Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Day

To begin with, Nymeth wrote a most amazing post about why she reads fantasy, here. It really is worth reading. It explains a lot about what I believe about fantasy reading and writing, and why it is worthy to be called literature.

It led me to wonder why we still feel a need to defend ourselves for reading fantasy. It's been 50 years since Lord of the Rings was published, and people who read fantasy are still looked down upon. Why is that? Why do I feel that reading a book with elves on the cover is somehow less than reading an English classic? Because sometimes I do. And I don't like it. Is it the idea that it's escapist literature, as Nymeth says, and so it can't be taken seriously as representing the truth about us? Why do we need fantasy literature?

I believe that we do need fantasy in our lives. I have mentioned on past posts that I think fantasy is retelling myths for us in the modern world. A sub-group of fairy tales and myths, if you like. Those original myths we all grew up on, the world over, how the world was created, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, dragons - at its core, fantasy is about how we imagine the world, and our place in the world. We have always needed fantasy, even if we don't know how to respect it. I think that is because somewhere deep inside we also fear fantasy because it seeks to tell the truth about our lives, about human beings and their potential, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. Fantasy offers us in all our good and bad in every world possibly imagined. That is part of it's power. We hold a mirror up to ourselves, through fantasy. I think people who are afraid of fantasy, are afraid of imagining how things could be different. As Nymeth says, we are not hobbits, but hobbits are us as they experience war for the first time. The power to imagine ourselves differently, and imagine our lives differently, is the power that any who seek to control a person and society, fears the most.

Also as Nymeth also points out, not all fantasy is good. She says, and I agree, not all books in any type of literature are good, either! Every kind of fiction has its strengths and its weaknesses. One of the worst weaknesses of fantasy is when the writer fails to imagine anything unique to themselves. So they write what's gone before, and the fantasy falls flat. This could be said of every book ever written, of course: if something of the writer finds its way into the book, then it has a seed of genuinesss about it that makes it worth seeking out, even if it's not very good. Fantasy gives us so many hundreds of ways of bringing that genuiness out - all that's needed other than writing talent, is the power to imagine.

So all that being said, maybe next time I'm reading a book with elves on the front cover, I'll think back to their fairy tale origins and when someone rolls their eyes at me for wasting my time over a book like 'that', I'll reply: "This is storytelling at its best! You don't know what you're missing!"

Now, Nymeth didn't cover science fiction and I'd like to say a few words in its defense. Why read science fiction? What does gravity have to do with being human? Well, for one thing, if we didn't have gravity, we'd all be floating in the universe......scratch that, because none of this - life on earth - would exist. That doesn't mean science fiction is as necessary as gravity! Though it makes a fun analogy.....what it does mean is that science fiction is about us in space. "Ooh, boring", the woman clerk, or the neighbor who doesn't read, might say. "Why do you read that stuff?" Well, I read science fiction because I'm curious about the universe, and I really think that one day we can get a ship up long enough to explore the stars. I think we have to, because the earth isn't big enough to contain all that humans can be.

The same ability is needed to imagine us in space, as is needed to imagine alternate worlds as we do in fantasy. Only space is all around us, we can see the stars with our own eyes. Haven't you looked up in the night sky, and just wondered: What's up there? What's it like? How would it be to be able to travel from star to star? Now I know that will lead to somewhat technical discussions about the distance involved and the speed of light and other things that I can't get my mind to grasp. So I confess that I usually skip over the techno stuff. What I like, is imagining us on the space ships, and what happens to us there, because all our problems and all our beliefs and all our good qualities come with us there, too. I like science fiction because it offers us a possible future, many possible futures, as many futures as we can imagine them.

I know fantasy and science fiction isn't everyone's choice of books. But for those of us who love them, I would wish that the rest of the literary world would stop looking down at us, and greet us as equals. Because once we have tamed the earth (and that would learning how to live on here in a way that keeps the earth alive and healthy), the stars will still be waiting to be explored. And where will we look for the ideas on how to get there? You're right. Science fiction. Many of the writers of science fiction have science degrees. So the next time someone sniffs at your rocket-ship covered book, you can tell them, "This is serious well-thought-out science." Or something like that.

And I can't, and I won't, imagine a world without Star Trek!

I do prefer fantasy to science fiction, and I think that both are necessary forms of literature. As necessary as breathing, in fact.

Why do you read fantasy and/or science fiction? How do you celebrate it in your life?


Jeane said...

Well said. Not all fantasy is great- I've opened plenty that totally failed me. But the great ones make up for the rest- as in any genre. Myself, I don't read much sci fi- I have trouble following all the gadgetry and technologogy lingo, but I do like watching sci fi movies, especially old ones, and seeing how their ideas of what the future would be like are ludicrous- or coming true- and what it means to us as humans. Makes you think a lot.

