Science fiction has a long history of offering critiques of contemporary society, and of deliberately wrapping social issues in fictional trappings to make it "easier" for the audience to think about the issue at hand. This is known widely enough, apparently, that I recently heard that from a friend who isn't even much of a genre fan. (His opinion being that you should face the real issues in all their painfully unjust glory. He has a point.)
Fantasy does not have this tradition. A handful of writers have a reputation for social commentary within fantasy novels -- such as Terry Pratchett -- but it's not common. Or, at least, it goes unnoticed and unremarked-upon.
I've heard it said that whereas science fiction looks "forward", fantasy looks "backward" and is a re-imagining of how things "used to be". Perhaps it's some essence of human nature that makes it easier for us to relate the future to the present. Maybe we're thinking of how to get there from here even if it's only in the most abstract way.
The past doesn't seem to provoke that sort of analysis of the present. If you present a minority population living in segregation and repression in a science fiction story (such as District 9), people notice and comment on it. If you do it in fantasy story... hmm, having trouble coming up with an example. Which is part of the problem, admittedly.
A lot of fantasy stories center on princes, nobles, the "gifted" who've risen above poverty -- whereas I've always been fascinated by the lives of ordinary people in fantasy worlds. Melusine has an MC who was still hacking out a living as a ghetto thief, there's an example. Personally, I want the stable-boy's perspective, I want to hear about why a woman has to take in laundry to pay her rent -- or the nail-biting dangers of putting herself on the street corner to do the same. What does a ghetto look like, in high fantasy? What stories happen, in there?
Why does fantasy always focus on the rich and powerful? Because everyone else is too busy keeping body and soul together to go on amazing quests and save the world? As if those are the only stories that matter...
I want to shout out to Chris Gerwel here, because of his recent blog post about realism and the quotidian fantastic. I'm thinking I'm going to be guilty of writing a fair amount of quotidian fantasy (lol, love the pretentious name) in my writing career. It's definitely an interest of mine, and in fantasy more than science fiction.
Disciple's main character is a peasant girl who has worked hard to become a healer. In Hawks & Rams, one MC is a shepherd boy and the other's a border patrol Ranger. Recently, some more thoughts have been bubbling up and I've codenamed them "Wharf Rats" -- you can guess why.
Those thoughts are coming in response to real-world stories I've been hearing of late (from that friend who doesn't believe in disguising issues). Which doesn't surprise me because I've found that the best genre ideas come from outside the genre. The further outside, the better.
Are there any fantasy stories you'd point to for their social commentary?
ps. Writing the tweet announcement for these posts often gooses me with things I didn't think of. Would social commentary in fantasy be too... boring?