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Why bother with science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Article first published as Why Bother with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror? on Blogcritics.

“That stuff’s for kids.”

“Elves and trolls and aliens are silly.”

“None of it’s real, anyway.”

“It’s all escapism.”

“Those are boy books.”

Many people wouldn’t be caught dead holding onto The Hobbit, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Not everyone is going to enjoy SF, some people won’t get a kick out of fantasy, and others may shudder at the very thought of horror. That’s a question of taste, and really who am I to argue with individual’s tastes? But saying that a particular genre isn’t to your taste is very different from blithely discounting the entire oeuvre. The latter is like a toddler insisting that they don’t like a dish they’ve never tasted before.

Many grown-ups wave genre fiction away by saying that it’s for kids. I get it: it’s an easy argument, really. Society’s perception already pigeon-holes it, so playing to that misconception is an easy out. And history – genre’s roots in the pulps, the Victorian fairy tales for children, etc. – all lend it credence. But on closer examination, this argument falls apart on several levels:

On the one hand, it is factually inaccurate. No one can seriously argue that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are books for children. Thoughtful kids might get some enjoyment out of the adventure, but the themes these books wrestle with are definitely of concern to adults. This applies across the genres, where at least since the 1950’s the majority has been written with an adult audience in mind.

On the other hand, this argument forgets that kids are much more discerning readers than adults. Consider how easily kids see through weak plots, how quickly they stop caring about milquetoast characters, how they lose interest when the pace sags. When was the last time you saw a ten-year old enjoy a Saul Bellow book? If the purpose of literature is to entertain, and to broaden our understanding of the human condition, then I think we’d be hard-pressed to find books that execute better than middle-grade and YA fiction. Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. They’ve sure got some fantastical elements to them (teleportation to alien planets, talking animals, and Never Never Land respectively), don’t they? But they employ fantasy as entertainment and to highlight themes that speak to our hearts. Kids books – and all genre books, whether targeted to kids or not – use fantastical elements as tools to highlight their themes. Bear in mind that kids see right through pretension, and have no patience for it.

One can argue that elves and ray-guns and monsters are silly, unrealistic, and as a result offer no value. They might be entertaining, but who cares about entertainment? All of us, I’d wager. We read books, watch TV, listen to music to be entertained. Sure, we also want to have our horizons broadened but first and foremost we want to be distracted from the concerns of daily life. One can sneer at such escapism, but escapism relaxes us and makes us more productive. How is that a bad thing?

I’ve seen folks denounce genre fiction to a room full of fans as “mindless entertainment” – strangely enough, I’ve never seen anyone say the same about watching football at a sports bar. Entertainment in and of itself has value, and genre fiction simply employs a bigger toolkit than “mainstream” fiction. Using monsters to provide a concrete visualization of humanity’s dark side is a time-honored storytelling tradition that dates back to the first fireside ghost stories. If we reject genre for employing such tools, then so too must we reject classic myths, legends, and folk tales.

Sure, it’s not real. And there are plenty of people out there who don’t like fiction. Fine: if you only like reading non-fiction, more power to you. But if we accept that fiction of any kind has inherent value, then so too must all flavors of fiction. Why would realistic fiction have value and fantastic fiction not? Do George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells have nothing to add to our understanding of humanity? All three wrote plenty of realistic fiction as well as speculative fiction. What are they remembered for?

The last argument I find most pernicious, since it continues to consistently crop up in circles where it shouldn’t. Just several days ago, Ginia Bellafante published a review of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ in the New York Times. Putting aside her comments on the actual show, she patronizingly fobbed off George R.R. Martin’s bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series (and all of fantasy) as “boy fiction”. I guess twelve year old boys have much greater buying power than I thought. After all, the latest installment (A Feast for Crows) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such misogynistic disdain for genre fiction is equivalent to saying that only women enjoy romantic comedies. I’m a red-blooded, steak-eating, bacon-enjoying American male, and like many others I enjoy a good rom com with the best of ’em!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror is enjoyed by people of all ages, all genders, all religions, all backgrounds. Yes, it is entertaining. But like Whitman, it contains multitudes. There’s something for everyone’s tastes on the genre shelves: Looking for Jane Austen-esque comedy of manners? Check out Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Looking for beautiful magical realism? Check out Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino. In the mood for fast-paced quasi-corporate thrillers? Take a look at William Gibson’s cyberpunk (Neuromancer, Idoru). Want some light-hearted parody? Pick up some Terry Pratchett (any of the Discworld novels) or Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Want blistering social satire? Pick up James Morrow’s City of Truth or Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird. Want political intrigue? Pick up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In the mood for some thoughtful, soul-searching philosophical musings? Read some Samuel Delany, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

The science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres do as much as the mainstream literary genre. Yes, mainstream literary is a genre. In many ways, its reliance realism as a storytelling tool is one of its defining characteristics. Mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction have the same job: to entertain and to elucidate. Rejecting the fantastical genres just because they have a greater variety of screwdrivers and hammers in their narrative toolbox is silly.

Would you do the same when hiring a plumber?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Would you do the same when hiring a plumber?”

    I agree with the overall theme of your post, but I think you feel into a categorical trap here at the end. Readers of literary fiction don’t reject science fiction and fantasy because they “have a greater variety of screwdrivers.” They reject the fabulist genres because books in these genres aren’t usually telling the kinds of stories they are interested in, and when they do they still require decoding that a reader from outside the genre often finds too much work.

    A perfect example of this is Louis McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books. While ostensibly Space Opera, they range from military sci-fi to procedural thriller to Regency romance. There is something there for all tastes, but the reader must still be able to decrypt “stunners” and “wormholes” and “clone-brothers.” This forms an entry bar for many readers, and many don’t try since, when they think of the fabulist genres, they think of the stuff on TV and in the movies–which is mostly just what they accuse the written stuff to be: shallow wiz-bang stuff.

    April 21, 2011
    • @George – You make a good point. I don’t have a problem with those for whom SF/F/H isn’t to their tastes. If someone says “I don’t like it” or “I can’t wrap my head around all of the weird words”, then who am I argue? Those are perfectly reasonable statements describing an individual’s tastes and preferences. What riles me, however, are the patronizing and disdainful fig-leaves many use to rationalize their rejection of genre. Those fig leaves don’t stand up to logic: subjective tastes always will. I avoid reading Chaucer because decoding it is more trouble than I find it worth. But I would never say that Chaucer is for losers.

      April 21, 2011

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