Thursday, December 15, 2016

Writing in Dark Times

Kameron Hurley's essay in the current LOCUS is the most overtly political piece I've ever read in that magazine:

There Have Always Been Times Like These

Hurley writes in apocalyptic terms, as if we're now living in Mordor. In her view, "We are going to lose much in 2017," because "a darker power was elected into office in the United States by a slim minority." She laments, "I see that hopeful ray of light we have all been shining out into the world smothered once again in darkness during this latest backlash." She frames the recent election as one phase in the "long war between the light and the dark, between our better selves and our darker natures."

Even though ours isn't a political blog, I suppose there's no harm in mentioning that I also voted against Hurley's "darker power." I'm optimistic enough, though, to hope that the immediate future won't be quite so bad as she forecasts.

The central message of her essay, however, isn't to curse the darkness or declare that we're all doomed. Rather, she celebrates, as quoted above, the "hopeful ray of light" writers "have been shining out into the world." Speculative fiction has value because of "our hopeful stories, our ability to tell dif­ferent futures." Science fiction and fantasy offer both cautionary tales (warning us against paths to potential dystopias) and images of better worlds we may transform into reality. Storytellers "create the narratives that help us all make sense of the world."

I would add a third valid function of speculative fiction, a temporary escape from the anxieties of mundane life into another world. Entertainment for its own sake, as a distraction that sends us back to "normal life" refreshed, is not to be scorned. Of course, using fantasy in this way might incur the charge of "escapism" in a negative sense. Indeed, we've all run into critics who dismiss ANY form of counter-factual fiction as "escapism." J. R. R. Tolkien answers this charge in "On Fairy Stories." Who's most likely to be obsessed with preventing escape? Jailers! As Tolkien says:

"Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the F├╝hrer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery."

To those who dismiss fantasy as "unrealistic" and therefore a waste of an adult's time, Tolkien provides this rebuttal (although he isn't addressing precisely that point):

"Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make."

Or, as Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, imprisoned in the green witch's underground lair in C. S. Lewis's THE SILVER CHAIR, retorts to the witch's claim that her world is the only world that exists, "I'm going to live as much like a Narnian as I can even if there's no Narnia."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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