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The Fettered Imagination of Fantastika

“If there is one single message we should take from science fiction, it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.” – Damien Walter

One of the primary appeals of fantastika in all of its forms is the notion that it stretches our imagination, that it tests the boundaries of possibility and creates impossibilities that challenge and seduce us. We wonder at what science can do or ponder what darkness lies within us, conjure worlds and paradigms for living and thinking in different ways. Fantastika is about telling stories that are not limited, that reach beyond what might or can be. That idea of unbounded potential, expressed in fiction, draws many readers to the works of the field.

That idea arises frequently across the history of fantastika.

Damien G. Walter invokes this idea in a recent essay (cited above), where he discusses the necessity of using science fiction as a method for remaking the world.  As I read his article I found myself nodding a lot, but after I was done I thought about the ideal of imagination that he uses, and realized that it there was more to it. Idealizing imagination limits our understanding of it, and it occurred to me that its use in the literary field, and particularly in its application to science fiction, misses some of its dynamic and limiting power.

Fantastic literature is not the release of the imagination, but the harnessing of it, the channeling and shaping of it into a communication that emerges from the imagination of one person (or sometimes more) and engages the imagination of another person. The rhetoric of the fantastic is that is imaginatively infinite and unconstrained, that authors and readers roam across an unending  landscape of wonders without limits. But this is not precisely how either the imagination works nor how it functions within fantastic literature.  The imagination is not starkly discrete; in fact, we spend most of our time using it, and it is simultaneously pervasive and constrained. Its use in fantastika demonstrates this quite well.

Walter uses Einstein’s essentialized distinction between “knowledge” and “imagination” in his famous quotation that “[i]magination is more important than knowledge.” The problem is that “Like many dichotomies, this one is an oversimplification.” This is a common formulation that may well come from the separation of the two ideas during the Enlightenment, but that may also be grounded in a broader distinction between what is concretized in symbol and idea and what is not.  Regardless, making this distinction can cause a barrier to be erected that overlooks the relationship between what we know and what we dream.  Imagination doesn’t just synthesize what we know; it helps create it, and knowledge establishes conditions and possibilities from which we can build imaginings.  We imagine by working with or pushing against what we know.

The imagination has parameters. We often imagine in particular ways influenced by culture, language, and other external stimuli. The limits of the imagination are the limits of language, of what we can articulate and make sense of. The imagination is always constrained and struggles against what we know; it pushes against the frames that surround it. What makes the imagination so powerful is that it enables us to recombine what we know, to postulate options, and to configure the possible and the potential in distinctive, sometimes unique, ways.  It allows us to exceed the confines of the moment and try to elaborate what we know.  As anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano put it in his book  Imaginative Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology, (p. 19):

“Not only does the imaginative consciousness allow us to transcend. . . the immediacy of the present instant in order to grasp a future that is at first indistinct, , , but it enables us to project our ‘fables’ in a direction that does not have to reckon with the ‘evident universe.’ It permits fiction, the game, a dream, more or less voluntary error, pure fascination.

As I noted in a previous column, the imagination is a dynamic cognitive capacity that generates and retools knowledge, expanding it, sometimes questioning and remaking it. Walter’s point that we need to bring the imagination into the center of any process of creating a better world is solid, but I think we need to examine our preconceptions about what “the imagination” is and how it functions so that we can take full advantage of it. Fantastika in general, and science fiction in particular, show us both the power of the imagination and the constraints we place on it. Some of these constraints are necessary to focus it, others give it something to work with. But we can trip it up, take it in unproductive directions, and even blind ourselves with it.  The imagination is fraught with pitfalls that we often do not avoid until we’re sitting in darkness, trapped.

The history of fantastika is, on one level, a chronicle of the limits of the imagination. So many stories follow conventions, reproduce assumptions, or never venture past our preconceptions of “the genre.” Those that do stand out and become guideposts for moving into new territories; as Walter notes some writers “use the imagination to show us our world as we could never otherwise see i.” And yet, the familiar tropes and tales remain, and continue to be retold . But, in a way, this is one of the functions of genre; to give the imagination a cage to escape. Sometimes genre presents a challenge to the imagination, sets up obstacles that, in their overcoming, help our imaginations stretch.  The imagination cannot function without something to configure it. Science fiction does this by ideally imposing real-world conditions on what is possible and forcing a writer to imagine within the (for the historical moment) the notions of what is possible. But what makes the best science fiction inspiring is not that it does this, but that it shows us new possibilities that can emerge from what we know and what we have dreamt so far.

It is through the fettering of the imagination in fantastika that we push through to thoughts unknown, and create finer lenses for looking at the present and the future, and what lies within our own minds.

3 Comments on The Fettered Imagination of Fantastika

  1. I think fettering doesn’t quite describe what you are talking about here, John. Harnessing (which you do use at one point) seems to be more to the point 🙂

  2. I thought about that after I submitted the column, and I am still pondering what description is most apt. I like the idea of the imagination struggling against the shackles of genre expectations, for example, of roguishly escaping its bonds. But I also think that our imaginations ARE sometimes fettered by conventions and assumptions when writing and reading. It may be that more than one idea is called for. . . .

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