Why We Love Sci-Fi & Fantasy: Part 1

"You're shinier than Shakespeare."
"You're shinier than Shakespeare."
A few weeks ago I asked friends, family, blog/Twitter followers, practically anyone I could get a hold of, to tell me why they thought science fiction and fantasy are so ingrained in popular culture.  Despite not having a lot of followers at this point, I felt like I got a very solid collection of responses.

I did promise that I'd give you some of my reasons that I believe these two genres are so popular.  Fortunately, several of you briefly touched on my #1 reason, which is the fact that science fiction and fantasy can and almost always do encapsulate many, many issues.  These issues can be societal, moral/ethical, spiritual, political, personal, mental, and emotional (the list most certainly does not end here).  Since science fiction and fantasy stories often create their own worlds, it shouldn't be a surprise that characters in those worlds would deal with the same issues we do in our world, though with a smidgen more of lasers and swords than we encounter, I'm sure.  Overall, science fiction and fantasy create worlds that mirror our own, worlds where we can safely ask "what if?" or "what is the reason we're here?" or "what does this all matter?"

As much as I adore reading Shakespeare's language, I have to admit that what the academic world considers to be literary stories only deal with so much, and that "so much" is often just one or two of the issues that I listed above.  Hamlet is not a fair example; I think every issue I mentioned above was touched on in that play, so kudos to Shakespeare for that one.  Hell, he even has a ghost in that play (supernatural issues should be added to my list...).

Let's look at Much Ado About Nothing instead.  Predominantly, that work handles relational, societal, moral, and emotional issues; it is, after all, what I would call one of the earliest romantic comedies.  You simply can't go into great depth about the other issues in this setting.  Political issues?  Sure, we see soldiers coming back from war and Don John wanting power, but that's about where the discussion ends.  There's no description of whether or not the current government systems work, or why some of their bills are helpful, or why some of the leaders' tongues "outvenom all the worms of Nile" (Cymbeline).  I realize that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is fantastical/mythological in nature, but I haven't read it yet, so that is why I am not discussing its handling of issues.

I believe that because science fiction and fantasy stories can cover so many issues in one book, world, or even universe, people simply cannot help but be drawn in by them.  Sure, we all may benefit from reading a classic, or we might enjoy a heart-pumping action film on occasion, but we crave to know more.  We crave to have our "what if?" question addressed, and thank goodness that characters such as Spock and Frodo can help guide us towards that end.


jason said...

First of all (disclaimer: I love sci-fi and fantasy but have a theatre degree), it seems unfair to compare a single person to an entire genre, especially when that person is hundreds of years old.

Secondly, read Richard III and then tell me Shakespeare didn't have much to say about politics.

Heather said...

Love the Shakespeare/Science Fiction juxtaposition. It really is great how Sci-Fi and Fantasy can really unleash a lot of bigger and actual real issues by taking off the constraints of "reality".

Bree (Woman Friday) said...

@Jason, you're right in saying that it's unfair to compare a single person to an entire genre, but that's not what I meant to imply. I meant to imply that an individual book, such as Much Ado About Nothing, that is set in our realistic world cannot always hope to address all the issues I listed, whereas an individual science fiction book can and often does create a world open to discussing almost all topics and issues. So maybe lots of Shakespeare's plays combined talk about all the issues I addressed, but does any one, besides Hamlet? It's a matter of genre constraints, and science fiction and fantasy don't have a lot of ground they DON'T and CAN'T cover.

JeriWB said...

I didn't get a chance to weigh-in on your previous post in a timely manner, but I did think quite a lot about the role of sci-fi/fantasy in popular culture. As a genre it taps into our need for escapism while also being able to deal with multiple issues in a roundabout way.

However, (Aye, there's the rub...) the dilemma for me is that the general quality of the writing in most genre literature can't begin to hold a candle to quote unquote "literary fiction."

Please don't slap me ;) But there, I've said it. Don't get me wrong though, I'm totally hooked on reading Game of Thrones as I write this.

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