He Who Breaks a Thing

This world looks like a mess. Let's think about it for a while.

This world looks like a mess. Let’s think about it for a while.

From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:

Why don’t you write something real?

Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.

I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.

I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.

Tolkien once wrote:

He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?

Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.

In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.

So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 4, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Your posts always get me thinking! I am not sure the ‘forward and outward point’ is right though. It works for contemporary science fiction, but are not fantasies like the Game of Thrones series essentially historically backward-looking? Maybe the ‘outward’ bit of the contrast at least is between present/now fiction and any fiction set in a distinctly not-now period?

    • Thanks for the reply!

      It’s a fair point. I would argue that, in its purest sense, fantasy is reinterpretation of human society in unrealistic environs. In this sense I would call it ‘outwards’, as fantasy cannot be ‘historical’ in a true sense. Game of Thrones isn’t exploring history at all. It’s exploring the present human condition in an alternate kind of laboratory (or at least in theory). If I have a criticism of modern fantasy (and I have several) it is because too many of them are treatises against the notion of change. I don’t think it fair to lump Game of Thrones in this category, though. Westeros isn’t a ‘then’ – it never existed and could not have. What makes that hard to remember in Martin’s case, though, is that the fantastic elements of his story are so hard to see. I don’t think it’s a story about medieval societies, though, so much as a deconstruction of politics and war in the abstract.

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