Science fiction and fantasy novels are considered, by some, as a rather low form of fiction, favoured by freaks and geeks. There is, however, a lot more to good examples of these genres than meets the eye. Some readers might think that they cannot relate to tales of elves, goblins, vampires and creatures from outer space, but I think they are mistaken.
Imagine that you are a writer who wishes to express an opinion about the current political climate. Perhaps you views are radical, and it would be unsafe for you to air them using a direct approach. Perhaps you feel that a dry, worthy article on a subject would not be read by the people you really need to reach. What better way to educate your readers than a fun tale about a fantasy or future world where all those boring issues are addressed in the course of an exciting adventure?
The most famous examples of this use of alternative settings to address political issues would be Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. Animal Farm is a sweet anthropomorphic tale about the lives of some cute farm animals, isn’t it? Well, yes, but it is also a powerful argument against communism. Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1943, a time when Stalin was held in high esteem by many of the intelligentsia in Britain. Based on the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath, the novel is scathing in its denouncement of communist ideology, and is still read by a much wider readership than any article written on the same subject.
1984 has a similar theme, but it is set in the future. Here, Orwell takes the concept of a controlling dictatorship to its ultimate extreme, with its omniscient ruler (Big Brother), able to see his subjects through a TV screen, rewrite history and control people’s thoughts. Orwell wrote this in post-war Britain, when he genuinely believed that this sort of government could become a reality. This novel still resonates today, with government interference being described as ‘Big Brother’ tactics by the media and general public. Once again, this is a widely-read, entertaining bit of fiction, which also happens to have an important warning cleverly woven into it.
The use of fantasy and futuristic settings to get a point across is not just a device to educate whilst entertaining. It is also a method of distancing the reader from the issues, thus encouraging him or her to view them objectively. The famous German dramaturgist and playwright, Bertolt Brecht, called this the ‘verfremdungseffekt’, better known to English speakers as the ‘alienation effect.’ Brecht understood that people often switch off if they think they are being told about something they believe they already know enough about. By putting familiar struggles and arguments into another time or place, a reader or audience member can view a situation with an objectivity that simply would not be possible if they were presented with a mere reflection of their own lives.
Margaret Atwood uses this technique to great effect in The Handmaid’s Tale. This novel presents the reader with a dystopian future in which women have, once again, become subservient to men. The only females permitted to have sexual intercourse are the handmaids, and that is only for the purposes of procreation. Like Orwell, Atwood uses the future to show us where our behaviour in the present might lead us in the future. The novel berates the modern young women who believe that feminism isn’t necessary any more, and are apathetic about women’s rights. Atwood could have simply given us a present-day gritty, realistic novel about young women sold into the sex trade, or abused by their husbands. Those are things we think we know about. We might be shocked when we read about them, but we aren’t surprised. The Handmaid’s Tale removes us from a present that only happens to other people, and drops us into a future that might happen to US. Now we are thinking about a present-day issue from a different perspective.
Of course, the relevance to modern, earthly existence isn’t always as serious and deep as that. Vampire novels have always had a sexual subtext. Nowadays, the classic vampire novel has been revamped (excuse the very weak pun, there), for a modern, teenaged audience. The Twilight series of novels aren’t really about blood-sucking monsters. They are about teenage relationship angst, and the difficulties of being an outsider. It’s a different take on an old theme.
Aliens are a great way of writing about racial prejudice. Erik Frank Russell’s short story, Dear Devil, is an uplifting tale about a Martian stranded on earth. Despite looking different, and an initial inability to speak the language of the humans he encounters, the Martian soon becomes loved by all. What a great way to teach the notion that we shouldn’t judge on appearances, and that different races can integrate. In other novels, we see the aliens invade the earth, a clear metaphor for the negative side of aggressive colonialism. Aliens from the planet Zarg are not so different from us, and even a poor science-fiction writer uses them to show us a distorted mirror image of ourselves.
The truth is, it is impossible for a writer not to write about human lives and perspectives, even when they are ostensibly writing about aliens, animals, vampires or goblins. Next time you pick up a fantasy or science-fiction novel, try reading it as a human. Think about the characteristics of the different creatures in those novels, and the human response to them. What is this novel telling you about the world you are living in today? Don’t close your mind to it by saying you can’t relate. Try. You might be surprised.
ABOUT EMMA FAWSON
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