For decades, speculative fiction – which encompasses the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction (and their subsets) – has been subject to the dismissive presumption that it is somehow sub-literary and, therefore, not quite deserving of full scholarly attention or serious merit. Though rarely articulated in contemporary criticism, this supposition remains an insidious inference throughout the “elite” literary community. Consider: how many writers of speculative fiction have won a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize? How many works of adult speculative fiction have garnered a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize? It's not hyperbole to say that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror remain chained in the dungeon of the literary meritocracy. Speculative fiction is caught in what Marleen Barr, in her essay “Textism – An Emancipation Proclamation,” calls “a discriminatory evaluation system in which all literature relegated to a so-called subliterary genre, regardless of its individual merits, is automatically defined as inferior, separate, and unequal.” But why? Why is speculative fiction considered inferior or unequal?
The problem lies in perception. Since the 1920s and 1930s – an era of “pulp fiction” which saw speculative works largely relegated to the pages of sensationalist and, oftentimes, amateurish magazines – much sci-fi, fantasy, and horror has been regarded as escapism, with its primary function being to provide readers with release from the real, phenomenal world. Such escapism, some would contend, does not allow speculative fiction to tackle contemporary issues and to deal with prescient social, cultural, or political concerns – all of which “serious” literature is supposed to do. Rather, speculative fiction, due to its supposedly escapist nature, is often considered little more than an adolescent flight of fancy with no interest in exploring or resolving the problems of practical life. There is little argument against the idea that speculative fiction does tend to transport its readers to fictional, constructed realities separate from the contemporary world. However, this transportational tendency is inherent in every work of fiction, regardless of whether it is genred or non-genred. From Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Achebe's Things Fall Apart to Dick's A Scanner Darkly and Gaiman's American Gods, all fiction – to varying degrees – extricates its readers from certain aspects of contemporaneity and, therefore, allows for a level of escapism. More concisely stated, all fiction is ultimately escapist. The difference between speculative fiction and academically lauded literature, then, is only one of reading and interpretation. How one approaches works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror is the determining factor as to whether they are conceived of as pointless, immature tales or complex, intellectually stimulating texts. Therefore, escapism becomes simultaneously the core element of speculative fiction and an impossibility; dependent solely on the manner of reading, it can be, and is, either.
Fiction, by its very definition, is a construct of unreal events, unreal individuals, and unreal places. While these fictive elements can be realistic, and can even be based upon real people, places, and events, they can never be (nor have they ever been) phenomenologically real; if they were, the work of which they were a part would no longer be fiction – it would, instead, be a form of non-fiction. Therefore, any work of fiction must transport its reader to a world that, however similar to reality, is not reality. A disengagement from contemporary, phenomenal reality and all of its concomitant dilemmas and issues is necessary in order to enter and fully engage with a fictional text.
When a reader engages a work of literature, Dickens' Oliver Twist, for example, there is a clear divide between contemporary, phenomenal reality and textual reality. Oliver Twist takes place in 19th century London and follows the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of its eponymous central character through his childhood in orphanages and workhouses. Though it may seem obvious, contemporary literary critics do not live in the 19th century, nor do most (or, more likely, any) have a true conception of what it may have been like to live in a dank, pre-Victorian orphanage. Therefore, the world that Oliver Twist creates for its contemporary readership is an entirely separate sphere of existence; it is an imagined space largely dissimilar from the reader's “real world.” When a reader delves into the novel, he or she disengages with his or her contemporary reality and enters a construction of early 19th century England. Yes, this construction is based upon history. Yes, it is based upon real living and working conditions of that particular time. But it is, still, a different world than that of the contemporary reader. The reader is, essentially, escaping contemporary, phenomenal reality and entering the fictive universe of the text. Some issues within this fictive universe – child labor and class discrimination, for instance – are applicable to both spheres of reality, but the political, social, and cultural mores of the textual world (not to mention minutiae such as city layout, clothing styles, and colloquial language) are, nonetheless, quite different from those of the contemporary, phenomenal world of the reader.
This escape into the underbelly of 19th century London is no different from entering into a textual world that is set in the distant future or in an blatantly alternate reality. A work of speculative fiction such as China Mieville's Perdido Street Station also creates a world separate and distinct from contemporary reality, albeit more blatantly. Perdido Street Station is, for example, set in a massive city called New Crobuzon – an entirely fantastical realm that is inhabited by races of humans, insectoids, bird-people, interdimensional spider demigods and sentient robots. In New Crobuzon it is also possible to utilize magic as well as Victorian industrial and scientific techniques. Obviously, this is a universe that includes few of the surface trappings of 21st century Earth. So, when a reader engages with the text, he or she is transported to a reality quite distinct and separate from his or her own. In this regard, Perdido Street Station, like much speculative fiction, is extremely escapist; it does, in fact, allow its reader to visit a place utterly foreign and outside the purview of contemporary life. A reader can simply wallow in the thrill of the fantastic and a sense of defamiliarization, if he or she chooses. At the same time, however, the text incorporates thoughtful commentary and critiques of contemporary issues such as drug abuse, racism, and censorship – all of which will be ignored by the reader who is concentrating solely on the elements of escapism. While these contemporary concerns may be significantly more metaphorized or more deeply embedded within a work of speculative fiction than within non-genre fiction, they are, in fact, still present.
