Ever since I was young I’ve loved to read.
But the books I feel the most comfortable with are mass-market paperbacks. In a form of escapism, I read exhaustively, reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was 7, as well as an old English version of Le Morte de Artur (which, as I recall, was not a paperback but a tattered hardback, falling to pieces in my fingers). Later I read the Chronicles of Prydain, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, about the Dragonriders of Pern, and various other secondary world fantasy and science fiction pieces.
Children have a sense of wonder and whimsy that is often taken from them by the cynical nature of the world, and the harsh realities of existence in the 21st century. I think it’s in part, for this reason, that science fiction and fantasy are so often derided as child-like. Personally I think this description is false. Certainly, from time to time, there is an argument to be made that genre fiction can lack some of the elegance and grace and frankly strong prose as works pretentiously labeled literature. And there is a question to be asked: why engage in all the necessities of secondary world-building if the purpose of your piece is simply to examine the human condition? Creating a world out of whole cloth simply adds another layer of complexity, detail orientation, and drudgery to the task of writing. Why bother if it isn’t to mask the lack of craft with adherence to (or rejection of) genre tropes?
I think the answer can be that all that secondary world-building can add a layer of richness to writing and question whether the way things are is really the way they need to be, ought to be, and why they even came to be. Many people seem to imagine that history has a kind of inevitability to it, that things turned out as they were supposed to, an inherently flawed and teleological view of history. Any student of the middle ages will tell you that it was not inevitable that Harold Godwinson lose the battle of Hastings in 1066 and that it was surely not inevitable that the French rulers of England would spend centuries fighting the French rulers of France for control of their holdings on the continent.
There is a kind of historical imagination, and that historical imagination is often fleshed out by works of fantasy. Most Americans today study little history, and really no “real” history whatsoever. Instead, they received a desultory tourist view of America that is highly fictionalized in order to support a specific narrative of righteousness and inevitability that supports the current power structure. Frequently, for example, the founding fathers are misrepresented as Christians, when the overwhelming majority of their diaries confirm they were at best deists and simply made sure to publicly do nothing that would cause their Christianity to be questioned. To quote Jefferson (writing to John Adams) “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Yet religious fundamentalists continually selectively quote the public addresses of these men out of context in order to support their Christian-supremacist narrative. This is fantasy.
But it is not really fantastic.
Fantasy, or science-fiction, or speculative fiction if you prefer, can question the very fundamental nature of our reality. It is often taken as a given that aliens will essentially look like strange humans, they will be bipedal, upright, bilaterally symmetrical. Season after season of Star Trek for example simply portrays humans with masks on as aliens. Rarely can they even be bothered with something as simple as a tail. Star Wars almost always falls into the same canard. The reason for this, rather than any grand anthropomorphization of the universe, is probably simply a cost-benefit analysis and the complexity of actually portraying true aliens (and marketing them). But I believe it reinforces the idea that the universe is fundamentally a human place. It isn’t.
Secondary world building then, can challenge this narrative, and make people realize how strange and grand the human experience is, and how unlikely it is to be repeated. If we ever puzzle out why the universe is so quiet and do in fact encounter an alien species they may share virtually nothing in common with us. The number of ways they could be radically different from us on a gross morphological level is nearly endless; and this doesn’t even consider the truly bizarre, like a species of sapient silicon fungal blooms that communicate through colors we cannot perceive.
Flights of fancy can free one for a time from the prison of reality, and speculative fiction often does that for me. When the medium is acidic cheap paper encased in a soft cardboard cover that I can bend back around I can escape all my surroundings and lose myself in the work. It may be a dangerous thing for an aspiring author to say, endorsing “cheap” books (on which you would surely receive a much lower royalty) but I love paperback books.