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Why do we love science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Over on the Absolute Write Forums, GreenEpic posted a fairly thought provoking question:

Does anyone have a theory as to why science fiction and fantasy are so popular?

While the thread there has a bunch of really good answers, most of them tend towards the anecdotal. And as this is the Internet, and I have a generalized opinion, I figured I’d share it for public consumption. Here’s what I think:

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all marketing categories. They loosely describe a set of fictional conventions that can be expected within a given work. Does a story have robots? Odds are it is science fiction. Does it have magic? Most likely fantasy. Does it have undead monsters out to eat your flesh? I’d guess horror. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification. As a lot of my earlier posts on genre observations suggest, the reality is a heck of a lot more complicated. But your typical reader or movie-goer isn’t terribly concerned with the minutiae of genre theory (which I think is unfortunate, but I’m both nerdy and pedantic). Why do so many respond – in one fashion or another – to speculative storytelling?

Psychological, Physiological, and Neurological Levels of Storytelling

Rational, Emotional, Physiological, and Neurological Responses to Storytelling

Levels of Response to Story

Experiencing a story affects us on both psychological and physiological levels. Have you read stories that put you on the edge of your seat? They tugged on your subconscious emotions to increase tension. That sensation of your palms sweating or your heart beating faster? The story, and the tension it engendered, elicited a physiological response. Or have you ever fallen into a story so lovely that the world around you and the passage of time faded into mere background noise? The story produced a neurological trance-state, not unlike meditation or hypnosis. Have you ever read a book and realized you might be wrong about something? The story’s rhetoric affected your rational thoughts and values.

There’s a connection between our brains and our bodies that good storytelling can powerfully manipulate. It is simultaneously a positive and negative feedback system, where if a story affects one aspect of our beings it has ripple effects that impinge on every other aspect. When a creator manipulates this system skillfully, the effect is transparent and immensely powerful. And here’s why this is important: a story’s marketing category has no bearing on the audience’s response.

That’s right. Whether we’re reading mainstream literary fiction, watching Blade Runner, or flipping through a comic book, our brains and bodies will still respond to the underlying story. When we participate in ludic reading (reading for pleasure), we are looking for a certain configuration of those four responses. Of course, we can’t possibly articulate what that configuration might be (I can’t imagine anyone looking for a story that produces a 40% emotional, 30% physiological, 20% neurological, and 10% rational responses). And the components of those configurations are likely to have fairly fuzzy borders, because they are greatly affected by our state of mind/body at the time of the experience. But when we experience a satisfying story, when a story has elicited a satisfactory configuration of responses, we know it. We say “That was a good story” or “That was fun” without trying to really take it apart and understand why. And a story’s marketing category does not affect how it manipulates our responses. Instead, it describes the conventions appropriate to correctly interpreting its plot.

Basic Modes of Storytelling

Put away your Northrup Frye. I’m talking about something much more essential than mimesis or myth. If we just focus on a story’s plot and how that plot is constructed, we find several different modes of storytelling. Each of these modes relies on a certain configuration of those responses I mentioned above.

For example, an adventure story is going to produce a certain kind of physiological response. Our heart rate might increase, our breath might grow short, we might be eagerly looking to see how the hero will get out of a particular jam. But a mimetic (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it a representative or slice-of-life) story is unlikely to produce that kind of response. Instead, it is more likely to be quieter, slower.

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

These responses have nothing whatsoever to do with whether a story has fantastical elements or not. Consider two adventures: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. They make for an interesting comparison, in that the latter is explicitly modeled on the former. But while Dumas’ most famous work has no fantastical elements to speak of, Brust’s novel is replete with them. Yet both stories produce similar responses in the reader, particularly if we are familiar with both works.

So if a story’s fantastical elements (or the lack thereof) has no bearing on the mode a story is told in, then why do some folks prefer speculative fiction over realistic fiction?

Gateway Drugs, Sense-of-Wonder, and the Multitudinous Genre

I believe that fantastical storytelling has an inherent advantage over realistic storytelling. There are no boundaries on what we can do with it. If a concretized metaphor (*cough* the one ring *cough*) adds value to our story, then why not run with it? Just because it isn’t realistic does not mean such images or metaphors are valueless.

