Monday, December 07, 2015

Why Fantasy?

As the momentum builds towards the latest Stars Wars movie (and sucks all the air out of every other film this month), I thought I'd address the question as to why certain people, including writers like myself, are drawn to fantasy. By any measurable standard, especially when you consider the way Marvel has dominated the box-office this past decade, along with Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones, it is clear that there has been a shift in our culture. Fantasy, once something of a fringe genre reserved for geeks has gone mainstream. Star Wars, which is more space opera than science fiction, is a great example of this. Anyone doubt the new film will break $1 billion at the box office?

But why? Why has fantasy become such a popular genre, and why are writers like myself drawn to it?

Fantasy, more than any other type of fiction, is based on theology and philosophy. Tolkien was the first to explore philosophical ideas like "the ring of invisibility," within a removed society that echoed humanity. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy provides a translucent barrier for the reader. This barrier (another world, different creatures) allows us to approach these ideas with a measure of safety. Fantasy has its base in fables of centuries past, and the best of it provides great storytelling with strong themes about the nature of humanity. All fiction does this to some extent, but because of its versatility, those who write fantasy can comment on a variety of sensitive subjects in a way that a thriller writer would find difficult, if not impossible, to do so.

So why the popularity? Why is it that, as our technological capabilities have grown at an astounding rate the past twenty or thirty years, the rise in comics and fantasy and "the geek life" have risen with it. Twenty five years ago, no one on my high school football team would have been interested in a show like Game of Thrones. Now? It's must-see-TV. Part of that is the terrific storytelling of the books/ series, but the other part is pretty simple: it's cool to like fantasy. It isn't merely something for "nerds," but something for everyone to enjoy. This has been echoed by the sales of graphic novels, which are essentially hardcover comic books, as an accepted literary form

Again, however, the question is why. Why did fantasy become such a force in the marketplace? What happened within culture to create such a different dynamic? 

The answer is simple: the digital revolution.

As we have become more reliant on technology, as our world has become faster and faster, a world of soundbites and memes and short attention spans, there has developed a deep thirst for an older kind of storytelling. One that recalls different ages. One that asks us questions about who we are and why we are, the questions that you won't find answered on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. We are becoming an increasingly illiterate society, but the same questions that have nagged humanity since our inception remain. And those questions are best answered by the artists producing fantasy and science fiction.

I'm not suggesting that all fantasy and comic book stuff is particularly deep (hello, Ant Man), but a book like The Hunger Games, which addresses class issues  in stark terms, is a perfect example of current blockbuster storytelling. Game of Thrones does the same thing. They are all echoes of authours like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who understood they were writing fables.

I have a degree in theology, but well before I went to university, I was drawn to fantasy. I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I loved comics. For me, there was something beneath the world I lived in, something beyond my senses that I could not explain. As much as I appreciated my faith, most of the older Christians in my circle were more intent on providing (unknowable) answers than asking questions. But why? I wanted the questions! I hungered for them to at least be acknowledged. A priest or a pastor could reassure me all they wanted that there was a very specific way to define the supernatural world, but they could never provide proof. Worse, many of them took offense to the questions I had, as if I was supposed to simply accept what they said because of their title or because of tradition or whatever other lame reason they offered, none of which could be proven.

Even as a kid, I was okay with questions without answers. I was okay with not understanding everything and knowing that, as a human, I would never understand anything. But I still wanted the questions to be asked. It was, I thought, the only way to unite humanity. Everyone had their own ideas, religious or otherwise, as to our nature. Instead of allowing those questions to unite us, most people used them as a construct to divide us.

That has not changed. Anti-Muslim. Anti-gay. Anti-Christian. Anti-black. Anti- whatever. We still use division to unite ourselves within our tiny circles so we don't have to face the most difficult truth of them all: we don't have the answers. We're all just making it up as we go along.

Oh, sure, we can believe things. I'm a Christian. I believe Jesus is the Son of God. It's not rational, but the story rings true for me. The same way Moses rings true for Jews and Mohammed rings true for my Muslim friends. But that doesn't (and shouldn't) eliminate the questions. If anything, it creates more.

And it's here, right here, where I like to dig. Where I like to write and read and watch. As a society, we are blitzed with commercials and advertising and faux-needs, all thirty seconds or less. Because of that, when I sit down to write or read or watch a movie, I want to explore the limits of our imagination. I want to ask the big questions and do it in a way that holds no limitations. (And is terribly entertaining.)

I'm not interested in another serial killer novel. I'm not interested in another true-crime piece. I want to go to a world that makes me catch my breath, one that makes me smile and think. Every day, we have the hum-drum beat into us. Our lives are routinized, even when we don't want them to be. For a few hours, I want that to change. I want to be taken away from the digital clock and see what it's like to live in another place. Another world. I want someone to ask questions that matter to me while I'm living this dream, and see what happens when I wake up.

Not all fantasy is good, we know that. But the core of it seeks to do something that isn't being done elsewhere in our world. Most religion is still intent on providing answers. But what most people want is questions. Counter-intuitive? Perhaps. But if it was all about answers, people wouldn't bother with Lord of the Rings. As it is, they are. And in record numbers.

Maybe it's time for our religious leaders to learn a lesson from their secular, storytelling counterparts. Fewer answers. More questions. More imagination.

To embrace the mystery of humanity is to understand it. And when we understand it, people will be drawn it to it. If only because we had the guts to ask the question.