Fantasy and science fiction are genres very near and dear to my heart. I grew up on fantasy series such as Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. Late in middle school I developed a taste for science fiction, in particular Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern and Crystal Singer series. Now, fantasy and science fiction are intricately woven into my life, from what I read to what I watch on TV to how I connect with others.
Despite this love for these genres, however, I still find myself hesitating to tell people that I write such stories. Why? Well, the answer is very simple: these genres are not seen as “literary.”
Keep in mind, the term “literary” is incredibly subjective and difficult to define. For some readers, it merely requires a high standard of writing. For others, the works have to be more character-driven than plot-driven, pedestrian fiction rather than anything more extraordinary, addressing specific socio-cultural or socio-political themes, or, most frustrating to me, only within “realistic” genres.
No matter what the definition, fantasy and science fiction are almost never included. Unfortunately, the more vocal members of the writing community tend to look down upon anything that they do not consider “literary,” thus suppressing works from other genres which could, in fact, change the world.
This bias doesn’t just exist within the writing world and literature. George Lucas was rejected repeatedly by studios when pitching the first Star Wars movie because science fiction was “for children” and a “dead genre.” (Well, George Lucas sure proved them wrong, didn’t he? It almost destroyed him, but he did.)
These genres are considered “popular fiction” and, some argue, “low brow.” Yet when we put down any genre like that, we give into elitism and ignore the possibilities lying in wait.
Fantasy and science fiction give us an empty canvass on which we can paint any story, any socio-political and/or socio-cultural commentary, that we can imagine. The fantastic settings that these genres provide us give us virtually free reign to explore human nature without all of the restraints we face in realistic genres.
I think that Ursula K. Le Guin put it best in an article for Smithsonian Magazine in 2014:
Anything at all can be said to happen [in the future] without fear of contradiction from a native. The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.
Science fiction and fantasy–whether it takes place on a planet far away in the year 3130, a land untouched by technology but ruled by magic, or side-by-side with our own world–allow the writer to explore what matters most to him/her with only the restrictions they put on the worlds they built themselves. The struggle for a planet like Pandora becomes a metaphor for colonization; Middle Earth serves as the battleground between man and nature; and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix illustrates the issues of governmental oppression, censorship, and the injustice of imprisonment without a proper trial.
Many works in these genres take advantage of this potential; even if the writers don’t purposefully include any socio-political/socio-cultural commentary, the themes still slip into the narrative. However, I feel that writers and readers both could recognize and utilize this potential more readily. After all, these genres aren’t just “children’s stuff” or “low-brow popular fiction.” They are virgin worlds waiting to be explored.
What do you think? Do you think that science fiction and fantasy could be used for socio-political and socio-cultural commentary? Do you think that writers take advantage of this potential enough or that readers recognize it? Or do you think that these genres just belong to the world of trade paperbacks, a relaxing read for when you want to escape and be entertained? Is there a happy medium between the two extremes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!