A common praise I hear of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series is its “realism.” Take this recent comment from a mailing list I subscribe to:
By real, I mean that there is no good or evil, everyone has a motive for his or her actions….
That isn’t realism, that’s relativism, and I think relativism has no place in fantasy fiction.
Now, I need to make the following disclaimer before I continue: I have not read Martin. As such, I will not be speaking directly to his work because I cannot judge whether the above comment is an accurate assessment or not. Whether Martin is an example of relativism is irrelevant to this discussion, however.
The power of fantasy fiction is in its ability to provide social commentary in a context that lacks the historical and cultural baggage we’re familiar with. This context is more than just fantastical creatures and magic, it includes a clear definition of Good and Evil. It is that clarity that allows fantasy fiction to be a mirror we can hold up to our own world.
Good and Evil as absolute Truths does not mean fantasy fiction can’t include complex characters with motives for everything they do. A hero breaks the law because it was the oppressive law of a dark lord or because he is giving in to his darker impulses, but establishes a just law in its place or performs a noble deed to redeem themselves. These choices and motivations have no impact without strong poles of Good and Evil.
Creating those poles requires painting motivations in the correct light. We, the writers, have to place a judgment upon them. That judgment may be relative to our own experience, but it is not relative in the reality we constructed for the purposes of the story.
Relativism seeks to dissemble truths because of personal experience and culture. This philosophy strips fantasy fiction of its power, and I protest its inclusion in the genre. What about you? Do you think relativism has a positive or negative impact on fantasy fiction?