Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Reading fantasy for escape's sake

Perhaps it’s because I’m a simple man compared to China Mieville (or perhaps it’s because I’m not as passionate about politics as he), but I take pride in my ability to approach fantasy fiction with a minimum of prejudice, and to explore new worlds and new viewpoints with an open mind. In short, I like to read fantasy fiction for the element of escape that it offers.

And, unlike Mieville, I do believe that fantasy can deliver this experience.

In case you missed it, my last post included a link to an interview with Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station and The Scar. In it, Mieville argues that escape through fantasy fiction is impossible, because we, the reader, carry all our prejudices and beliefs with us (he has a lot more to say about the politics of fantasy as well, but I won’t get into those issues here). Says Mieville:

The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical—but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.


Atom Kid said...

I agree with Mieville in the sense that we take our own experiences and world views with us, but that's just human nature. I think it's unavoidable. Likewise the author foists his/her own views on their audience.

Personally, I feel that if the book is good enough to hold my interest and keeps me reading for hours until I finish it; that's real escapist reading.

But then again, I found it hard to get into his books. Especially Perdido Station (c'mon, a human falling in love with a giant insect), not my cup of tea, comrade.

Falze said...

Sounds like a half-educated nitpicker that likes to hear the sound of their own voice. You've managed to find some quotes from people that get to shout their ignorance through a bullhorn thanks to their position.

Gulliver's Travels is NOT a fantasy that is "directly allegorical", it's satire delivered (extremely heavy-handedly) in the form of a fantasy. In other words, the EXACT opposite.

And, on the flip side, a quote you present later on demonstrates the utter ignorance of some Tolkien critics. To be sure Tolkien's work is inspired by real life events (his religion, the War, etc), but, in his case, they are fantasy shaped by the real world, meant to offer escape, yes, but not flight from reality. If he were truly offering up his works as "flight from reality" then he certainly wouldn't have such blatant allusions to the War, so recent in everyone's minds at the time of publication, etc. And, beyond that, what, exactly, would such a nut consider good 'fantasy' if primarily offering "flight from reality" is a mark of bad 'fantasy'? "It would be better fantasy if only it was more like my everyday life!"

I'd have been a lot harder on these pompous twits that you were. But maybe, in the end, they're not worth it.

Speaking of escaping from reality with some good fantasy...going to see "Up" this weekend - looking forward to a little escape. Frankly, if "escape from reality" isn't the whole point and it's about a 2 hour commute to work on an LA freeway, I'll want my money back.

Al said...

I can't agree with Mieville on this at all.

I have no problem "escaping" with fantasy literature whatsoever, or with gaming. As a matter of fact, its all too easy to enjoy a good book with all the wide-eyed wonder of a 10-year-old.

Certainly, the content of what you're reading has a lot to do with it. Reading one of Mieville's books, for example, its true there's no escaping the real world problems of poverty, racism, drug abuse, etc, simply because its all presented right there in the book. But one could certainly argue that simply because of the nature of fantasy, even in Mieville's work, there is an element of escapism in that the potential exists, through magic and other fantasy elements, to actually change those negatives quickly and easily.

David J. West said...

Now I really have no interest in reading Mieville.

When reading the greats, I am in Fangorn or Zamora and I want to be.

Brian Murphy said...

I was struck most by Mieville's strident, righteous tone in the interview, and his proclamations from on high about the inner workings of our minds when we read.

"You can't escape your history or your culture." Really? I can't escape? Or is it Mieville--wrapped up tight in his socialist blanket--who cannot?

Mythopoeia said...

I think, in the words of Aragorn, a man brings his evil with him. If you can't escape in a good fantasy read, well, it's your fault, not the author's, and certainly not the fantasy world's . . .

And 'Gulliver's Travels' is a bad example anyway, because it's supposed to be allegorical. That was the point.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Wow - quite a reductionist viewpoint in that Mieville article.

Besides, that sort of political criticism went "out" a long time ago. He's a century too late.