Finding Reality Via the Back Door

So I was having this conversation with my best friend one Sunday, and we got off on this long rant about reality.  Turns out one of his friends had given him a lecture about how glorious reality is.  This brought on by the fact that, like me, he writes speculative fiction.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love reality – or at least, appreciable bits of it.  But I think she was talking the prosaic reality of Everyday Life, not the astounding reality of Science.  She’s a slice-of-life type writer.  I know and love some slice-of-lifers, but there’s a certain subset of them that treat imagination as a black sheep.  Then they see fit to lecture us SF types on How We Should Be More Realistic.  They sometimes go on to give us a stern talking-to about Living In the Real World.  I shall now provide a helpful illustration to sum up my subjective experience when faced with such people:

Image Source.

That is a very realistic interpretation of my sentiments, if you pretend the awesome geek is actually someone spouting this nonsense.

But, as goads so often do, my friend’s friend managed to initiate a fruitful line of discussion, and inspired a blog post, so it’s not all bad.

What follows is some ranting-out-loud on Writing, the Universe, and Everything.  You’re under no obligation to follow me after the jump, but I’ll be happy if you do.

First, a rant upon the topic of literature.  I must begin with a disclaimer: I’ve read “realistic” fiction, and at times rather enjoyed it.  I do not mean to issue blanket condemnations upon all slice-of-life writers, nor upon the vast body of literature that sticks ordinary people in ordinary situations and manages to create something extraordinary.  There’s an audience for it, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and magnificent things can happen when a great writer explores the Ordinary World.

But I am going to issue a blanket condemnation on those writers who think the Ordinary World is all that’s worth writing about, and that those of us who enjoy reading and writing about things that would never happen in the ordinary real world are immature, unsophisticated buffoons.  And you’ve never seen a sneer such as the sneer that crosses the face of a Really Realistic Writer when they find out folks like me read comic books and write speculative fiction.  They act like you’ve just pointed to a pile of dog shit and called it art.

They’ve obviously never read Sandman, or Maus, or Watchmen.  They’ve not read Eifelheim, or Speaker for the Dead, or Wild Seed.  Serious works, all, that deal with Serious Issues.

They also don’t understand a simple truth: a great number of us read fiction to escape.  We live in the Really Real World all the damned time, and sometimes, it wears.  We’d like to travel to another world for a bit, or imagine superpowers, or do something other than read about other people with lives just as boring as our own.  No matter how well-drawn the characters are, these slice-of-life things just don’t toast our muffin.  And those of us who like reading to escape rather enjoy writing to escape, as well.  If we try writing about John Q. Boring-as-Shit, we get bored.  Simple as that.

At this point, the person arguing for Reality in Fiction usually throws something at me involving someone who’s got an interesting job, or deals with a tough situation, or goes through some unusual family drama or some such.  This is where I say, “Yes, well, I do read about people like that.  But I find them in the non-fiction section.”  If I’m going to spend several hours reading about a realistic person in the world as we know it, I’d much prefer to spend my time on an actual human being, living or dead.  If I want fiction, I’m gonna spend my time with stuff that cannot possibly be mistaken for this present reality.

At this point, the tactical nuke of such conversations might be launched: “Well, you’re just wasting your time living in a fantasy world!”

Aaand your point?

All fiction is a fantasy world.  That’s why it’s fiction.  But there seem to be some folks who can find no value in fiction unless it holds up a perfect mirror to reality.  They’re fixated on the real world, for all they read and write fiction.  And while not all, or even many, of them are quite as extreme as I’ve portrayed (although both myself and my best friend have encountered a few), they see speculative fiction as a guilty pleasure at best, or a shameful waste of trees, something utterly unworthy of serious attention.  They seem to almost worship reality, and at times get really intense about helping the rest of us find it.  These poor folks stand at the main entrance shouting, “This way to the real world!” without ever noticing there’s a back door.

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.
-Pablo Picasso

They probably don’t notice the back door because it’s got aliens and superheroes and mythical beasts crowded round it.  They notice the sizzle and fail to see the steak.  Anything dressed up as Other is immediately suspect to them.  It’s Popular Entertainment, and therefore Not Serious Literature.  It’s not Art.  And that’s fine, even fortunate, because the folks lined up to go through that back door aren’t looking for the sort of Art the Really Serious Writers recognize as art.  They’re looking for stuff that makes them think and feel, that drops them willy-nilly into a work that holds a funhouse mirror up to our own world, and sends them back out into this world seeing it through completely different eyes.  They want to be entertained and provoked and challenged.  They want their imaginations given a thorough workout.  They’re often going to get a hefty dose of reality, and they probably know that going in, but they like their reality chocolate-coated.  It tastes better that way.

And they sure as shit don’t want some bore lecturing them on the Really Serious Issues, practically shouting how they should think.

