The Literature of Escapism: Part 1
The assumed purpose of reading a piece of escapist literature is to escape from reality, and while this in itself is no bad thing when taken in moderation, it may also be too literal a take on a seam of fiction that has rather more going for it. Below is an initial roundup of a personal selection of science-fiction and fantasy fiction, which reside under the umbrella of escapism; it in no way forms a definitive list, in fact it barely scratches the surface, and indeed that is where you, the reader, are meant to come in.
First, however, I would like to deal with the slightly dated view that escapism represents the polar opposite of realism, when in fact it can be both mirror and hammer of everyday life. To butcher Brecht. Reading fiction that could be loosely described as fantastical used to be a way of escaping life if it wasn’t to your taste, one example being C S Lewis’s Narnia providing his heroes with a universe far from wartime England. While we no longer need to divert the mind from the persistent threat of Nazi bombing raids, everyone arguably needs to retreat to some extent once in a while, we wouldn’t have holidays otherwise. But once you’re back, Asimov does not need to be condemned to deep storage along with Factor 30. He will do perfectly well for a commute, or a Sunday afternoon. I will admit that some Gibson is not suitable for reading directly before going to sleep, as you are liable to twitch and fret in a world of his making in your subconscious, and find the habitual world a little slow on waking. This may only extend to the deeply gullible and those who tend to watch a certain kind of film to excess. It took me a long time to admit that hoverboards really don’t exist. Yet.
To escape is a vacation for the mind and body; ideally not allowing the mind to become entirely vacant. While this approach to reading is not for snobs – some titles do indeed feature amulets, fabled weapons and misty unclad maidens – a rubbish title can conceal imaginative feats (of varying levels of intensity) in recognizable worlds. It is not all unrecognizable geography on Mars: George R R Martin’s appeal partially originates from that fact that his treacherous dynasties often chime with the bloodier chapters of European history. The habit of taking Lannister relatives as hostage before bumping them off in moments of acute ire after losing a battle is not galaxies away from Richard III’s treatment of the Princes in the Tower. In this way, escapist fiction is not a form of “literary pacifier” (in the words of Lev Grossman), it is however an entirely different kind of story. The writer is unburdened by some of fiction’s more restrictive traditions (such as time and space) but often recognizes that well drawn characters have universal power, Joe Abercrombie writes strong, believable and punchy female characters, for example. Hovering slightly outside our usual frame of reference can make you re-examine established ways of recounting a tale. Those obdurate Tolkien fans may hunt loyally for universal truths in the filmflop The Hobbit in vain, however this was because reading his books when you were little would entirely change your attitude to camping (how often does Frodo sleep in a bed?), food (is eating fruit cake like lembas?) and indeed spiders (how big can they get, REALLY). A childhood trip to see bluebells in the wood no longer ended with me in the car winding the windows up so I could get on with my book undisturbed, now I would eye the trees beadily, knowing that they were capable of playing up if treated carelessly.
Science and fantasy fiction also present effective ways of depicting reality – there is still death and deceit – they are often depicted in more lurid ways,however. In 1957, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in The Humanist about this very topic, noting, “it seem[s] rather ironic to me that science fiction is continually lumped under the heading of ‘escape literature,’ and usually as the most extreme kind, in fact. Yet it does not escape into the ‘isn’t’ as most fiction does, or the ‘never was’ as fantasy does, but into the ‘might very well be.’ In its best phases, if science fiction escapes, it is an escape into reality.” Even if you don’t agree with that, the fact is that the ubiquity of this kind of fiction virtually guarantees everyone has had contact with it. This is a self-defeating ignore it if you want but it is still coming type argument, but at the very least this genre deserves some recognition.
If your nostrils are still flaring at this point, then perhaps David Foster Wallace’s venture into the world of science fiction, or A S Byatt’s fairy story The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye could go some way towards changing your mind. Michael Chabon manages to combine time travel and detective fiction extremely successfully, if you are more of a Raymond Chandler fan. Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is said to be doing very well, hopefully enabling more women to read and then write this sort of fiction.
The time is not yet right to write yet more about Neil Gaiman (see our best books of 2012 post) but he certainly deserves a passing mention for American Gods and Neverwhere (recently made into a radio play by the BBC). the latter title features a darker, inverted London Below beneath the more established version of the city, whose citizens live in fear of the Angel of Islington, and Hammersmith is a living breathing giant of a man. Patrick Rothfuss has written the first two parts of a trilogy (The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear) about a brilliant magus with fiery hair whose story deserves more than my pithy summary. Suffice it to say the story is incredibly well mapped, the characters wonderful and every detail sucks you in until you too will be on poor Rothfuss’s blog pestering him about the publication date of the final installment. Scott Lynch is spared this indignity as the final part of his Locke Lamora trilogy comes out next month. I know this because I bullied a friend into enquiring in several New York bookshops until someone kindly explained that Google easily reveals the information required. I chose not to believe this, and wanted to get my mitts on it sooner via some sub-cultural connection with access to recently published tomes of fantasy fiction. Herein lies the problem: the secret is out. These books are really, really good as well as addictive. The sub-culture no longer exists, and holds sway in broad daylight, thanks to Phillip Pullman and China Mielville and every other creator of fully formed worlds sitting on top of our own. Or within it. The hook is the resemblance to our world as we know it, as Ray Bradbury summarized: “science fiction is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”
The literature of escapism offers the reader another form of elsewhere.