I recently rewatched one of my favorite scifi films, Forbidden Planet (1956). I did not ask my wife to watch it with me as we had viewed it for one of my birthday scifi film festivals a few years ago. My wife’s enthusiasm for scifi films from the 1950s does not approach my own — in the same way that my understanding of physics does not approach Neil deGrasse Tyson’s. But she loves me, so she usually hangs in there. She did ask me at one point what I liked about these old movies, because the appeal isn’t obvious to her. The special effects tend to look kind of cheesy, the dialogue is stilted, and the stories can be hard to relate to.
This got me to thinking about the question of what attracts me to scifi and fantasy in general. The answer was not immediately clear to me.
Why are some people attracted to one genre of writing or entertainment over another? Why do some folks love westerns, while others like horror, and still others prefer mysteries or romances? Why do some people eschew genre trappings and only pursue contemporary fiction and drama?
In my own case, something about scifi and fantasy lights up the neurons of my brain in a way that other fiction never has. I appreciate a good mystery and love a good western, but nothing kindles my interest like scifi and fantasy.
I always loved to read as a kid. My father was a bibliophile and my parents were big on reading being a thing you did as a kid. They were always buying me books, until I started getting an allowance and buying my own. The first book I remember really being interested in enough to want to read twice was a scifi book. The first scifi book I ever read. I think I must have been about 8 or 9 years old. I remember I was in 3rd grade. I think.
I can’t remember the title of the book, but I remember it was about a spaceship that traveled to the moon with three kids my age. To me, most stories have two layers of interest. What the plot is about and what the characters do. But even in that simple scifi story I could see a third layer made up of ideas, even if I couldn’t articulate that. The ideas drew me in.
Scifi, far more than fantasy, is about ideas. In essence the idea of a world where things we can only imagine now are possible. This, for me, is probably the essential appeal of scifi and fantasy — immersion in a world that is different from our own. In scifi it’s usually an extrapolation forward into some possible future, while in fantasy it’s usually a reimagining of a particular time in our past. In scifi the impossible is accomplished through science and technology, while in fantasy the impossible is accomplished through magic.
In both the stakes are usually higher than what you might find in other genres. In a mystery the heroine is trying to find the killer. In a western the heroine is trying to defeat the outlaw and maybe save the town. In scifi the heroine might be trying to save the entire planet from an alien invasion, or in fantasy the heroine might be trying to save the whole kingdom from a monstrous menace.
Ideas. Heightened stakes. Immersive alternate worlds. Possible futures. Heroic characters.
Really, what’s not to like?
Of course, it’s deeper than that. There is also a strong vein of justice that dominates genre fiction. Criminals get caught in mysteries. Outlaws brought to the law in westerns. Romance, scifi, and fantasy also have a strong sense of moral justice running through them. That, I think, is part of the appeal. When you read a contemporary non-genre novel you expect that the villain may go unpunished or the protagonist may be a reprehensibly unlikable character. Some genre fiction blurs that moral line with unsavory characters and plots with thwarted justice, but by and large they present a relatively stable moral universe. Evil is punished and good rewarded.
Now, there are probably plenty of pseudo psychological explanations for why people would be attracted to that kind of story world. I can only speak for my own, and hope that I am aware enough of my motivations and desires, conscious and unconscious, to explain them accurately. For me it is not that I wish to escape from the ‘reality’ of our world with its moral complexities and vagaries, but rather that I enjoy imagining the possibility of another world where things are not simpler, but rather where that complexity engenders a deeper sense of the best potentials of human nature even when confronting the worst aspects of human behavior.
So, in a nutshell that’s why I like scifi and fantasy and why I choose to write the kinds of stories I do rather than other kinds of stories.
I like ideas. I like imaging other possible worlds. I like adventure. I like heroism. I like seeing the impossible accomplished. I like justice.
I also like aliens, cool spaceships, robots, ray guns, magic swords, dragons, and castles.
Maybe that’s why I really like scifi and fantasy.