As a child I reread the Narnia books of C S Lewis annually until the covers fell off and then, after an interval of over twenty years, enjoyed buying new copies and reading them to my own kids. I was as unbothered in adulthood as I had been when young by the Christian allegory, which is integrated into the tales just as carrots are in a carrot cake: to satisfy the baker’s concern that there ought to be something “healthy” hidden inside what everyone else sees as a sweet confection. What mattered to me was not Aslan’s death and resurrection. What mattered was that in Narnia animals talked and children ruled a kingdom; magic was real, as I instinctively knew it to be, and was the foundation for those first two delightful facts.
Moreover, the possibility of travelling to other worlds and discovering that over there one could have talents unknown on earth was revelatory. In daily life I might be powerless to resist tyranny, fight injustice, or unmask lies, but there had to be a place where that was not so, a place where I could be the best version of myself: brave, strong, and independent. Not only free from the endless criticisms and unreasonable expectations of parents and teachers, but also able to make the world the great, good place I knew it could be. The place revealed by cross-country skiing through woods punctuated by the chatter of chickadees, or by lying under a summer sky undulating with purple and green auroras, or by canoeing past a loon whose eerie call was the true language of Earth.
The place that kept whispering, “There is beauty everywhere, and you belong to it.”
A holy space, both mental and physical, exempt from the frenzied demand to be “productive” in accordance with capitalist values. The place that rejected such measurements of worth and reminded us that being alive is a great mystery: a mystery each person has to solve for herself.
I fondly remember a series of books I devoured about alien children growing up on earth with telepathic abilities they had to hide from others. My subconscious just provided the letter “Z” as a prompt, and a little internet sleuthing revealed that these must have been stories by Zenna Henderson about “the people” published as Pilgrimage: The Book of the People (1961), The Anything Box (1965), and The People: No Different Flesh (1967). I was also reading Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and the rest at that time, but Henderson’s child-centred books spoke to me more deeply than most. I identified with them as profoundly as I did with Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin’s works and, later still, those of Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman.
What all these tales have in common is the moral imperative of solitary children to understand the purpose of their lives. They are variations on the hero’s journey, but instead of men with swords beheading monsters, they portray sensitive children negotiating dangerous worlds. The fervent hopes of children are seen as illusions by most adults, but although I am an adult now, quite a senior one in fact, I still feel hope kindle whenever I take refuge in such books. A hope—which has dimmed in my daily life—that it is possible not only to imagine but to actively pursue a better way for us to live on our own planet in our own time.
Well, you might reply, and with ample justification, such works are called science fiction, or even more emphatically fantasy, for a reason. They aren’t depictions of reality. Deep down you must know that you will never have telepathic powers or meet King Arthur or fight demons or aliens!
Of course I do. I also recognize that there are generic distinctions between fictions inspired by technology and science and those inspired by magic and mythology. But such distinctions mean little to me as a reader wishing to go somewhere other than the here and now. And from a writer’s point of view, the scaffolding required for each type of book is the same: it must be absolutely flawless, taking whatever proposition the setting and time proposes—whether Celtic Britain at the time of the Roman invasion or hermaphroditic people who can change gender every month or a planet without water—to its logical extreme. Every detail must click into place so that the reader never stubs her toe on an anachronism or inconsistency and awakens from the daydream in disappointment.
For many years I taught creative writing in the continuing education departments of the University of Toronto and Toronto Metropolitan University; a typical, though poorly paid, sideline for writers whose own work isn’t profitable enough to support them. Those of my students working on sci-fi or fantasy were invariably more dedicated than the others, because they had to be. Most toted notebooks (in the days before everyone had a laptop) filled with maps of all the different regions or planets in their novels; they had laboriously charted the cultural differences between the folks who inhabited those places, such as languages, religions, food, dress, architecture, agricultural practices, technology, and so forth. They created timelines for their books with several generations of each race, tribe, or magical creature; they made detailed lists of everyone’s special powers, and how they came by them, and what could be done to suppress them. The amount of planning required before they even started writing was extraordinary and impressive. Such authors can’t just scribble whatever they like. Every word has to contribute to, and conform with, the world(s) they have invented.
The online writing tribe has come up with a term for such writers: “plotters.” Their diametric opposites are “pantsers”—those who fly by the seat of their pants, trusting to intuition and inspiration. When it comes to my own practice I tend to be a plotter, so perhaps am temperamentally inclined to appreciate the thoroughness of others of my ilk. But I think it is more than that. I love sci-fi the same way I love historical fiction, preferring both genres to novels about the amorous adventures or the existential angst of urban singles, especially those written in the present tense, or in fragments, full of sardonic asides about popular culture or impossibly clever dialogue, dropping brand names or political references or scientific controversies for those who are hip to the zeitgeist. I am partial to literature that does the hard work of making a world, whether by scholarly research or through dogged invention, because such books are a ticket to ride. They take me somewhere else and make that place more real than the one I inhabit.
Such works tend to be more ambitious in their ethical evaluation of humanity. Their lens is so wide! Sci-fi may be the inverse of historical fiction in that it is purely imaginary, whereas the latter attempts to conform to fact, but both genres offer significant critiques of the things people and nations do and evaluate the outcomes of their actions. Which is to say they aren’t focused on the individual’s inner conflict as much as contemporary fiction is.
I concede that it is difficult to understand the long-term implications of events as they are happening; historical novels benefit from 20-20 hindsight because there is consensus about why certain events occurred as well as what their most important consequences are. Sci-fi and fantasy writers have an advantage over writers of historical fiction in this respect. They can project all that collective knowledge onto other places or times without worrying that readers will argue that what they are writing isn’t “true.” Still, I contend that the two genres have much in common.
A perfect example of the natural kinship of sci-fi and historical fiction is the trope of time-travel, which is hugely popular right now. I am inclined to assume this is because understanding our current age seems hopeless and therefore escape from it has become increasingly enticing. Writers write to understand the world, which is the same reason that readers read. Sadly, time-travel doesn’t exist, but were it to be invented one could revisit the past and experience how life truly was for its inhabitants. Living through other times with eyes open might lead to more meaningful action in the present.
This desire to know what really happened rather than relying on the conflicting interpretations of those who survived whatever it was is explored most profoundly by American writer Connie Willis. She has written several time-travel novels, most memorably The Doomsday Book, a heartbreaking novel about a future historian meant to observe Medieval Britain who accidentally gets sent back to, and survives, the bubonic plague, and Blackout and its sequel, All Clear, about three future historians observing events in England during World War II. The amount of research Willis had to do for these books was staggering and is only matched by the inventiveness and humour of her writing and exceeded by her astonishing empathy.
It is very hard to be objective about anything in daily life; we are overwhelmed by conflicting information and inhabiting a muddle of emotions and unrecognized motivations—not only our own, but also those of others. This being the case, it is difficult to know how to live. The allure of fiction has always been that it can demonstrate cause and effect and elucidate how and why things happen the way they do. It helps the world make sense, or at least make it seem endurable, if only for the short time that one is lost in a book.
—From CNQ 112 (Fall 2022/Winter 2023).
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