There simply is no difference between the transportation of a reader to a far-flung fantasy land and the transportation of a reader to the dank workhouses and orphanages of 19th century England. Both Oliver Twist and Perdido Street Station grant their readers escape from the phenomenological world, as neither pre-Victorian England nor New Crobuzon are a contemporary reader's phenomenological reality; therefore, narratives set in these places can only be entered as fictive constructs. A reader can no more authentically experience 19th century London than New Crobuzon, a fact which leads to the conclusion that Dickensian London is, in actuality, as much a fantasy land as Mievillian New Crobuzon.
One could conceivably argue that the London of Oliver Twist did, however, exist at one time and can be recovered through historical, autobiographical, and other non-fictional texts while Perdido Street Station's New Crobuzon cannot. This is a loaded assumption. Simply because a reader is given more specific information and details of places, times, and events does not make them more phenomenologically real or rescue them from the purportedly evil clutches of escapism. If this were the case, then the world of Star Trek, with its ornate and embellished human and alien histories, meticulously crafted technical manuals for technologies that do not exist, and dictionaries for languages that are not spoken outside the Trek universe, would be more “real” than the bulk of human history. Pre-Victorian England remains, even with tomes of non-fiction declaring its once-existence and providing additional details to its being, a world that cannot be experienced or entered, except through fictional narrative. The pages of Oliver Twist are, therefore, a place of escape from reality and the novel could be, quite rightly, qualified as escapist. However, few literary scholars would admit – or perhaps even consider – as much. That speculative fiction can be read as escapist is a tired truth. It is now time to acknowledge the same possible escapism in non-genre fiction.
If both speculative fiction and mainstream fiction are, as sources of a constructed, non-phenomenological reality, open to escapist readings, then a hypocrisy begins to emerge. The bulk of literary critics and scholars shrug off speculative fiction as mere entertainment, as a group of texts that grant readers the opportunity to forget about pragmatic living and practical social, cultural, and political concerns. Yet, this is precisely how any work of fiction can be read. However, non-genre fiction is not subject to the same automatic dismissal that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror endure.
Non-genre fiction receives privileged treatment within the "elite" literary community; it is always read with an eye toward its potential merits and its value to current critical discourse. It could be read as escapist entertainment, but it rarely, if ever, actually is. When literary scholars approach a non-genre work of fiction, the escapist elements of the text are pushed aside and intellectual engagement is allowed to thrive. Literary critics do not, after all, assert that they read the works of Toni Morrison for their transportive abilities or entertainment value; they read Morrison due to the racial, gender, spiritual, and political issues her novels address. Regardless, either way of reading Morrison, and non-genre fiction as a whole, is entirely possible. Yet only one – the route of serious discursive inquiry and rigorous textual exploration – is routinely utilized. Despite the fact that it could be read as escapism, non-genre fiction is perpetually approached as “serious” literature and, therefore, can be read as such. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, is approached as escapist and, because it, too, can be read as escapism, it is shrugged off as entirely expected juvenile frivolity. The complexity and intellectual depth of speculative fiction goes unrecognized because many literary scholars simply do not read such texts properly – i.e., with openness toward potential literary worth. Rather than approaching speculative fiction with the intent to glean valuable insights into current issues or even the general human condition, a vast percentage of the literary elite take up a work of sci-fi, fantasy, or horror with the preconception that it will be simplistic entertainment. It fulfills these preconceptions due to the fact that it, like all other fiction, is, on its shallowest level, precisely that: a story, an series of imagined events intended, in its basest function, to evoke pleasure and interest – to entertain. So if, as a reader, one enters the text with the notion that it is just a rollicking adventure or a spine-chilling thriller, then those escapist characteristics will naturally dominate all other possible interpretive gleanings. But, as mentioned before, speculative fiction, in this regard, is no different than non-genre fiction; both, by virtue of being fiction, are able to be read – on the most surface level – as nothing more than transportive tales. However, this does not mean that speculative fiction or non-genre fiction is nothing more than escapism; significant elements of high literature do exist in both speculative fiction and non-genre fiction, although these elements may be in comparatively short supply.
Indeed, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy writer Theodore Sturgeon once famously remarked that “90% of science fiction [is] trash,” but “the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” This could not be more true. Much speculative fiction will not stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and will, in fact, easily fall into the categories of pulp fiction, juvenalia, or tired pastiche. However, just as much non-genre fiction will suffer the same fate. So much of everything is disposable. And yet, the meritorious ten percent of non-genre fiction is what constitutes the bulk of “serious” literature, while the equally worthy ten percent of speculative fiction is largely perceived as a little more than a mildly interesting diversion.
The problem of escapism as a criticism of speculative fiction, then, lies solely in reception and methodology of interpretation. Unless literary scholars are prepared to initially approach all fiction as escapism, no written work must be regarded on its face as such. Every individual text must be approached as if it were worthy of in-depth critical study and, if it is not, only an unbiased reading, free from preconception based on genre prejudice, should determine that fact. Escapism – or lack thereof – should not be the quality that a reader automatically seeks to discern; rather, a reader should engage speculative fiction (and, in fact, all fiction) with an critical eye toward elucidating its merits, not dwelling upon its supposed faults.
Ultimately, the genred nature of a text is irrelevant; all that truly matters is the way in which it is read. Escapism is not a valid criticism of speculative fiction simply because escape is part of the very act of reading fiction. It is only because speculative fiction is perceived as a "lesser" literary genre, as a puerile divergence from reality, that it becomes so; if literary critics and scholars (the guiding “literati” of the world) gave speculative fiction the same attention and care that they lavish upon non-genre fiction, it would be quite apparent that "escape" into a fantastical fictional world is only the preoccupation of unfounded elitist preconceptions – a preoccupation which occludes valuable and often profound literary works from becoming part of the recognized body of complex, serious literature.