I spent this morning engaged in a strange kind of passive warfare with a spider in my apartment. I like to think of myself as someone who is usually quite capable of dealing with the world as it presents itself, and normally I am, but this spider was seriously something like two inches across its legspan and I just freaked out. I saw it when I first left the shower, bleary-eyed and damp, and spent the next hour or so monitoring its progress. Eventually I gave up and called a friend to come over and kill it for me, which I'm not particularly proud of, but there you have it.
This kind of thing is, I think, what shapes real life. We all go through our days dealing with things like spiders in the bedroom and raccoons in the garbage, the people who shout unintelligible curses at you on the street, the milk that's gone bad in the refrigerator and the dishes that always need washing -- all the small obstacles in our paths, day by day. I feel sometimes that I have more than my fair share of these, especially on days that I ride the bus. Especially on days that the strange man who wears gardening gloves and encourages the bus driver to skip stops also rides the bus.
It's been said many times that escapism is part of the appeal of fiction. Well-crafted fiction can draw you into its world so thoroughly that the rest of the world disappears. These are the novels and stories that cause you to miss your stop on the subway, or stay up until three in the morning, because they've got such a hold on you that you can't let them go long enough to return to the rest of your life. I've got a couple of favorites that I read and re-read, to help me through those times when the world is too much to handle.
Speculative fiction adds another element to the escapism of fiction -- the possibility of change. Speculative fiction takes place in a world not our own, and we can see in it the multitude of ways that our world could become something else. To draw on one of the most obvious examples, I know a number of people who love Star Trek, campiness and bad science and all, because it's a window into a world where they've moved past so many of the problems that plague us. It's a moneyless society, where replicators can give you any object you want and they've even conquered the common cold. No matter what ridiculousness befalls Our Heroes, you know that they're never going to be facing danger with hay fever, or realizing only too late that someone's finished the last box of cereal and forgotten to buy more.
The thing is, sometimes the escapist nature of fantasy grates on me. It's why I had to stop reading Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long books -- I was drawn at first to the idea of that free-love community where the men were all charmingly responsible and the women were cheerfully fertile, where everyone was happy and libertarianism actually worked. Eventually, however, my brain rebelled. I couldn't suspend my disbelief for long enough to accept that no one was ever tired of the kids, that jealousy and homophobia could always be resolved with a quick series of enlightening discussions, or that not one single character ever had the kind of day where your nerves are just on edge for no particular reason and even the voices of your loved ones grate like nails on a chalkboard. In the world that I live in, some kinds of personal conflicts don't ever get resolved no matter how openly and honestly you talk them through, and menstrual cramps are not just a product of my imagination.
It's the rough edges that make things real. I remember the first time I read Pat Cadigan's Synners. I was startled by how real it all seemed -- a shiny cyberpunk future where traffic monitoring systems were still half an hour behind realtime, and the all-encompassing Internet still got computer viruses, and there were still drunken homeless people and broken vending machines. It was a vision of a future where technology couldn't actually solve all of our problems, but it wasn't technophobic or dystopic. Just true to the experience of living in this imperfect world filled with imperfect people.
All of this leaves me with the question -- how much reality do I want in my fiction? I'm afraid there's no easy answer for that. I don't need my fictional heroines to encounter Garden Gloves Guy on the bus every day, since I think I want to preserve the illusion that this particular kind of reality is an aberration rather than a commonplace occurrence. There are a lot of interesting questions raised by the intersection of reality and fiction, though -- do the megalopolises of the future still have raccoons raiding the trash cans? When people are living in sealed-atmosphere bubbles on the Moon or Mars, what do bored teenagers do to get away from their parents? If technology can give us all new bodies someday, what happens to the women's fashion magazine industry? And, most pressing on my mind at the moment, am I still going to have to deal with spiders in my bedroom after we've all moved to the space station?
Susan Marie Groppi is a Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.
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