This is an article I had originally written for Fantasy Faction, which I thought I’d share here:
Room for Discourse
Everyone has read a novel that changed the way they perceive the world around them or caused them to reexamine facets of their own lives. Perhaps the change was dramatic, but most often it was a subtle and lingering effect. History contains thousands of examples, from Pliny the Elder and Aristotle to more modern examples, like Philip K. Dick and Steven Jay Gould, of how literature can be used as a vehicle for social and cultural discourse.
There are many examples, both lofty and literary, of philosophies and anthropological treatises in our continuing conversation on society, culture and human nature. Poets and novelists fill libraries with the subject, but the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy are often overlooked, or worse, dismissed as being childish escapism.
This hasn’t always been the case and there are examples of science-fiction stories and works of dystopia that have ascended to the heights of literary classics or cultural icons. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm come to mind, as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick come to mind as well.
Spoonful of Sugar
Science-fiction, often being set in humanity’s future where cultures and technologies have evolved as we move amongst the stars and our alien peers (or enemies), can be easy to understand and interpret as food for thought. The wonders of new worlds, where sects of society can flourish uninhibited, appeals to the imagination. The mysteries of other species can be like shadow puppets, examining humanity’s xenophobia and fear of that which is different through the trappings of the exotic and terrifying. It can be a delicate examination of expansionism, nationalism or civic pride painted on a canvas as big as the imagination and wrapped in a tale of daring adventure.
In the Fantasy settings, these trappings can be further exaggerated while we focus on imperialism, zealotry, slavery and the nature of Evil. We detail the triumph of human ingenuity and spirit as our lowly farm boy overcomes his station and becomes champion to the world. The indomitable spirit of Justice and the forces of Good prevailing despite overwhelming odds can be inspiration to overcome our daily dragons.
Horror, as a sub-set of Fantasy, explores the darker aspects of human nature. Serial killers, horrific monsters and overwhelming fear of the darkness lurking at the edge of our vision spur us to look for the light in the world as much as they titillate us with gruesome images. Stories of the world overtaken by ravenous, mindless undead hordes can be critique of greed and complacency.
What makes these genres that much more subversive than anything else? And what is it about them that makes social and cultural discourse more palatable? Some works are far more blatant about their philosophies than others, such as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Others, such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire presents critical thought on politics and morality amidst the scheming, warring and backbiting. Creating a fantastic setting allows a writer to take themes or ideas out of a modern context and frame them in the abstract, altering perspective and perception.
Love and Hate
In the best works of Fantasy and Science-Fiction, we find evil in the strangest places. The best villains are sympathetic, so that even as you cheer for their downfall you still reach an understanding in their motivations. Even more so are the anti-heroes, who do what is right even if it is ultimately self-serving, and whose morals and means are questionable. They are the assassins, wetboys, barbarians and warlords that populate modern fantasy, hardened killers and callous thieves holding onto ancient grievances and deep-seated scars.
These anti-heroes and villains represent the moral gray area, and give us pause to reflect on ourselves and how we would act, put into such a situation. The lowly farm boy, full of pluck and vigor, has given way to the endearing urchin, suffering abuse and cruelty and set out on revenge.
The monsters our heroes face are often human traits given substance. The dragons of old Europe, creatures of pure avarice and destruction perched high on their mountains of treasure, waiting to devour the next would-be slayer. The vampire as our desire for immortality and eternal beauty, but also as our obsession with death. Werewolves and the like can be seen as representative of our conflict with our own animal natures. Those things that we dislike in others are often the traits we fear in ourselves, projections of our own self-image. It would make sense then that these traits become symbols for the hero to overcome.
A Civil Discourse At The End Of The World
The Apocalypse and Dystopian worlds have long been fodder for writers, often blatant in their criticisms of society. In 1950, George R. Stewart published Earth Abides, one of the first novels to examine a world without people. In the novel, a plague eradicates all but a handful of our species, leaving the Earth once again in the care of nature. Isherwood Williams, the protagonist, explore the ruins of the United States and eventually gathers a group of survivors to him. Ish grows to fear the loss of humanity’s intellectual legacy as those who survive struggle with more mundane, day-to-day issues such as food, shelter, clothing and protecting their families. The story is told from Ish’s perspective, chronicling his change from isolationist on the edge of society to the father of a new one. Though written just after the second World War, the story holds up remarkably well as a dialogue on human nature.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother presents the reader with a dystopian world only slightly removed from our own, as a terrorist attack destroys San Francisco’s East Bay Bridge and the Department of Homeland Security places the city under martial law. The story is one of extremes, of government in the hands of zealots, the effects of American complacency and the spirit of rebellion and civil discourse that the United States was originally founded under. The protagonist of the tale is a 17-year-old kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to examine his role in society and how he comes to form a grass-roots rebellion to overthrow an authority grown corrupt. It is a story that hits close to home, of civil liberty and the post 9/11 culture of fear in America.
There are so many tales of corrupt governments and humanity’s survival, it would be impossible for me to list all of them. While often less subtle in their analysis and critique, they still provide the reader with a heaping spoonful of moral fiber to chew on, amidst the chaos and adventure. Other great examples are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In Storm Constantine’s Wraethu, she presents a post-apocalyptic world where humans have begun to be overshadowed by the Wraethu, our next step in evolution. The tale is as much an adventure in strange magics and alien cultures as an examination of gender roles amongst human society.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Maybe you don’t want to swallow some heavy philosophical diatribe when you read. Maybe all you want out of your SF/F&H are crunchy action bits and thrilling acts of escapism. Maybe you want to live in another world for a few hours, or a few hundred pages, at a time. To experience the joys and sorrows of someone else, as they quest to save their family, the world or even just themselves.
Isn’t the need or desire for escapism a comment in and of itself? Perhaps you need a vacation from the stress of work, school or family. Perhaps you feel your life is so dull and mundane that you need to spend some time in Middle-Earth, Malazan, Dragaera or Melnibone. Or maybe, in your pursuit of sciences, you read space operas to inspire your worldy interests. Maybe you love to envision new cultures as a way to examine the rise and infuences of cultures from our world’s past or to speculate on an alternate course in history.
What books have made you think? What books have made you consider a different perspective, or try and understand the world in a different way? What books have filled you with a sense of outrage for injustices both fictional and real? Did I miss one of your favorites? Do you think I’m wrong? Tell me in the comments, and let there be discourse.