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What We talk About When We Talk About Love of Fantastika: A Speculative Rumination

“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“As Auden wrote, poetry makes nothing happen, which also implies the possibility of making “nothing” an event rather than a mere vacancy. Poetry rescues nothing and no one, but it embodies that helpless, necessary will to rescue, which is a kind of love, my love for the world and the things and people in the world.” – Kathy Womack

The title and opening quotations I’ve used for this column exemplify what I love about fantastika: the potential infinity of inspirations, its simultaneous distance and intimate inextricability from life, and the tricks of language that it uses to create wondrous nothings. Cribbing the title from a Raymond Carver story may seem like a strange way to frame a discussion, especially since that story is about the futility of love’s passion in the face of how our lives actually play out. But when I think of that closing image of the darkness enfolding the characters as they seem to wait for something to happen, I see an opportunity for the reader to reflect on what drives them, what they love, and how that love affects their lives. It causes me to consider what I love, why I love, and how I relate to and interpret love in different parts of my life (although, as it turns out, that ending is really someone else’s fantasy fused on to Carver’s original story).

I am stupidly in love with the fantastic. After years of rejecting that truism, I realized that without coming back to it, without acknowledging that love and bringing it back into my life, that I was unhappy, disheartened, and lacking in a vision for my future. For some time I was rejecting what Le Guin talks about in her quotation: the tension between “the real world” and the world we see and make with our imagination. To embrace fantastic literature as not just a reading hobby, but to love what it shows you about the human psyche and our apprehension of the world, is to understand that we live in a world of imagination, even in its most visceral moments. Fantastika reminds us that we are all making it up as we go along, relying on our capacity to combine creativity, perception, and insight to navigate life and give it meaning and texture and graspability.

I love fantastika because it gives us the opportunity to be deeply honest, because it allows people to express their feelings in any manner they desire, to confabulate, embellish, and improvise. We can make up the most ridiculous creatures, the most unlikely situations, and the most befuddling motivations and relationships. We can release our terrors and desires and show them to others, create resonance or dissonance, sense or nonsense out of our dreams. We don’t have to shoehorn our ideas into conventions or preconceptions, or make them align with the materials of our immediate surroundings. We reveal the core of our humanity through the fantastic, hopes and fears as muddled and prominent as in the most prosaic, straightforward communication.

I think this sort of honesty is what makes the fantastic scary to some people, imprudent and inane to others, even dangerous. Some people want to keep their ideas of actuality stable, or channel those ideas through very specific imaginings, give them boundaries that limit what they relate or what they may stir in others. Some want to shellac their ideas with a thick coat of realism, or the armored imprimatur of “art,” often narrowly defined as an elite technique or symbology that makes their interpretation of the world more valid, more true, more authentic. This becomes a fabrication of its own sort, a rejection of the imagination and its inherent tension of embrace and exile. For some people, this is necessary to buttress their own concept of how the world works, a refutation of our capacity for culture, for rendering the world into a thing that makes sense. To immerse oneself in the fantastic is to understand the contingency of our relationship to the world and to attempt to exceed it, to not hesitate to recognize the tenuousness of that relationship and examine it with a discerning, vivid perception.

Fantasy is sometimes called the literature of escape, but that does not meant that it is the literature of running away. To engage in escapism (often amplified as “pure”) is to abandon the world for one that does nothing but blind you to reality. While that potential is present in the fantastic, it is not an effect of it. “The fantastic” doesn’t do that; we do with our decisions about how to engage the stories and ideas. Escapism is a social practice and a cultural stereotype, not an inherent characteristic of the fantastic. It is an exaggeration of the word escape itself, which does not mean “to lose oneself in another world,” but to elude something that constrains you. If people feel that the “real world” as others construct it around them is confining or limiting, they generally chose to find ways around those constraints. The fantastic has often tried to explain what did not make sense, or give us a new context for looking at the world, and whether that comes from an ancient fable, an oral performance, a surrealist novel, or a LARP, the act of dismissal of the fantastic as “escapist” misunderstands what escapism is, and why people engage in it. Fantastika can give us all sorts of new angles of vision on the moment, if we approach it with that goal.

And for me, to love fantastika is to do just that; to find pleasure, distraction, edification, disjuncture, wonder, challenge, and excess in its boundless promise. It is precisely fantastika’s central quality of nothing, the ideal that what is not, can be, that nurtures passion and kindles ingenuity. It embodies, like poetry, that “helpless, necessary will to rescue,” to pull from the meaningless, the arbitrary, the oppressive, a disruptive uncertainty that reminds us that there is only one inevitability, and love can rescue us from the crushing weight of it, if we permit it to lead us to that which enriches our lives, whether as casual distraction or soul-rending verity. Love of the fantastic is love of life, love of things we cannot touch, but we can feel; opening the vastness inside our own skulls and sharing as much as we can with others, making connections out of the most outrageous and fanciful things, bringing us closer to each other, to a new way of being in the world, never falling for the pretense that there is only one way things can be, must be.

It is a love that constantly reminds us that we are given all of the world, and always in exile, but that we can choose to engage nothing, to not sit at the table and just listen to our hearts beat, but to open them again and again, and gain sustenance, joy, and maybe even a few glimmers of wisdom from taking that leap of imagination into what isn’t, but we wish could be.

3 Comments on What We talk About When We Talk About Love of Fantastika: A Speculative Rumination

  1. Well said, John.


    Escapism without Escape, and the ability to talk about some thing that are difficult or awkward to talk about in any other context.

  2. Thanks, Paul.

    I think the latter point is one that has been made quite often: that fantastika gives us a way to play with, take apart, and re-envision life and how humans live it.  But it can’t be said enough.

    The former point I have not seen discussed as much: that escapism is not some inevitable effect of fantastika, but is a product of how we engage it, socially, textually, symbolically. Humans can get lost in just about anything, wall themselves off from the world or try to ignore it in all sorts of ways. This is not the sole province of fantastic literature (or film, etc.).

  3. I think that fantastic fiction (in any medium) is the premier way that people do engage in escapism.  Or, to put it another way, Fantastic Fiction is seen by the general public to be the biggest venue for doing so.

    And thus, those who decry escapism in any form decry fantastic fiction.

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