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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
As a lifelong fantasy-fiction fan, I learned ax work from Gimli and the Tin Woodsman. When I tell you I have an ax to grind, you’ll know to watch those fingers and toes.
When I talk to people who don’t read speculative fiction, the appeal they mention first usually involves the somewhat demeaning cliché about reading to escape. Pushed further (figuratively, not literally), they will confess with a little shrug that demonstrates both pity and disdain that they are more interested in the “real world.” In other words, we con-going, cosplaying, firefly-flogging fangirls and -boys are cute, but someday we’ll quit chasing rainbows on unicorns. We’ll take off the jet packs and come back down to Earth. Under my breath, I mutter, “Muggle,” and skulk away.
In junior high, I organized the Narnian Believers, whom I would happily have led through the wardrobe, so you know I love a good fantasy world. My point, and I’m not alone in this, is that although I like to stretch my imagination, I don’t primarily read fantasy or sf to escape. I only become immersed in speculative worlds if the author can make them germane to my experience. When they achieve this, the lives experienced vicariously through reading are every bit as relevant to my “real world” as when I’m happily moping through great literary fiction.
Speculative-fiction writers obsess over world building. They don’t craft these worlds from antimatter, eye of newt, or troll hair. When done right, it’s solid construction, with details that go well beyond a map and funny names. Climate, politics, economics, culture, food, religion, fashion, and language are all part of the package. If they don’t ring true, readers will take their imaginations to another writer’s universe. Multidimensional characters—as found in the work of Octavia Butler, Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, Jo Walton, and Connie Willis—are also part of making it real. Even in the fantastic elements like magic, we prefer realism. That’s why a writer like Brandon Sanderson, whose magic systems in Mistborn or The Stormlight Archive feature complicated internal rules and costs, has become a favorite. Readers who want escape probably wouldn’t choose N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth. We work through the harrowing emotions, stark geography, and challenging points of view with which she confronts us in a book like The Fifth Season because the results have impact on our earthbound spirits.
Don’t get me wrong. As in all genres, some sf and fantasy authors design entertainments primarily for those who need to distract busy brains with lighter-than-air amusements. But when working with genre readers, don’t assume that they aren’t after a thought-provoking experience. The great Rod Serling switched from writing television dramas to The Twilight Zone not because he was nerdy or escapist but because he found that hypothetical worlds allowed him to explore bigger ideas, especially in the suppressive climate of his time. So it goes with many of the giants of science fiction and fantasy. Explore the backgrounds of space scientist Arthur C. Clarke, anthropologist Ursula K. Le Guin, or polymath Isaac Asimov to get a sense of how seriously credentialed these storytellers are.
Even humor in these genres has its serious side. For all of its wackiness, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remains evergreen because it has something to say. Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld began as a satire of fantasy novels but grew funnier as it expanded to use the fantasy setting to lampoon the real world and a wider range of human foibles. John Scalzi has won his large audience by mixing adventure, humor, and some very serious ideas in books like Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts.
When working with readers, it can be useful to ask if they can suspend disbelief without the author’s help, or if they prefer that the author convince them that the fantasy world is real. If the answer is the latter, you are probably working with a reader searching for meaning, not just escape, in the story.
The Handmaid’s Tale is finding a new generation of fans, thanks to the fine television adaptation and its frightening relevance to the modern world. Tolkien lovers absorb dozens of truths in the beloved Lord of the Rings—that the smallest person can make a difference, that we should care for the land, and that it’s hard to go home after great adventures—to name just a few. Children (and adults) come to Harry Potter because of fun details and enchanting atmosphere, but along the way, they learn more serious lessons about the importance of friendship and the evils of elitism. Parents grudgingly accept the gore of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games or Pierce Brown’s Red Rising because these series also have entertaining but important lessons to teach teens (and adults) about duty, courage, and the dangers of totalitarianism and mob psychology. George R. R. Martin, for all his excesses, knows how to bring the pulse of history to life and reminds readers that both heroes and villains reside within each of us. And all of these writers know how to bring characters to life.
So don’t scoff when readers want to get real in unreal worlds. In the hands of a great writer, the ideas are anything but mutually exclusive.
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