Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Knife of Dreams

Oh, the haughtiness of "well-read" people when they talk about science-fiction or fantasy. It is a thing to behold.

Apparently, the folks at work don't know that I'm a great big nerd. I guess that's not surprising now that I think about it. How would they know? But I had a tough morning and so I needed a brain-break at lunch. I'm an hourly employee and so have to take a half-hour unpaid break. Normally, there are other folk in the kitchen with me as I eat, but the last couple of days, people have been eating at their desks. (As a side note, am I the only person in the world who thinks that if there is more work for me to do than can get done in 40 hours, that's my manager's problem? I mean, seriously, pay me a salary and pay me more if you want me to eat lunch at my desk and work unpaid overtime. I'll go back to teaching if I want to do that much work.) So, I took my book with me to help me stop thinking for a little while.

Now, last night I started Book 11 of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. You remember, I read the series through again while I was on the island. Each book is about 950 pages long and it's the only fantasy series that I read. The others are just too formula for me. I can understand their appeal; I read Anne McAffrey for the same escapist reasons. But, somehow, hack-and-slash sword-and-sorcery just don't do it for me. I'd rather play Dungeons and Dragons for that. But, I was sitting in the kitchen at work, reading this giant book when one of the women asked what I was reading.

"Just my fiction." I really was looking for a brain-break and socializing wasn't part of it. This answer had deflected a colleague earlier. In fact, I continued after answering the question, "I need a brain-break today so thought I would disappear into it for awhile.

Well, apparently she didn't get the hint and probed a little deeper: "Wow, that's a big book," she said.

"Yeah, it's the 11th in what was supposed to be a 10-book series. I'm a little hooked."

"Well, it must be good; you're a pretty literary kind of person. What kind of book is it?"

"Well, a pretty literary friend recommended it to me, otherwise, I never would have read it because it's high fantasy. It's the only epic fantasy series that I read, though." Now, I wasn't hiding my nerdhood. In fact, I was kind of openly displaying it. By announcing that I discriminated between some kinds of fantasy and not others, I announced that I actually held an opinion about sub-sets of the science-fiction/fantasy genre. Opinions generally indicate interest, if not actual informed experience with a topic.

But she didn't hear any of that subtlety. She heard a denial that I normally read fantasy. And she proceeded to attempt to find common ground with me by making fun of those folks who do! She told a little story about this writers groups of about 12 people that she's in and how 3 or 4 of them are "science-fiction" types, hushing her voice in that way some people when they say the word, "cancer." She continued on about how the stories that they brought to the group were always so weird and when it came time for them to name the writing exercises, they always picked themes that she didn't like writing about.

I didn't correct her and I think she must have ultimately sensed my desire to get back to reading and she went away. But it got me thinking along lines that I've thought along before. What is it that makes science fiction and fantasy so objectionable to people? Is it really so different from other types of books?

I love science-fiction and fantasy because from a very young age, the images from the stories appealed to my kind of imagination. Some people can easily see themselves as cowboys or settlers or pirates. I see myself on a space colony or as a feisty pick-pocketing maid in a kingdom somewhere. (Needless to say, Little House on the Prairie has never held any appeal for me.) I loved stories of gnomes and ghosts and fairies and aliens and gods and monsters. My first library memory is of finding the Greek myths section in my schools library. I have an exact picture in my mind of what the quality of light coming in the window was and exactly the location on the shelf where I found it. The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Return of the Jedi, when I must have been 5. I remember returning from the bathroom and seeing Admiral Ackbar turning around in his dentist chair with that white set behind him. That's means I'd already seen the first two on VHS when I was even younger. I guess, if I had to summarize the appeal of SF and fantasy, I have always loved that there could be something out there that was wonderful. Wonder-full. Full of wonder because it was not real. Because it couldn't actually happen, there were no limits and I loved it.

