Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Latin name: Unicornis

You know what doesn't get enough attention? Unicorns.

Maybe it's just me - I watched The Last Unicorn so many times I'm surprised I can't recite the thing from memory - but I remember when unicorns were all over the place. The wicked and selfish hunted for them, the virtuous basked in their presence. I read short stories about unicorns and books that featured unicorns, and I generally thought they were pretty awesome.

Then, it all seemed to dry up.

The problem seems to be twofold. Firstly, along with talking horses and magical soulmates, unicorns have been relegated to "girl" books. This is silly, because like talking horses and magical soulmates there is nothing inherently gendered about unicorns.

Unless you're talking about a given unicorn's particular gender, or something. I mean, I guess there are boy unicorns and girl unicorns - otherwise where would baby unicorns come from? Unless unicorns reproduce parthenogenetically. Do you think they reproduce through spores? Budding? Ew. Or do they just get pregnant? And if so, do they have to have mock sex, like the so-called lesbian lizards (link is safe, I swear)?

Right. Back on topic.

So half the problem is clearly sexism. If unicorns are girl stuff, and girl stuff is unworthy, then unicorns are unworthy and don't get into mainstream fantasy. This is clearly bullshit, but it explains more than it doesn't.

Before I explain the second thing that seems to me to have driven unicorns out of modern fantasy (and, obviously, into the sea), I need to explain what it is that makes unicorns quite so cool.

In addition to being great big horses with horns (because almost everything is cooler with horns), unicorns represent virtue and purity as active, almost aggressive. This is not virtue that gets despoiled - this is virtue that stabs you in the face if you mess with it. This is virtue as a force of nature. This is why Dan Lacey's paintings of a naked Barack Obama astride a unicorn made perfect sense to me, and were such an internet sensation.

It sometimes seems to me that modern fantasy has lost interest in virtue. We like antiheroes, non-heroes, villains, and complications. We like to watch our heroes suffer, compromise, and fail. We don't want Frodo and Sam, whose love and friendship saved the world while armies clashed needlessly outside the Black Gate. We don't want Thomas Covenant, who laughed god's evil brother to death. Or, at least, we don't want them quite as much as I do. We want things more like the work of Brandon Sanderson (which I like, by the way), in which cleverness, alliance, and skill at arms (or magic, or geometry, or whatever) win the day.

Though, as the Abigail pointed out in conversation, this may also be a gendered issue. The Abigail was able to list several recent fantasy novels marketed for women and girls in which virtue (or love, or some other positive passion) is the defining engine of victory.

Anyway, I want more unicorns, more friendship, and more evil gods laughed to death in my fantasy. I like it when virtue lifts up its head (or lowers its horn) and takes action. If you do, too, let me know in the comments.

And by the way, if you agree that there isn't enough about unicorns out there, then the Abigail tells me to recommend Rampant by Diana Peterfreund and Zombies vs Unicorns, an anthology. I have read neither of these (yet), but the Abigail has and I trust her judgement.

Until next time, the Zeppelin is hoping that if it's careful enough when talking about books it hasn't read yet Diane Duane might someday forgive it.

No comments: