For Tuesday, March 22, 2016:
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding.”
When I was growing up, George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984 were considered fantasy. Nowadays the stories, characters, and plots are all too real. Today they became even more so, with yet another alleged terrorist attack , this time in the heart of Brussels, Belgium. (As of this writing, no cause for the explosions has been determined, nor has anyone claimed responsibility, but it does appear to be a terrorist-related incident.)
According to Wikipedia, Orwell was a democratic socialist who wrote against the totalitarian regimes of his world at the time. Animal Farm was published in 1945 and 1984 in 1949. We are now all too familiar with words and concepts such as ‘big brother,’ ‘cold war,’ ‘groupthink,’ and several others that are now commonplace in our lexicon by way of Orwell. Not only was he a critic of society’s then-dangers, he dared to warn us of dangers ahead.
Ursula Le Guin and Doris Lessing wrote of gender-blending characters long before the possibility became public reality. The comic strip ‘Dick Tracy’ showed the detective speaking into his wristwatch to communicate with others decades before the tech giants and Silicon Valley were blips on the computer screens that were still to come. The Star Trek franchise introduced us to science, theology, and social concerns we might not have tolerated, or even considered, in other ways without the fantastical peoples and cultures we watched every week.
There are so many other examples, it’s impossible to name them all. Think, though, of H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, the movies ET, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, the Dune books, to name just a few. I’m willing to bet one or more of them made some kind of impact on your understanding of your world at the time.
Terry Pratchett wrote that ‘Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.’ Why? In my opinion, because they usually invite us to be more inclusive rather than exclusive, more thoughtful and compassionate, to look forward to and work for a better world, and that frightens some people.
Fantasy helps us address our fears. Some may go at it through gentle humor, as Pratchett did, or bass-ackwards like Rod Serling usually did in The Twilight Zone, but these stories serve as our fables, our fairy tales and parables. According to W. H. Auden, ‘A real book is not one that’s read, it’s one that reads us.’
If we don’t read or write fantasy, I suggest we owe it to ourselves – and the world – to do so. Maybe, eventually, more of us will understand. As cute as they were, after all, even those little tribbles multiplied too fast.