Like everyone else during this plague, I’ve been struggling to find ways to survive and stay sane. I’m an essential worker, and life has been somewhat fraught with existential dread. Some days, I feel good – balanced, mostly happy, and relatively centered. Other days, the existential despair crushes me. I don’t know how we will get out of this, how we will create a better world, how we will survive intact.
Many of the previous avenues of leisure are closed to me, now. Podcasts are often too stressful. Youtube is too stressful. Social media is too stressful. I’m already maxed out trying to stay safe and responsible at the front lines of the food industry. My brain just doesn’t have as much capacity as it used to.
The only place I can go, then, are books, primarily sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve devoured a huge number of books since the beginning of the pandemic, as books feel like the only safe place I have left.
At first, I felt gnawing guilt about this. How can I, a person of such privilege, have the gall to retreat into fantasy and sci-fi when the world is so dark? With a pandemic ravaging humanity, a racial reckoning occurring in our streets, and the looming threat of climate change on our doorstep, how dare I? Fantasy and Sci-fi felt like idle luxuries of privilege, incompetence, and inaction. If I read at all, I should be reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be Anti Racist, or the works of Audre Lorde or James Baldwin. That criticism may still hold true, and if people think me shallow for escaping into fantasy fiction during such dark times, I won’t hold it against them. They might be right.
But, as I immersed myself in fantasy and sci-fi books every night, something entirely unexpected started to happen: I started to feel courage, and even hope. Reading was sparking some alchemy deep in my psyche that gave me the strength not to cower away from the world, but to face it. My guilt gave way to surprise. These stories were changing my brain, and giving me renewed courage. Reading fantasy helps me face my life as an essential worker with greater serenity, and to look at the challenges of climate change, racial injustice, and income inequality with a steadier eye.
There’s something mysterious about the interaction between brain and book, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully explain the empowering effect reading fiction has on me. But I will hazard one explanation, even as I feel like it doesn’t begin to touch the deep mysteries of reading:
In nearly all the sci-fi and fantasy I’ve read over the past 5 months, the stakes are ridiculously high, usually involving the fate of entire civilizations or even the whole world. Characters must take on that burden, and struggle to accept their task with integrity and dignity. Reading these stories, and getting into the minds of the characters is like a practice run for real life – for facing real horrors, real stresses. Reading about heroes and cataclysmic challenges every night is like a dream-world of practice for the real thing.
In Clive Barker’s Imajica, earth is just one dominion out of five, and Gentle is tasked with bringing the dominions back into harmony and reconciliation with one another, against incredible odds. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, a small faction of rebels fight to overthrow an immortal fascist ruler who has oppressed the people of the Final Empire for a thousand years. In The Witcher series, monsters haunt the landscape, and Witchers slay them. In The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, an alien force has landed on earth, and is altering the landscape and life as we know it into frightening, new forms.
As the fictionalized C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands says, “We read to know we aren’t alone.” When I face the horrific threat of climate change, I think of Gentle’s challenge to reconcile the five dominions, or the scientists struggling to understand the new alien landscape in The Southern Reach. When I think of the challenge of toppling the billionaire class or the structures of systemic racism, I’m given courage by the thieves who struggle against the immortal Lord Ruler in Mistborn. When I think about the daily challenges of being an essential worker, I’m reminded of The Witcher, who must face monsters wandering the mundane landscape.
These stories don’t just remind me that I’m not alone, they also remind me that new worlds are possible: worlds where the five dominions are reconciled, and where the Lord Ruler is toppled. Perhaps fantasy and sci-fi are not an escape, but a primordial tool of imagination to confront reality. Perhaps imagination is, itself, a tool to fight hegemonic structures that keep us in place. As my friend Joseph Laycock writes in his book Dangerous Games,
Hegemony can be resisted only if we can imagine new possibilities. In this sense, fantasy role-playing games, along with novels, film, and other imaginary worlds, provide mental agency. Moral entrepreneurs [right wing Christians] interpreted this agency as subversion and a deliberate attempt to undermine traditional values. While fantasy is not an inherent threat to tradition, as long as humans possess imagination, tradition will never be secure.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Please write me an email or leave a comment below. If your comment is particularly excellent, I will feature it in my Best Comments series.
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