Have you heard this from some loftily disapproving relative or even a good friend, genuinely baffled at your excitement over the latest saga? Why are people so ready to condemn SF/Fantasy? All fiction is escapist; that’s the whole point isn’t it? A good novel, whatever the genre, takes the reader into an imagined world even if it’s only one set in Manchester. If you have a job, a family, commitments, any books offer respite from the daily grind. Why is SF/Fantasy somehow less socially acceptable? Because it’s not about ‘reality’?
Does anyone seriously believe Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books faithfully re-create a major murder enquiry? Shouldn’t the Reality Police be demanding pages detailing the endless paperwork, the filing, the routine elimination of suspects, the following up of every minor clue? Why not? Because that would make for a very boring book. Are Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus giving anything more than a passing nod to the lives of real coppers? I doubt it. Do I care? Not so long as the story, the characters and ideas grip me.
At least crime novels are rooted in reality, the sceptics say. SF/Fantasy is just too extreme, has nothing to do with real life. How realistic do these people think the cosy Cotswold villages imagined by whodunit writers are? They have less to do with my reality at the end of the 20th Century than things Larry Niven and Arthur C Clarke were writing twenty or more years ago. Wondering about the ethics of cloning and transplantation? Try A Gift From Earth. Arthur C Clarke was predicting innovations such as the Internet and their impact on our lives in the 60’s. Talking of impacts, Hammer of God might be fiction but the close encounter Earth expects with Comet Swift-Tuttle in August 2126 is very real indeed. Aren’t Triffids just genetically modified plants out of control?
Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova see mankind colonising Mars and the Moon, based on credible extrapolations of scientific and commercial trends. Justina Robson looks at where computers might go, in Silver Screen. Gentry Lee and Jerry Pournelle both worked for NASA; I’ll bet their work is rooted in ‘real’ science. I imagine the technical bits in Tom Clancy’s novels are similarly accurate. His books are good yarns in the same way as good space opera. They also give some insights into the way America sees the rest of the world and offer a few thoughts on the use of force and the nature of terrorism. I got much the same from Oath of Fealty but in rather fewer pages. Incidentally, in Tom Clancy’s highly enjoyable books; Jack Ryan has managed to resolve the Middle East Peace Process and save the world from nuclear war as well as global plague on his way to becoming US President. Why isn’t this dismissed as SF/fantasy?
Michael Marshall Smith and Jon Courtney Grimwood see darker aspects of modern reality running out of control in a tradition going back to the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley and H.G Wells‘s The Time Machine. Let’s think about Wells for a moment. He used his writing, science fiction, fantasy and otherwise, to explore the human condition and to point out abuses in his own society. Not long before, Dickens was doing the same with serial thrillers published in popular magazines, the soap operas of their day. Was anybody making distinctions between either approach back then? Can’t we find similar parallels today?
Our sceptic might just about concede this. Promoting space exploration, speculation on technological development, examination of society’s ills, it’s possible there could be some merit in that. But aliens? Bug-eyed monsters? Try Mary Doria Russell‘s The Sparrow. This compelling story projects current social and political realities into an imagined future resting on a powerful sense of history. As aliens look at humanity from a new angle, we question ourselves and our perceived realities. John Wyndham did the same contrasting the benign intelligence of Chocky and the enigmatic hostility of The Midwich Cuckoos.
Are aliens any more terrifying than humankind? What about monsters from the Id? Return to the Forbidden Planet and ponder such notions along with some cracking songs or see Ann Francis star in a science-fiction double feature with the original. When the sceptics look pained, point out both stories are based on The Tempest. They’re not going to say Shakespeare isn’t proper literature, surely? Not sure how much reality they might find in his work, though.
Talking of Shakespeare, Prospero was a magician. That’s where the sceptics really dig their heels in. Wizards, elves, talking animals, they can have nothing to do with reality or literature! It’s a shame that J R R Tolkien, Merton Professor of English 1945-59 and C S Lewis, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English 1954-63 aren’t still with us to debate that one.
Fantasy writing does contain fantastic elements but the themes are universal. Questions of good, evil, and free will pervade Narnia. Frodo’s journey to destroy the One Ring is an exploration of moral responsibility on many different levels. The characters are real, vivid, engaging or repellent, just set in an imagined world. You can find literature dealing with struggles of duty, life and love in the face of external demands based on reality if you want to, of course. Genuine rural hardship and misery underpins Thomas Hardy’s work for example. I prefer to read Tolkien every time; Hardy is so depressing! Fantasy offers me the same fundamental realities but gives me thrills, chills and heroism along the way.
Modern literature may be rooted in the trials of life but I don’t want to read about people struggling with jobs, disillusionment, divorce and irritating children. I can get that at a bad coffee morning, where I might at least be able to offer a bit of support. I agree that questions of race, sex and tolerance are important but I prefer to explore them along with an entertaining story. Melanie Rawn and Robin Hobb write those as well as covering issues of power, its use and misuse, among others. Enjoy Anne McCaffrey‘s Pern and you can look at attitudes to change and fear of the unknown. You’ll find all of the above in Robert Jordan and David Gemmell‘s work and with a more feminist slant, from Barbara Hambly and in Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s Darkover.
If you want reality in your fantasy, read Alan Garner. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen ties the modern world to legend and Elidor impinges on Manchester. Courage and standing up to evil are identical in either realm. Buffy the Vampire Slayer does the same in sunny California. But that’s just nonsense, the sceptics say. You don’t get vampires in high school! No but you do get alienation, disaffection, teenagers struggling with changing balances in relationships with peers and parents. If SF/Fantasy can slide in a few ideas that help people cope with those realities, along with the entertainment, we might see fewer appalling headlines.
With any luck, your sceptic is struggling grumpily by now. There’s no reality in Tom Holt or Terry Pratchett, perhaps? Well, no, no more so than in any comedy. Of course, for satire and parody to work, the reader has to share the author’s sense of the comic in the everyday world. That’s where Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones come from, isn’t it? But they get praised for holding up a mirror to the absurdities of modern life rather than getting dismissed as ‘fantasy’. Personally I find Magrat’s struggles with balancing witchcraft, motherhood and being Queen of Lancre at least as relevant to my own life as I do Ms. Jones’s humorous navel gazing, if not more so.
You want to condemn SF/Fantasy because it’s not reality? You’re going to need a better argument than one that doesn’t even stand up to this cursory examination!