When it comes to discussing the appeal of SFF and its various affiliated subgenres, escapism is an extremely relevant consideration. Given how strongly a pro-escapist perspective correlates with a pro-SFF perspective, and vice versa, the term has become a loaded one, such that a species of argumentative shorthand has developed around its usage. Thus: if escapism is a negative, then so too is the desire for escape, casting those who seek or enable it as naïve, childish daydreamers disconnected from reality. If escapism is a positive, then the pursuit of escape is a noble one, allowing us to transcend the limitations of what is in favour of embracing what could be. Though ostensibly a tried and true dichotomy, the term is ultimately inaccurate in this context: the escapist/realist schism is a false binary, not only because the presence of one element doesn’t preclude the presence of the other, but because both escapism and realism are subjectively realised states, not objective truths.
If escapism is a negative, then so too is the desire for escape, casting those who seek or enable it as naïve, childish daydreamers disconnected from reality.
Despite this fact, the fallacy remains a popular one, both at the external level (SFF is less realistic than straight fiction, and therefore less worthy) and the internal level (aspirational fantasy is less realistic than gritty fantasy, and therefore less worthy). Which isn’t to say such conversations are wholly without merit; indeed, a great deal of useful dialogue is spawned by them. It’s just that, at a fundamental level, there’s a tendency to hark back to an either/or that doesn’t exist, but to which we’ve historically ascribed inordinate importance. By definition, all fiction contains elements of escapism and realism, in that it both includes untruths and, being born of reality, is necessarily tethered to it – the only mitigating factor here is the ratio of truth to lies, and given the wildly divergent ends to which fiction can be turned, to say nothing of the myriad possible interpretations of truth, there’s hardly a rule of thumb for determining even that much with any degree of accuracy. The question of whether escapism constitutes a positive or negative force in SFF has nothing to do with its presence, therefore, but rather with the twofold matter what it is we’re escaping from and into.
And once we’ve made that crucial distinction, a raft of interesting issues opens up. For instance: if we consider the trope of romanticised damage as being, at base, a consequence of escaping from function into dysfunction in a setting where function is deemed boring/predictable and dysfunction exciting/unpredictable, then it’s much easier to unpick why the trope is so popular; to ask ourselves whether its usage is positive, negative or neutral, to what extent our answer is conditional on context and execution, and whether its presence is exclusively literal or a matter of interpretation. Similarly, it’s far more useful to examine the concept of aspirational heroes if, instead of arguing for a generic set of heroic virtues, we acknowledge the fact that, as not everyone is escaping from the same things or for the same reasons, the aspirational ‘into’ is fluid rather than fixed.
Which brings me to a recent article by Adam Roberts on the political soul of SFF – or rather, on the schism he perceives as existing between right-leaning and left-leaning SFF. Much like escapism vs. realism, the traditional contrast between the political left and the political right is yet another false binary: though useful as a conversational shorthand, the concept is deceptively oversimplified, our political beliefs and affiliations being far more complex – and at times, contradictory – than can be accurately expressed by two such broad, amorphous categories. As tempting as this language is, then, it doesn’t accurately map to the different types of SFF Roberts means to identify. Which isn’t to say he’s wrong in thinking there’s any political difference at all – quite evidently, there is. But boiling it down to a leftwing/rightwing issue is a misnomer, just as the realism/escapism argument is a misnomer, because in both cases, the underlying assumption is one of fixed, opposing constants linked by a process of linear gradation: an assumption which denies the presence of both extremes within a single work or philosophy.
To quote the article:
Writers of historical or crime fiction might be rightwing or leftwing, but few would attempt to define those genres as intrinsically left- or right-leaning. SF is different: the genre defines itself according to two diametrically opposed ideological stances…
Alterity is fundamental to SF: it is a poetics of otherness and diversity. Now, it so happens that the encounter with “otherness”– racially, ethnically, in terms of gender, sexual orientation, disability and trans identity – has been the main driver of social debate for the last half-century or more. The tidal shift towards global diversity is the big event of our times, and this is what makes SF the most relevant literature today…
On the other hand, many fans define SF as the literature of scientific extrapolation. There are those who think of “science” as ideologically neutral, simply the most authoritative picture of the universe available to humanity. The problem is that “authoritative” has a nasty habit of eliding with “authoritarian” when transferred into human social relations. Rightwing political affiliation comes in many forms, but for many rightwingers, respect for authority is a central aspect of their worldview. The world, says the rightwinger, is hard, unforgiving and punishes weakness: in order to prosper, we need to be self-reliant, subordinate decadent appetites to self-discipline, know what the rules are and follow them. There’s lots of SF like this.
