Escape is Great, But What Does Fantasy Do?

There have been a few articles recently all swirling around the same issue: fantasy is neat, sure, but, like, what does it do? What’s it for? This has been a conversation we’ve been having for a long time, and I’m sure it will be one that we have for a long time to come, but I find it really telling that we’re having it so pervasively right now. It might have to do with Ishiguro’s novel coming out soon or maybe it’s the continued effect of the popular speculative books published in (relatively) recent years (Harry Potter, Twilight, Divergent, Hunger Games, etc.), or maybe it’s the effect of the recent novels like The Bone Clocks and Station Eleven (which is awesome; I’ll have a post up on it soon) coming out in literary circles to the mixed excitement and confusion of those audiences. Or maybe it’s all of that stuff or none of it.

One thing I’ve been kicking around for the last year or so is the importance fantasy literature has in our current state of environmental (pre-)crisis. We’re quickly reaching a point where our technological and cultural realities are not going to be sufficient for our environment, and I have a hankering that fantasy literature is going to play a big part (and already does) in how we manage/interrogate our expectations, hopes, and anxieties about the relationship we have with our physical world. Someday, once I have my thoughts in order on this, I’m going to write it up into a blog post. Probably.

Ok, back to the point. Really recently, we’ve had: an article by Jim C. Hines in Uncanny, a book review by Neil Gaiman in The New York Times, and an interview published in Vision featuring Joe Abercrombie’s thoughts on the genre (among other things). These pieces are all about different specific things, but they all seem to, at some point, try to poke at this question of what fantasy really does. I applied to an MFA program recently and, in my personal statement, when writing about my early reading experiences which were primarily speculative lit., I wrote, “These formative reading experiences taught me that these genres, though often marginalized in academic and literary circles, can and do offer tools that are both provocative and powerful, but it is only through the cross-pollination between seemingly exclusive genres that these tools can be best used.”

But honestly? I’m not sure I had any concrete idea what those specific tools were when I wrote that sentence. Like a lot of readers of speculative fiction, I have an intuition that the stuff I read is important and useful beyond the often-pejorative “escapism” it provides. But what does that importance look like? What does it do? Neil suggests that fantasy “is a way of making our metaphors concrete, and it shades into myth in one direction, allegory in another.” Jim Hines points out that “Politics have always been an intrinsic part of our genre,” especially the politics of power. And Joe Abercrombie talks a little about the way epic fantasy naturally holds up a mirror to the real world. Each of these guys is talking, at least in part, about the way fantasy is, at its heart, just as focused on the real world as literary fiction, that the escape part of the equation here is only half of the process. The other half is to turn around from your new vantage point and better see and understand your world, your reality. We can even see Shakespeare hip to this particular technique; in Hamlet, he has Polonius say (in Act 2, Scene 1):

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,

With windlasses and with assays of bias,

By indirections find directions out.  (63-66)

Of course, this moment is one of scheming and not-so-altruistic motivations, but the idea is the same. We lie a little to better understand the truth. We talk about things that aren’t to better talk about things that are.

But this is still really non-specific, it’s still intuitive, right?

I’m someone who often thinks almost exclusively in simile, which is both good and bad. It’s great because simile forces connections to be made, it forces (or allows) us to understand things in relation to other things, which is often the truth of the world. I don’t have things that are non-relative in my life (though, I suppose, if you’re religious in any way, you probably could and do), and building my understanding of the world by using a surprisingly complex phrase like “Wow. That’s almost exactly like _____!” is pretty useful sometimes. But it can also lead to really simplistic or essentialistic understandings of things, and I’m constantly reminded that even though something is *like* something else, it isn’t *actually* that something else.

But at the end of the day, simile is a great way to start understanding things, to begin to place them in our conception of the world, and this is the place where speculative literature (and fantasy specifically) really shines. Sure, there’s no such thing as real wizards in this world (sadly), and everyone here is a muggle, and so debates about blood purity don’t matter, but one of the things the Harry Potter books allow for us to do is say, “Hey, that really subtle system of discrimination that asks us to think differently about these two groups of people based on a completely arbitrary set of criteria is just like the whole Pureblood vs. Half-blood/Mudblood thing in Harry Potter.” That stuff is important, for a younger audience certainly, but I think the same framework, the same technique, is used by and is important for adults as well. I often begin to make sense of the big, political stuff that happens in the world through the novels I read. Of course they only allow me to begin that process of understanding, but it has to start somewhere, right?

This, I think, is at least one of the tools speculative literature offers. The technical terms for the parts of a simile (or metaphor) are tenor and vehicle. Tenor is the subject of the comparison and vehicle is the object of a comparison. So, in “This environmental crisis is like the magic system in The Magic Goes Away,” the tenor is “This environmental crisis” and the vehicle is “the magic system in The Magic Goes Away.” The similes that speculative fiction allows us to make really separate out those two pieces. My tenor and vehicle are always going to be really disparate: one will be based in the here and now, the other in the there and never. Even though that seems like a bad thing, I actually think it’s really productive and important.

When I talk to my students about doing academic research, I always try to push them away from finding sources that are immediately related to their paper topic/argument. The tendency for a lot of my young students is to come up with their argument (“In the BBC show Sherlock, the female characters function as a support system for Sherlock’s narcissistic and patriarchal agenda” or something like that) and then try to find an article that is directly related (“The Patriarchy in Sherlock” or something like that). But my thought is this: the most interesting work done on anything is always the stuff that pulls from really disparate and apparently unconnected pools of knowledge and thought. I remember talking with a math professor here who said that the most groundbreaking work is done by people who can jump from one major field of math to another in order to better understand both. (I would try to give examples here, but my math knowledge is really, painfully small)

I think the same is true for the similes we use to understand the reality around us; the more our comparisons can span space and time, and the greater that space and time is, the more powerful and ultimately productive the comparison can be. The more we can borrow from seemingly unconnected ideas and texts, the more connected and understood we can make our world.

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