Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why Does Fantasy Matter?

Growing up, I was a voracious reader. I read all the time. This fact pleased my grandparents, but they hated what I read. They thought I should be reading “good” books, not the comic books, fantasy, and science fiction that I loved. My preferred literature was not only denigrated at home, but also at school. In high school, we read lots of “good” literature, drawn from the canon of Great Books. Most of this I hated. In tenth grade, I switched from the section of English that was just starting to read A Tale of Two Cities to another section that, by happy coincidence, had just finished it, with the result that I didn’t have to read it.

In college, I joined the science fiction club, eventually becoming its president. According to my friends in the SF club, every member of the English department (save one) thought science fiction and fantasy were trash. So I avoided English classes, read fantasy and science fiction, and wrote book reviews for the club’s magazine. I majored in economics, but found my true passion when I took some religion classes. I enjoyed them and was much better at reading myths than economic analyses. After a stint in corporate America and far too long in graduate school, I became a religion professor.

But how to answer my grandparents and everyone else who scorns fantasy & science fiction? And what’s the connection between it and my area of academic training?

I found systematic answers to these questions in two publications: Clive Thompson’s  “Why Sci-Fi is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing” (Wired 16.02 (2008) ) and Gabriel McKee’s The Gospel According to Science Fiction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007).  Thompson argues that fantasy matters because science fiction authors “rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves.”

Some of these issues are with us currently. Science fiction has been speculating about human-robot interactions for almost a century. Today, we are seeing robots not only in factories, but in our homes in the form of iRobot cleaners and toys (Pleo and Sony’s Abio).  And roboticists are on the cusp of having robots who can assist people around the house, such as Honda’s ASIMO (cleverly named for Isaac Asimov, famous for his many stories exploring human-robot interaction). Similarly, science fiction has been exploring bio-ethics since what might be considered the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  And while bio-ethics has always been an issue in science, over the last decade, it has begun to catch up to fiction: cloning, stem-cell research, and genetic-manipulation used to be distant fantasies.

While other areas appear to be impossible (faster-than-light travel, teleportation, etc.), their what-if scenarios allow authors to reflect on human nature. If people could fly, teleport, communicate telepathically, do magic, etc., what would we do and who would we become? Thompson comments that “thought experiments formed the foundation of Western philosophy — from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes to Simone de Beauvoir.” He’s right of course: what is Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" if not a fantasy story?

But in addition to philosophical literature, fantasy & science fiction is also religious literature, in so far as it explores major religious themes. Gabriel McKee demonstrates this by identifying several important issues in Western religious thought (creation, mind/self/soul, free will, sin and evil, death and afterlife, among others). He then reviews an enormous breadth of material (novels, short stories, movies, TV series) to demonstrate how these modern texts wrestle with ancient religious questions.

I found both Thompson’s essay and McKee’s book illuminating. They provide a well-articulated response to folks like my grandparents: fantasy & science fiction wrestle with religious and philosophical issues. They are exciting because they allow us to think about traditional questions in a different venue, but they also allow us to explore new questions based on extrapolations from today’s society and technology.

I will also be using McKee’s book as a resource for my religion classes. Students find it hard to read and assess the Bible critically since it is sacred literature for many of them. Take, for example, Exodus 20:5, which says that God will punish children for their parents’ sins. Does this seem fair? Not according to our understanding of fairness. But students shrink from saying this, because they don’t want to criticize the Bible. But if I can find a modern text that shows a character acting in this fashion, a student might be far more willing to describe them as unfair. This observation can be used as a lead-in to a discussion of different descriptions of God’s justice (or lack thereof) in the Bible. It is noteworthy, for example, that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in arguing for a just God, specifically deny that God punishes children for their parents’ sins (Jeremiah 31:29-30, Ezekiel 18). Clearly, these prophets did not have a problem disagreeing with Exodus!

In short, fantasy & science fiction matter because these literary genres allow us to explore big issues. These can be issues that people have wrestled with from the dawn of time, to the present day, to considering those that might arise in the future. From my vantage point as a religion professor, I especially like the ability to discuss these issues in a “mundane” setting, before examining them in the realm of sacred literature. In this way, fantasy & science fiction can be useful pedagogical tools. They can help students, as Morpheus advocates in The Matrix, to “free [their] mind[s].”