Mike Brotherton, Science Fiction, and Escapism

Some time ago, I posted a link to a blog post by Mike Brotherton on why we need science fiction.  It’s a short but pointed read.  The main reason is this:  “Real life.”

I hope Mike doesn’t mind me stealing his title and his first two words, which contain his whole point.  After all, I did give him some link love as compensation.  And I will also note here that I think he is a roguishly handsome man.


There’s not a word in the essay with which I disagree.  But I still have some problems with saying so.  The reason why is the tendency among people who don’t like science fiction, or speculative fiction at large, to dismiss the entire genre as “escapist.”  Mike’s essay actually gives those people ammunition.  Not that I think many of them will read it, because they wouldn’t be caught dead visiting the website of a certified-astronomer-cum-hard-sf-novelist.  Still, I worry.

What’s worse, there’s some truth to the barbs.  In one sense, science fiction is indeed escapist.  It allows us to leave our world behind.  For a few hours, we’re not in our home even if we are.  We’re visiting other places, meeting other characters, living in their heads, and watching them grapple with their problems.  We are literally escaping our lives.

Of course, that could be said of any piece of fiction, from the tawdriest romance paperback to the most critically-acclaimed literary novel.  Yet (some of) those works escape opprobrium.  What people who deride science fiction actually seem to mean is something more specific.  The worlds are too exotic, too bizarre.  The people are too larger-than-life.  The problems are too world-shaking.  This is bad for some unspecified reason.  Head-rotting, brain-warping, or some such.  I confess I never did take the charges very seriously, so I never paid much attention to them.

Then again, maybe it’s just that we’re spending time in worlds that never did exist and never could exist.  Nothing is like it is in the “real world.”  But for most people, the real world hasn’t been so great these last few years.  Maybe that’s why fantasy and soft sci-fi have been making a real mainstream push lately, especially among the youth.  From the Harry Potter series to the Twilight saga to the latest Hunger Games craze, all of which can boast both best-selling novels and event films, people have been visiting our field more and more often in bigger and bigger ways.  This has tamped down the cry of “escapism” somewhat, although there are still those who cluck their tongues and shake their heads.

Is science fiction really escapist, though?  Well…


Sorry to be so blunt, but…

No.  No, I’m not sorry.

How is science fiction escapist?  Name one real-world issue or hot topic it hasn’t discussed extensively within its own pages.  Racism and other forms of prejudice, religion in both its uniting and divisive aspects, the formation and dissolution of communities, war and its effects on populations and soldiers, individual freedom versus collective safety, civic virtue versus extreme anarchism…and I could find examples of all of those just in Star Trek.  Name one subject science fiction hasn’t exploited for fiction material.  Philosophy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, psychology, language theory, history, politics, diplomacy, economics, gender and race theory, great literature…and again, I don’t need to go beyond Star Trek for examples.  Throw fantasy and horror into the mix as well, and you’ll simply get more examples.  How can any field that deals with so many current and former problems (albeit fictionalized) and calls upon so many areas of knowledge be derided as escapist?

Or is it that such fiction doesn’t deal with the minutiae of the real world?  (Which was Mike’s main point in his essay.)  Well, who cares whether it does or not?  Some of us might consider the absence of minutiae a positive boon.  In the real world, we have problems that clog up our days and keep us from seeing things clearly.  Science fiction can give us that clearer lens we lack, and can allow us to cut to the heart of matters facing us in our lives.  In the real world, we are encouraged to go along in order to get along.  Science fiction prods us in the other direction.  In the real world, our personal idols are made of clay and a hero falls every second Thursday like clockwork.  Science fiction (some of it, at any rate) gives us the uncorrupted, uncorruptible examples we need, so that we can carry them in our minds to inspire us to be better people and to face our own trials with dignity and honor.

But you know, some science fiction is escapist in the truest sense.  And I don’t have a problem with that either.  Take Jack Finney’s classic short story “The Third Level,” first published in 1950.  It’s not science fiction per se, but it’s speculative fiction anyway, and you’ve no doubt read it.  (If not, a copy is here, and you really should give it a peek.)

The hero of the story takes a wrong turn in Grand Central Station, and comes out on a train platform that will “take [him]…anywhere in the United States [he wants] to go.  In the year 1894.”  Alas, he leaves the level because he has to, and at the end of the story is shown trying to reach it again.  Why does he want so badly to go back to the late 19th century?  Because he wants to live a small-town life, peaceful and quiet, with no world wars and no horrific bloodshed.  Because he wants to escape from his crowded and stressful world.

Who among us could blame him?

Don’t we all occasionally long for that bucolic life?  Don’t we look at the world as it currently is and wish we could turn away from some of the things we see?  In fact, don’t we all occasionally want to wash our hands of our lives and our world, to jump on the nearest steam train heading back or spaceship moving forward, waving a cheerful goodbye as we abandon everything we knew for a better place?  Is that an escapist attitude?

Maybe.  But I submit to you that it’s also a rational desire.  To look at some of the horror and insanity that plague us today, and to be tempted on occasion to kick back and say “The hell with it all” while the world burns, is a mark of sanity.  I’m convinced that anyone who derides “escapism” so simplistically…well, there’s something not right about them.  And to be perfectly honest with you, they’re some of the people I wish I could get away from.

Them, and roguishly handsome men who make me look bad.

So:  is science fiction necessary to help us get away from real life?  Yes, no matter what sense of the phrase you mean.  And there’s not a blessed thing wrong with that.

Published in: on June 20, 2012 at 11:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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