26 April 2011

Why Read (Speculative) Fiction?

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Today I gave a two-part guest lecture to a bunch of Cornell freshmen. The first part of the lecture was The Science of Red Mars, which you can read about over here. But since this writing seminar (taught by my officemate) might be the only course that some of these students take which involves reading fiction and writing about it, my officemate encouraged me to talk a bit in general about reading fiction, and particularly speculative fiction. I figured that since I already put together the guest lecture I might as well post it here!

If you don’t like reading fiction for fun, I hope that I can convince you to give it a shot, and if you do like reading speculative fiction for fun (which I suspect is much more likely) I hope this gives you some food for thought about why it’s fun to read. And when you hear someone question why any adult would “waste their time” reading about dragons or spaceships when they could read “grown-up fiction”, you’ll have some handy responses!

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of why I like reading for fun, and why I particularly like speculative fiction (SF) is escapism. “Escapist fiction” is often used as a derogatory term by people who don’t like a certain genre, but if you’re being honest, all fiction is escapist. And there’s nothing wrong with this! Everyone needs a break from the stresses of day-to-day life, and reading a good book provides that break. There are three elements to any good story that allow it to immerse a reader and stay compelling page after page.

Escapism is more than just a nice setting, though it doesn't hurt.

First of all, the reader must be able to relate to the characters, but the characters must be “larger than life” in some way. An interesting character will do things that the reader wouldn’t dare to do in the real world. This inevitably leads to the second key ingredient: interesting conflict. Oddly enough, to escape from our own troubles, we need to worry about a character’s problems instead. More on this in a minute. The third key ingredient is an interesting location. This is especially prominent in SF, where the location need not exist in the real world.

I gave the students an example of two possible stories to illustrate my point about these three key ingredients: Would you rather read about a Cornell student who is struggling to pass their final exams while maintaining a social life, or a Cornell student who drops out of school to join the circus and falls in love with his insane boss’s wife? I’ll give you one guess as to which option is a bestselling novel and newly released movie.

Ok, so a good story uses those three ingredients to immerse the reader. But why does the reader enjoy it? One interesting take on this comes from the author David Farland, who suggests that people like stories because they serve as an “emotional exercise”:

Your subconscious mind does not completely recognize the difference between your real experiences and those that occur only in the imagination. […]

When the story ends and Frodo is safely back in his Hobbit hole reading from his book, your stress is released. You sit back in your chair and sigh, and say, “Wow, what a relief! I feel so much better!”

And the truth is you do feel better.

You’ve just performed an emotional exercise, very similar to a physical exercise. Reading is to the mind as aerobics is to the heart and lungs. Because you have performed this emotional exercise, you will be better able to handle the little stresses in your day-to-day life. The minor problems at the office seem to diminish in intensity and even the major catastrophes aren’t so intimidating.

Farland argues that the actual physiological response of the body to the stress experienced by reading (or viewing or hearing) the story, and the relief that you feel when conflict in the story is resolved is why people enjoy stories. It’s a very interesting theory, and I like the idea of stories as an exercise, allowing the reader to experience strong emotions in a controlled environment. I don’t know whether it’s true that this makes a person more able to handle stress in real life, but I don’t see how it could hurt!

So far, both the escapism and emotional exercise provided by stories are not confined to SF. You can get these by reading any fiction (and even some nonfiction), so why read SF? Guy Gavriel Kay, author of many excellent “historical fantasy” novels has some insightful reasons:

“[…]the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.”

This really rings true to me. If you start reading a story about the real world, you go in with a lifetime of knowledge and assumptions about the real world, and the story needs to fit with most of this if you’re ever going to believe it enough to get immersed. In SF, the author and the reader have an unspoken agreement that certain rules have changed and that allows both of them to focus on the important parts of the story rather than getting bogged down in details and preconceptions.

Under heaven is set in a fictional version of medieval China, allowing the author to focus on the story and not have to worry about fitting it in perfectly with real events or people.

Of course, doing away with all the rules and preconceptions that readers bring to the story will result in nonsense. But changing only a few things can lead to one of the most powerful aspects of SF: the thought experiment. By changing a small number of variables while keeping everything else the same as the real world, an author can explore all sorts of fascinating ideas that would be impossible, uncomfortable or even dangerous to write about in the “real world”.

Choose your favorite dystopian vision of the future or post-apocalyptic tale to see this technique in all its glory. In the case of Red Mars, which started this whole guest lecture, the author assumes that certain technologies have advanced enough and that there is enough political will to make colonizing mars feasible. Then, he uses that tiny tweak to the rules of the real world to explore everything from politics to economics to the morality of terraforming and longevity treatments for the rich or privileged.

Bottom line, sure reading (speculative) fiction is lots of fun, and escapism is a perfectly good reason to read, but the emotional excercise of fiction can help you cope with stress in the real world. SF has the added advantage that by stripping the real-world distractions from the story, the more universal messages can shine through more clearly. Plus, by changing the rules just slightly and then following the effects of those changes to their logical conclusion, SF can act as a powerful tool allowing us to look carefully at fundamental questions about the real world.

So, what’s next on your reading list?