WHY FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION

Why not?

Isn’t that a good enough answer?

It is for me, but let’s look at this subject again, and bring in some experts.

I love fantasy and science fiction and I have all my life. I have refused to “grow out of it” on any level and I never will—I’m fifty-five years old, guys, and if I’m still in, I’ll always be in. Plain and simple.

Still, there continues to be a thread of the culture, even in these times of almost over-saturation of science fiction and fantasy in movies, TV, gaming… everywhere. And fantasy continues to be one of the three biggest genres in publishing (with romance and thrillers), including and maybe even especially in the YA sphere, which means younger people are getting into fantasy and science fiction, and in a climate that’s more welcoming to it than it was even when I was a kid.

It has been gratifying to see science fiction being taken more seriously than it was when I was a kid, when people like Philip K. Dick had to work so hard to defend it:

If SF becomes annexed to the academic world it will buy into its own death… Professor Warrick’s pound-and-a-half book with its expensive binding, paper, and dust jacket staggers you with its physical impression, but it has no soul and it will take our soul in what really seems to me to be brutal greed. Let us alone, Dr. Warrick; let us read our paperback novels with their peeled eyeball covers. Don’t dignify us. Our power to stimulate human imagination and to delight is intrinsic to us already. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before you came along.

(Quoted by Christian De Cock in “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society”)

Then fast forward to just this year and Berci Meskó writing in “Science Fiction Prepares You For Dream Worlds And Ethical Apocalypses”:

Science fiction is a form of conversation between technology and society about the future.

It is a vivid conversation. It makes us think, debate and learn. And it’s not a one-way street, but rather a strong interaction—while science fiction feeds on the ground that technology offers, it also gives ideas about how to build a better world for our children. Science and science fiction walk forward hand in hand.

Science fiction doesn’t just provide fun entertainment—though the best SF still does that. It has been at least partly responsible for the careers of a number of actual scientists, continues to inspire them, and inspire readers and viewers of SF to dig deeper into the continuing scientific golden age that also continues to go largely unnoticed. It makes us smarter.

In their report “Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy, and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey,” Christopher Benjamin Menadue and Susan Jacups wrote:

Contrary to declining reading habits, the science fiction and fantasy audience read consistently high volumes of books, as well as watching genre TV and film. We discovered that reading science fiction and fantasy may have a role in sustained, and cognitively beneficial, adoption of reading by young people and is complementary to other forms of consumption, rather than competitive. Science fiction was also found to be an important influence on the perception and acceptance of science by the public. Implications of this are that science fiction and fantasy are now a normal part of life for a wide range of people, and science fiction has a positive influence on popular interpretation, acceptance, and support of scientific endeavors. These results support earlier work that suggests science fiction is a valuable research tool for public engagement with science.

And the same study finds that SF fans aren’t just watching TV or playing video games, but reading as well:

In the survey, reading was in addition to interest in science fiction in TV and film, and this suggests that the reading of science fiction is complementary to other forms of genre consumption, rather than competitive. These findings indicate a population that is not following a more recent trend of declining reading that is particularly concerning to some educationists, as Sandra Stotsky has described in “What American Kids Are Reading Now” (Stotsky, 2016), and the significant impact of literacy upon quality of life has been discussed elsewhere…

A method for increasing literacy among young people might be simply to encourage them to read science fiction and fantasy, perhaps as an alternative to employing more complex and time-consuming behavioral interventions to the same ends (Cockroft & Atkinson, 2017). One approach to addressing declines in reading has been to recommend a more popular, public investigation of reading characteristics to identify the issues that exist (Albalawi, 2015). As a contribution to this effort, this survey seems to identify one reading group that is not in decline.

Yes! Please assign science fiction and fantasy novels in English classes! Yes, please! And not just Brave New World.

And not just science fiction. Fantasy belongs in schools, too. It may not engender an interest in science, but what else could fantasy lead to? I’ve said before that I learned more math in my high school years from playing Traveller than I did from all the math teachers combined. I learned more history, languages and vocabulary, creative problem solving, anthropology, philosophy, and more—too many fields in the humanities to name here—playing Dungeons & Dragonsthan from any social studies, English, or history teacher. In “Fantasy Literature: Through the Facade,” Allison O’Neil may have conjured an explanation for that:

While other forms of literature are hampered by the desire or need to mimic reality, fantasy and sci-fi largely abandon this aim. That is not to say the observations and criticisms of social structures or patterns aren’t real—quite the opposite. By eliminating the imitative components of other literature forms, fantasy becomes more universal. Through artifice we see what is real.

Role-playing games and fantasy and SF novels made me want to learn stuff, made me curious about where these ideas came from, and engaged me in an expansive education in ways that “sit down, shut up, and listen” traditional education couldn’t.

These genres are not—and I know I’m preaching to the choir here—simply “escapist entertainment,” even though I maintain there’s nothing wrong with escapist entertainment. Genre fiction can have quite a lot to contribute, not in spite of the fact that it’s divorced from “reality,” but because it’s divorced from reality, or as Robert Scholes wrote in Structural Fabulation:

Fantasy has claimed with considerable vigor a special status in literature. It has insisted that it is capable of non-realism, of an imaginative divorce between fictional models it constructs and the world we all experience. This claim, too, has proved unfounded. No man has succeeded in imagining a world free of connection to our experiential world, with characters and situations that cannot be seen as mere inversions or distortions of that all too recognizable cosmos. Thus, if we must acknowledge that reality inevitably eludes our human languages, we must admit as well that these languages can never conduct the human imagination to a point beyond this reality. If we cannot reach it, neither can we escape it. And for the same reason: because we are in it. All fiction contributes to cognition, then, by providing us with models that reveal the nature of reality by their very failure to coincide with it.

I’ve always found it funny to me that some of the genres’ most vocal critics have come, from time to time, from the Christian right. In Dear Bertrand Russel, Bertrand Russel wrote: “My own preference is to look upon theological writings as the slightly historical fantasy world of primitive tribesmen, often savage and sometimes of interest.” And Julius Kagarlitski took that a few steps farther:

Fantasy, a child of the new age, came into being only with the destruction of syncretic thought, wherein the real and the imaginary, the rational and the spiritual are inseparable. Fantasy begins to take shape only from the moment when the original unity is destroyed and disintegrates into a mosaic of the probable and the improbable. A myth is believed in too much for it to be fantasy. When disbelief arises side by side with belief, fantasy comes into being.

I guess it takes a fantasist to hate a fantasist.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

 

 

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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