DesLily said...

I don't think I could have survived without fantasy and sci fi in my life.. it gives me hope when I can find it no where else.

Stephanie said...

Very nice post Susan!! And I agree with you. Not all fantasy is great, but then not all the Classics are great. Of course, it's a matter of opinion. I HATED Sons & Lovers by D.H. Lawerence, a Classic. Others love it. It's stood the test of time. Just not for me.

And you are right. I do feel the need to defend myself sometimes. In fact, you should have seen me trying to explain last night why I was reading a COMIC book! Sheesh. Considering I'm the only person in my dept that seems to have the ability to read, I think a comic book should be forgiven!!

Emily Barton said...

I took a "Fantasy and Social Values" course in college that forever changed my perspective on this topic. So, so much of human experience can be explored via fantastical worlds. I don't know why people find it so necessary to criticize specific genres -- mysteries also tend to get mocked. I've found that there's good and bad in almost any sort of fiction.

Nymeth said...

I loved your post, Susan - especially what you said about how fantasy creates myths for today. It reminded me of how I felt looking at the names of underground stations in London after reading Neverwhere. I know the stories are not real - and yet having them at the back of my mind makes my life a little better, a little richer, a little more mysterious. That's what myths do.

I didn't cover science fiction because I don't know as much about it, but I think everything I said about fantasy goes for it as well. It's also completely worthy of respect.

PS: Stephanie, I think it's more than a comic book doesn't need to ask for forgiveness, just like fantasy doesn't!

GeraniumCat said...

I absolutely agree with everything that's been said (and I love Nymeth's comment about station names and Neverwhere - I just love it on the occasions I'm on a train that goes through Museum, it's a real magic moment for me). The only thing is (can you forgive me, Susan?) I have a real blind spot about Star Trek!

red said...

I am presenting a new science fiction writer Romualdas Draksas. His new book „Man.The Awakening“ has just been published. Here is a short presentation of the book.

Man—the galaxy’s most fearsome creature, constructed as a unique war machine, who rose up and escaped from his creators and ended up a captive on a planet inhibiting most of his powers. But what were to happen if Humans again found themselves beyond the limits of their incarcerating planet’s effects, and they regained all of the awesome abilities their creators had given them? In other words, what would it mean if they started the process that the other races of the galaxy referred to as “the awakening”?
Just as a single rock can suffice to set a lethal avalanche in motion, so can a lone awakened Human be enough to rattle the entire galaxy.

Susan said...

Hi all: oh gosh, I thought I had already replied here! Darn! I just realized I hadn't....bad me. So:

Jeane: I can't say I enjoy old sci fi movies - I think you and "Uncle Steve" King would get along well there!!! I like the current movies better. And like I said, I skip over the lingo to the actual story! If there is one, or it doesn't get read....they all do make us think though, you're right!

Deslily: absolutely true. Well said!

Stephanie: I still feel guilty picking up a comic book! Graphic novels I can do now, and I'm really enjoying them. But I'm pretty sure anyone from my old university literature classes would be horrified! I'd have to show them Watchmen though, to show how good graphic novels and comics can be. But why do we still have to defend ourselves in choosing them??

Emily: you are so right in that mysteries get the shove-off like fantasy does, 'It's not serious literature' kind of talk. although, I have to say my university taught a class on the evolution of the mystery novel which I absolutely loved. As well as various fantasy classes and science fiction, so up here anyway it's taken as a genre to be considered and studied. It's the general population who don't know the treasure trove that both kinds of fiction can hold!

Nymeth: thank you! As you know now, your comment got me thinking some more, and helped me formulate how I wanted to talk about Neverwhere in the next post. I love picturing you staring at Museum stop, or Charing Cross, or any of the places mentioned in the novel, and having the book colour what you see now. That's what reading the book did to my memories of London - we went to Museum stop too while there at Christmas, and i know that will never be the same either!!

And I knew you weren't putting down science fiction, just that you hadn't covered it, and I could, a little bit.

Thank you for your lovely thoughtful comments as ever, Nymeth. I've missed you! I know, I haven't been around much lately either, with all the life stuff happening here too..

Geraniumcat: Of course I can forgive you for not liking Star Trek!!! so many people I know don't like it at all. I was considered strange in my family (until my son was old enough) for liking it! You and I share so many other interests that if you can forgive me for going on about the movie, etc!! :-D

red: I will come take a look at your site. Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment. I'm not sure I will read the book, but at least the information is out there for anyone else who is interested. But you know I'll at least come see what the book looks like!