Jan 16, 2008

On Fantasy and Science Fiction

By taking that one step away from the actual world, the writer of fantasy can allow the reader to pretend that the book is not talking about the everyday, the mundane, the real society, when indeed it is. It is a convention all agree to. A mask. (...) So fantasy novels go capped and belled into literary society, saying in effect: this is not the real world we are talking about, this is of course faerie, make-believe, where bicoloured rock pythons speak, where little girls converse with packs of cards, where boys become kings by drawing swords from stones, and where caped counts can suck the blood of beautiful women and live forever.
Jane Yolen - "Turtles All the Way Down" in Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature
Fantasy, along with science fiction, is a literature of possibilities. It opens the door to the realm of 'What if', challenging readers to see beyond the concrete universe and to envision other ways of living and alternative mindsets. Everything in speculative universes, and by association the real world, is mutable. Intelligent readers will come to relate the questions raised in these books to their own lives.
Tamora Pierce - "Fantasy: Why Kids Read It, Why Kids Need it" in Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature
Critics and academics have been trying for forty years to bury the greatest works of imaginative fiction in English. They ignore it, they condescend to it, they stand in large groups with their backs to it—because they're afraid of it. They're afraid of dragons. They have Smaugphobia. "Oh those awful Orcs," they bleat, flocking after Edmund Wilson. They know if they acknowledge Tolkien they'll have to admit that fantasy can be literature, and that therefore they'll have to redefine what literature is. And they're too damned lazy to do it.

What the majority of our critics and teachers call "literature" is still modernist realism. All other forms of fiction—westerns mysteries science fiction fantasy romance historical regional you name it—is dismissed as "genre". Sent to the ghetto. That the ghetto is about twelve times larger than the city, and a great deal livelier, so what?
Ursula Le Guin - "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination
As for escapism, I'm quite happy about the word. There is nothing wrong with escapism. The key points of consideration, though, are what you are escaping from, and where you are escaping to. (...) Science fiction looked at the universe all the time. I make no apology for having enjoyed it. We live in a science fiction world: two miles down there you'd fry and two miles up there you'd gasp for breath, and there is a small but significant chance that in the next thousand years a large comet or asteroid will smack into the planet. Finding this out when you're 13 or so is a bit of an eye-opener. It puts acne in its place, for a start.

Then other worlds out there in space got me interested in this one down here. It is a small mental step from time travel to palaeontology, from sword 'n' sorcery fantasy to mythology and ancient history. Truth is stranger than fiction; nothing in fantasy enthralled me as much as reading of the evolution of mankind from proto-blob to newt, tree shrew, Oxbridge arts graduate and eventually to tool-using mammal. (...) As far as I am concerned, escapist literature let me escape to the real world.
Terry Pratchett "Let There Be Dragons" in Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature

And this one is not about fantasy and science fiction specifically, but I thought it was worth sharing anyway, and plus it also applies to the type of attacks imaginative fantasy has to face:
So no, my books will never be politically correct - that is, they will always run the risk of offending someone. My characters will never be blameless role models for today's children and youth. They and their stories will invite disappointment or even disapproval from left, right and centrein short, from any reader who looks to fiction to support a point of view rather than to mirror human experience. But these books which have my name on the cover will be as true to history and human experience as I, within my own limitations of time and cultural bias, can make them.
Katherine Paterson "Cultural Politics" in Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature

There. Can you tell I'm a little sick of academia?


  1. ha ha! I got sick of academia as well. Now I can read what I want and none of the secondary stuff if I don't want to! So there! :) I've thought about going on for a PhD, but I don't even like to proofread my blog! Ok enough.

    The only science fiction I read is dystopian stuff--and I'm not even sure if that counts. I will be testing the waters with The Left Hand of Darkness, though, in a few weeks. :)

  2. Whaaaat?.. you mean.. you mean you never heard any of your sci fi / fantasy folks say things like, "but.. how will we pay for it?" or "I can't do that, I have to do the dishes first!" heh..

    I can't imagine why any of us would want to "escape"!! LOL

  3. Great quotes! I have the Ursula Le Guin one saved from awhile back as I really liked what she had to say. Escapism, or reading for pure entertainment, is as valuable in my opinion as reading for knowledge. It is a part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, entertainment, that is, and reading is one of the best forms of entertainment I can imagine.

  4. Oh, what a nice collection you put together there! And I hope you enjoy your break from academia! You deserve it!

  5. Trish: When I consider a PhD, I am always put off by the fact that it's so hard to be taken seriously if you think outisde the box, so to speak. I know that some places are more open than others, though, so I guess it's just a matter of finding the right one. I'll be looking forward to seeing what you think of The Left Hand of Darkness! Even though I struggled with it, I find it very much worth reading.

    Deslily: I doubt there's anyone out there who has never felt the joy of escaping into a story world, snotty critics included :P And even if a book is realistic fiction, you are still being transported into the world of the story. You don't see much washing up being done in realistic fiction either :P

    Carl: I will never understand what the problem is either. That whole essay by Ursula Le Guin was great! I'd never tried her non-fiction before, but after this I'll have to.

    Debi: Thanks! I will most definitely enjoy it!

  6. Nymeth - I'm reading your comments here after I left them on the review for "Left Hand" (somehow I missed that review when I was here last!). Your comment here is a little reassuring. :)

    Here in Texas most of the schools are pretty conservative, but I have a friend seeking her PhD in California and she seems to be doing better.

  7. Trish: Don't be discouraged! The book is a little hard to get into, but at least it's not very long, and the second half is much more gripping than the first. And, difficulties aside, it really is worth reading.

    And yeah, it really helps to find the right school. I'm just going to have to look.


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