The Importance of Fantasy

I read very little realistic fiction. Since I was very young, most of what I’ve read has been fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction. That’s not to say I don’t or won’t read anything “real”, but it makes up a very small percentage of my bookshelf. Most of the movies and TV shows that I care about are speculative fiction as well. It’s not that I necessarily have anything against realistic fiction; it just doesn’t captivate me the same way that speculative fiction does. People will go on at length about the morals and lessons found in classic realistic fiction, but all these things and more can be found in speculation. And I don’t see why I should spend my time reading things because other people tell me to.

Nonetheless, I hear a lot of criticism, especially towards fantasy and soft sci-fi. Historical fiction and hard sci-fi tend to be more accepted as having more elements of reality – history is how things really were even if the exact stories didn’t happen, and hard sci-fi is based on actual science rather than anything “made-up” (despite the fact that all stories are inherently made-up to some degree). But fantasy and soft sci-fi get a bad reputation. They’re “escapist”, they’re “childish”, they’re “nonsense”. People say that real adults shouldn’t read fantasy because it’s immature; they should “move up” to reading realistic fiction. I find that so upsetting, because thinking about all the readers who have been discouraged from reading what they love is terrible. Thinking about how much joy these stories have brought me and thinking what it would be like if I didn’t have that… well, I don’t like to imagine it.

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Let’s start with the idea of escapism. There’s this thought that people who read for escapism are unhappy in their lives, that they can’t deal with the real world, that they can’t connect with reality. It’s condescending and it’s untrue. If you can tell me that you’ve never been bored by your own real life, then I am surprised and very happy for you, but some of us don’t have that luxury. Why would I want to read about things that can and do happen in real life every day? If I wanted to, I could just read the news. And that’s not to say that fantasy doesn’t have realistic elements to it. These stories may not have “real” settings, but they do have real people. More so than with realistic fiction, speculative fiction tends to be much more character-driven, because that’s what people really relate to in a story. Everything else is just window-dressing. The use of metaphor and allegory are deeply ingrained into human history, so much so that they can be a better tool for understanding than straightforward explanation. I say it a lot and I’ll say it again – legends are lessons; they ring with truths.

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And is fantasy childish? Are these escapist desires immature? I don’t think so. I think that escaping into stories is one of the healthiest coping mechanisms (although I’m obviously somewhat biased), and that finding that for yourself is an inherently mature thing. And I think it’s a little unfair to say that because children enjoy something, adults cannot or should not enjoy it as well. The idea that all things from childhood must be set aside to become an adult is a fallacy. Some of the most valuable things in our lives are acquired during childhood – our sense of ethics, our core worldview, our feel for life. To discard all of those things, that to some extent are shaped by the stories we consume, would be insane. Yes, our worldview and our morals and things change as we grow up, but they are built on a foundation of things we learned as children. This is why the stories we tell to children must be especially good, why talking down to children, giving them meaningless drivel is so harmful to us as adults.

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Is fantasy nonsensical? Well, I’d be lying if I said none of it was. But that’s just bad writing. To me, a “nonsense” story is one that doesn’t follow the basic constraints of logic, of plot, of characterization. “Nonsense” is not “there’s magic and dragons, but those things don’t exist in real life, so it must be ridiculous”. The “nonsensical” fantasy stories are no more ridiculous than any number of nonsensical realistic stories. Lots of stories with fantastical elements still follow their own internal logic; I’d say most of them do. Is anything that can’t or doesn’t happen in real life absurd? Maybe, if you don’t have a single ounce of imagination. If you are humanly incapable of suspending disbelief. And if that’s the case for you, I’ll admit I feel bad for you, because life must be very dull. I know, it sounds condescending. But it means you’ve discarded your sense of wonder, or at least the best part of it, and I think that’s sad. Your sense of wonder is yet another thing learned in childhood that far too many people find themselves lacking as adults.

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Even more than all of this, I’d say that we need fantasy. We always have. Our earliest myths and stories tell of fantastical things – outlandish creatures, impossible places, gods who sit among the stars. If you take it literally, no, those things do not exist. These things become metaphors for the world as we know it. They teach us who we are and our place in the world around us. They show where we come from and where we’ve been and where we’re going. “Realistic stories” tend to only show the present, or maybe the past in a very factual and literal light. But fantasy shows us the past how it could have been, the present as it can be, the future how it could still happen. All these are equal through the lens of fantasy. All possibilities are valid, all interpretations are true. That’s the real value of fantasy. To show us how to imagine life beyond what we can experience.

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4 comments for “The Importance of Fantasy

  1. August 2, 2014 at 12:21 am

    The criticism I most often encounter is that genre literature — be it SF, fantasy or crime — can be more formulaic and less original. The thinking goes: If the writer has something to say, they could do it without resorting to retreading the footsteps of the genre giants. That a simple everyday setting can be more engaging and hit closer to home.
    I’m not so sure I agree. I like fiction and I like some of the genre tropes. Seeing something through the lens of a genre can sometimes make it clearer.

    • August 2, 2014 at 12:50 am

      Yeah, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of that line of thinking. If a writer has something to say, they’ll say it in a way that they think is the most effective way of communicating their message and that’s that.

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