As I've grown older, I've also learned to love the trappings of a SF/fantasy lifestyle. I'm also fascinated by the psychological ramifications of myth and archetypes. Also, I was in high school during the rise of Bill Gates, when all-of-a-sudden it became cool to be a nerd and hipsters everywhere began boasting that they loved Tolkien before there was ever a movie other than the old cartoon. When it comes down to it, good science-fiction and fantasy stories are just stories about people. The basics of story always apply: a stranger came to town or a man went on a journey. In fact, SF and fantasy can capture the human experience better than regular fiction because the foreign nature of the setting allows the universally human characteristics of their behavior to stand out in stark relief.

I believe science fiction and fantasy are necessary for the other, more literary genres to exist. I felt this so strongly that I wrote my senior thesis in college on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Postmodernism, trying to prove that point. The inarguably toughest grade on campus, Dr. O'Gorman, doubted me heartily when I proposed the topic, showing all of the haughtiness that my colleague showed today. How would I ever find enough research to support my statement since it wasn't "real" literature? But, in the end, she gave me a A-, which she never would have done if I hadn't adequately proven my point.

I believe that the stories of science fiction and fantasy are necessary for our society to actually progress as time goes by rather than simply making lateral changes as the inevitable human curiosity brings more and more technology into the world. Ursula K. LeGuin said in 2001 that science fiction is relevant to all thinking people because "All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn to millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos become elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think." Those who read science fiction have already considered that life in the future might be different than life today. Those who read fantasy realize that people are always people regardless of their surrounding and so respond to events in life predictably whether they are bold warriors or common business men, whether they are hedgewitches of housewives. Isaac Asimov says, "It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account no only the world as it is, but the world as it will be . . . This, in turn, means that our statesmen, out business men, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking." Those of us who are not stuck in the mindset that only "literature" is worth reading might very well find ourselves more successful than those who do insist (like my colleague and my professor did) that only Faulker and Barthelme are worth reading if we apply the lessons that we learn about humanity to our lives.

My mother has always been mystified by my love of such "weird" books. When I was young, she often attempted to bring home books that might draw my attention elsewhere. I think she was looking for common ground between us so we could have something else to talk about since I obviously liked to talk about what I read. Miss Marple and Mrs. Pollifax held my interest for awhile because murder was somewhat wonder-full, but it soon paled. I did end up loving the Betsy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and I think she made a mistake when she brought home Mary Norton's The Borrowers. Little people living in the walls and making tiny furniture from the cast-offs of humans resonated deeply with my imagination. But my mother was my mother. She loved me and she didn't need to communicate that her books were the only ones worth reading. This wasn't an assessment of her own worth. That never should be determined by comparison to others. And my mother's strength is that the level of her love for us was never affected by how we compared to others, even each other. (I'm tearing up with the intensity of that thought as I find the words to say it, so it must be true.) She was simply stating that she didn't get the appeal of all those monsters and all those machines. So, I get to love my books without remorse and, as an added bonus, I recognize that other books can be enjoyable, too. I love Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter mysteries. I think that most of the books I've blogged about have been general fiction. The Grapes of Wrath moved me to the point that I wanted to be an English teacher. Reading A Passage to India last year had me so excited, I created the outline for a literary analysis paper. Just for fun.

Sometimes, I sit down to write these posts because quick little odd things happen to me and I want to record them. Sometimes, I let the moment speak for itself, but other times, I think there must be a deeper message. I rarely know what the greater significance is until I get into writing and sometimes can't get the last paragraph to pull it all together written until I've gone back and edited the rest of the post to make it linear. But, the message of this post just appeared in my writing like a shaft of light from the clouds:

Thanks Mom.


Scooter said...

Did you see the article about Robert Jordan having some sort of disease and possibly not being able to finish the series? Honest - not kidding.

PrincessMax said...

Totally not fair!

I suppose that someone will step forward and finish the thing up, though. Marion Zimmer Bradley is apparently still alive and well and writing in Camelot.

At least Perrin and Faile are back together again. All can be well with the world now.