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Author Topic: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?  (Read 10096 times)

Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #15 on: March 09, 2016, 11:29:00 AM »
What I am having a really hard time finding these days are works with fast paced action, larger than life heroes, and bizare monsters. I think The Lies of Locke Lamora was very well written. But I was bored.  :-\
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Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #16 on: March 09, 2016, 11:53:55 AM »
It's true that a lot of the classic S&S sorcery, such as Howard's stuff, is saturated with social attitudes that haven't aged well at all (and I say that as a Howard fan). But I would argue that isn't inherent to the genre. Charles R. Saunders has produced a lot of quality S&S material with black heroes, female as well as male, in heavily African-influenced settings, which goes to show you that S&S needn't be Eurocentric or white supremacist. The existence of female S&S heroines also shows you that it needn't be sexist either.

Might the sexualization and violence turn off some people? For certain individuals, possibly. But humans have always been horny and have always enjoyed stories about danger and adventure, so there's always going to be an audience for that stuff. All genres of fiction have audiences they appeal to, even if some are more "niche" than others.
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Offline Corvus

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #17 on: March 14, 2016, 06:16:29 AM »
Old school sword & sorcery may be outdated - but I still love it.  Then again old school anything can be seen to be outdated.  Who watches old black & white movies, listens to music from the 30-40s?  Well, I do actually and in a lot of cases prefer it to the modern stuff but I acknowledge that I am in the minority in all those cases.

A large part of the problem with S&S is that is much more a genre that fits short fiction and right now the trend is for those monstrous epics.  Maybe it will swing around the other way one day - or maybe the growing trend for serials may make it more appealing again.

Disclaimer:  I not just read the stuff but also write it so I do have some biases in that regards. 
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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #18 on: March 14, 2016, 06:34:40 AM »
What I am having a really hard time finding these days are works with fast paced action, larger than life heroes, and bizare monsters. I think The Lies of Locke Lamora was very well written. But I was bored.  :-\
Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International books have all of those, but they're not sword and sorcery, kind of an odd hybrid of urban fantasy and horror.
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Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #19 on: March 15, 2016, 03:35:34 PM »
What I am having a really hard time finding these days are works with fast paced action, larger than life heroes, and bizare monsters. I think The Lies of Locke Lamora was very well written. But I was bored.  :-\

You could give Rachel Aaron's Eli Monpress series a try. It definitely fits the first two categories. There's a lot of action, and the heroes are larger than life. You have a team of the best, most daring thief in the world, one of the best swordsmen, and a very powerful woman with a demon inside her.

I don't know about bizarre monsters, but it is a world where everything has a sentient spirit inside it, including inanimate objects.

Offline CameronJohnston

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #20 on: March 15, 2016, 03:49:30 PM »
These days I'm finding a lot of good Sword & Sorcery in comic form. Rat Queens is vastly entertaining, and the new Conan volumes are, well, variable, but some are amazing.

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Offline Anti_Quated

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #21 on: March 18, 2016, 02:33:40 AM »
It's true that a lot of the classic S&S sorcery, such as Howard's stuff, is saturated with social attitudes that haven't aged well at all (and I say that as a Howard fan). But I would argue that isn't inherent to the genre. Charles R. Saunders has produced a lot of quality S&S material with black heroes, female as well as male, in heavily African-influenced settings, which goes to show you that S&S needn't be Eurocentric or white supremacist. The existence of female S&S heroines also shows you that it needn't be sexist either.

Might the sexualization and violence turn off some people? For certain individuals, possibly. But humans have always been horny and have always enjoyed stories about danger and adventure, so there's always going to be an audience for that stuff. All genres of fiction have audiences they appeal to, even if some are more "niche" than others.

Much like Lovecraft where the established weltenschauung isn't palatable to the contemporary era. But Howard's work, warts and all if you will, is nigh peerless for my part. Rollicking great yarns, and I think there's a certain charm to the naive and simplistic Eurocentric perspective he delineates.

