In Defense of Escapism

During a recent discussion over at Charlie Stross’ blog about genre fiction’s relationship to the Big Idea story, there was a sub-discussion about escapism and the role it plays in science fiction and fantasy. Naturally, a lot of science fiction authors and fans are a bit defensive whenever the subject of escapism comes up. For a long time, genre literature was dismissed as nothing but escapist fantasies, avoiding the hard work of discussing the issues of the world we live in by running off to fight over magic jewelry with orcs or flying off in rocket ships to punch bug-eyed aliens in the face, imperialistically.

I’ve long been fascinated by the dismissive criticism of escapism. A lot of it has to do with literalism, which in some ways is the opposite of escapism. The literlist tendency to take metaphorical story space at face value is the native perspective in mainstream non-genre literature. When English professors contemplate having an affair with the perky young grad student, there’s no wiggle room for interpretation as to what that means. There may be an existential metaphor at play in the prose, but it’s used as a device for extrapolating the actual emotions under discussion, unlike in genre fiction, where the brain swapping

machine is very rarely meant to be taken as an actual piece of prospective technology, but rather used as a mechanism for exploring gender and identity roles in society.

Both are valid methods of telling a story, it’s just that genre fiction requires a secondary set of skills to decode those sometimes obtuse or esoteric symbolism at play. This can be a challenge for people who don’t often read genre fiction. Their decoder muscle may be atrophied or underdeveloped. And so they may mistake an escapist story or escapist element in a genre fiction as a literal wish fulfilment. The desire of the author and the fans of that story to be somewhere else, doing something untrue.

This of course is not the case. Escapism serves a very real and valid purpose and is a useful tool in the story teller’s craft.

As an example, see the story from last year about the Chinese government banning time travelĀ  stories. They’re so afraid of loosing their grip on power, they’re trying to control people’s daydreams about a world where they never existed, or were stopped. That’s Science fiction come to life.

There’s a difference between dreaming up a better world as a way to calibrate your own desires and expectations, and forcing others to take your fantasy world, and the moral strictures that come from it, as serious policy. That’s dragging us to the other end of the spectrum: bleak nihilism (embrace, reality, it’s good for you!) on one hand and living in an untethered Lala land (clap harder, you sinner!) at the other.

Still, we have alot of elbow room in between. That’s the playground for Escapist literature, where we define our hopes and fears and build the memetic tools to conquer the later and make the former a reality (as as close to it as is humanely possible).

The many uses of escapism are apparent in genre fiction, but also in non-genre fiction as well.

Mad Men is all about escapism. The shape of our dreams and how they contrast with reality. The escapist element is almost meta in the case of Mad Men I mean, who doesn’t want to wear a slick suit and drive a 60s era Jag? But that’s just the hook. Once you’re in that world, you start to see it form the perspective of the various characters, which is where the real story takes place.

All the characters were born between the 1890s and 1940s, and we’re watching them go through the 60s, when all the social and technological change that had been brewing for a century came to a head. It was even obliquely pointed out in one episode, where an elderly receptionist died in the office. Burt Cooper, the oldest of the partners, eulogized her by saying she was an astronaut. She was born in a log cabin and died in a sky scraper, 30 stories in the air.

As the series has gone on it’s become clear that it’s about these characters who were raised in one world and now find themselves living in another one they couldn’t have imagined growing up and confounded daily by the differences between expectation and experience.
Mad Men is one of the most SFnal shows on television even though its fantastical elements are restricted to the occasional dream sequence or drug trip. But it addresses the very core concept of Speculative Fiction, especially of the New Wave variety (I’d swear Season 5 was written by JG Ballard if I didn’t know he was dead).

Coming back around to the topic that launched this discussion about Escapism, I think the reason why it doesn’t seem like SF has a purpose any more, is because all of our contemporary fiction has become Science Fictional. Even the straight realistic period dramas address themes that were until recently, the purview of genre fiction.

Now that all fiction is addressing large social, technological and existential dilimas through a conscious lens of “what if”, all that’s left is too choose your tropes and setitngs. You can set your drama in an ad agency in 60s Manhattan or on a space ship in the 24th century. But it’s going to address the same topics. Which of course brings us back around to defending escapism as a valid and even necesary element of story telling.

Escapist fiction is a dialogue with the culture we live in. It gives our dreams of a better world a shape. It forms the vocabulary of the worlds we wished we lived in, allowing us to contrast that with the world we do live in.