Hello! This is Dan Glauber, Adult Services Librarian and resident science fiction and fantasy nerd. I started reading fantasy at a young age and it helped me get through a lot of difficult times. The written word can create doors to new worlds. In fact this is the subject of the book I’m currently reading, “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow. But I’ll be discussing that book next week in my next video review.
Many readers think that they can’t relate science fiction or fantasy because of the differences between our world and the sometimes fantastical worlds of the genre. But the best of these books go beyond the gimmicks of the genre to create complex characters. In fact these books use the flexibility of being able to break the rules of reality to explore ideas, concepts, and emotions in new ways. Characters can be nuanced and layered even if they exist in a place or time radically different than our own.
Best-selling author Ian McEwan’s latest novel “Machines Like Me” asks whether a machine can understand the human heart—or whether we are the ones who lack understanding. In an interview with The Guardian from April 14th, 2019, McEwan discussed the ability of science fiction to address real issues.
“McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”
You can read the rest of the interview here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/14/ian-mcewan-interview-machines-like-me-artificial-intelligence
The duality of the genre, escapism vs. literary fiction, is not a new phenomenon. In 1954 psychoanalyst Robert Lindner published a two-part article in Harper’s Magazine. The article, entitled “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” details Lindner’s interactions with a young man he calls Kirk Allen (not his real name) who seemed to believe “that he was living part of his life on another planet.” https://harpers.org/archive/1954/12/the-jet-propelled-couch/. Kirk’s fantasy world was based on a series of novels he read as a teenager. The protagonist apparently shared Kirk’s first name and Allen began to imagine that the books were actually biographies of his own life. Here is the ultimate example of science fiction as escapism; Lindner believed that Allen, who was a smart man and a physicist, escaped into this imaginary world because of childhood trauma.
Superhero movies provide another example of the potential of science fiction and fantasy for both escapism and serious fiction. It may be hard to take superheros seriously given their propensity to run around in tights and capes. The classic Batman tv series starring Adam West as the titular hero is famously campy. Executive Director William Dozier described it as the only situational comedy on television without a laugh track. In contrast the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy took itself very seriously and attempted to delve deep into Batman’s rather twisted psychology. More recently the 2019 film The Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, addresses issues of mental illness and violence and earned 11 Academy Award nominations. Check out this article from The Atlantic to read more about the recent history of superhero movies: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/marvel-superhero-movies-comedy/550904/
Of course the truth is that science fiction and fantasy can be escapist or serious. The genre has the potential to help us see our own world in a different light or to give us a temporary escape from reality. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in “The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction” that
“A person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story – from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
If you’re interested in reading comic books or graphic novels the Westchester Library System offers free access to Comics Plus Library Edition: https://westchesterny.comicsplus.app/ Just sign in with your library card and pin number. If you need help you can email us at email@example.com.