Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Appeal of Fantasy Fiction

I've been thinking about the continued appeal of fantasy fiction, especially in relation to topics I have discussed before such as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Moral Realism, and Essentialism. Science fiction author David Brin has written several essays critical of fantasy fiction, including J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress. His basic theme is:
It's only been 200 years or so -- an eye blink -- that "scientific enlightenment" began waging its rebellion against the nearly universal pattern called feudalism, a hierarchic system that ruled our ancestors in every culture that developed both metallurgy and agriculture. Wherever human beings acquired both plows and swords, gangs of large men picked up the latter and took other men's women and wheat... They then proceeded to announce rules and "traditions" ensuring that their sons would inherit everything.
Brin explains how these actions are ennobled in the literature passed down to us, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bible, Arthurian legends, etc. I've been thinking about how these values were embedded at a more basic level, in the language we still use. Look at the term I used earlier: ennobled. The first online dictionary definition gives:
1. to make noble, honourable, or excellent; dignify; exalt
2. to raise to a noble rank; confer a title of nobility upon

[Middle English *ennoblen, from Old French ennoblir : en-, causative pref.; see en-1 + noble, noble; see noble.]
Here, prior to the emergence of modern English, the concept of honorable behavior was bound up with the concept of the superiority of certain blood-lines of inherited privilege. If you accept some form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language influences thought, then the use of the English language itself provides a subconscious favorable disposition to the idea of inherited privilege. Critiques of the past or present nobility will inherently generate a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Also note that the idea of noble blood is "essentialist", and fits with humans natural predisposition towards essentialist thinking.

My hypothesis is that feudal and essentialist thinking are embedded throughout all languages, including English. We aren't living in a feudal society, and science is constantly critiquing essentialist thinking. This creates a constant tension in the minds of readers and speakers of English. Fantasy fiction provides a release for this tension. It is a place where the language fits with the action. Often a magical land where essentialist expectations are reality.

Fantasy fiction is in turn divided into two broad categories: High Fantasy, and Swords and Sorcery. High fantasy, of which Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is the prime example, is centered on an epic struggle between Good and Evil. Swords and Sorcery (think earlier pulp fiction, such as Howard's Conan the Barbarian) is more morally ambiguous. However essentialist expectations, such as the reality of magic and the supernatural, are still met.

Most written Science Fiction today is closer to Swords and Sorcery in terms of moral ambiguity. "Hard" science fiction follows modern science in rejecting essentialism. While the "what ifs" of this type of fiction satisfy some readers, many others yearn for the moral black-and-whites provided by High Fantasy. This demand is satisfied in popular science fiction films, such as Star Wars. Here the heroes turn out to be nobles (like Strider/Aragorn the returning king in LoTR!), matching the essentialist expectations bound up in our language.

Backpacking Gear Test 2010

In last year's Backpacking Gear Test I achieved a base weight (without food, water, or fuel) of 23 lbs and a total pack weight of 30 lbs. This year I have replaced various items, and gotten down to a base weight of 16 lbs and a total pack weight of 22 lbs : a reduction of 8 lbs, or over 25%.

Gear Weights (spreadsheet)

I took all the 2010 listed gear to Castle Rock State Park. I hiked 2.6 miles (each way) with full pack to Castle Rock Trail Camp, and stayed overnight.

Granite Gear Escape A.C. 60 Pack

The Escape is Granite Gear's newest ultralight pack. Compared to last year's North Face El Lobo 65, it is over 2 lbs lighter. It has 5 liters less rated capacity (60 versus 65L), but with the rest of this year's compact new gear I actually have more free space than before. It is rated for a maximum load of 35 lbs (versus 70 for the El Lobo), but I've discovered I have zero interest in carrying heavy loads. The Escape only has a plastic frame sheet (versus the internal aluminum X-frame of the El Lobo) and has a smaller hip belt, so the El Lobo would be preferable for heavy loads. Overall I found the Escape with lighter load more comfortable than last year's El Lobo with heavier load.

The Escape omits various features the El Lobo has, including separate sleeping bag compartment, attached padded belt for the detachable lid as a fanny pack (the Escape lid does have belt loops), extra zippered entries, etc. It does also have a hydration compartment (internal pocket for a "camelback" bladder, plus drinking tube ports), but I used the external bottle holsters instead. They are angled so bottles can be accessed while the pack is on. This frees up more internal space, and eliminates opportunities for liquid disasters.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 Tent

This year I've switched to a one-person tent. The Fly Creek UL1 saves over 2 lbs compared to last year's Sierra Designs Vapor Light 2 XL. This tent is smaller : I can only sit upright in the exact enter of the tent, and my head does touch both sides when I do so. My regular length North Face sleeping bag exactly fits in the tent length. There isn't room to place my pack beside me, but since I only carry a short sleeping pad I use my empty pack as leg rest. One nifty feature: a pocket in the mesh roof holds a headlamp perfectly positioned for night reading (see flyless second image).

The tent is free-standing, though it needs 2 stakes at the rear to pull the foot area open. It also came with the same aluminum stakes as last year's Vapor Light 2 (see stake picture with last year's blog entry). This year I decided to give them a try. They worked fine: no bent stakes. And a tip: the titanium wire handle of a folding spork can be placed through the small hole to use as a stake-puller. Don't try to pull them by hand.

Therm-a-Rest ProLite Air Mattress, Small

See image inside tent, above. This doesn't save weight compared to my earlier closed cell foam pad, but it is much more compact when rolled. They do make an even lighter pad, but user comments have had concerns about durability. As stated above I am using my empty pack as leg rest, so a small works fine.

REI Ti Ware Titanium Pot - 0.9 Liter

I picked this up on close-out sale last year; this non-nonstick version has been discontinued. I only use it to boil water for dehydrated meals, so I don't need the nonstick. My stove melted the silicone coating off the fold-out wire handles almost immediately, so I threw the handles away and use the old pot-lifter from my MSR steel pot set instead. This expensive pot does feel cheap (the lid wants to drop into the pot), but at 0.9L it does balance over my stove better the the 2L MSR pot, and most importantly it saves half a pound and a bunch of pack space. Yes, I bought a folding Ti spork, as my old plastic utensils won't fit inside the 0.9L pot. As stated above, the spork wire handle can double as a tent stake puller...

Other Changes

Include headlamp instead of mini-mag-lite, and a lighter first aid kit.