Not ignoring or excusing the subjugation and exploitation of more traditional cultures and civilisations beneath the white man's yoke, but the inverse still holds a boyish appeal, leastways in my perspective. The notion of a wild, savage realm, the call to adventure, the exotic and unknown - to tame a land, conquest and glory - the very fabric, I would argue, of any good fantasy, and certainly exemplary of S&S.

I'm likely in the minority, but I'm content for S&S to remain as is and not progress. I'm not averse to progress, but traditional tales (and their apparent baggage) still hold some charm. Not everything need be some post-modern hyper-sensitive PC de-construction (though these have an equal appeal if done correctly). I'm more inclined toward the idea of the classic stalwarts of sword and sorcery being refractory - historical revisionism would dilute them.

How does one compose a politically correct sword and sorcery novel without utterly tripping over every well-intentioned but often ham-fisted attempt at creating an accurate and sympathetic portraiture of a particular demographic? I think I'd lose the plot, figuratively and literally, if my primary focus for any composition was to avoid any catalyst that may engender offence in a particular demographic.

That said, I'd still be curious as to whether S&S could move forward and retain such a dynamic and recognisable charm and character.
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Offline JamesLatimer

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #22 on: March 18, 2016, 04:57:47 PM »
Not ignoring or excusing the subjugation and exploitation of more traditional cultures and civilisations beneath the white man's yoke, but the inverse still holds a boyish appeal, leastways in my perspective. The notion of a wild, savage realm, the call to adventure, the exotic and unknown - to tame a land, conquest and glory - the very fabric, I would argue, of any good fantasy, and certainly exemplary of S&S.

... I'm more inclined toward the idea of the classic stalwarts of sword and sorcery being refractory - historical revisionism would dilute them.

How does one compose a politically correct sword and sorcery novel without utterly tripping over every well-intentioned but often ham-fisted attempt at creating an accurate and sympathetic portraiture of a particular demographic? I think I'd lose the plot, figuratively and literally, if my primary focus for any composition was to avoid any catalyst that may engender offence in a particular demographic.

That said, I'd still be curious as to whether S&S could move forward and retain such a dynamic and recognisable charm and character.
I don't see the inherent dissonance between what you say is the essence of S&S, "a wild, savage realm, the call to adventure, the exotic and unknown - to tame a land, conquest and glory" as you put it, and any potential modern take that was sensitive to racism, colonialism, sexism and otherwise "politically correct". But then, I don't find a lot of "charm" in racism, sexism, etc...

You could just as well write a Conan story where the iron-thewed iconoclast is a black lesbian fighting the stormtroopers of colonial oppression, recovering a plundered sacred object, rescuing the learned, well-dressed high-priestess along the way (not expecting sexual gratification in return, of course), and not making any judgments based on outdated pseudo-science along the way. Or you could invert it and have Conan learn how the "savages" he underestimated actually have a rich and admirable culture, and that he has been duped into assassinating their "demon" queen by treacherous slavers who want access to the riches, and that he's going to have to rely on more than his "natural superiority" to get him through.

I mean, the fact that S&S like Conan engage with non-western cultures make them a lot more diverse than, say, Lord of the Rings - if you take out all the racist, sexist and colonialist bullshit (probably doable with a red pen) that is often in the margins anyway, I don't see how it would affect the fantastic, action-packed adventure at the core. What's wrong with a bit of sensitivity? How does not being an asshole ruin the fun of fantasy?

Sword and Sorcery from the 60s was already subverting the attitudes of the past, anyway, so I don't see why we can't do just as well now. I'm pretty sure Kameron Hurley could write S&S like a boss, though it might well offend some demographics... ::)

*I use Conan as an example because I've read some, along with Moorcock and Leiber, but no Lovecraft or Karl Edward Wagner.

