Grad School or Dragons? Thoughts on Why We Love Speculative Fiction

There is something about lovers of speculative fiction that is different from the lovers of strictly garden-variety fiction. You cannot compare the passions of a Potterhead and a Hemingway fan—the fact that “Hemingwayhead” is not a term is a testament to this. I love Jane Austen, but I “Oh my God, I would die to live in Middle Earth and sell my family to touch Legolas’ hair” love  Lord of the Rings.

So I ask the simple question: why do we love speculative fiction? What compels people to fly through five thousand pages of the series A Song of Ice and Fire? Why are young adult series like Twilight and The Hunger Games so wildly popular? How is it possible that I feel homesick for places like Hogwarts and Rivendell when they do not exist?

The first answer is the simplest and most obvious: it’s fun. Dragons, unicorns, faeries, the undead, magic, aliens, elves, secret lairs, new worlds—you name it. The limit does not exist. The fact that so much of speculative fiction is aimed at a younger audience speaks to this; it’s just a lot of fun to read.

The second answer is the one you’ll probably hear most frequently: escapism. At the risk of sounding philosophical—this world sucks sometimes. The ability to be safely whisked away into a world free from our empirical reality is magic in itself.

Most realistic fiction attempts to represent the world as it really is, which is wonderful and important and can be used for escapism as well. (Who hasn’t pretended that they were the protagonist in a romance?) But sometimes you need something different, really different, from this world. You need to be taken away to a different planet, or a different time period, or even the same world but with different rules. You just need to escape, and speculative fiction is always there to provide you that service.

The third answer is the most complex, and because of that it’s difficult to fully examine it in this short blog post. It is that speculative fiction presents an easier and more desirable reality than our own. Now, this is a highly subjective opinion, and not everyone may agree with me—admittedly, it could simply be a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side.”

This idea  comes from the notion that escapism can be used to help us relate to our own reality. This is nothing new; it’s the common interpretation of Sam and Frodo’s weary journey to Mount Doom as a metaphor for the weary journey through life. They tackle that issue by attempting to find solace and help. Frodo could not carry the ring alone up the mountain; like Frodo, I need a friend like Sam to help me carry my burdens through life.

Often, these metaphors are conceived in the mental realm and then are translated into the physical. Thus, depression becomes dementors; the duplicity of self becomes the literal separation of Jekyll and Hyde; having to face a difficult situation becomes having to slay a dragon.

This is where the subjectivity comes in: I think I would rather slay a dragon than face many of the difficult things in my life. Applying for graduate school? No, thank you; hand me that sword and armour and call it a day. An essay due in six hours that I haven’t started and it’s worth 50% of my grade? I’d rather take on an evil force any day.

I’m not trying to say that my trivial problems are worse than actual life-threatening situations or literally having to save the world. It’s the black-and-white-ness of it all that I crave. Even in something like Game of Thrones, one of the more complex and “gray” works of speculative fiction, it’s “you win or you die.” Either/or.

That’s frightening in its own way, but at least it’s clear cut. If I don’t get into graduate school, I’m not going to die (and if I do get in, I don’t “win”), but I have no idea what I might do instead. It’s that unsureness running through our generation, the uncertainty most people in our society and economic climate have that is absolutely, bone-shatteringly terrifying. My failure won’t be dying in a heroic, noble way—it will be undramatic, unromantic, and undignified. My success will be comforting, but mundane. That’s what this world has to offer, from the view of a sleep-deprived, stressed out, and scared fourth-year student.

Existential, personal things aside, I’ll always love spec fic, even if my opinion on the last contentious point changes. Perhaps our love of it cannot be completely explained. I think that that inability to fully describe why it is so greatly loved is part of the magic and the wonder that is speculative fiction.

 -contributed by Emily Maggiacomo

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