When I was in my late teens a friend of mine told me: ”I don’t read fantasy and all that”—waving at my stack of sci-fi, horror and fantasy books—”because it’s not realistic.”
My friend was an avid reader of Danielle Steel and Catherine Cookson. Don’t get me wrong. I read Outlander. I quite enjoyed it, though mostly because the idea of going back in time intrigued me. I pick up the occasional Nora Roberts when I’m in that mood, though I draw the line at fifty shades of anything. That stuff, and let me be blunt here, is porn for women. I’m not bashing it, mind you. Clearly there is a market for it. There’s male porn – the sweaty, fleshy, in-your-face kind where things are seen that cannot be unseen – and then there’s female porn, otherwise known as Erotica. We’re people. It’s just one of those things. But it’s not for me. That’s not why I read.
I read because I want to be entertained. I want to leave the drab, everyday drone of bills and work behind, and fill my soul with things that make me go hmm. Usually I do that by reading about dragons and elves and aliens and the end of the world. Monsters under the bed, and monsters in our minds. Sometimes I join Nora in the western wilderness to find out just how friendly her leading lady’s new neighbor will turn out to be. I even enjoy the guilty pleasure of another Dirk Pitt adventure from time to time.
My teenhood friend had the obvious air of someone who knows they’re in the right. I didn’t contradict her. I worked in a bookstore, I knew perfectly well that the types of books I enjoyed don’t win the Nobel prize. It was fine; I’d been out of the speculative fiction closet since I nabbed a copy of O-Zone by Paul Theroux out of my dad’s bookcase when I was ten.
While I accepted her judgment, it didn’t quite sit right with me, even back then. Today it does even less so.
I’ve been happily married for 15 years, I think I know a thing or two about relationships by now. What’s in those Romance novels is no more realistic than alien slugs attaching themselves to people’s backs. What’s more is, I think it’s a precarious path to go. Reading Romance novels and expecting real life to resemble what you read is a fine way of setting yourself up for disappointment. I would even go so far as saying that expecting relationships to resemble Danielle Steel novels is like expecting sex to resemble porn. You’re gonna have a bad time.
Read it, enjoy the hell out of it if that’s your brand of beans, but don’t expect rose petal-strewn beds and a candle-covered mantlepiece every weekend. Despite what I read I don’t anticipate zombies any time soon, though I am holding out hope for replicators and holodecks.
If anything, I think speculative fiction lets us explore the human condition to the same degree, if not an even greater, than regular fiction. What better way to find out what it means to be human than when faced with something that isn’t? What we do when faced with things we don’t understand and how we treat each other under extreme conditions tells us who we are. Doesn’t it? Fantasy allows us to be political without actually being political, addressing issues without openly stepping on somebody’s toes, and thus opening up venues for communication that might otherwise not be there.
And perhaps the tide has really started to turn.
Over the last few years I’ve noted with keen interest how fantasy and science fiction have finally moved out of the basement. I think Peter Jackson started it back in 2001, but I could be wrong. There was also Harry Potter. Since then we’ve had Twilight and Game of Thrones, Divergent and Interstellar. Suddenly we’re discussing feminist aspects of Mad Max. We’re definitely out of the dusty utility room. Perhaps we’ve not stepped into the parlor just yet, but we undeniably have our own, legitimate chair at the kitchen table.