Fantasy literature

Why speculative fiction may be the best way to depict reality

The form exposes society and our lives in places that realistic fiction can’t touch.

In 2001, while receiving the Carnegie Medal for his children’s book The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, author Terry Pratchett said, “We categorise too much on the basis of unreliable assumption. A literary novel written by Brian Aldiss must be science fiction, because he is a known science fiction writer; a science fiction novel by Margaret Attwood is literature because she is a literary novelist. Recent Discworld books have spun on such concerns as the nature of belief, politics and even of journalistic freedom, but put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.”

Pratchett was England’s most popular author in the 1990s (before yet another fantasy author took over with her saga of a boy who knew magic), having sold over 85 million books worldwide in 37 languages. The Amazing Maurice is the tale of a cat and a group of rats fighting monsters and two-legged humans in a quest for their survival, and defies any categories – be it a metaphor, a children’s book or even a fantasy fiction.

For most of us, it’s the dragons who breathe fire, immortal vampires with icy smooches and marble skins, and werewolves and robots and faeries and artificial intelligence who want to take over the world – these are the things that take us back again and again to the speculative genre. We live in these make-believe worlds, we see them through the dragon’s eyes, through the wizard’s adventure, through the superhero’s flight in the sky. For those few hours a day, swashbucklers we, slay with our Valyrian swords, dashing away from the Nazgul, and facing the worst tormentors by becoming Jedi masters. For fantasy, be it in gaming or books or movies, is perceived by the majority as escapism and a desire to live in alternate realities.

A mirror to society

But for many authors like Pratchett, the purpose of fantasy is not to immerse yourself in another world so as to forget your own, but to reflect on your own society, to gaze into its gaping holes. In the same speech, Pratchett says, “Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking. The fantasy of justice is more interesting that the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic. In the book the rats go to war, which is, I hope, gripping. But then they make peace, which is astonishing.”

And the skilled writer that he is, he manages to reflect our society’s political and social milieu through satire, mirroring international bickering on climate change, the modern day obsession with television, ambitious politicians who force war in the name of justice, and even the disruptive role that everyday greed and cowardice play, all through a bunch of monsters and wizards.

In the same way, author Douglas Adams’s explosive Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) starts with a house being razed by authorities in a shire in England and parallels it to Earth being razed by an apathetic race of Vogons who follow processes, just like our administration. It makes us laugh out loud and then, perhaps, makes us think, reflecting on things like houses, towels and processes and filing systems that fill our lives.

In 1969, when The Left Hand of Darkness flipped the testosterone-seeped, thrill-seeking science fiction in the USA by exploring our preconceived notions on gender, author Ursula Le Guin had to actually write an introduction to the book to explain what she was trying to do. The novel explores a human race on an alien planet, which doesn’t have a fixed sexuality, changing genders month after month. In the introduction, Le Guin famously wrote that all artists are liars and so, “Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” In the same marvellous introduction, she also touches up how we believe in these packs of lies created in a make-believe world.

“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we're done with it, we may find – if it's a good novel – that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.”

Perhaps without realising it at first, Le Guin wrote on the power of stories and how inverting society in them changes both the writer and the reader and the world around them a little bit. With their work now codified as a sub-genre of science fiction, feminist authors try to look away from spaceship adventures, exploring society’s rigid gender, social and caste perceptions. For many have realised the power of stories to restructure and reinvent societies.

And it didn’t start in the West. I was able to find a short story, The Sultana’s Dream , written in 1905 and first published in The In, ian Ladies Magazine of Madras. Written by a Bengali woman Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, the story created a gender-reversed world where women run everything and men are secluded and in purdah. Imagine that power of this story on a teenage girl or boy in that era (or even now for that matter).

Subverting hierarchies 

Be it gender, caste or social hierarchies, there’s nothing better than speculative fiction to invert and reflect on your own society. For it is through delving into these false worlds and alternative realities, subverting the morals and values of society, exploring, extrapolating, and crawling through the dark seepages of the subconscious mind, that truth can be reached.

For me as a woman who has grown up within the contours of middle class morality in India, struggling with restrictions and biologically nonsensical rules, and dealing with aggression from males, writing and creating the fiction of Anantya Trantrist and her world, set me personally on the path of freedom in understanding and expressing my own personal body and gender. Which is how I could imagine to some extent what authors like Le Guin – and, before her, writes who touched on gender issues through SFF, such Mary Shelley (Frankenstien, 1818), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Herland, 1915) or Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1970) – felt when they inverted their patriarchal worlds.

Speculative fiction gives you that space, to break the world as you see it into pieces, and put them into a kaleidoscope, so you might be able to reimagine and rebuild another world, another society, created with lies and fiction but a truthful reflection of your own world. And through the journey, change bits and pieces of your own self and society.

Shweta Taneja is an author with a weakness for the occult, the eccentric and the oral traditions of Indian myths. Her latest book Cult of Chaos is a tantrik fantasy based in Delhi. 

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