Escapism and Imagination

I stumbled across a debate yesterday on the topic of escapism, worldbuilding, and speculative fiction. I had initially intended to contribute my own thoughts to this discussion, but after having perused a number of _other_ opinions on various websites and blogs, I doubt very highly that there is anything I could add that hasn’t already been said a dozen different ways already. So, allow me a moment to rabbit trail from that discussion and go in a slightly different, but related, direction.

One of the claims often made about speculative fiction is that people immerse themselves in it as a way to escape from the realities of life for a little while. I’m comfortable with the notion that at least _some_ people who read speculative fiction do, indeed, read it for this exact purpose. But I’d like to explore the question of why _do_ people read this genre. Surely not everyone who enjoys speculative fiction seeks to escape real life, right? Because wouldn’t that mean that people were so ill-adjusted to real life that they can’t cope with reality?

An anecdote to provide a counter-example:

I’ve always enjoyed speculative fiction. I remember that some of my first real writing assignments in grade school were typically science fictional in nature. I also remember that most of my peers really enjoyed those stories, so I would often read them aloud in front of the whole class.

In writing those stories, I wasn’t trying to escape real life – I simply had a very active imagination. I spent hours with some of my best friends re-enacting episodes from the cartoons _Silverhawks_ and _Thundercats_. I loved anything that involved advanced technology and travel through space, new worlds, alien races. I even had, for a while, an imaginary world of mice and cats, where the mice had very fast vehicles that raced through tunnels and where the cats constantly tried to capture the mice when and where they periodically emerged from one tunnel section to speed toward the next. I would tear through the neighborhood on my bike, imagining myself as one of these mice who was continually able to outwit the cats, albeit always by a slim margin. It wasn’t escapism – it was merely an imaginative kid having fun.

As I’ve grown up, though, my imagination has gotten no less active. I still find advanced technologies and magic to be endlessly fascinating. I think it revolves around natural human curiosity and ambition to see new things and do even more than we can currently. To some extent, I almost think that a fascination with speculative fiction encompasses the hopes and dreams of a better, more productive future. Could be I’m all wet, too, but I think I’m at least partially right.

Sure, I suppose there’s a bit of escapism involved in even _my_ interest in speculative fiction, but it’s certainly not my primary attraction to the genre (I don’t even think it’s particularly high on the list). Mostly, for me, it’s just fun and enjoyable and brings the kid in me out to the surface – and I suspect I’m not alone in this.

So, what is it about speculative fiction that most attracts _you_ to the genre? What do you love about it? And is there anything you hate about it?

4 thoughts on “Escapism and Imagination”

  1. I read a lot of spec-fic, but on the other hand I read a lot of other things as well too. I think escapism is a factor regardless of whether we’re talking fantasy, sci-fi or something less fantastical. Many readers will admit that when they read genres like romance, adventure or crime, there’s an escapism element to their enjoyment. I don’t think that means any of them are hiding from reality though necessarily.

    I write spec-fic primarily because I enjoy stretching my imagination. There are fewer limitations on created worlds than there are on stories set in the real world. That adds to the fun.

  2. Something from my Christianity, Truth & Culture class that I thought up, it’s raw & random, but here ’tis:

    “Movie plots are routine breakers.. actors are our vicars. The quality of plot writing is based in understanding and the ‘deeper’ side of life.. logic, etc.. the quality artists know one thing & do it well..”

    I have a thing for trying to settle the craziness in the world.. artists are visionaries, they aren’t concerned with my own endeavor- they’re off building their own experience.. and the great ones know something in this world better than the rest of us and communicate something deep about it.

    As to Stephanie’s comment, it’s the “fewer limitations” that drives me up a wall :) I can’t expect anything when I read a sci-fi. I like my little box of expectations ;)

  3. I think the most enjoyable speculative fiction is the kind where the author can take a common human experience or philosophy and extrapolate it artistically into a completely new and different universe so that it reveals something new about that experience or philosophy. He essentially presents it in such a way that it forces the reader to look at from a different perspective, thus causing the reader to think about it, work through it. The best speculative fiction writers I’ve read are the ones who can induce an intellectual process in the minds of their readers.

    Mark, there’s always a bit of the unexpected in speculative fiction because as Stephanie has pointed out, there’s a thousand different directions in which the writer can take a story. But it’s also standard wisdom in the speculative fiction community that whenever you create a new universe, you establish a set of rules for operation within it, limitations about the kinds of things that can and cannot be done. The writer who wants to create a successful and enjoyable story will establish these rules relatively quickly in the story and then not deviate from them by changing or adding rules as he goes. Once set, such rules should be cast in stone, else the writer risks losing his audience.

  4. I would certainly agree with that last point. One of the most jarring things a writer can do I think when it comes to speculative fiction is change the rules half-way through. It disrupts any happy suspension of disbelief that’s going on, and in a weird way is almost a betrayal of the trust that has been formed between writer and reader.

Have anything to add to the conversation?