SF, Fantasy and escapism
is perhaps my single favorite blog - I stand in awe of Davies' lugubrious wit and common-sense. But (and there's always a but when you begin a post with a glowing encomium) his recent aside on science fiction made me a little grumpy. Davies claims in a recent SSdB post that
"the defining characteristic of science fiction is that it's escapist; it invites the reader to imagine himself in the place of the characters in the novel. Compare that to, for example, Jane Austen, where the invitation is to empathise with the reactions and feelings of one of the characters as themselves, rather than imaging how you might react if you were Elizabeth Darcy. This is at the root of my dissatisfaction with even left wing techno-types; they don't seem to have developed the capacity to imagine a scene or way of life without putting themselves in it; to consider what it would be like to see the world through someone else's eyes, rather than being in someone else's situation with their own set of values and judgements."
Fair enough, perhaps, as a comment on the kind of sf that SdB reads. But sweeping and wrong as a general judgement. The best sf and fantasy struggles, more or less explicitly, against escapism, or more precisely tries to understand it, and fold it against itself. Read Mike Harrison
, for example, author of the exuberant space opera Light, which is precisely about desire, our attempts to escape our lives, and how we fall back into them. Harrison's take
"We can never escape the world. We cannot stop trying to escape the world. We begin by trying out illusions. Once we accept that illusions "blind but do not hold", that we have at our disposal finally only the worldness of the world, then we find some way of "escaping" into that. We learn to love what we longed to run from. We learn to run away from fantasy and into the world, write fantasies at the heart of which by some twist lies the very thing we fantasise-against."
Harrison's work is just as attentive to how people are as Austen is; indeed, he delves deeper than Austen (who is in the end, a social novelist) into individuals' desires, frustrations and incoherencies. He's also an extraordinary prose stylist. Or look at China Mieville, writer of the incredibly influential (and incredibly good) Marxist steampunk extravaganza, Perdido Street Station
, who sez
"Basically, I don't think there's anything inherently escapist about fantasy. The reason people think there is because so much has been derived from Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons and has degenerated into something of the continual repetition of its own cliché - a kind of comfort food - but that's not intrinsic to the form. Gormenghast is a fantasy, Max Ernst, but these are not escapist. The corollary of this idea is that realism narrowly conceived in unescapism. That's bullshit! You read someone like Anita Brookner or what Banks calls Hampstead novels. This is a novel about a middle class world where the people are hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. That's escapism. You compare that with Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles or Mike Moorcock or M John Harrison or whatever, where you have the fantastic completely penetrated with real material concerns, men and women, gender, economics… there's nothing intrinsically escapist about this literature at all."
Commercial sf and fantasy is mostly, as Mieville says, a literature of comfort. It uses familiar tropes to reassure, to allow escapism without escape. But the best in the genre - like all good literature - grates against reality rather than running away from it. It isn't comfortable at all.