Offline sennydreadful

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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #23 on: March 18, 2016, 08:59:57 PM »
Not ignoring or excusing the subjugation and exploitation of more traditional cultures and civilisations beneath the white man's yoke, but the inverse still holds a boyish appeal, leastways in my perspective. The notion of a wild, savage realm, the call to adventure, the exotic and unknown - to tame a land, conquest and glory - the very fabric, I would argue, of any good fantasy, and certainly exemplary of S&S.

... I'm more inclined toward the idea of the classic stalwarts of sword and sorcery being refractory - historical revisionism would dilute them.

How does one compose a politically correct sword and sorcery novel without utterly tripping over every well-intentioned but often ham-fisted attempt at creating an accurate and sympathetic portraiture of a particular demographic? I think I'd lose the plot, figuratively and literally, if my primary focus for any composition was to avoid any catalyst that may engender offence in a particular demographic.

That said, I'd still be curious as to whether S&S could move forward and retain such a dynamic and recognisable charm and character.
I don't see the inherent dissonance between what you say is the essence of S&S, "a wild, savage realm, the call to adventure, the exotic and unknown - to tame a land, conquest and glory" as you put it, and any potential modern take that was sensitive to racism, colonialism, sexism and otherwise "politically correct". But then, I don't find a lot of "charm" in racism, sexism, etc...

You could just as well write a Conan story where the iron-thewed iconoclast is a black lesbian fighting the stormtroopers of colonial oppression, recovering a plundered sacred object, rescuing the learned, well-dressed high-priestess along the way (not expecting sexual gratification in return, of course), and not making any judgments based on outdated pseudo-science along the way. Or you could invert it and have Conan learn how the "savages" he underestimated actually have a rich and admirable culture, and that he has been duped into assassinating their "demon" queen by treacherous slavers who want access to the riches, and that he's going to have to rely on more than his "natural superiority" to get him through.

I mean, the fact that S&S like Conan engage with non-western cultures make them a lot more diverse than, say, Lord of the Rings - if you take out all the racist, sexist and colonialist bullshit (probably doable with a red pen) that is often in the margins anyway, I don't see how it would affect the fantastic, action-packed adventure at the core. What's wrong with a bit of sensitivity? How does not being an asshole ruin the fun of fantasy?

Sword and Sorcery from the 60s was already subverting the attitudes of the past, anyway, so I don't see why we can't do just as well now. I'm pretty sure Kameron Hurley could write S&S like a boss, though it might well offend some demographics... ::)

*I use Conan as an example because I've read some, along with Moorcock and Leiber, but no Lovecraft or Karl Edward Wagner.

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Offline Mark Lawrence

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #24 on: March 18, 2016, 09:53:36 PM »
I've never been that confident of (or interested in) sub-genres, but I think Prince of Fools and The Liar's Key fit most of the tick boxes for Swords & Sorcery?

Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #25 on: March 19, 2016, 08:55:07 AM »
Conan is a bad example of cliched early 20th century Sword & Sorcery. Because Robert Howard did pretty well stay clear of them most of the time. Conan has a bit too much fun commiting violence against those who deserve it, but other than that there isn't really much objectionable about the character.
The problem is that Robert Howard has been dead for 80 years and all his fantasy stories fit into a single book. Once you've read it, how are going to get something more like that to read? You could write something of the same type (as opposed to the cliche stuff from the 70s), but how would you market it? The only people who would buy more of the same would be those who already like the same, and that doesn't seem like much of a market. Thing is, "Sword & Sorcery elements" appear to be very popular these days and a lot of people would probably enjoy reading stuff of that type. But not if you promote the stories as "Big dude with a sword stands on a mountain of corpses and gets chicks in stripper outfits". That's the cliche of cliche stories, but has very little to do with what makes 30s adventure fantasy great. There's also C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote wonderfully imaginative stuff, as well as some of the early Fritz Leiber stories. There's lots of great material to draw from and, except for the last of the three, doesn't have any big dumb barbarians. And neither does Robert Howard.

