More than An Escape

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Expanding a bit on Misty’s wonderful post the other day, “What Drugs Were You On When You Wrote This?”….

There are lots of attitudes I encounter with respect to the kind of writing I do, ranging from the general snobbery directed at genre novels by writers and readers of so-called Literary Fiction, to the less offensive but equally annoying assumption that I must be writing books for children because what adult in his or her right mind would read such things.  But what bothers me most, what to my mind reveals the greatest ignorance about what fantasy and science fiction writers do, is the equating by some people of speculative fiction with escapism.

Never mind the obvious:  That throughout the history of the novel, some of the most pointed social critiques ever written have been fantastical in nature.  1984, Brave New World, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Looking Backward, Moby Dick, most of the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.

The fact is that fantasy and science fiction are not escapist.  Rather, stories and novels written in these genres allow us to look at our world through lenses that are both unique and edifying.  They present worlds that, while sometimes alien and exotic, continue to grapple with the same social, cultural, moral, and political issues that we struggle with in our own world.  They offer glimpses of our possible futures, or tantalizing alternatives to our known past.  Read Neil Gaiman’s wondrous and strange takes on mythology, or George Martin’s interpretation of medieval intrigue and warfare, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s richly textured recreations of ancient European and Mediterrainean societies, and you cannot help but come away with a greater understanding of our own history and belief systems.  Read the work of Stephen R. Donaldson, or Nicola Griffith, or dozens of other writers whose books merit mention here, and you will find yourself reflecting on the human condition in ways that you’d never considered before.

As a writer of fantasy, I don’t attempt to give my readers a means of escape.  Instead, I hope to make them think in new ways about issues relating to ecology, technology, race and prejudice, gender and ethnic identity.  I have a project in the works that focuses on drug addiction.  By creating a world in which the archetypes are different and the familiar stereotypes don’t exist, I hope to offer my readers a fresh perspective on matters.  Remove the discussion of race from the emotionally charged terms of the American race debate, for instance, and perhaps people will finally find a way past old biases and hostilities.  Introduce magic to the dichotomy between technology and pastoral ways of life, and maybe the choices we face as a society will come into focus in a new way.

Do our books entertain?  I should hope so.  Do they present us with imagery and characters and settings that stretch the imagination?  Absolutely.  But to assume that this is all they do, is to see in speculative fiction far less than is actually there.  This isn’t escapism.  This is life.

Today’s music:  Joe Beck

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8 comments to More than An Escape

  • Brian

    Comments that imply reading fantasy or sci fi or even contemporary fiction are escapist you have to take with a grain of salt. They’re probably not made by fans of the genre, but those of us who are fans wouldn’t concede to “escapism” because the implication is that we dont ivest ourselves in the “real world”. I agree with David that this genre is very applicable to present day problems /issues/ or concerns. But even before I cared about the “real world” or was even able to appreciate the subtlety that this genre can apply to a story I was interested in the story itself. I dont read fantasy in order to escape the real world, at the very heart of it is a desire to go on an adventure with the author and the characters in the story. And I dont think its abandoning the “real world”, its more like adding something that is missing to the real world experience.

  • I hold a very interesting view, when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi, which kind of overlaps with what has been said. In my opinion fantasy and sci-fi handle problems and fears in life a bit more differently. All of the apocalypses, monsters and magic stand for (in the same order) crisis in life and life in general, all of the fears in one’s mind and the ability of the human spirit to shield against that (speaking from a clearly biased fantasy point of view, sci-fi has still to become my cup of tea). When characters tackle down barely and triumph and grow as people, learn by their mistakes, it influences people on a subconscious level (I guess and hope) that they can do the same as in having the power to change their path. And no other genre can do that.

  • Thanks to Brian and Harry for their comments. I agree with Brian’s point that fantasy and SF at their best transport us to new, exciting places and take us on adventures. But in doing so they can tell us a great deal about the world we leave behind.

    I also agree with Harry, when he says that what we encounter on those adventures often stands for something concrete in our own world. Not that speculative fiction has to be allegorical in nature to be effective, but rather that even when we leave our own world behind in the books we read, we still find things in the new worlds we discover that have definite counterparts in “real” life.

  • Michele Conti

    I use my fantasy novels, and movies, and music to escape my life. To give it some intrigue that I don’t see on a day to day basis, that is taken entirely for granted.

    The similarities between what happens in the novels I read, and what I see in the news is sometimes frightening.

    By the time I’m done reading a section of a book, a point of view, I often find myself comparing the contents to what is going on, or what I used to read about in history texts. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I compare things to my own life.

    I read a book and think, “Well gee, I can see how that character would feel that way” or “turn out that way” or something along that line. Then the stunning realization comes to me that the situation is not so different from one that I’m forced to admit happens in society all the time.

    I was about to go into a whole big thing on the similarities to the real world in your Winds of the Forelands series, David, but I think I’ll leave that to my own personal blog. Teehee.

  • You know, you’re absolutely right. Books that are truly escapist usually leave me cold and unsatisfied, because it’s clear they were intended as nothing but brain candy. I prefer more depth in the tales I read. It was CS Lewis’ “Narnia” books that shaped and defined my eventual spiritual belief. Brain candy books would never have answered the questions I was asking the way Lewis did.

    😀

  • I think I’d like to read what you have to say about the Forelands books, Michele. Send me the link, okay?

    And Misty, I’d love to know more about the spiritual life that came out of your reading of Narnia. I agree that the brain candy stuff does little for me. But I find myself wondering what it means that I was so deeply moved by the Thomas Covenant books….

  • David, we’ll have to sit down over that afore-mentioned single malt and I’ll tell you all about it. As for Covenant….can’t help you. Thomas Covenant and I did NOT get along.

    😀

  • Have I mentioned, Misty, that I’m looking forward to ConCarolinas….