I enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy. Nay, I am a geek. But, every so often I realize how much fantasy is involved in fantasy. Many fantasy writers wish to paint the times they write about as times that were better. They do not really want to paint the reality of primitive times in the way it was experienced because that is not what people want when they read fantasy. Thus, certain facts are carefully overlooked.
Among the facts that are overlooked are the actual life expectancy rates, disease rates, etc., that were present in earlier societies. The two charts above show the dramatic improvement in infant and maternal mortality rates since 1900. This only lists mortality. There are other charts that I could have used to show disease rates, etc. In fact, both death and disease were part of the common experience of even our great-grandparents.
But, the figures are even worse than they look above. The figures above only start in 1900. There is a figure called life expectancy. It is the average age to which a person born in a country will live. It is a very raw figure in that it is a simple measurement of life versus death. If most of the population dies young, or there is a great war, life expectancy will drop. If there are great medical breakthroughs and peace, life expectancy will go up. In 1820, the life expectancy of a person in a “developed” country was 35 years of age. In a non-developed country, it was 25 years of age. This is not to say that there were no people in their 40’s or 50’s or 60’s or 70’s, but rather that the number of them were rather low compared to the number of younger people. It is no surprise that an elder (male or female) was revered during much of human history. They had lived a long time and possessed the memories of at least three generations of people. They were the few who had a historical view of life.
The reader of fantasy does not want to read about the frequent funeral of children. The reader of fantasy does not want to read about people commonly suffering from diseases that are easily cured today. The reader of fantasy wants to read of a type of golden age in which these things were as rare as they are today (unless they are a fan of dystopian fiction). Many times the fantasy writer obliges by having the people have knowledge of herbs and techniques that never were anywhere near as effective as they are pictured in the books. If the world is a world with magic, often the fantasy writer does not have to worry. There will be those with healing magic, and that takes care of the problem.
What most fantasy readers want is an escape from the here and now into an imaginative landscape in which they can relax, or be excited, or identify with, or that whets the appetite for the world as we wish it were. It is no surprise that fantasy writers oblige. However, lately there has been a strong surge in dystopian fiction, in which the world in which our heroes live (and die) is a world of struggle from which there is no magic exit. This is particularly so among Young Adult fantasy. I find myself wondering what it is about their culture that makes that type of fantasy more appealing.
But, to return to my original point. As long as we realize that fantasy is fantasy, we are OK. It is only if we start buying into the idea that somehow modernity is uniformly bad that we get into trouble. Those are the people who ignore the figures, and begin to behave as though our great-grandparents’ herbal remedies and home treatments were somehow more efficacious than medical science. Those are the people who have forgotten that fantasy is just that, fantasy. It is writings about unreal worlds and about how we wished the world would be.
I always find it interesting that almost no one who cosplays will cosplay an overworked overburdened peasant, or a serving wench, or a scullery maid. The medieval cosplay societies are full of knights, dukes, earls, barons, etc. In fact, there are so many of them that if it were real life, the society would collapse for the lack of workers. It behooves us to remember that the medieval “knightly” lifestyle was maintained by a massive understructure of people who lived near the poverty level. Many a country’s nobility was just above the level of robber barons. The typical member of that country paid high taxes (protection money) for which they received the promise of protection in time of war, some rudimentary works of infrastructure and little else.
p align=”justify”>So, let’s let fantasy be just that, fantasy. Let’s cosplay and enjoy ourselves. But, let’s not delude ourselves that those were necessarily better times.