Why We Need Impossible Worlds


“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.” – Joe Queenan

“[D]espite the striking parallelisms in the logic of their understanding, fiction cannot be strictly identified with metaphysically possible worlds.” – Thomas G. Pavel

I’ve been thinking more about the “exhaustion of SF” issue this week, and some of the conclusions that have emerged from that conversation. One of the aspects of it that still bugs me is the conservative overtone that seems to mark a desire to go back to a prior interpretation of the genre of SF, or at least to a framework for writing such stories. In a comment to my column Jonathan McCalmont clarified that what he was proposing was a return to the “garden of ideas.” I like this metaphor, but I am still leery of coupling it to the representation and application of more rigid genre ideas and tools to contemporary fantastic literature. I am always suspicious when someone promotes the idea that literature should stick more closely to possible worlds (see for example Margaret Atwood), because this denigrates, intentionally or not, the impossible in fiction, and we need to not just write about improbable or impossible things, we need to celebrate them and take them seriously.

This is the thought I was working towards when I titled the previous column “The Future is Not a Land of Enchantment;” the idea that we should be projecting futures that seem possible or speculate on what could be — as a primary goal of SF — means that our gaze at the future is limited, shrunken by both artificial parameters and notions of what is real and what isn’t. If we can’t play with the future, can’t despise it, can’t question it with all the stuff our imagination can conjure, we miss much of the potential of literature to entertain, provoke, and enliven us as readers. We need to not just produce “hard” futures or fanciful ones, but to enchant or realize the future to give our stories and our dreams as much sustenance as we can create with words.

By limiting what we think is real or possible in fiction, we bind our imagination to interpretations of the world around us. That works for some literature (and some great stories have been produced within those limitations), but unless we explore past those borders, we hem in our ideas and reflections and curtail the creation of new perspectives. Prioritizing those limitations and reproducing them, rather than experimenting or innovating with them, is precisely what ossifies genre and drains the vitality from it. If we focus too much on what is possible, we rarely leave the confines of the world of the present and reproduce pale mock-ups of the moment.

Creating possibilities is part of being human. We strive with every action to make them real, push them aside, or create new ones. Stories, even the truest ones, are about making or finding possibilities; they attempt to make sense of the world, and create a context for the reader to do the same, by suggesting a different confluence of realities than the one the reader is currently experiencing. Fiction does this by giving us worlds possible and impossible to enter into and play with using our imagination. The possible ones create scenarios with resonance to the actual world we envision and presume; the impossible ones ask us to expand our thinking and take another step further into a world that cannot be. This is important not just for “escape” or for a sense of displacement from the realities around us, but for the practice of reflection.

The heart of reflection is not just looking in a mirror, but appreciating the image we see from a different angle, using different light and filters. It is not about rational projection but about reconsidering our understanding of a phenomenon or symbol. It is about reconfiguring our delights and discontents with the world as we find it. about cultivating a distance that is never real but often affective. Reading about, experiencing, playing with impossible worlds can nuance our perceptions so that we look at possible worlds and the realities around us in ways that can give us some new insight or option when engaging them. Can those worlds also potentially distract or mislead us? Sure, but that is not an inherent quality of the impossible. By creating worlds and people and situations that can never occur, we dive into a context that dislocates us, if slightly or temporarily, from our environment and allows our minds to be elsewhere, to take even a short trip and return to that real world a little (or sometimes greatly) changed.

That displacement and return from an impossible world is something that invigorates our minds. When we encounter the unfamiliar, the cryptic, or the preposterous, we take in and process them a little differently than something conventional, obvious, or “common-sense.” Impossible worlds unfetter us from what is or can be and present the opportunity to exult in or be unnerved by what cannot be. I think that this is one of humanity’s most powerful behaviors for dealing with the vicissitudes of life, and that from the first myths to today’s overloaded media-scape we see that humans need the impossible in their lives to give them a sense of proportion and to feed their imaginations.

As Rose Fox put it in a recent post over at Genreville, “If we want to revitalize speculative fiction, we can’t just speculate–we need to have dreams and nightmares and random flights of fancy too.” As she also points out, a focus on the possible and the plausible presumes a particular rationality that can foreclose diversity. Not only can this lead to stagnant, predictable fiction, but it marginalizes authors and readers who want to engage and explore worlds beyond what we think can be realized.This applies to realist fiction of all varieties, from scientifically-rigorous SF to the bourgeois family-in-crisis novel. We need more than a nostalgic or pragmatic “sense of wonder;” we need to be startled, made uneasy, threatened and unmoored by fiction sometimes to jolt our complacency and give us new pleasures and discernments.

Without impossible worlds, particularly those of fiction, we end up living in smaller worlds delineated by specific invocations of possibility. To me this is obvious whenever someone invokes a singular or unified notion of “reality.” There are external phenomenon that we can agree on, but it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we all interpret the world as individuals. Enjoying and critiquing impossible worlds helps us come to grips with the realities we are enmeshed in. As I noted elsewhere, the act of fantasy “means coming to grips with what reality is and is not, with the fact that there is no one reality, but billions of them, one in each person’s head.” Even when we interact with or are effected by something that others agree is real, we are still adapting to it with what we have in our own heads. Impossible worlds can remind us that reality is an interpretation while fortifying our dreams (and our nightmares) with alternatives that let us pretend the world could be different, that give us some solace from the realities beyond our control, and that create conceptual distance for seeing the world a bit differently. Impossible worlds are places and moments where we can be fully human, with all the potentials and pitfalls that entails, and from which we can return to “reality” refreshed, perhaps, or full of questions, or feeling something that wasn’t possible just a moment ago.

2 thoughts on “Why We Need Impossible Worlds”

  1. As Rose Fox put it in a recent post over at Genreville, “If we want to revitalize speculative fiction, we can’t just speculate–we need to have dreams and nightmares and random flights of fancy too.”

    I do wonder about that, John. I read somewhere recently in praise of neglected subgenres like Science Fantasy, where the completely rigorous rational is given over to more whimsical fiction. Is Steampunk part of this, given the physical impossibility of it? Does that idea from Steampunk need to be transplanted to other parts of SF?

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