In defence of fantasy and science fiction

A recent study reported in The Guardian paper found that reading science-fiction led to poorer recall and empathy with the characters among readers. Apparently, people who are already predisposed to dislike SF, would pay less attention to a story if it included trigger words such as ‘airlock’. 

Well, yeah. They don’t like SF, of course they’ll pay less attention when they realise it’s a SF story. It doesn’t take a study of 150 people to prove that. The report also didn’t cover what people who DO like SF scored in the tests afterwards. Which is interesting… 

And as SF and fantasy so often go together, it got me thinking: why do so many people have such a low opinion of genre fiction? 

At the time of writing, I’ve been a published fantasy author for four and a half months. I’m a fledgling and I’m not pretending otherwise. But I’ve loved genre fiction all my life, and I’ve never pretended otherwise there, either. I know what a lot of people think of genre fiction, and now I’m  (un)lucky enough to be experiencing it firsthand. It goes like this:

Them: What do you do for a living? 

Me: I’m a writer.

T: Wow, that’s amazing. Are you published? 

M: Yes, my debut novel came out this year. 

T: And what sort of a book is it?

M: It’s epic fantasy. 

T: *eyes glaze over slightly* Oh, going to be the next JK Rowling, are you? (Because I’m a woman, and can clearly only write children’s books about magic, while you clearly have no idea what epic fantasy is and are grasping at straws while simultaneously signalling how superior you are to me by dismissing me as a Rowling wannabe with no original ideas of my own.)

M: Actually, my work is more Game of Thrones than Harry Potter. 

T: *utter disinterest, then dawning curiosity* Oh. OH. Lots of sex, then, yeah? That sort of fantasy?

M: No sex. Lots of fights, betrayal, political intrigue, examinations of religious intolerance… And at this point I stop talking, because they’re not even looking at me anymore. They’re already thinking about something else, and what I do is dismissed as some silly game.  

So, why? Why is fantasy and science-fiction so easily dismissed? Why doesn’t it command the same respect as anything else? Why is it considered to have less value? 

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I wonder how much the above Bible verse has to do with it. Most parents will agree that anything that gets your kid to read is a good thing – comics, superheroes, witches and wizards, hobbits, different worlds. Anything. 

But that’s while you’re a child. Then you grow up and move on, allegedly. You put those silly stories behind you and read proper fiction, like a grown up. Though no one seems to agree on what ‘proper’ fiction is, because when I try and have a conversation about Shakespeare or Homer or the Beat generation, they look at me like I’m even crazier than I was before. 

Maybe ‘proper’ fiction is whatever is on sale in the supermarket, or they read on Twitter that someone won the Costa Book Award, so that’s proper fiction, or they mean the latest Jack Reacher novel (I’m not having a go at Jack – I’m using the popularity of the series as an example only). 

Because the perception is that genre books are simple books, that they have juvenile plots and hackneyed tropes, that they fill the world with magic and explosions so they don’t have to discuss real issues. 

Because they’ve never read Hothouse or The Road or The Handmaid’s Tale. They tried to read LOTR when they were kids and couldn’t get through it. They’ve never read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and they’ve seen A Clockwork Orange, so why read it?

They’ve never read genre novels that push boundaries, that examine love and life and self-expression, novels that examine the issues of the day in a framework positioned as other in order to dissect said issues without obvious finger-pointing.  

They don’t understand how a reader can have an emotional connection with a non-human character. Or believe in a world that doesn’t exist (let’s not even go into the enormous irony that is the made up worlds on TV and film they watch for six hours every day). 

But really, whose fault is that? Whose fault is it that they can’t form an empathetic bond with a fictional character that isn’t human, or even one that is human but lives on a spaceship or in a different world with a different level of technology? It’s not mine or yours and it certainly isn’t the book’s or the author’s; it’s theirs. And so they excuse their inability to emphathise by saying the work itself it as fault, that it isn’t engaging enough or complex enough or ‘real’ enough. 

But the genre ‘furniture’ that makes a sci-fi novel sci-fi, or fantasy into fantasy, is exactly that: furniture. It’s window dressing for your characters. Because it’s about the story – not where the story’s set. It’s about the interactions of characters – not how many legs those characters have. It’s about, at the end of the day, emotion. And fear is fear whether you’re in a house in Berkshire or a spaceship three light years from your home sun. 

These readers let preconceived notions of quality stand in the way and act accordingly. Millions of people ‘knew’ 50 Shades of Grey was a great book and so they bought and read it despite its myriad issues. But 50 Shades, and the latest Jilly Cooper or Mills and Boon can be dismissed as ‘holiday reads’, or a little bit of fun, a bit of escapism. A guilty pleasure. The implication is that after you’ve finished them, you’ll go back to reading ‘proper’ fiction.

Genre fiction doesn’t even get to pretend it’s a guilty pleasure. You read it, you’re a geek. If you’re a geek, you’re dismissed, someone who refuses to grow up, someone you can’t have a proper conversation with because they’re so divorced from reality. Someone unsophisticated.  

A study years ago found that something like 40% of people would lie and say they’d seen a film in order to seem more intelligent. I remember it vividly, because the film in question was The Shawshank Redemption. Now, I don’t know why you’d lie and say you’d watched it, when you can just sit and watch it. It’s an exceptional film, about love and the triumph of hope over all, about friendship and family and survival in harsh and unforgiving surroundings. My god, it almost sounds like The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it? Only Shawshank gets labelled great, and LOTR – while undeniably great – is only great “for a fantasy novel(s)”, or despite being a fantasy novel. 

I’m not saying don’t read anything other then genre. I’m saying read everything you can get your hands on. I’m saying read the difficult books, the challenging books. Books like Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympus are among the most difficult books I’ve read, because they’re hard sci-fi and my brain squeaks when it takes in stuff like that. But I’ve read them both twice, I own them both, and I will reread them again and again over the years. Because they have so much to say about society, about basic human emotions and behaviours, and the condition of living. 

So if us ‘geeks’ are willing to read outside of our preferred genres, maybe it’s time the nay-sayers did likewise. Don’t assume a story with the word ‘airlock’ or the word ‘magic’ is unworthy of your attention, because some of the most remarkable books in existence have been genre fiction: Brave New World; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 1984; Alice in Wonderland; Orlando… The list goes on.  And hopefully, it will continue to do so.




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