Saturday, May 20, 2017

Guest post by Cynthia Clay: The Value of Escapist Fiction

The Value of Escapist Fiction

Fantasy and science fiction are often regarded as "escapist" fiction, the idea being that one escapes from the troubles of the everyday world into a made up story. This concept has always bothered me. It suggests there is something not quite right about a person who needs to escape. It belittles this type of fiction, implying that there is no real truth to the stories that let the reader believe what the reader wants to believe rather than what is true. Science fiction has fared a little better in reputation, appropriating for itself the banner of "the fiction of ideas." Science fiction, particularly hard science fiction, is supposed to be based on a reasonable scientific premise with the tale developing as conjecture upon that scientific premise. Science fiction, then, proudly holds itself aloof from mere fantasy and does its best to distance itself from soft science fiction which is based on the "soft sciences" of psychology and sociology. This attempt to hold science fiction aloft as superior to fantasy has also always bothered me. Clearly the underlying statement made by the division is that one is a literature of thought which improve one's mind; the other is pulp serving only as a false respite from life.

     There is another distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction has largely been the province of men. Indeed, hard science fiction is almost entirely the province of men. Fantasy, especially when it comes from the tradition of fairy tales is more the province of women. There are exceptions to both: soft science fiction has many female writers, and "high fantasy" the swords-and-sorcery variety is often written by men. The distinction between whether fantasy will be written by men or women seems to me to be more related to the tale's actually being a war story. Most of science fiction and fantasy are crude war stories with little point beyond tossing buckets of blood about. Indeed, the vast majority of science fiction and fantasy publications of all types seem to proffer no story that does not have at least one battle, fight, or other scene of graphic violence. And lest the reader "tut-tut" this assertion, let me point out that you are reading my stories as an e-book or POD because all but one of the stories in my collection of fantasy, sf, and myth, New Myths of the Feminine Divine were sent to the traditional science fiction and fantasy publishers, and that of the four stories that were accepted by magazines, three of them contain bloodshed. Men tend to drive the fantasy and science fiction fields; and men, it seems, still prefer tales of slaughter over tales of love. Even when women serve as editors to science fiction and fantasy publications they are seeking to please a male market and make their decisions accordingly.

     Yet, for all the assertions that science fiction, not fantasy, is the "literature of ideas" and for all the cloaking of science fiction's ideas in buckets of blood, the observation pops up over and over again that science fiction stories are the myths of our age. This to me is the crux of the matter. Science fiction and fantasy are both actually forms of myths. Myths, as in the Greek Myths, feature gods, goddesses, or demi-goddesses and are essentially religious stories, sacred texts. Fantasy and science fiction do not include a deity and are not intended to be religious stories. (Sharon Shinn with her Archangel series does include a deity, but the deity is only one of the characters, it is not a deity believed in by living people, and her novels are not intended as sacred texts.) Joseph Campbell in one of his videotaped shows, quipped ironically that "myths are other people's religion" and it is in this sense of sacred text that the word myth is different from fantasy and science fiction

   However, today there are a great many people who are atheist, agnostic, or who find spiritual meaning in any story that talks persuasively of the ability of the human spirit to triumph (the wonderful film Gattaca, for example). For such people, deities are either unneeded or unwanted, and the concept of mythos becomes broadened as these views are accommodated. Myth, then, I regard as any tale in which a human encounters or becomes a fully rational non-human, or obtains an artifact with powers, with the artifact being created by fully rational non-humans; or a myth is any tale where a human makes a journey to some place that is not the earth and becomes changed fundamentally by the journey. Myths, fantasy tales, and science fiction each use these scenarios; the difference is in their perspective. Myths hold to a deity being the powerful non-human or lending power to the journey or artifact; science fiction has the knowledge and logic of science as the purveyor of power; fantasy presents surreal creatures, unfathomable objects, or special ritual acts as the agents of transformation.

     Thus, science fiction works with the symbols that are new and exciting aspects of real life we know to be truly powerful–the workings of science and technology. Fantasy works with elements of power used by our culture in its antiquity--the power of beautiful rhymes and speeches, swords, and potions. Both of the genres have magical beings: elves and aliens; creatures half human-half animal and creatures half human-half manufactured. It is argued, of course, that the amazing events in science fiction are plausible; they could happen. We might be able to freeze a body for hundreds of years and then revive the person. We might one day colonize another planet. We might have to deal with a worldwide natural calamity like a comet hitting the earth. The amazing events of fantasy could not happen, it is thought. Not true. The amazing events of fantasy do happen. 

   The amazing events, the magic that occurs in fantasy tales and myths, the startling powers the characters wield are not the stuff of make believe. Myths, and fantasy tales are myths, are descriptions of our psyches. Myths depict what happens to us during our maturation; they depict how to solve our most serious problems; they provide the map of the labyrinth that is the human condition. Myth acknowledges that life is full of perils and struggles, but it teaches us how to face them, what kind of people will help us, and what to do when we make mistakes. Myths even suggest how death may have meaning or how death may be given meaning. Myths do this through describing how we feel about the things we encounter in life. 

     The bullies we meet with in life are the ogres found in myth; a social ill is fantasy's dragon laying waste to everything a community has worked to build; the transformation of humans into glorious creatures, or vile creatures into beautiful humans, reflects the changes we make as our understanding and compassion reach new heights, or despair and anger plunge us low. Myths are not escapist fiction. Nor are myths about bloodshed. Myths are about the world we are actually in and so may contain violence. The perspective in myth is merely shifted to the symbolic viewpoint so that we can be shown what to expect or what can be done about the situations we find ourselves in. So while myths talk of encountering powerful non-humans, obtaining objects of special power, or journeying to lands not of this earth, what myths are about is how we understand and ultimately transform ourselves or our world.

     Science fiction and fantasy, at their best, are both forms of myth. Science fiction uses the powers of science and technology to engage us in what could be. Fantasy uses lyric language, archetypal images, and metaphors to show us what is and how to grapple with it to become greater. Science fiction tells us what we can do; fantasy tells us who we are as well as what we are capable of. Science fiction presents us with new ideas about how we can remake the world, spelling it all out for us. Fantasy tells us what this world is made of and who we must become to make changes in the world, and so fantasy requires us to think, to decipher the code of the tale again and again. Both forms of fiction are myths. Science fiction is myth because it engages our imaginations in the consideration of transforming the world. Fantasy is myth because it engages our imaginations in the consideration of who we are and what we may become.

About Cynthia Clay:

Cynthia Joyce Clay is an award winning author and a member of the Dramatists' Guild. Cynthia was judged to be a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test - a truly science fictional experience. The Competition was filmed as part of a PBS Scientific Frontiers episode and aired internationally. In addition to living sf, Clay has experience with the thriller genre: she was invited to Russia to deliver her paper, The Application of Vector Theory to Literature and Drama at the international conference "Languages of Science, Languages of Art" and was chased by the KGB. For reasons she refuses to face, she obviously prefers to write fantasy. She is working on The Saga of the Dragon Born; books one (Foreshadow) and two (The Contending) only need to cover art and blurbs to launch!

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