Week #23: The relevance of fantasy
(This was written after my panel discussion on “The Future of the Fantastic” with Sally Gardner and Lara Morgan at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. It got me thinking about the relevance of fantasy in our lives and why I think it’s important.)
I’ve been asked—usually by well-meaning, non-reading adults and never by teens and other young readers—why I write fantasy. Why not about real things and real people and real life?
A discussion relevant to this is raging in the US at the moment, given the success of John Green‘s The Fault in Our Stars, which has been made into a movie. There is much excitement about the fact that this heralds the re-emergence of contemporary realism in children’s fiction. John Green been credited for ushing in the golden era of realist fiction, pushing out shiny vampires and grim dystopias. Some publishing professionals are even calling it the eara of “real stories for real people”.
Needless to say, there’s been some backlash to all of this because of the implication that sci-fi/fantasy is not real or that teens can’t relate to it. That it’s somehow less. Green himself does not endorse this view, by the way. One person who’s argued eloquently to defend the honour of fantasy writers is the Australian young adult author Justine Larbalestier. “All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even they are disguised as dragons,” she says. It’s worth reading her full blog post, where she takes down the argument that realist fiction is any more real than SFF.
So, no, it doesn’t matter what the expers are saying. Fantasy isn’t going away. In any case, realist fiction is as much fantasy as time travel and alternate history, if you really want to quibble about it. In fact, fantasy as a genre has always been amidst us—probably since humans started telling stories. Notice how all cultures, in any part of the world, have their own tradition of fantasy in folktales and mythology.
Actually, fantasy—and I use the term loosely to embrace all kinds of speculative fiction—allows us to strip down our own realities and examine them closely and effectively. It can’t get any more world-relating than that. For instance, consider Malorie Blackman’s Knots and Crosses, a sort of Romeo and Juliet story that looks at racial prejudice. Only, in her world, dark-skinned people have the power and fair-skinned ones are oppressed. It gets to the heart of the issue of race in such fantastic manner by turning it around. In a young adult anthology I just co-edited, two of the stories feature matriarchal dystopias—what happens when one half of the human race sets the rules and holds the reins? The short answer is: exactly what happens in the patriarchal dystopia we live in.
Thus, fantasy can, and does, play a role in helping us understand our reality better precisely by allowing us to take a step back and look at it from a new perspective. This is especially important for young people who are just starting to figure out how messed up the world is. Sometimes in conservative cultures, as in India, where we’ve been slow to engage with children on the grimmer side of life (though this is changing now, at least in English fiction, which is what I know about), fantasy can be a safe platform to approach serious subjects.
Though we fantasy writers like to tell ourselves that we get to let our imaginations run unfettered, much more so than those writing realist fiction, we might in fact be deluding ourselves. It differs from individual to individual, of course, but in SFF too our imaginations are often limited by our own realities. My favourite example of this is the Star Trek episode “The Turnabout Intruder” in which a female Star Fleet officer does a body-swap with Captain Kirk so she may command a starship. It turns out that in the 23rd century being a woman disqualifies you from postions of command. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry later referred to having been shortsighted in the plot (commentators have also pointed out how the story line was clearly a backlash to the feminist movement).
Also witness how many, if not most, fantasy worlds feature the same gender stereotypes and roles that we see around us. Few authors have managed to offer a radically, culturally different society from our own in fantasy. Even how we picture technology is influenced by what we have around us. In 2006, while writing my first book, I wanted to depict a world more technologically advanced than ours. So I gave computers and mobile devices a touch-based interface. A couple of years later, the iPhone came along and showed me exactly how ridiculous my stylus-tapping was. (On a more serious note, here’s Justine again on “We live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero.”)
In sum, writers of fantasy are inspired and influenced as much by the world we live in as any other kind of writer. So fantasy fiction represents and reflects our life and times just as well as any other kind of creative work. This is turn means that the future of fantasy is very robust, because as a genre, it is rooted firmly in our present and our past, and it’s possibly our mirror to the future. And you could say that about any kind of fiction, really.