Escaping into Fantasy: Thoughts on Transportive Fiction
I’ve got a confession to make: I read for escape.
I don’t just read to learn, or to shape my moral compass, or to consider the deeper truths of life. If any of that happens, I’m ecstatic. I love to think, and I’m thrilled to have to have my horizons broadened. But literature can only achieve such effects when it has engaged the reader on an intellectual, emotional, and physiological level.
There is a difference between being engaged with a story, and being transported by it. Engagement need not be visceral: it can be distanced, nuanced, and cerebral in nature. Escape is transformative, in the sense that for a time I am taken out of my day-to-day concerns and focused entirely on the story and its characters. A story that engages me might hold and maintain my interest. A story that allows me to escape will not let me put it down.
That type of engagement – when we temporarily check out of our day-to-day existence and inhabit a fictional world (whether it is fantastic or not) – opens us up to whatever deeper truths we may find in the written work. And (on a superficial but no less important level) it makes the experience enjoyable. But what makes that kind of escape possible? What makes some stories a means of escape?
The Difference Between Escape and Engagement
When I read, I find that there is a fundamental difference between engagement with the story, and escape. It is not, however, a difference in kind, but rather in degree. I can be engaged with a story, interested in seeing the characters’ fates, curious as to how the plot resolves, etc. without divorcing myself from my everyday reality.
Plenty of good books generate engagement. Many of the Russian classics (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.) and more modern SF writers like Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, or Kim Stanley Robinson engage me. But I find that they do so on a very cerebral level, and that as I read their stories I remain fully aware of my surroundings, my reactions to their text, and what I have cooking on the stove.
To be clear, this is in no way a criticism of the quality of their stories.
However, I find that their focus on intellectual exploration of “high concepts” keeps me intellectually focused on the topics they explore. It grounds me, in a way that stories which allow me to escape do not. Other SF writers – like John Scalzi, Peter Watts, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and early David Brin – do manage to provide me with an imaginative escape that goes beyond “mere” engagement.
But your mileage may vary. It is entirely possible that a different reader might have an inverse of my experience, and there is nothing wrong in that. It merely suggests that different readers have different tastes, and respond differently to different stimuli.
I believe that stories have certain building blocks, certain broad conceptual components, that are all inter-related and which together affect the reader. The balance between these components will vary from story to story, and certain configurations will produce escape, while other configurations will produce engagement. The configurations that work for a particular reader will be different from those that work for anyone else. And the configuration that works for me today may well be different from one that will work two years from now.
And while the configuration of components that drives escape may vary, I think the list of components is pretty solid.
Character: The Root of All Tension
I like to believe that everything flows from character. The character drives the plot, not the other way around. And yet, character is also one of the trickiest components because it percolates through all of the others: voice, world-building, concept, etc.
As a human being, I have a certain degree of empathy for other members of my species, and so I am naturally interested in understanding a new character whenever I meet one. I respect depth even more than affability, and the degree to which I can understand or engage with a character is a high indicator of the story’s ability to grant me escape.
China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station opens with a prologue, written in first person, from an (initially unidentified) narrator. This prologue fails to develop much in the way of character, although it does establish a tone and begin the process of world-building (see below). But the character who dragged me into the story, who made my escape to New Crobozun possible, makes his appearance in the first chapter: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin.
Mi&eacue;ville’s descriptions are rich and varied, and they imbue Isaac with a depth of character that is instantly engaging. They make me curious about where Isaac will go and what he will do. They make me care. However, this in and of itself would not have been enough to actually transport me. It might earn my engagement, but it would have done little besides.
Miéville manages to transport me by having his words do double (or triple) duty: while his sentences and paragraphs tell me about the character of Isaac, they are simultaneously contributing to the other components of the story, particularly its world-building.
World-building: What Most Folks Think of as Escape
Because so much speculative fiction deals with secondary worlds or imagined realities, and because the portal fantasy structure has played a major role in genre history, world-building is often associated with the concept of escape. After all, we escape to some place, right? And in speculative fiction, we are specifically escaping to a fictional reality that someone else (the author) has made up.
Effective world-building, however, is not a rattling off of hard-to-spell place names, or of cramming eons worth of mythology down the reader’s gullet. Transportive world-building is all about evoking a reality that is compelling and plausible and real for the reader on a sensory and emotional level.
Miéville’s Perdido Street Station does a great job with this, too. His exposition simultaneously informs us as to character, while giving us extensive detail about the world of New Crobuzon. The details provided, however, are slipped in sideways: we are introduced to a Dickensian environment, with over-crowded tenement streets, with grime-encrusted slipways, and with all of the economics such an environment might suggest.