Now, the best writers in realistic fiction don’t lecture either, mind.  But they don’t challenge our imaginations in quite the same way.  And things that are too realistic, too tied to this world as we know it, have a distressing tendency to remind us of the bits of our own lives we find intolerably boring, or of droning lectures we’ve endured.  They don’t lie to us enough, and so the truth that we find doesn’t impact quite so hard.  There’s nothing like sailing alien shores and fetching up in a situation that suddenly becomes familiar.  Truth suddenly blazes out like a supernova, without a lot of very ordinary stuff obscuring it.

I will give an example from my college years.  We read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  It’s a very serious and important book about race.  But I couldn’t identify with the characters.  I could understand where they came from, but I wasn’t inside them looking out.  Very much outside looking in.  I can’t say it enlightened me about matters of race and prejudice and identity.

A bit later, I read The Dark Elf Trilogy.  And that’s where I really internalized all of this stuff that white people aren’t confronted with.  That book left me in tears of sorrow and rage, and left me with a determination to fight racism in both self and others.  It made me understand what a horrible thing judging someone based on a physical characteristic is.  It did that because it didn’t presume to lecture on the subject, or even present it as all that relevant, except to the characters involved.  It made Great Big Social Statements in a very quiet voice.  And because we’re talking drow elves in a fantasy world here, it forced me to put on another skin, to become someone else, to see the world through lavender eyes.  Instead of watching the slings and arrows hit, I took the wounds right along with Drizzt.  And it hurt.

That’s the power of speculative fiction.  It’s just far enough outside the realm of everyday experience that we can’t be lazy reading it.  We have to get inside the story, live the characters’ lives.  And it’s different enough that automatic resistance doesn’t come into play.  If the writer’s done the job right, we won’t know the path we’re being led down until we’re a long ways along on the journey.  We don’t get a chance to plant our feet, balk, whine, “Oh, not this again!  I’m sick of saving the rainforest/whales/vanishing cultures!”

I cannot tell you how many causes I’ve become a passionate advocate for because an SF writer who knows his/her shit hoodwinked me into caring after all the bleeding-heart stuff had put me off for life. Let’s just say that fantasy and science fiction made me the person I am today, and you’d be shocked to know who I was before.

Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth. 
Abraham Rothberg

There’s a good article at that link around that theme.  Rothberg’s talking more about realistic fiction, but it holds just as true for fantasy or science fiction.  And yes, my darlings, fantasy and science fiction can be dead serious, even when it’s being silly.  Any doubts on that front, just go read Jingo by Terry Pratchett.

Fiction doesn’t have to be “serious” to be serious.  It doesn’t have to be realistic to introduce you to reality.  This is something that writers of “serious” fiction sometimes seem to miss.

I can tell you that very nearly every single aspect of the real world that I now know and love, I came to because of other worlds.  Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was the best political education I’d had up to then, and prepared me for what I’d find when the Daily Show and the Colbert Report convinced me I’d best care about this shit.  I can’t even count the number of things Sandman woke me up to – gay rights, for one, horribly difficult issues of right and wrong, good and evil, not to mention the richness of non-Western mythology.  The Lord of the Rings forced me to really consider geology by way of world-building, because if I was going to create worlds that resonated like Middle Earth, I’d have to know a fuck of a lot more about this one.  Oh, and I fell in love with philology because of dear Professor Tolkien, along with some ancient epic literature I’d been bored with prior to my obsession with him.  Doomsday Book brought home the horror of the Black Death.  That’s a small sampling of what fantasy and science fiction led me to.  Outside of the SF realm, some non-“serious” books written by Louis L’Amour and Dick Francis introduced me to plenty of things I’d never known – the golden age of Islamic science and civilization, photography, wine-making, the jeweler’s art.  

So, by taking me to other worlds, SF taught me about my own.  And it returned me to this one with new eyes.  I sincerely doubt I’d have the passion for science, the appreciation for reality, that I do now had it not been for them.  I’d probably be watching Survivor and refusing to vote while whining that science is just too hard for plain old people to understand.  I wouldn’t care quite so much about the plight of others.  I wouldn’t be interested in much of anything, really.

Now, I know that’s not true of everyone.  Plenty of people come to things like politics and science through the front door.  Some even come to such things through really realistic fiction.  But it’s a mistake to sneer at SF as if it has nothing to say about the real world, as if it’s not Serious and can’t deal with Serious Issues.  It can, it does, and it gives people who don’t give two tugs on a dead dog’s dick about Serious Issues a chance to change their minds.

And – heretical thought – it can sometimes do it better.  It’s subversive, you see.  It sneaks things in under the radar.  It’s Entertainment, so it can pretend it isn’t saying anything pertinent while doing so on every page.  It can disguise its agenda.  It can confront issues head-on that very few people are willing to tackle, because it wears a costume.  It can tell some truths that otherwise might be too hard for most folks to hear.  It can turn boring old factoids into something truly fantastic.

When the front door to reality is locked and barred, the back door is still open, and there’s gods and devils, aliens and astronauts, talking animals and superpowered beings in spandex standing there waving us in.