Realistic storytelling is actually a subset of fantastical storytelling: by design, it chooses to limit its images and narrative devices to those which can be found in real life. If we love good storytelling, then it’s perfectly natural that we would love the speculative genres. Like Whitman, they contain multitudes. Every single realistic story, from Shakespeare to Joyce, can be presented using fantastical imagery. That a particular execution of a story remains realistic is merely the consequence of an authorial decision as to its ideal presentation.

Yet despite the fact that good stories do not need fantastical devices to remain good stories, plenty of folks out there read exclusively in the fantastic genres. Why? If they can find equally enjoyable stories among the “realistic” shelves, why stick with SF/F/H? I suspect it is because of a positive feedback loop imprinted on our brains early on. When we first consciously encounter storytelling, we look for patterns. It’s a consequence of our highly-developed simian brains. So if in those formative years, we learn that science fiction, or fantasy, or horror is statistically more likely to produce a particular configuration of responses that satisfies us, we treat it like a drug. We learn to love it, and to equate that particular marketing category with the pleasure it produces. And then sometimes, we never stray beyond that gateway.

This gate swings both ways, of course. The same holds true for many readers of realistic fiction, or for many movie-goers who never pick up a book. It’s all about the positive feedback loop that gets imprinted on our neurons at a formative age. I suspect (on the basis of absolutely zero neurological knowledge) that this imprinting can be changed as our experiences change us, but it remains a powerful driver of our experiences.

I suspect the tough-to-pin-down “sense of wonder” is actually a consequence of this gateway drug. If we are adequately self-aware, we learn to recognize (through a meta-cognitive experience), the response we are seeking. That recognition produces that scintillating sense-of-wonder fans of SF/F/H use to justify our genre habit. Speaking for myself, I can elicit that same sense-of-wonder reading outside of genre (Patrick O’Brian’s books come to mind, as do Yasunari Kawabata’s). I don’t believe wonder is genre-specific, although the experience is statistically more common among the fantastic shelves.

And this brings us to the core reason why the speculative genres are so popular: they are a marketing category that encompasses all of the basic modes of storytelling found in realistic fiction. You’ll notice there is no such marketing category as “realistic fiction”. If we want to balance “SF/F/H” we would need an equally broad “realistic fiction” category. But instead, the “realistic fiction” section is fragmented into literary fiction, thrillers, romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc. If you want to find a realistic story told in the romantic mode, well your odds are pretty small looking under literary fiction. If you want a piece of mimetic fiction that deepens your understanding of the human condition, you should probably avoid the thriller shelves.

Yet all of these storytelling modes can be found side-by-side in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror section. Fans of genre fiction need never wander outside of those shelves to find stories that satisfy their every need. And that’s why, as a marketing category, it is so popular. It contains multitudes. And those increase the odds that a story from that marketing category will produce a satisfying response. Of course, much as I love fantastical fiction, I still think folks should read outside of their beloved genres every now and again. But if they don’t, well that’s fine, too: speculative fiction’s got a lot to love.

What do you think? Why does speculative fiction push a lot of our buttons and keep our attention the way it does? Why does it produce such fervent loyalty on the part of readers and viewers?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent article, Chris! I absolutely agree. But there is also the thrill that as I open a set of covers (I never read the blurb, too many contain spoilers) I am about to be projected into a different world from this one. Some reads are revisiting old favourites from established authors – while others are new adventures to places I’ve never imagined or seen before… THIS is why I read spec fic. No matter how amusing and sharply clever the writing, literary forays into town on the train just cannot compete…

    October 20, 2011
    • Thanks, sjhigbee! That immersive effect is definitely strongest in speculative fiction. I’ve found a couple of pieces of historical fiction that come close (Renaissance Europe or Tokugawa-era Japan are practically other worlds), but contemporary mainstream? Can’t think of any off the top of my head. Great point!

      October 21, 2011
  2. Morgan #

    Great article, just what I needed to read.

    Everyone loves escapism & adventure, and these genres take it to another level. I think we call can agree that the world would be a more interesting place with a little mystery, magic and supernatural beings etc. Almost everything in our world has been explored and explained, the only real mysteries can be found at the edge of the scientific branches, and among the stars.

    Not all of us are fit to be scientists/physicists/astronomers – so we take what we can get in fictional literary form instead.

    June 4, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: October 19, 2011
  2. Geek Media Round-Up: October 21, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind

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