Both magic and nostalgia are common, arise more when we feel threatened, and comfort us in such situations. … Both … rely especially heavily on wishful thinking – magic presumes we are especially able to influence events important to us, while nostalgia presumes that our previous social orders were especially functional, moral, good to people like us, etc. The fact that fantasy tends to combine both magic and nostalgia suggests that some readers have an especially strong tolerance for wishful thinking, and/or demand for comfort, and fantasy targets that audience. (more)
As I’ve enjoy some science fiction by John C.Wright, I found it interesting to read the nostalgia that energizes him:
High Fantasy rests for its paramount appeal on nostalgia: the longing for a world once known, now lost. An Uzi is a more efficient killing machine than the great sword Excalibur, but the Uzi is never to be described in words [as poetic as] these: … The sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers. … Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy.
The difference between a culture that respected and reveres the virginity of the maiden fair and the bravery of the warrior prince, and the cult that reveres the bravery of the transgendered community and protects the crooked penis of a presidential adulterer with comically ferocious self-righteousness, is not merely a difference between an ape and a man, a savage and a savant. … The Middle Ages may have been evil and cruel and dirty in many things, but they were never held Mutually Assured Destruction by thermonuclear annihilation to be a work of wise political policy. …
The only tales ever told in the history of the world without any element of magical or the supernatural were those told in the modern age. … There is a common thread linking speculative fiction with romances and epics and fairy tales of old. That thread is an acknowledgement that the world is wider and wilder and weirder than we suspect, and that there are fields beyond the fields we know where elves might dance in moonlight or demons rage in flame or angels clothed in brightness soar at their lord’s command on errantry to deeds immense of which we mortal men hear no slightest fame. …
The current world in which we live, the current age of darkness, rests on certain assumptions which High Fantasy undermines: the assumption that might makes right, the assumption that man is the master of his own fate, the assumption that the universe is a machine and everything in it (including man) is merely a raw material to be exploited in the restless search for pelf and pleasure. … The assumptions of the modern world, … Low Fantasy undermines them by showing the reader a glimpse of a world where the strength of a man’s arm decided the triumph or downfall of cities, and the honor of his word and the courage of his heart decided the strength of that arm. (more; HT David Brin)
Wright’s skill with words shows me the depth of his feelings, even though such feelings fail to resonate with me – his nostalgia still seems to me mostly wishful thinking. Yes, modernity is missing something, and stories of other eras can highlight what we lack. But some of what we lack is impossible, and so is missing everywhere. And every time and place is missing something; there are so many tradeoffs.
But let me make a prediction. In the future, stories will be told that are set in forager worlds, in farming worlds (where most of our fantasy is set), in industry worlds (like our world), in em worlds, perhaps in further worlds we can now only dimly imagine, and finally in worlds of a vast stable future lasting for trillions of years. My prediction is that in that vast stable future, when they tell nostalgic stories about other eras, they’ll tell more stories set in industry worlds than in farming or forager worlds.
John C. Wright can’t see the romance of our era, compared to farming era romance, but I doubt the first farmers could see much romance in their world, compared to forager worlds. But eventually story tellers will find many fine ways to see our dream-time era conflicts as engaging. For a cosmologically brief time, everything changed rapidly, anything seemed possible, and its mostly rich residents indulged in a great many real-life fantasies.