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Why Bother with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror?

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“That stuff’s for kids.”

“Elves and trolls and aliens are silly.”

“None of it’s real, anyway.”

“It’s all escapism.”

“Those are boy books.”

Many people wouldn’t be caught dead holding onto The Hobbit, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Not everyone is going to enjoy SF; some people won’t get a kick out of fantasy; and others may shudder at the very thought of horror. That’s a question of taste, and really who am I to argue with an individual’s tastes? But saying that a particular genre isn’t to your taste is very different from blithely discounting the entire oeuvre. The latter is like a toddler insisting that they don’t like a dish they’ve never tasted before.

Many grown-ups wave genre fiction away by saying that it’s for kids. I get it: it’s an easy argument, really. Society’s perception already pigeon-holes it, so playing to that misconception is an easy out. And history — genre’s roots in the pulps, the Victorian fairy tales for children, etc. — all lend it credence. But on closer examination, this argument falls apart on several levels:

On the one hand, it is factually inaccurate. No one can seriously argue that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are books for children. Thoughtful kids might get some enjoyment out of the adventure, but the themes these books wrestle with are definitely of concern to adults. This applies across the genres, where at least since the 1950′s the majority has been written with an adult audience in mind.

On the other hand, this argument forgets that kids are much more discerning readers than adults. Consider how easily kids see through weak plots, how quickly they stop caring about milquetoast characters, how they lose interest when the pace sags. When was the last time you saw a ten-year old enjoy a Saul Bellow book? If the purpose of literature is to entertain, and to broaden our understanding of the human condition, then I think we’d be hard-pressed to find books that execute better than middle-grade and YA fiction. Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. They’ve sure got some fantastical elements to them (teleportation to alien planets, talking animals, and Never Never Land respectively), don’t they? But they employ fantasy as entertainment and to highlight themes that speak to our hearts. Kids’ books — and all genre books, whether targeted to kids or not — use fantastical elements as tools to highlight their themes. Bear in mind that kids see right through pretension, and have no patience for it.

One can argue that elves and ray-guns and monsters are silly, unrealistic, and as a result offer no value. They might be entertaining, but who cares about entertainment? All of us, I’d wager. We read books, watch TV, listen to music to be entertained. Sure, we also want to have our horizons broadened but first and foremost we want to be distracted from the concerns of daily life. One can sneer at such escapism, but escapism relaxes us and makes us more productive. How is that a bad thing?

I’ve seen folks denounce genre fiction to a room full of fans as “mindless entertainment” — strangely enough, I’ve never seen anyone say the same about watching football at a sports bar. Entertainment in and of itself has value, and genre fiction simply employs a bigger toolkit than “mainstream” fiction. Using monsters to provide a concrete visualization of humanity’s dark side is a time-honored storytelling tradition that dates back to the first fireside ghost stories. If we reject genre for employing such tools, then so too must we reject classic myths, legends, and folk tales.

About Chris Modzelewski