It's actually very easy to have a story full of racists that isn't a racist story. There's no need to sanitize anything as long as you make a little effort to not have your stories promote the evils that appear in it.
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Offline CryptofCthulhu

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #26 on: March 19, 2016, 03:07:19 PM »
Conan is a bad example of cliched early 20th century Sword & Sorcery. Because Robert Howard did pretty well stay clear of them most of the time. Conan has a bit too much fun commiting violence against those who deserve it, but other than that there isn't really much objectionable about the character.
The problem is that Robert Howard has been dead for 80 years and all his fantasy stories fit into a single book. Once you've read it, how are going to get something more like that to read? You could write something of the same type (as opposed to the cliche stuff from the 70s), but how would you market it? The only people who would buy more of the same would be those who already like the same, and that doesn't seem like much of a market. Thing is, "Sword & Sorcery elements" appear to be very popular these days and a lot of people would probably enjoy reading stuff of that type. But not if you promote the stories as "Big dude with a sword stands on a mountain of corpses and gets chicks in stripper outfits". That's the cliche of cliche stories, but has very little to do with what makes 30s adventure fantasy great. There's also C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote wonderfully imaginative stuff, as well as some of the early Fritz Leiber stories. There's lots of great material to draw from and, except for the last of the three, doesn't have any big dumb barbarians. And neither does Robert Howard.

It's actually very easy to have a story full of racists that isn't a racist story. There's no need to sanitize anything as long as you make a little effort to not have your stories promote the evils that appear in it.

I think the first Conan movie can be blamed a little on the public's incorrect perception of the character. As far as appearance goes, Arnold was perfect, but his limited acting ability didn't help in trying to depict Conan as being more than just brawn.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #27 on: March 19, 2016, 11:41:32 PM »
Conan is a bad example of cliched early 20th century Sword & Sorcery. Because Robert Howard did pretty well stay clear of them most of the time. Conan has a bit too much fun commiting violence against those who deserve it, but other than that there isn't really much objectionable about the character.

I admit my opinion is coloured by the fact that the only thing I (vaguely) remember from a Conan story is an event where he comes across a female adventurer hard pressed by baddies, fights them off, and then - weirdly, almost resignedly - rapes her. Or rather, he commences sex with her over her protestations, which then turn into exclamations of delight as things continue. The whole thing was appalling. (The vagueness of my memory is related to the circumstances. My memory of his "this is what happens now" approach to forcing himself on her is crystal clear because of how horrified and confronted I was by it - this was me as a teenage girl reading this.)

However, I have to say I'm not sure whether that was an original Howard, or one of the later additions from Robert Jordan. Though, if the latter, it was still OK'd by the editorial committee.

Offline Anti_Quated

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #28 on: March 21, 2016, 12:48:12 AM »
You could just as well write a Conan story where the iron-thewed iconoclast is a black lesbian fighting the stormtroopers of colonial oppression, recovering a plundered sacred object, rescuing the learned, well-dressed high-priestess along the way (not expecting sexual gratification in return, of course), and not making any judgements based on outdated pseudo-science along the way. Or you could invert it and have Conan learn how the "savages" he underestimated actually have a rich and admirable culture, and that he has been duped into assassinating their "demon" queen by treacherous slavers who want access to the riches, and that he's going to have to rely on more than his "natural superiority" to get him through.

Conan was a savage himself and his detachment or ambivalence (not Howard's, mind you) from such notions of race embodies the dichotomy between his primal, traditional lifestyle and the enervated decadence and hedonism of many (not all, mind) enemies and antagonists, which is a small part of what makes Howard's tales great. That said, I'm not so daft or ignorant as to suggest Howard was not a racist, and rightly acknowledge his work as a product of his time.

Were I to come across your above suggestion in print as a new novel it would seem to me more a conscious product of deliberate socio-political pandering or a vulgar, asinine marketing ploy (whether that was the intention or not) than a genuine, earnest expression. The cynic in me, I suppose. Utilising identity politics from our contemporary era as the foundation of a fantasy story, particularly a genre piece, holds little appeal to me, though it would certainly be an interesting exercise in reverting the established tropes, and would likely garner considerable approbation from more progressive and less cynical readers. A post-modern intellectual dissection and critique of sword & sorcery masquerading as literature has likely already been done, but not really my cup of tea. I'm more in favour of just enjoying the tale; modern sympathies be damned.