Miéville doesn’t tell us that much of New Crobuzon is reminiscent of a Whitechapel slum. He instead demonstrates this fact by opening his first chapter with the prosaic act of buying groceries. In the space of several paragraphs, he evokes a mood and feel for the environment which will carry through the rest of the novel. In one sentence – where he off-handedly mentions hissing constructs stomping up and down the street – he shifts us into a fantastical mode, where such “constructs” might walk unimpeded.
Taken on its own, this opening would have engaged me pretty quickly. Miéville uses all of the senses to evoke the feel for New Crobuzon. Two passages in particular stand out for me, one olfactory and the other aural:
Below the basket the salls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.
Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races bought peculiar things.
The sensory detail is fine-grained and carefully selected. It creates a mélange of sensation specifically tailored to convey the chaos and layering of scents and sounds that such a bazaar would have. It is verisimilitude, but of the most fantastic variety.
From these “establishing” passages, Miéville introduces us to the character of Isaac, and here his world-building ratchets into high-gear. While simultaneously introducing us to the character’s values, priorities, and personality, he introduces us to some of the fantastic races that live in New Crobuzon, and paints lines of cultural tension into the city.
This is the point where, for me, Perdido Street Station became transportive. The combination of depth of character and simultaneous, evocative world-building transported me into the story’s fictional world.
Pacing & Tension: A Consequence of Character
To establish a fast pace and build tension, the characters need to be well-drawn. However, I find that well-constructed tension can often over-ride weaknesses in world-building. This is a phenomenon I have observed most often in television, particularly in spy shows like Covert Affairs or police procedurals like Castle.
By giving us characters who we invest in, and then by ratcheting up the tension and the pace, the writers can distract us from the implausible or slapdash world-building that permeates the story. This is, I think, a risky technique because it places escalating tension and world-building in opposition. At some point, the implausibility of the world-building might overpower the tension, and throw the reader out of the story. This, I think, is a weakness often found in much of the thriller genre.
But when the world-building and the tension both contribute to and derive from characterization, when all narrative horses are pulling in the same direction, the effect is to heighten the story’s transportive capabilities.
Intellectual and Moral Exploration: High Concept Escape
Intellectual and moral exploration can be highly stimulating, and I do not doubt that for some readers it provides the imaginative escape that I find in character, world-building, and pacing. But for me, I find that the intellectual dimension on its own cannot transport me. But when the intellectual/moral dimension supports and is supported by the characters, tension, and world-building of the story, then the transportive effect is greatly multiplied.
I am reminded of two very different reading experiences: Peter Watts Blindsight and Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket. Both books feature high-concept intellectual conjecture, and both are interesting and engaging on that front alone. However, Blindsight also builds compelling characters who are engaging and stimulating, and whose actions and choices directly reflect on and feed back into the novel’s intellectual considerations.
The Clockwork Rocket, by contrast, fails to develop plausible characters or to develop plausible world-building outside of the novel’s central conceit (see my earlier review here). It remains an engaging and interesting read, but for me, the weakness of its characterization and the shallowness of its world-building prevented it from being transportive.
Point-of-View: The Lens which Mediates the World
The more I think about it, the more I begin to subscribe to the thesis put forth by the Scribblies that “POV Fixes Everything.” In terms of enabling escapist reading, point-of-view is the foundation: it informs and shapes the way in which all other tools are applied in a given work.
If a story’s capacity to transport is determined by its characterization, its world-building, its pacing/tension, and its intellectual conceits, these components all must be communicated through the writing. The words we choose, the sentences we assemble, and the paragraphs we construct are all determined by the point-of-view the story is told through.
On a superficial level, the point-of-view determines which details get noticed (read: communicated to the reader), which values get explicitly communicated and which get implied, and which sensory details are presented. At first blush, this might seem to be the same as characterization, but point-of-view and character are not necessarily identical. They may be congruent in a work with limited POVs, but they need not be: the narrator always exists, even if a story is told in close or distant third person.
A story’s point-of-view – which may be distinct from its characters – informs the voice through which it is told. This affects the prose, in terms of its style and lyricism. It affects the way sentences are constructed, and while prose alone cannot transport me, it does constitute the grease that lubricates the story’s engine.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the stories which allow me to escape, those that transport me into a fantastic environment divorced from my quotidien concerns, have one over-arching characteristic in common: every component – their characterization, their world-building, their management of pacing, and their underlying intellectual concepts – are all unified according to the point-of-view(s) through which the story gets told.
What do you think? Which factors – or which configuration of factors – drives your escape into the stories you love?