Why Fantasy

Ally Bodnaruk

Fantasy and science fiction do something unique when compared to other, realist genres. They build entirely new worlds, with new ideologies and societies and cultures. They’re works of curiosity and trying to answer questions we don’t quite understand. From early foundational texts, like Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), that hunger for understanding, that questing zeal for exploration, is apparent. Works without any fantastical elements have an easier job explaining themselves to us, they share our lexicon and imagery, but works of fantasy and science fiction take that lexicon and reshape it into something unique. At a basic level, they allow us to examine specific elements of our own world in a new light, sometimes removing context that could otherwise make it difficult, or uncomfortable, to relate to a subject. It’s escapist, for sure, but it is also threaded through with demands to take another look at the world around you. Are you sure you understand what is happening around you? The grandeur of tales of swords and sorcery, or operatic dramas set in space, are also fun. They delight us with tales of impossible decisions, brave sacrifices, and worlds that are so far beyond our own. The magic of science, the science of magic; they appeal to our sense of wonder. Faint memories of fairy tales and folklore and the stories we make up as children. They take that desire to be spellbound and give it gravitas. It’s this duality in science fiction and fantasy that intrigues me so much. A fantasy story can be about grand battles and magic rings and world-ending danger and at the same time it can be about ordinary people simply doing their best and trying their hardest and succeeding. At the same time as a work of science fiction shows us heists and mysteries and technology so advanced it’s magic, it can explore deeply complex questions about identity and memory and how we construct our concepts of self. I recently read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, the 2020 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel, which exemplified this duality. On the surface this novel is a political intrigue; full of murder, espionage, fancy parties, and rebellion. But woven throughout it is an incredible discourse on institutional memory; language and the way it shapes our culture; the politics of conquest and colonialism; and the effect all of this can have on individuals. It glowed with complexity, but it also told a thrilling tale. You don’t get this level of suspension of disbelief and incredibly grounded themes from any other genres.

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