extremely believable) are forced back together in the face of growing racism and tension in The Burgue, and a series of gruesome murders clearly connected with the sort of magic not seen outside of Tirnanoc. It’s a testament to how far the fantasy genre has come that, when I described the series to my father, his response was, “That doesn’t sound much like fantasy.” Indeed.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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