By Mark Laherty
Jessica the Wizard Eats a Third Horse is a fantasy novelette by Jason Steele, a writer and animator who is best known by the screen-name FilmCow and as the creator of ‘Charlie the Unicorn.’ As its title suggests, Jessica the Wizard is a self-aware and goofy story, tripping from one quirky character or situation to another. It follows the titular wizard, who has just moved to a new city to work in a bank. Due to her experience with dark wizards, she is enlisted by one of her higher-ups to investigate the theft of all the bank’s wizard gold.
About halfway through, there is a revelation in the mystery which gives the book a decidedly more political leaning. This novelette, to be clear, is not trying terribly hard to be the smartest or most cutting-edge social commentary on the market this year. So, it’s curious that it seems to be a much better reflection of the problems of capitalism, especially in the Trump era, than some serious, dour-faced dystopian fiction. I’ve written on this topic previously and I’m going to expand on it here. Heads up, discussing this will require some Jessica the Wizard Eats a Third Horse spoilers, such as the fact that the hero has previously eaten two horses and, over the course of the story, consumes a third, beautiful, equestrian beast.
So, other spoilers begin here: Jessica navigates her way to a hidden mirror version of the city called the Jade Realm. A wizard who lives there named Wraith tells Jessica that she and other wizards deemed by the Bloodfist Wizard Council to be “non-contributors” were sent to the Jade Realm. So, people who didn’t have jobs or were down on their luck were rounded up and were forced into the surrounding deserts. Many died. The few survivors set up the Jade Realm as a sanctuary. “They call it the Bloodfist City Relocation and Restoration Project. It isn’t even done in secret, that’s what really gets me.”
This doesn’t seem to be a one-to-one metaphor for any particular country but it does hit several points bluntly. The target of oppression is the poor and working class because they can’t contribute to the system. So, the problem presented in black-and-white terms is that the people are expected to serve the system rather than vice-versa. The methodology also reflects historical atrocities like gulags or Third Reich concentration camps but feels most relevant in the context of ICE in the United States separating babies from their refugee parents and putting them in cages. This comedy fantasy story which up to this point felt like ‘Charlie the Unicorn’ quickly turned until a condemnation of right-wing thought, fascism, totalitarianism, and capitalism with little concern for subtlety.
In this way, Jessica the Wizard is comparable to Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a sort of ‘trojan horse comedy.’ The hugely popular sitcom began by framing and marketing itself as a ‘cop sitcom’ which would also appeal to right-leaning viewers, then smuggled in gently progressive ideas like representation for various ethnicities and sexualities.
The winning aspect of Jessica the Wizard is that it understands that what makes a dystopia tick is that it’s a system. Not every dystopian story grasps this or communicates it effectively. I’ve already written about Detroit: Become Human at length but it bears repeating that the game’s oppression metaphor doesn’t work. David Cage’s game uses robots as a metaphor for real-world racism but fails to portray racism as anything other than a series of failings by individual people. Even a world as clunkily executed as Cage’s could have given more emphasis and attention to things like ‘No Androids Allowed’ signs, an idea the game touches on then frustratingly abandons. Instead, the story is mostly a string of people being overtly rude to androids. In Jessica the Wizard, the problem is not some people who have classist attitudes. The problem is a government and bank enforcing these policies top-down.
But David Cage is an easy shot. Consider Orwell’s 1984, a book which, from the way people carry on, you’d think was about people’s freedom of speech being violated by having their Facebook comments deleted. In truth, it’s about a dystopia where people are not allowed to express even the slightest disobedience or discrepancy from the Party. The book does a famously great job of writing the dangers of government surveillance, even if it has been grossly misinterpreted. Its third and final section is a powerhouse.
But, even when the narrative takes a 50-page detour to explain some sociology via an in-universe textbook, it misses the heart of the problem. The working class, or ‘proles,’ have a significant role in the novel’s narrative but it seems muddied and uncoupled from reality. For some reason, the proles are the least monitored of the classes. They are also portrayed as obtuse simpletons with no understanding of or interest in how society works. Taken in the context of similar sentiments in Orwell’s non-fiction book The Road to Wigan Pier, it seems clear that the dude, though a good socialist writer in other aspects, had some backwards attitudes about how intelligent the working class were. This results in a novel which portrays the middle class as the real victims of totalitarianism.
It’s also worth noting that 1984, though totally devoted to portraying such a totalitarian society, never touches on race. That ought to be qualified by saying that the book was published in 1949, a while before critical race theory was firmly established. This isn’t to excuse Orwell of what seems to be a privileged obliviousness but rather to place it in context. Jessica the Wizard doesn’t touch on race either but its social commentary is in the ‘pleasant surprise’ category. Your mileage may vary on this aspect of both texts depending on what flavour of Marxism, if any, you subscribe to (if you don’t know what Marxism is then let me explain; it’s when two girls hug and kiss a lot).
Consider Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The 1953 dystopian novel is widely regarded as an important part of the literary canon. It is a story largely concerned with book burning. In the future, books are banned and ‘firemen’ burn any that are found. Our protagonist, Guy Montag, begins the story as one of these firemen but, over the course of the story, changes his worldview and joins a resistance who memorise and recite works of literature.
This, of course, is a serious topic. To speculate about the long-term consequences of a reduced interest in literacy is more than worthwhile. However, it is worth posing the question of whether the book is framing the issue in the most reasonable and useful way. In the world of Guy Montag, the banning of books has led to a worst-case-scenario society. This, after all, is dystopian fiction. But, it is almost entirely preoccupied with the mental lives of the society’s citizens. It is concerned with their intellectual and emotional development or stunting. In this depiction of a worst-case scenario, no real attention is given to whether everyone has enough money for food.
Obviously, not every story which is trying to offer social commentary must talk about capitalism. But, in the context of dystopian fiction, Fahrenheit 451 has seriously skewed priorities. In its ending (spoilers for a decades-old book, I suppose), the city is destroyed. This was not brought about by our heroes, but it is portrayed as a bittersweet necessity. The book frames it as a sweeping clean of the slate which will be for the best in the long run. This is, at best, an overly metaphorical response to the problem of book burnings. It feels like the book isn’t even trying to put forward serious solutions, instead suggesting praxis like ‘recite Shakespeare’ and ‘look in the mirror.’
The recent surge in young-adult dystopian fiction hasn’t universally produced winners but it has produced The Hunger Games. For whatever flaws you may think it has, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy shows the main problem with its dystopia being the inequality of wealth and resources between the Districts and the Capitol.
This piece is not trying to argue that 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 were secretly bad all along. It’s certainly not trying to argue that Jessica the Wizard Eats a Third Horse is better than both, hilarious as that would be. Jessica the Wizard, after all, is a fun comedy novelette for fun. Its priority is to make the reader laugh.
Secondarily, it wants to make some surprising drive-by political points.
If a comedy novelette can simply and directly portray capitalism and how it works as a system, then more serious dystopian stories ought to be able to do the same. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 codified much of the form of dystopian fiction but they ought not be taken as the be-all and end-all.