What's wrong with a bit of sensitivity? How does not being an asshole ruin the fun of fantasy?
I mean, the fact that S&S like Conan engage with non-western cultures make them a lot more diverse than, say, Lord of the Rings - if you take out all the racist, sexist and colonialist bullshit (probably doable with a red pen) that is often in the margins anyway, I don't see how it would affect the fantastic, action-packed adventure at the core. What's wrong with a bit of sensitivity? How does not being an asshole ruin the fun of fantasy?

LotR has its share of swarthy, ugly malcontents - industrious 'Orcs' feverishly dragging the old, magic world into a modern era, yet they are lambasted with considerable enemy propaganda and racist epithets. The arrogant, conceited 'West' opposing the strong ruler from the 'East'. Defacing the venerated statues of Gondor's hegemony and putting the countryside of the opponent to flame and ruin - soldiers of the once-subjugated and oppressed revelling in their conquest and the decimation of their hated enemy. A collision of opposing cultures. Much as any Elf would look scornfully upon the wretched, sub-human Orc, what of the oafish, insular, and bucolic Hobbits? Could we not see LOTR in the same vein with a commensurately creative application of modern sensibilities?

I think it naive, duplicitous, or both to pretend that engaging with any culture that is different from one's own can occur without some conflict, prejudice, and myopia on one or both sides. Having that element makes it a more honest reflection of fundamental behaviour that is propagated by such cultural engagement, however uncomfortable it can be and that conflict can drive the story and create greater tension. Misunderstandings and stereotypes are bound to occur in such a conflict, and I think S&S can often be too simplified to a reductionist 'good vs bad' paradigm that overlooks or ignores such ideas in favour of a sanitised, utopian idea on both sides that relies on 'Bad Guys want to conquer; Good Guys don't'.

Real villains (and heroes) are often rife with horrible ideas and dehumanising, morally repugnant perspectives. And you're right, in that we could otherwise have a more complex, multi-faceted character who has to struggle to either come to terms with their flawed worldview, to become a better person, or to let such flaws fester into doubt and erode their heroic nature into something more detestable and malevolent. Makes for compelling reading, but there's equally great tales that come with baggage, so to speak. I don't see all of them as requiring an overhaul.

With due regard for some of the critical commentaries on S&S and Howard's work in particular, these iconic, hyper-masculine heroes are just that - they're meant to be stoic, taciturn, iron-thewed - not simpering, hand-wringing apologists. They are established as the proverbial Alpha - dominant, blunt, unapologetic, taking what they will how they will - and in their respective anecdotal minds are justified in their dismissive xenophobic approximations as they are in their conquest of foes, women, empires - rule of the strong and all that. Leave them their flaws, however racist, misogynistic, or misguided and amoral they might seem - they are literary characters, their views can't harm us specifically because we know better now (for the most part) and have legions of activists (social media or otherwise) to reprimand, condemn, and crusade on our behalf to that effect. Break glass in case of offence need not apply here, for my part.

Soldiers/Warriors are trained to de-humanise the enemy - through caricature, stereotype, profiling and the choice application of denigrative epithets. Such views are usually, but not always, reinforced through the harrowing experiences the warriors then undergo in battle with their hated antagonist. This makes it easier for said warrior to commit bodily harm upon the 'other' - and the 'other' will always be the enemy from the hero's (protagonist's) perspective.

A myriad of ways extant to depict the 'other', and the delineation thereof - alien, decadent, effeminate, hedonistic, inferior (racially, culturally, physically, magically, or otherwise) isn't a bad way of doing it. It's not politically correct, and will offend (much more in this day and age), but I see no harm in it as a literary device - but that's a long way from overt, malicious marginalisation and discrimination. Social custom and political etiquette (not to mention basic human empathy) need not apply all the time to fiction - and some (anti)heroes are better served with a healthy dose of contempt and scornful, conceited arrogance for those they deem inferior - and such 'otherness' makes the villains all the more deplorable, and thus, vindication for the reader when the brooding barbarian overcomes.

