Caroline: Okay, I’ll go first. How are the science fiction and fantasy genres important? What makes them effective, valid, and worthwhile? 0
WR: That’s a really big question, and I’ll give you kind of a broad answer. I think science fiction and fantasy are—or if you want to use the umbrella term, which includes horror or speculative fiction, which is a nicer, academic term, but it’s still kind of an umbrella term—are important for a lot of reasons–and this kind of takes it in some sense back to our hero, Tolkien. They do offer a valid way to escape and all fiction does that, too. They also give us a way to—the word I’ve seen is a particular academic term called “cognitive estrangement,” and by that it means that you make the familiar different, strange, and by looking at the different or strange, you gain a perspective on it that you hadn’t before. So in that sense, when you are exploring another world, whether it’s one that’s made up—another planet, or in the case of a fantasy, is another place—by in some senses juxtaposing it against ours, you can see the world that you live in in a different, and hopefully fresher and more…it makes you see your own world in a way you couldn’t see it before. In that way, it lets you learn something about yourself, the world you live in, who you are, in a way that maybe you couldn’t do that before.
Science fiction in particular is famous for providing social commentary, social critique. The “What if?” question comes up: “What would the world be like if this were to go on?” In that sense it can be like a cautionary tale, or “Here’s a better way to do it,” possibly. Utopian and dystopian science fiction are always meant to be in juxtaposition or compared to the world that the writer or the reader lives in, and they potentially offer ways to think about this world in a way that’s constructive. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, she’s making a very pointed political statement about how women are treated, not just in the United States or in Western culture. Because everything that happens to women in that story, when they’re made breeders, when they’re, you know, all these things happen to them, they’re tortured, it’s already happened. She just puts it together in a particular maligned culture that is meant to be. She’s making a point about how women are treated. She’s making a point about how religion and God are used to justify this treatment, and that’s because it’s a theocratic takeover of the country.
“Battlestar Galactica”, which is one of my favorites, in a way is meant to be a commentary on the world that we live in right now: the war, the terror, the stresses of society. So I think science fiction and fantasy, in those ways, becomes a useful genre for helping us see ourselves, see the world we live in, see ways of interacting that would be useful to see from a distance and also close up. They also make us think about how things could be, how they might be if we could just do whatever needs to be done.