the escape plan
I love fantasy fiction. That much should be clear. And whenever this subject comes up with my parents, sooner or later one of my parents will mention that it's "not about real people."
No fiction is about real people. Not even historical fiction. It uses their names, and maybe even events from their lives, but it's still fiction. Every piece of fiction, in every genre, and even "literature" that has transcended genre by the acclimation of academicians, is a lie. Hopefully, a carefully constructed, entertaining lie, but a lie all the same.
Non-speculative fiction, or "realistic" fiction, has pulled off a fantastic con job. It has convinced people (or at the very least my parents) that because it looks real, and it sounds real, and it even feels real, that it is real. But it's not. And it's certainly not about real people.
What I'm angling towards here is the subject of escapism. Another complaint often made about speculative fiction is that it's escapist, that by not writing about the real world, then we're escaping it. This is part of the con job pulled by "realistic" fiction.
"It's set in the real world, how can it be escaping it!" cries the shamelessly stereotyped adversary I just invented. Well, foolish fictional being, it can be escapist if it has nothing to do with the lives that we live. Just because it's set in the real world doesn't mean that it's necessarily engaged in meaningful cultural and/or political debate. It can be about the real world without making any meaningful comment about it.
(I use the word 'meaningful' here because, in the end, everything is culturally and politically influenced, and makes some comment about society, but it can do it to a greater or lesser extent and I am talking about the books that do it to the lesser extent).
The Da Vinci Code I am looking, vindictively, at you.
I would argue that escapism has nothing to with whether a book is mired in genre, or if it genre-less. Rather, it is to do with the author's intent.
Now, I also realize that to many the author is dead, and that in no way is a bad thing. We each have to make of a text what we can, and we're going to do it whether an author wants us to or not. All an author can do is try to direct a reader's thinking in one particular direction or another. And some author's do that more and some author's do it less, regardless of whether their fiction is set in a realistic world or not. (I've dropped the quotes, I think I've made my point).
However (and I do love to use that word), as I stated above, all fiction is a lie. And because of that all fiction is to a certain extent escapist. And while realistic fiction may have pulled a con job, a lot of speculative fiction has been written that's escapist in the extreme. And you know why? Because people want escapism. I know I do. That's why we buy fiction rather than non-fiction. (Yes, I know we buy both...)
The trick, I think, is in the mix. If it's fiction, its escapist. Don't worry about it, just go with it. But don't let that be the be all and end all. If we are to dedicate a good portion of our time to writing fiction, it seems that the only responsible thing to do is to use that medium to comment, at least somewhat, on the world around us, to be politically and culturally involved. To try to make a difference that lasts beyond the back cover.
And speculative fiction is in a position to do this better than most realistic fiction.
No, I'm serious. Because it is detached from the specifics of the quotidian, speculative fiction can look at the big picture in a way that realistic fiction can't. It can invert problems, turn them around, make us look at them in new ways. It's loose, and fast, and can ask the "what if?" questions that expand the horizons of our thinking. Realistic fiction can't do that.
With speculative fiction we can have our cake and eat it. And it's better cake than that served up by realistic fiction too. It may take a while to get used to the taste, but once you do, you'll love it.