Short form is I don't want every fantasy hero to be a a product of our time, but I am open to the idea of the genre progressing if executed well and in an earnest, honest way - not simply for the sake of identity politics. Being an arsehole and composing a fun, engaging fantasy tale aren't mutually exclusive in my mind  - nor can they be I think to anyone who enjoys Howard, Lovecraft, Haggard, Heinlein or any other author who may hold a divergent or potentially offensive opinion to the reader. I appreciate you can separate the art and artist where possible, but when it's in the work it's either a catalyst for offence or a case of getting the fuck over it and enjoying the story for what it is.
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Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #29 on: March 21, 2016, 10:46:21 AM »
If you want to read about a character with completely unacceptable thinking and behavior who is still written in a way that doesn't approve of his deeds, I recommend taking a look at Kane by Karl Wagner. If you would describe Kane in one word, it's Evil. He does many terrible things, but the stories never endorse him. Sometimes he has moments of mercy and compassion, but even then the story doesn't present it in a way that would suggest that this somehow compensates for his evil. Really quite facinating to read.

However, I have to say I'm not sure whether that was an original Howard, or one of the later additions from Robert Jordan. Though, if the latter, it was still OK'd by the editorial committee.
Yeah, that doesn't sound at all like anything I've ever read. I am pretty sure it's either from one of the fake stories or a changed version of an original. (I believe the original versions became available only relatively recently.)

That said, I'm not so daft or ignorant as to suggest Howard was not a racist, and rightly acknowledge his work as a product of his time.
I would say that with little hesitation. The only thing that would be racist about his writing, that I've seen, is that he assumes that races exist and that they make a difference. And I think it probably was indeed rare in the 20s and 30s in America that people questioned that assumption. There are some big evil black men that Conan kills with satisfaction, but when you also consider the stories about black people he wrote outside of Conan, it seems very clear that it's not their blackness that makes them evil. And of course, there's several times more big evil white men that Conan kills. He comes across as very egalitarian to me. He frequently aknowledges that black people and women are disadvantaged, but when you look at his greater body of work and written material, he attributes that to their discriminating treatment by society. Which seems quite progressive to me.

I actually find it quite interesting that many of the female characters in the Conan stories are struggling to get respect and power. It's rare to see any that have full power and control as you find in many more contemporary fantasy works, but there's also an absence of powerless women who just quietly accept their lot in life. Which I think is, especially given the time of writing, a much more realistic treatment of the situation. Today we live in a world where women can become the rulers of Great Britain, Germany, Brazil, and the USA. Which is rare, but possible, and so we expect to have at least a few powerful female rulers in our fantasy books. In the 30s the idea of having some powerful unchallenged empress would have been just pure fantasy with no relation to the life of the people at the time. Instead Howard chose to create female characters who start out in weak positions because of the kind of society in which they live and write about how they improve their station with the means that they have. And while this usually takes the form in getting help from a strong warrior who destroys their enemies they can not defeat themselves, it's never that Conan just shows up proclaiming that he's come to solve their problems because he's clearly needed here. Instead those women are looking for something that might be able to help them and that happens to be Conan. And then they have to work to get him to agree to help. Instead of writing stories about a wonderful world in which women are treated equal, he wrote about women successfully working hard to improve their station in a world that treats them very much as unequal. And I think that was a much stronger statement.
This also happens to be a great example of why I think you can't just repeat something from decades past and expect it to still have the same meaning. 80 years ago, a woman having full power over a great nation would have been fantastic. Today, a world in which there isn't a single powerful woman having power seems unrealistic. If you want to express the same ideals and make the same statements, you have to use different images and archetypes. You hav e to package things differently. It will never be 1932 again.
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