Is Fantasy Escapism?

riginally posted 2/28/2008)

Ever since I discovered The Lord of the Rings at the age of 16, I’ve been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I have four bookshelves in my home office/library, one of which is devoted entirely to those genres.

Many people do not understand this love. The most frequent criticism I hear and read is that such works are “escapism.” Science fiction and fantasy are different from other forms of fiction, it seems, because they are not based on the world we know (although science fiction often predicts our future accurately). The only books worth reading, these people seem to think, are those that reflect back to us the world we live in now. (One noted fantasy author groused that that “the literati” will only read fiction that is “about the college professor who loves the other college professor.”) I have many friends who only read nonfiction and watch documentaries. Some prefer only those works that dwell on the worst aspects of our current world. These are the ones who chide me for indulging in “escapist” literature.

But is this an accurate label? Those who like and those who write science fiction and fantasy often use the label “speculative fiction” instead. The point of these stories, to them, is to ask “what if?” What if, Ursula Le Guin asks in The Left Hand of Darkness, people were hermaphroditic? What if, she asks in The Dispossessed, we lived in a true anarchy? What if, Frank Herbert asks in Dune, there was a revolution against computers and a subsequent movement to train people to use all of their minds’ capacities? What if, asks CJ Cherryh, Edgar Rice Burroughs, CS Lewis, and the creators of Farscape, a single human or small group of humans was suddenly transplanted to an alien world? What if we could travel in time, change the past, read minds, talk to animals, fly without machines?

Alfred Hitchcock said that most stories require what he called the MacGuffin. He defined the MacGuffin as “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” The MacGuffin itself does not matter; it is the effect it has on the characters that matters: how they react, what they will do because of it.

The what if question is the MacGuffin for science fiction and fantasy. In itself it does not matter; what matters is the implications. The authors of these books write them to explore these implications. What would society be like, what would relationships be like, what kind of religions would we have, how would we govern ourselves, what would we be like if one of the conditions of life we now take for granted was changed? How would we be different?

More importantly, what would remain the same? Our environment, the world around us, is not fixed; it changes, and we often change with it. What about us is innate and unchanging no matter what the world around us is like? What would remain the same even if the outside world was radically changed, even unrecognizable?

The best science fiction and fantasy asks the question “what does it mean to be a human?” It may take us away from the world as it currently is, but it brings us closer to ourselves. This is the opposite of “escapism.”

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