I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and science fiction, to stories of other worlds and to other versions of this one. Although I do enjoy a bit of non-fiction (mainly sociogenetics or ancient history) I don’t often read novels set entirely in reality. The problem with reality is that it’s where I spend the majority of my time, and when I’m reading I’d rather be somewhere else. When it comes to writing I feel much the same, preferring to work under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
Someone said to me recently that immersing yourself in fantasy – whether you’re reading it or writing it – can be a coping strategy for dealing with a real world which is disappointing, difficult or dull. As a child and teenager I certainly experienced a fairly large amount of disappointment and difficulty. I ended up dealing with events that a mature and well-balanced adult would find extremely challenging. Perhaps as a result, I had no interest in spending my free time reading about the same sorts of events occurring within the world that was treating me so badly. Therefore to some extent I believe my friend’s comment is true: speculative fiction provides escapism.
However, it also offers an alternative lens through which the writer or reader can filter their experiences. A lens which, being one step removed from reality, allows you a little more space for processing the disappointing or difficult. You can explore cruelty, heartbreak, abuse and betrayal, and the characters and content are authentic within the context of their world. This authenticity allows the reader to feel a connection to the story through common experience, even if their experience is based in the everyday, rather than on a distant alien planet.
At a recent book reading I went to, a young adult author commented that dystopian fictions are so popular because of how closely they can be related to the reality of being a teenager. Negative events feel like the end of the world, your best friend suddenly becomes your mortal enemy, the adults are dictating exactly what you can and can’t do, and sometimes when you have a decision to make, there is no right or easy choice.
It’s important for speculative fiction to show that life is hard, to show that, even though the protagonist is living 4000 years in the future, they still struggle, are let down by people, experience misery. It’s important too that the characters find joy and triumph in spite of all that, at least some of the time. And if the horror of the fantasy world gets too much, it can be dismissed with the closing of the book, thus providing a safe space to explore the dangerous and unpleasant. This offers the reader so much more than simple escapism. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a fan of speculative fiction.