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