Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Worlds

By | December 19, 2020

Guest post by Ritwick Bhattacharjee

In his rather captivating introduction to Maurice Blanchot’s Aminadab, Jean Paul Sartre writes: “So long as it was thought possible to escape the conditions of human existence through asceticism, mysticism, metaphysical disciplines or the practice of poetry, fantasy was called upon to fulfil a very definite function. It manifested our human power to transcend the human [and] Men strove to create a world that was not of this world”. The fantastic, for Sartre thus, becomes an obverse of the world revealed by the experiential real. This other world allows, as it were, a movement out: from being human to something more, something better.

But the display of the human that is more-human, especially in some fantasy novels, also comes with an unease. Lying deep inside the fantastic chasms, this more-human, at times fighting a God and at other struggling to walk, manifests what the human, in this the apparently real world, is not. There is an emptiness that is made manifest; a void that is as, if not more, real than what humans sense and marked through the processes of desire. What humans desire show the emptiness looming over all lives. The transcendence of the vicissitudes of the human, in such works of the fantastic, becomes, then, a sublime phenomenon, able to manifest the human kind’s most haunted of topographies and, in making present the absences of life, make more real the realities which ostensibly define existential exigencies.

The human is, in these works, not made anew (as common sense dictates) but is found refracted: created as chimerical existents somewhat bent yet intact. The worlds in which they find themselves follow suit. They are not a reflection of our world anymore but one that can manifest all those which are hidden in the interstices of human reality.

Brandon Sanderson’s stories are perhaps the best among such narratives. His worlds, blackened by constant ash fall or rippled by storms or converted to steel, reveal modalities that work towards the codifications of the “real” world. That these worlds have come together to form the Cosmere is of little wonder. The multivalent nature of worlds is, after all, only superseded by the objective rules of the universe. So, the Cosmere binds Sanderson’s human to a new form of physics, controlling their evolutions throughout the individual and multiple narratives. There is, therefore, a freedom of being delivered by magic while, simultaneously, an energy pulling them back either as fundamental forces of the universe or foes unknown and unimaginable.

It is in the channels of the result of this clash-of simultaneous freedom and restraint-that Sanderson manages to make apparent the worlds that humans, outside of the spatiality of his novels and living in this sensory real, exist in. Take for example the world of the Mistborn series where the haunting mists and constant ash fall of Scadrial has incited the rise of a tyrannical regime that has normalised the division of classes. Expectedly, the ones at the lower end of this class structure find themselves insulted, humiliated, and marginalised. The only way out is a revolution; a class struggle that will tear through the fabric of Scadrial’s political philosophy to shift the framework within which definitions of human existence take place.

The power to incite that revolution, rather brilliantly, finds its source in the same environmental and cosmological darkness that blankets the land. So, Kelsier and Vin, as they ingest metals and gain superpowers, become beacons of the much needed class inversion. Obviously, the revolution is not the end but the beginning. By the end, one ends up questioning the ontologies of systems of political governance; relaying an incommensurability of such mechanics with processes of being.    

As the Mistborn series presents not only the immediacies of class struggles but also the failures of political mechanisms, the Stormlight archive picks up the vagaries of religion. A long dead Almighty, still guides the everyday of the humans (guiding everything from what one wears to systems of slavery) fighting for their survival in the face of tremendous storms ravaging through the world. The world of the Reckoners, on the other hand, displays presentations and imbalances of power as the extremely powerful and equally maniacal Steelheart changes an entire city into steel. What’s important, across all such delineations, however, is the refractive quality of such worlds.

These are not new or novel realms as such. They are ours; simply twisted to the point where the points of failures of real human existences get evidential treatment. Sanderson takes the subliminal structures of class, religion, politics, power, and greed, as they create systems and mechanisations of everyday human realities and brings them on an affective plain for his worlds and humans. These algorithms of modifications do not hide behind institutions of righteousness anymore and their violence, in Sanderson’s books, gets played out in the open. The Cosmere is complicit in the exhibition of this violence as ecological disasters follow social ones. But, there is hope. The desires to fight this ostensibly epiphenomenal enemy is revealed with wonderful powers that are always desired for. The heroines and heroes fight to ensure the survival of all.

Aside the literary, social and, political aspects of Sanderson’s work, one cannot refute that they are immense fun to read. Sanderson has been able to grasp his reader’s expectations and make them come true at the exact moment that they have to. It’s quite interesting how the fulfilment of narrative expectations incite immeasurable joy even when they shouldn’t. The realisation of these narrative expectations should, after all, render the process boring. But Sanderson proves that they aren’t. As the hero lands in all his super powered glory amidst his peers stuck in a seemingly inescapable situation.

Reading his works is almost like watching a popular film as it titillates expectations and imaginations alike and keeps the audience at the literal edge of their seats never allowing them to shut these stories off. Sanderson’s ability to find the locus of the interaction between the presentations of the problematic materialities of human existences with unparalleled moments of joy in simply reading is what makes him unique among his peers. That he finished Robert Jordan’s epic journey of the Wheel of Time series stands testament to the control that he has over his craft.

On his birthday one hopes for an unending flow of such narratives that transpose its readers into worlds that are, at the same time, known and unknown.           

Ritwick Bhattacharjee is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, SGTB Khalsa College, University of Delhi. His research interests are in fantasy studies, phenomenology, continental philosophy, Indian English novels, disability studies and graphic novels. His publications range from academic articles on philosophy, fantasy, politics, disability and translation to journalistic articles and fiction. He is author of Humanity’s Strings: Being, Pessimism, and Fantasy.

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