Are Science Fiction & Fantasy Escapism?
Yesterday, I was a panellist at the local Whittlesey Literature Festival (WhitLit 2). We are all local writers, although our genres vary widely: memoirs, romance, non-fiction, anthologies, etc. I got to meet writers I'd never met before while renewing acquaintances with the rest.
(By the way, I'm just putting down my coffee mug; writers are caffeine-powered, after all!)
Although my little speech introducing my newest books went down well and produced a few chuckles among the audience, no one was interested in buying them.
This got me wondering: What is it about science fiction/fantasy/horror that puts so many people off? Why are fans still being treated as pariahs? After all, many modern films and TV series have supernatural, science fiction, or horrific overtones. And sometimes more than mere overtones; they're the main themes.
Many of the attendees were of my generation: 55+. I'm 66, and I've been a fan of all three genres for over 80% of my life. So, it's probably not an age thing, especially since a 90-year-old lady asked me last year when the paperback version of my science fiction book was coming out.
Over the years, I've heard many arguments “against” them, so I thought I'd answer some of them.
Many people still regard science fiction as “escapism”. Consider the following:
- Science fiction writers and readers worried about nuclear war and runaway meltdowns in the 30s and early 40s (Robert Heinlein's Blowups Happen and Solution Unsatisfactory).
- They concerned themselves with overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar), consumerism (The Sheep Look Up), racial tension and violence (The Jagged Orbit), and technology and future shock (The Shockwave Rider). All these books were by John Brunner, but he wasn't alone in his concerns. Harry Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room!, which became the film Soylent Green…!
- Then, there are all the problems with pollution, where humanity is “controlling”, aka destroying the environment (The Green Brain, by Frank Herbert, the creator of Dune).
- Nowadays, they read and think about sexuality (Flesh, by Philip José Farmer) and gender identity (any of the Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock).
- Science fiction concerns even stretch into politics (The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick, which Netflix recently released).
- While discussing Philip K Dick, we have to mention his stories about trouble with psychedelic drugs (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), social control (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), and the problems with time travel (Paycheck and Minority Report).
- Invasion from other planets and realities has become a mainstream concern these days ever since The War of the Worlds by H G Wells. Even mainstream scientists like Enrico Fermi and Stephen Hawking voiced their concerns about contact with alien species.
I have questions: were we “escaping”? Or were we looking towards the upcoming disasters long before such concerns became mainstream?
Fantasy is different because it concerns itself with totally imaginary realities, right? I mean, elves, dwarves, dragons, ogres, and the rest have nothing to do with our world, do they?
Actually, I think they do. They allow us to take a step back and look at our world through the lenses of another:
- For instance, fantasy stories have enmity between dwarves and elves, which mirrors our racial and religious tensions.
- There are poor, oppressed peasants and uber-wealthy kings with cellars full of jewels and gold, similar to the working poor and the billionaires who hide their money offshore.
- Magical beings and sorcerors are similar in many people's minds to scientists, wielding powers that the commoners will never understand.
- Quests are the same as all of us seeking self-actualisation in a world increasingly trying to force us into procrustean moulds.
And then there's horror. I'm sure many think it has nothing to do with our modern world.
- In many ways, our world is more horrific than people realise. We appear to be drifting into an evermore dystopian future, full of pollution, destruction, and social collapse (see science fiction above), and people want to be armed against it. This is why we tell our children horror stories when they're young, although we disguise them as fairy tales. Forewarned is forearmed.
- For some, it's fear with a safety net. After all, you can stop reading if the story gets too scary. You know it isn't real, so you allow yourself those frissons of fear up and down your spine.
- Others feel the world is crushing them into the same shapes, forming them into replaceable worker ants working in factories and offices. The ability to experience the tingle of fear and terror proves that they're still alive and able to feel things like any other human being.
- Many read horror to handle thoughts of mortality and their own inevitable death and to help with the passing of loved ones and friends.
I probably cover the broadest set of genres of anyone who took part: self-help, science fiction, space opera, cyberpunk, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal, magical realism, horror, fairy tales, fairy stories, slipstream, interstitial, noir, detective fiction, action, thriller, humour, YA, and children's stories (often more than one genre in any particular story).
With this in mind, let's examine the two new books I presented.
These days, invasion is uppermost in the minds of many: Ukraine and Taiwan being the latest in a long series of scares.
Shuttlers is an episodic science fiction story told from the viewpoints of the protagonist and several others whose lives he touches. It's a space-opera romp through the Multiverse. Although classified by Amason as “Time Travel”, it's about travelling sideways to other parallel worlds and how they may affect us. Invasion, cultural destruction, pandemics, smuggling, and so on are just a few problems our heroes have to contend with.
I bet you didn't realise there are inter-reality police out there! Aren't you glad they are?
I'm working on the sequel at the moment.
Imagine a city where “normal” humans mingle unwittingly with supernatural and unnatural creatures. You know, the ones the humans would normally be chasing with pitchforks and flaming torches.
This book is a little more challenging to classify. It's defined as Dark Urban Fantasy but it also contains science fiction, fantasy, horror, and humour, to mention but a few.
You want vampires? You've got one. How about werewolves? Yep, there's one here, too. Angels and demons? Too many to count. No mummies, but there is a ghoul. But there are also cyborgs, ghosts, and even a descendant of Victor Frankenstein. Oh, and a bogeyman with a severe problem.
But the characters all have one problem: they're outsiders trying to fit into a society that probably hates and fears them. Some will succeed, while others… Well, why don't you read it and find out?
Audiobook: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B39BGF7G/ / https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0B39DB12V/
Oh, and the second volume is already in the hands of the publisher.
Science fiction, fantasy and horror are far broader in meaning than many think. They apply to life in general, and not just in their “specialised areas”.
Why not try some for yourselves?
Well done Stephen for encompassing so many areas that affect so much of our lives 👏 and lovely to see you at yesterday’s event
You have made some great observations and good points but missed the main one…they are a damn good read too.
Yes, but I can’t go blowing my own trumpet, can I?
A scientist on the radio said, that it isn’t Science Fiction, it’s Science Prediction.
All books whatever their content cater to a particular niche, which is why there are categories, making it easier for a potential reader to find books that might interest them.
Books that are not easily classified are more of a problem for the libraries and booksellers than the readers who read and enjoy them.
It could be that those u3a members at the event who are interested in sci-fi and fantasy already have your book in one or other format?