CONFRONTING THE WEIRD

It’s been a weird year, what with this weird virus making our normal lives weird. It’s weird that kids can’t go to school and their parents can’t go to bars. We had this weird president that made weird decisions, or even more weirdly, made no decisions at all. Then the weird election that went on for days—that was weird. A couple weeks ago the weirdest of the weird right wing in America staged this weird attempted take-over, coup… whatever the hell it was… dressed in weird costumes, until the weird president released a weird video that seemed to make them all just go home, at least a few of them, weirdly, on private jets. Now we have all these weird people being arrested because they made the weird decision to video each other and themselves committing a variety of federal crimes, some of which were particularly weird, and… I don’t know…

Weird.

As authors and fans of fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror, we’re entirely accustomed to living in the weird, aren’t we? We take the real world and make it weird everyday—fictionally speaking. Or we even create weird worlds entirely divorced from reality and populate them with weird people doing all sorts of weird things. Should we be surprised when the real world and the world of the weird collide?

The purpose of the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres are to identify what scares us or what inspires us, what fires our imaginations or even what plays to our most paranoid fantasies, and package all that—or pieces of that—in a way that’s entertaining and allows us to think about scary stuff from a safe place, or give flight to our most treasured aspirations and revel in hope.

Some people might tell you that some degree of “fantasy” is what’s led to our current troubles. Someone somewhere came up with some—we can only call it—weird stories, reported them as fact, reinforced them through social media, and now we have people acting out violently based on those fantasies.

But this is where that crucial disconnect comes in. When you buy a fantasy novel you know it’s just that: a fantasy novel, which by definition means it’s a work of fiction created as a work of fiction, presented as a work of fiction, and in no way put forward as anything else. And that fiction, unlike fiction presented as news, has enormous value. The invented worlds of fantasy inform the real. In “Playing in Literary Landscapes: Considering Children’s Need for Fantasy Literature in the Place- Based Classroom” Sarah Fisher wrote:

…fantasy authors employ literary elements that distance us from ourselves just enough to reflect and appreciate the landscape. By offering us a literary landscape that evokes the multidimensionality of places through language and form, fantasy writers construct other worlds that starkly contrast our lived experiences and force us to reference our own world for comparison. For children, this is an especially important exercise in separating from the milieu to appreciate their rootedness in place. 

From this safe place we can let our political, social, personal, economic, philosophical, and religious ideas take wing. We can work through things from a distance then invite our readers to interpret our words as they will. Genre authors can explore the idea of what I’ve called the “one weird thing” intruding on a version of the real world and confront what it might be like if we experienced a global pandemic (The Stand by Stephen King) or work up in a society based on political lies made sacrosanct (1984 by George Orwell), or struggle with both a pandemic and the violent overthrow of the government by right wing extremists (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood). And as Eugene Thacker explored in his brilliant book Tentacles Longer Than Night, we can see what traditional horror or its offshoot, dark fantasy, can bring us:

As different as they are, Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft deal in some way with what is essentially a philosophical problematic, well-know to students of Aristotelian logic—that everything that happens has a reason for happening, and can thus be explained. This “principle of sufficient reason” not only grounds philosophical inquiry, but some of the basic principles of storytelling as well, especially in those genres—such as horror—where what is often at stake is the verification of something strange actually existing.

In traditional fantasy, characters tend to know going in that strange things (like magic) do exist. Magic and monsters and gods are a present part of the world in which they live. Likewise, many science fiction stories show us a future where the impossible (faster-than-light travel, for instance) is an everyday occurrence. If we could take a day’s worth of TV from January 19, 2021 and bring it back in time only, say, fifty years, the people we showed it too would experience it as science fiction. If we brought it back a thousand years, it might be fantasy.

But in our contemporary context, fantasy, science fiction, and horror show us our past, present, and imagined future with just enough distance that we can safely, without the urgency of the twenty-four hour news cycle, work through ideas and even strategies. What would I do if there was a pandemic? What would I do if Nazis attacked America from within? What would I do if…?

In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Whatever is still in store for us this week and in the weeks and months ahead, I honestly feel better equipped to wrestle with its intellectual implications because I have spent a lifetime reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror, knowing it was fiction. But like all fiction, it’s grounded in an individual author’s individual perspective, so now I have something on which to build my own individual perspective.

—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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