In support of this argument, Roberts names various writers whose work he believes exists on either side of the divide, and it’s interesting to note that, intentionally or not, his political split extends along gender lines, too: his leftwingers are all female, and his rightwingers are all male. (One might also argue he’s done the same with race, given the presence of Octavia Butler on the leftwinger side, but as she’s the lone POC to be referenced, the contrast isn’t nearly as striking; similarly, to the best of my knowledge, all of the writers listed are straight.) And this is relevant, not because our individual tastes and political affiliations are inherently ascribed according to gender, but because it all harks back to the question of what particular authors are escaping from and into in their writing, and to what purpose.
Our tendency to discuss the participants with reference to the leftwing/rightwing binary is astonishingly unhelpful.
Over the past few years in particular, there’s been an enormous amount of dialogue-slash-argument-slash-vitriol in the SFF community regarding the friction between those who love it for, to use Roberts’ phrasing, its commitment to alterity, and those who love its authoritative traditions. There have been arguments about what constitutes epic fantasy; about the prevalence of grimdark; about harmful portrayals of particular cultures; about stereotyping; about exoticism; about problematic language; about intention versus effect; about privilege; about the role of women, POC and QUILTBAG persons in history as relevant to narratives whose realism is derived from a sense of historical authenticity which may or may not be historically accurate. And although such conversations are inherently political – obviously so, in fact; often proudly – our tendency to discuss the participants with reference to the leftwing/rightwing binary is astonishingly unhelpful, not only because the political inferences of either term can differ dramatically depending on where in the world you are, but because it manages to miss the true heart of what’s being discussed: which is, to put it simply, representational escapism.
The ability to escape into fiction is […] the equivalent of being able to holiday anywhere and enjoy it.
Because escapism, as a concept, is complex, and though our desire for it can certainly be as simple as “this thing is fun, therefore I crave it uncritically”, there’s a very real sense in which a default policy of abstinence from the critical analysis of narrative is itself a product of privilege: of being afforded so many positive representations of oneself in so many different media that negative portrayals are never demonstrative of authorial prejudice towards, ignorance of or disinterest in the type of person you are, because the variety of portrayals on offer is itself proof of the fact that everyone likes, knows and is interested in you – or at least, in your attention. Negative portrayals are never correlated with personal attacks, because the negative characteristics are seldom described as being representative of who you are; and if they are, it doesn’t matter, because that particular representation is one of many, subsumed in public knowledge beneath a weight of positive impressions such that its perpetration can neither contribute to your being misunderstood nor leave you feeling alienated. For such a person, the ability to escape into fiction is therefore the equivalent of being able to holiday anywhere and enjoy it: no matter how much shit is flung at you, none of it sticks, because even if you’re escaping into a narrative that paints you in a position of utter powerlessness, when the story is over, your power remains intact.
But if, on the other hand, you only ever find yourself represented in fiction through the expedient of stereotypes – if someone of your gender, orientation, appearance, faith and/or ability is only or overwhelmingly depicted negatively, inaccurately, or not at all – then the act of escapism becomes, of necessity, a much more critically fraught endeavour. Unlike the privileged person, any shit that’s flung at you by a narrative not only sticks; it’s frequently the exact the same shit you’re forced to deal with in reality – and part of the reason why that’s so, thanks to the self-perpetuating nature of bias and misinformation, is because of all the privileged persons whose prejudice towards, ignorance of or disinterest in you has lead them to make your oppression the invisible backdrop to their own escapist holidays: something they can experience without risk or hurt, and which they therefore assume is universally benign.
It’s simply a question of escapism: from what, into what, and above all, why.
All of which is a way of saying that the big schism in SFF no more between leftwingers and rightwingers than it is between realists and escapists: rather, it’s between those for whom escapism is an extension of privilege, and those for whom escapism is a means of furthering representation. But even then, that’s far from being a binary position: there are many different kinds of privilege, after all, and in accordance with the principles of intersectionality, possessing one type of privilege doesn’t prevent one from lacking another. It’s simply a question of escapism: from what, into what, and above all, why.