14 October 2007

Lionboy's Unflattering Picture of America

It's ironic that Zizou Corder's Lionboy trilogy became a bestselling series in the US since the books are, with little padding to soften the blow, anti-American.

Oh, sure, they say that The Simpsons will still be showing in the near future, when these books take place, and The Simpsons are a great gift from America to world culture. But the USA in these books appears mostly as "the Empire Homelands" looming on the west of the Atlantic.

That geopolitical picture is especially striking when I compare this series with other recent British fantasies:

  • In Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy the British Empire is still powerful, and the rebellious province of America its bleeding weak spot.
  • Philip Reeve's Larklight also revives the British Empire, in Victorian terms, and expands it across the solar system; there's a passing reference to American rebels.
  • Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles presents America as simply wiped out by nuclear war while Old World cities battle it out for survival.
(In contrast, the hottest American fantasy series these days, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books, makes the US is the center of western civilization, and thus home to the Greek gods.)

We never actually see the "Empire Homelands" in the pseudonymous Corder's trilogy. The closest we come is in the third volume, Lionboy: The Truth; it takes us to a Caribbean island run by the Corporacy, which in turn is run by Americans.

But we get glimpses of the Empire in action, such as this TV news report from the start of the second volume:
The Empire soldiers had had to shoot up a city in the Poor World, and lots of civilians had been shot and there were no medicines available. There were pictures of children with dirty bandages on, looking terrified and hungry.
Alas, we don't have to imagine the near future to think of such events, given recent reports on aerial bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.

Empires abound in fantasy literature, of course, but attaching the word "Homelands" to that designation seems a clear hint that Corder's picture of America was inspired by the administration that created an office of Homeland Security only a few months after it needed to concentrate on, well, homeland security. (We used to call securing the homeland "defense," but for over half a century the US Department of Defense has been busy in other people's homelands.)

Indeed, Corder seems to have chosen details that would needle the current administration and its leader. Volume 3 offers a glimpse of Fidel, the "ruler" of Cuba, "an old but strong-looking man in a beret, with a rather fine beard"; yes, he's still around. As far as I recall, the one American city mentioned by name is that administration embarrassment, New Orleans. And of course the whole story takes place in a civilization that's had to adapt to a petroleum crash and global warming.

I have no problem with the Lionboy books portraying a future American government as bellicose, heartless, and entwined with rapacious corporations. (It's unclear whether the Corporacy controls the Empire, or the Empire governs the Corporacy, or if that even matters.) For one thing, I enjoyed reading Corder's adventure story.

More important, a good fantasy story, even one subtitled The Truth, isn't supposed to be taken as the truth. (Something that William Donohue needs help to recall.) Fantasies help us imagine how a world might be, which can then spur us to think about how this world to be. We can still get off the road to the Empire Homelands.

But I call the Lionboy series "anti-American" rather than "anti-right-wing America" or "anti-corporate America" for two reasons:
  • As I've already written, the books mangle American speech patterns badly. The American characters are clearly inspired by stereotypes, not real people.
  • There are no sympathetic American characters to counter all those blustering, power-hungry, and relentlessly cheery authority figures. We don't see if, for instance, Americans actually voted for a different Empire government by a small but significant margin. We don't see if any Americans distrust the Corporacy as much as the Ashanti family does.
If a bestselling series portrayed another familiar nationality in such a one-sided way, I suspect American readers might have been troubled by the caricature. But we may be oblivious to the possibility of a fun book portraying us--us!--in a poor light. Or we may sense that nothing this British children's author writes could seriously affect our power in the world. Which in the end might show that Corder's portrayal isn't that far off.

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