There is a persistent view that refuses to be shaken that science fiction and fantasy are pure escapism. Usually, this view is from people with limited experience of the genre. People like Ian McEwan, who when promoting his last book was sniffy about the escapist aspects of science fiction:
There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.1
Speculative fiction 2 is often described as escapism because it doesn’t deal with the ‘real world.’ It’s set in distinct and different worlds to our own, as opposed to more realistic, grounded fiction. But it is exactly this removal that allows it to further interrogate our world and imagine different ways we can be. In creating new world, it reflects our world back.
The power of speculative fiction was emphasised to me recently when I read Transmetroplitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s nightmarish vision of a very close future. Set in a sprawling dystopian city, the populace is constantly distracted by news feeds and television. They are entirely apathetic and don’t notice the sociopath of a president abusing his power to gain absolute control, including clamping down on journalists. There are so many panels that are startlingly relevant to today’s situation. It feels prophetic, yet it is still a product of the late nineties.
The situation in Transmetroplitan is not our world as we know it. There are humans who become free clouds of atoms, others that modify their bodies to become aliens and suits that can render a person invisible. All of these elements serve to highlight the worst of humanity, even in the midst of so much technological progression. What keeps the series relevant is its unflinching examination of the abuses of power. By creating a new world, Ellis and Robertson allow us to see the problems of the current time. It’s reflected back to us, but twisted. I would argue that only speculative fiction has this power, to examine issues in a removed context. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, it tells the truth but tells it slant.
This is not to argue against the necessity of escapism, only to highlight the unique power of speculative fiction. Look at the film I Kill Giants3 to see how essential the urge to escape is, and how powerful our imaginations can be. If all a book does is offer an escape into another world for a time, then that is an essential, unique gift that should be cherished.
No one genre is superior to another. We may value realistic fiction over any other, with the novel as the centre of the literary world, but this is only due to our current cultural biases. Each genre offers something unique and can tell us more about ourselves. Speculative fiction can examine the world as it could be or might be, or societies where the world is different, as well as offering escape. It should be celebrated, not derided.