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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 2-B

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In the first part, I discussed racism, and how its fantastic or distant portrayal could create a disconnect with racism as it still manifests in the real world. In this post, I'm talking about a topic that is still sensitive even in these modern times - religion.

Religion has been with us for thousands upon thousands of years, from ancient stone figures and carvings (we assume) to the complex divine hierarchies of India and Greece, and on to the resurgence of monotheism over the past four thousand years. Today, all religions are fair game for writers, and they run varying risks when taking them and adapting them to tell a story. Whether it be direct adaption of classic tails, or using it as backdrop for an original tale, religion has been approached in numerous ways, good and bad. And... this is a very large subject, so I'm having to subdivide it into two posts. One is devoted to polytheism, and one to monotheism. This one is for monotheism.

Monotheism is the opposite of polytheism - instead of worshiping or acknowledging the existence of a pantheon, there is only a single deity. The most well-known examples of monotheism stem from the Middle East, particularly the Abrahamic family of faiths that include Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Through circumstances too complicated for a single blog post, these faiths became the main faith of Europe, and due to the Crusades and later colonization of various parts of the world, it has become the dominant faith of the world through sheer landmass covered as opposed to people worshiping (in that sense, maybe Taoism, while limited to China, has more active worshipers).

Now, as might be clear, this being the dominant and sometimes dogmatic system that it is, it was difficult for people to do anything constructive around it for the longest time. The simplest thing to do is just adapt it faithfully from the texts created, both canon and non-canon. Earlier works on this theme include Paradise Lost, the famous poem charting Lucifer's journey to Eden and the origin of original sin, and The Divine Comedy, where the author Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on a journey of absolution - and of course gets to rip into his political rivals in the process. There are modern works in multiple mediums surrounding this system: , the comic book adaptation Constantine,

The rarer type are works that take a look at this faith and may be criticizing it, or even turning it on its head for dramatic effect. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is one of the best modern examples of constructing a critique of religion within a fantastical setting. The religion, and its background reality, is based heavily on the Catholic Judeo-Christian tradition. It actively questions the existence of anything that could be called "God", and turns original sin into something different, a quality to be admired. This take has garnered both praise and condemnation depending on whose read it. The third and final book in particular is filled with allusions to or direct parodies of Catholic tradition. This religious reversal may merely serve as a frame for Pullman's retelling of Paradise Lost, but it still holds some interesting views and lessons about organised religion.

This reversal of religion is used in a more general and twisted way in the Drakengard series. While the English release is seated firmly within the concepts of large pantheons and otherworldly abominations, the original Japanese uses the monotheistic system. "God" created the world and all things in it, and seeks to destroy humanity due to their ungovernable ego. The world's dragons are His servants, acting as the equivalents of demons to his "Angels". This reversal of God wanting to destroy humanity isn't anything new, but it's also an interesting parallel of how angels and demons treat humans. The "Angels" (Watchers in English), loyal to their God, seek to destroy humanity. The entire Megami Tensei series can also be seen as an examination of the nature of God and divinity.

Now what's the point of this two-post piece covering the two different religious systems? The use of these different religions has varied in tone and strength over the history of fantasy, science fiction and its hybrid genres. While pantheon systems have mostly fallen out of use and thus become the active go-to for authors, the monotheistic systems that have arisen are far more active and have a lot of vocal and fanatical followers. Works that can be taken as open critiques or negative portrayals, such as His Dark Materials or Dan Brown's thriller The DaVinci Code are thus called out and condemned. The above examples from the land of the Rising Sun demonstrate a prevalent example in Japanese fiction - Monotheistic systems are used more freely in fiction than in the West. Principally because Abrahamic faiths were excised during the Tokugawa shogunate, and have yet to gain a strong foothold in the country.

The different views of the different religion affect how they are treated in fiction where writers try to put in themes and messages. When using pantheons, there's less flack directed if you want to do something edgy, but it's also distanced from the reader as these aren't anything they care about except in a very distant way. For monotheism, if you do the same thing, it strikes home (at least if it's well done) but it also open for being blasted to pieces by the faithful. Of course there's the get-out clause of just using such systems as inspiration and taking a purely fictional take on it. That's still open to the same problems, but of course the impact is further distanced by it just being a fictional rewrite of something. Surely nothing that's to do with our world, no matter how many purges, instances of bigotry, or Crusades they portray...

Next week, in Part 3, I'll be looking at environmental issues, something that has exploded in popularity with the advent of green culture and the full recognition of mankind's destructive potential, and how it has been portrayed in both crass and subtle ways.

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