ESCAPE INTO ENLIGHTENMENT

I’m writing this in a strange and frightening time. Strange, I think, for just about everyone, and frightening in different ways and to different degrees for different people. I live in the Seattle area, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, watching as more and more things are shut down, cancelled, postponed, rescheduled, and so on. More and more people are being sent home either to work remotely or, unfortunately, not to work at all, and it’s all at least confusing and weird. And no one seems to be at all sure when it’s going to end. I won’t wallow in it, or make it all about me—I got that bit of self-absorption out of my system last week. Instead, let’s bring this whole thing around to the idea of fantasy and science fiction.

I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have too, that cable channels and streaming services suddenly added movies like Contagion and other stories of plague and disaster. When I first noticed them popping up I have to admit I cringed. Is this really something we want to address with fiction—and not always particularly well crafted fiction? Is this what we want to watch while in self- or otherwise-imposed quarantine? And then I realized… well… maybe.

I have a feeling agents and editors around the world are already seeing an influx of plague-based novels quickly thrown together or resurrected from a filing cabinet. Are they zombie apocalypses? Are they some kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque alien invasion plague stories? Are they “hard” science fiction takes on something closer to reality either charting how a dangerous pandemic can be stopped, like The Andromeda Strain or something that goes horribly wrong and gets fully apocalyptic?

I’m, personally, not writing a plague story right now. I don’t tend to do that, myself. I don’t really write “torn from the headlines” stories—but maybe you do. Maybe this is exactly how you work through the weirdness and scariness of what’s going on. Maybe reading one of those books or watching one of those movies will help you organize your feelings, help you take bites out of the anxiety.

Or maybe you’re wondering now if fantasy and science fiction, or genre fiction in general suddenly feels silly and pointless and the world is too serious, especially right now, to allow yourself to wallow in escapism by reading a fantasy novel or watching a science fiction movie. I disagree, and at least in spirit, from 1956, so does C.S. Lewis:

At all ages, if [fantasy] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.

Genre fiction can be a great place to go when you’re worried, and not just to take your mind off whatever it is that’s troubling you, but to help you gain some perspective. And we’re all writers here, too, right? So are you feeling off balance and frightened and thinking the world is too serious right now to write fantasy? Are you thinking we need to “get serious”?

Sure, when it comes to washing your hands, avoiding groups, and taking other commonsense measures to protect yourself and others from a rapidly-spreading virus, take that seriously. You don’t live in a fantasy story, you live in the real world. But in the same way reading genre fiction can help you at least take your mind off your anxieties, writing it can help you work through them—and help your readers the same way. Just because a message is wrapped in a fun story doesn’t mean the message is meaningless, or doesn’t get through. You have to really have been purposely not keeping track of things if you still think genre fiction is in any way a “lesser form” than so-called “literary” or realistic fiction. Genre fiction has long ago moved past “trash fiction” to once again become “literature.”

In “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organizing (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society,” Christian De Cook wrote:

[Philip K.] Dick employs glaring clichés of trash (e.g. the usual SF props of precognition, time travel, androids,…) to tackle exceedingly complex philosophical problems. This trashy surface allows his novels to survive in different ways in the reader’s environment, either semiotically (awareness of the resurrection of metaphysical values) or semantically (very entertaining, if a bit disjointed) understood. Thus the novels contain some sort of double encoding which [author Stanisław] Lem… explained as follows:

‘If many coloured flags are put upon the masts of a ship in the harbour, a child on the shore will think that this is a merry game and perhaps will have a lot of fun watching, although at the same time an adult will recognize the flags as a language of signals, and know that it stands for a report on a plague that has broken out on board the ship.’

So plague apocalypse stories may well have something of extraordinary value to say to us right now, it’ll just be coded a bit differently. And seeing as the oldest known works of fiction all have elements of the fantastic, it’s worth considering, at least, that it’s that, let’s call it “fantastic coding” that helps us pull out of fiction more than just facts and procedures, but a shared experience through examples of heroism and villainy.

I read (and write) a lot of non-genre or “literary” fiction, and don’t tend to be quite this dismissive in either direction, but what the hell, here’s something John M. Ford wrote  in an email to Neil Gaiman:

If a guy comes into the room holding a symbol of true kingship, the book is a high fantasy.

If he is holding a sword with pizza sauce on the blade and is accompanied by a talking penguin, it is low fantasy.

If he is holding a poorly described article that is clearly of great emotional significance to himself, but none whatever to us, and then he leaves the room without having done anything, it is a New Yorker story.

At least, so says Isaac Butler in “The Disappearance of John M. Ford.”

So I’m going to keep reading, editing, and writing genre fiction regardless of what real life throws at me. I don’t know where all this is going to end up, or what might change in my own life because of it, but I know it’ll show up in my writing, one way or another, sooner or later. As Stephanie Kane said in “Life Into Fiction: Turning a True Event Into a Compelling Story”: “Any journey has two endings: where it came to rest, and where it left the protagonist.”

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to ESCAPE INTO ENLIGHTENMENT

  1. mjtedin1b379b87ce says:

    I picked up The Plague by Albert Camus and am halfway through it. It has a lot to say about living in an epidemic. Part I mirrors what we are going through right now. I hope the rest of it doesn’t come to pass, but I fear it might.

  2. Dawn Ross says:

    So long as I’m reading stories with happy endings, I’m good.

  3. My current WIP features a pretty significant character who is elderly and has some kind of upper respiratory condition with coughs and chest pains. I started planning this book in October, and it is definitely not centered on any sort of pandemic situation, but I definitely considered the fact that readers may interpret this character’s plight as being taken from the current pandemic.

    Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

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