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November 3, 2009

Forget Twilight: Sci-fi tradition holds strong

What has happened to the sci-fi and fantasy genres? What happened to authors who tackle dire earthly issues by placing them in extraordinary, otherworldly circumstances? And where’s the readership for these works?

Oh, they’re off fantasizing about vampire sex.

Current fantasy darling Stephenie Meyer appeals to the universal human fascination with sex, death, and the Other. Case in point: Edward Cullen. Other fantasy novelists have certainly done the same, but unlike her predecessors, Meyer doesn’t transcend this simple strategy. She shows herself to be capable of creating an alternate reality and a new take on common mythical creatures, a requisite for the fantasy genre. But she balks at making a criticism of society or stimulating debate like her predecessors. And don’t give me that “she’s only a young adult novelist” argument. Tolkien and Lewis were considered children’s authors.

But not all hope is lost for the sci-fi/fantasy genre. While some take to the pulpit more strongly than others, these three contemporary authors have utilized the genre’s conventions to bring controversial, meaningful, and sometimes neglected real-world issues to the forefront.

Tamora Pierce is often lauded for creating strong female characters, nothing like the swooning, vampire-crazy Bella in Twilight. And in the conservative, suburban, consumerist world of my childhood, I benefited from reading about a land where, in the minds of some young women, bravery, honesty, and loyalty were more important than lingerie, Botox, and prom. While she focuses primarily on feminism, Pierce has also commented on religious pluralism and strife in her books, along with the problems generally associated with diversity—all in the extremely readable world of Tortall, where most of her novels take place.

Mercedes Lackey frequently writes about characters at odds with the prevalent norms and mores of their culture. Through rather magical means, these characters find themselves involved with a corps of people who engage in exploration, understanding, and defending their ideals. As early as the ’80s, Lackey wrote a book series with prominent homosexual characters leading heroic lives against both abusive and supportive backdrops. In her Valdemar books, it’s hard to avoid noticing an egalitarian multiculturalism based on shared, uncompromising humanistic values.

David Eddings’ characters frequently undergo processes of rehabilitation and redemption, often in a turbulent social or political context. Usually his main characters begin as social parasites, such as thieves, brigands, or chronic underachievers. Then, through a sudden turn of events, he or she ends up in a role of responsibility. These often undesired circumstances propel Eddings’ characters along a path of transformation through which they become heroes and saviors.

While all of these issues are more often addressed by real-world academic research and government action, one cannot deny the role of literature, especially of the sci-fi and fantasy genre, in this intellectual process. I fear that without the initial spark provided by these books, whose sheer otherworldly context makes the issues more palatable, there will be less space in the public consciousness for championing egalitarianism, understanding, and progress. Discrimination will be considered “dealt with”—a relic of the past—and the uneven status quo will continue. Young girls will continue to aspire to be stay-at-home moms and homophobic views will prevail.

Entertainment for entertainment’s sake certainly has a place in literature, but it shouldn’t take over the New York Times bestseller list. Sci-fi and fantasy offer a unique opportunity to open minds and start conversations, especially in younger audiences. These authors’ books rightfully re-focus the fantasy genre onto the important issues of equality, integrity, creativity, and redemption. LeGuin puts it nicely when she quotes Shelley: “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination..”