Finding Reality Via the Back Door

14 thoughts on “Finding Reality Via the Back Door

  1. 2

    Remember, everyone knows that serious writers write about introspective white people sitting in rooms and having feelings. Anyone who presumes to write about something other than what they and everyone else already has and will again experience isn’t an artist and must be corrected.


    This is the impulse that leads to supposed reviews of the TV Game of Thrones consisting entirely of mocking anyone who likes it without any actual mention of content or quality. And worse, because while they’re being obnoxious I don’t expect better of a reviewer who starts by saying they hate everything within a genre because THEY are a serious, sensible person… It leads to hard SF authors denying the value of fantasy authors in an attempt to feel more serious and artistically valuable than somebody. If I could remove one impulse from the subcultural world via some magical cosmic incision (there’s a short story for you), it’d be the impulse to enforce the hierarchy of geekdom.

  2. 3

    Thanks, Dana, for the very interesting post (and entertaining of course). Taste in reading? must be in our brains, our wiring. I work at our public library — shelving, Circulation Desk, whatever else might be needed (part-time sub). Great job — I love to read — and yet I’m totally worthless when someone asks for recommendations for fiction or science fiction. Almost everything I read is non-fiction. I truly believe that there are great works, entertaining works, popular works of fiction, mystery, sci fi as I’ve met plenty of smart interesting folks that love those genres. But those books don’t engage me. What personality types read the various genres? it would be fascinating to know.

  3. 4

    Brava! No matter how much a stringent rationalist I am, I loves me some escapist fantasy. Especially speculative fiction. Oh, and comic books — superheroes are my own personal pantheon.

  4. PSG

    My real life is real enough. I’ve fallen in love with escape fiction. I didn’t used to really like fantasy fiction too much, but the real world’s gotten a whole lot heavier for me in the last half decade. I love my life and wouldn’t change it, but damn, once in a while you’ve got to run away for a night. I’m so thankful I have such amazing worlds to escape into when I need it – there are some great fiction writers are out there creating amazing stories.

  5. 6

    A fair number of years ago, when I was in grad school, I was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune while eating lunch. One of my professors walked by and asked what I was reading. I told him and he dismissed it as “that Buck Rogers stuff.” I then asked why he thought all science fiction was 1920s pulp space opera. We had a discussion about science fiction* and I mentioned several SF books I thought were worth reading.

    A few years ago I was at Harvard that school for a conference. I ran into the professor and he thanked me for introducing him to serious science fiction.

    *I did quote Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.

  6. 7

    Love your rant, spot on.
    re your book list I can’t help but adding “I, Robot” a treatise on ethics. For a time I wanted to grow to be just like Susan Calvin, I am a straight hetero male I just craved her mind.
    Your implied reading list is so close to mine that I thought I would suggest two of my favorites authors; Tony Hillerman for what reality is like when you live in two cultures, and Nevil Shute, he does people right. I hate the end of his books because I want to stay connected to the people.
    I am sure you have read “I, Robot” but maybe not Shute’s stuff. if you do read it I would love to hear your comments.

  7. 8

    I recently rediscovered the sitcom Dinosaurs that aired on ABC about 25 years ago. It is light and funny and a bit childish. And it is FULL of biting social commentary about television, religion (both strengths and weaknesses), societal rituals, and interpersonal and family dynamics.

    And it is very subversive. Be careful watching it, you might just learn something.

  8. 9

    It is funny that Tolkien got you interested in geology, because at the time he was writing, geology as we know it today didn’t exist.
    when The Hobbit was published, plate tectonics was still 30 years away. Goldschmidt and Bowen were still inventing petrology and geochemistry at about the same time, the inner core had only just been discovered, and the age and origin of the planet, not to mention the rest of the solar system, was pretty much unknown.

  9. 10

    Which one? There are two awesome geeks in that photo!

    Didn’t the sf/f editor/writer Terry Carr once say something to the effect of, “The injunction to ‘write what you know’ has given us a literature of middle-aged men contemplating adultery.”?

  10. 11

    I don’t consider good sf to be escapism. Herbert made us question default assumptions about the way energy systems worked, and popularized the concept of ecological engineering. Arthur C. Clarke explored concepts that led to geostationary communications satellites, and Phillip K. Dick made us question the validity of our perceptions of reality. Could it be possible that those advocating the “tactical nuke” argument might actually be hiding in a fantasy of their own?

  11. 12

    …..oooh, oooh! And, since animals of all types and persuasions have been observed eating rotting fruit to purposefully become inebriated, could it be argued that nature may in fact favor (or at least not disfavor) the occasional foray from the drudgery of day to day survival? (Dogmatic proponents of the “really real” world: PWNED!!!!)

  12. 13

    badandfierce, I sympathize with your last thought. It would be cool. Lamentably, this compulsion may simply be an artifact of the brain’s natural tendency to prioritize. I admit a short story exploring the benefits/detriments of a successful excision might prove interesting as hell.

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