I have friends who don’t quite get science fiction and fantasy and don’t really understand why I write it or publish it–in particular, friends at the Southern Baptist church I attend. (Note this post is adapted from something I wrote years ago on my personal blog.) By the way, by “science fiction and fantasy” I mean that broadly, to include supernatural fiction and alternate history and even horror with sci fi and fantasy settings, i.e. what is often but not always called “speculative fiction.”
In 2010-11 in Afghanistan and earlier in 2008 in Iraq I wrote a series of detailed emails about my military experiences, emails I forwarded on to friends and family, who as a general group gave me positive feedback about my ability to write about the experience of being a soldier at war and who praised me for doing a good job capturing what Afghanistan and Iraq are like. A few of these friends suggested that if I want to write fiction, I should be writing military thriller genre, like Tom Clancy or many other writers.
The truth is I could write in that genre. I mean, I’m capable of doing so. I’ve already written a few short stories that deal with modern military matters, which contain some information I know from some personal experience. I’ve also written some bits that relate to ancient and medieval militaries, drawing from both my personal observations about war and studies in history. And I’ve launched a series of articles that regular readers of Speculative Faith will have seen called the “Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War”–those posts have been put on hold for a while, but I do intend to pick up writing them again until that series is complete, God providing I can find the time to do the research each of those articles requires.
I could do more along these lines of military-related writing and probably will someday. But as much as I’m interested in realistic military themes and in non-fiction, unreal worlds usually interest me more. I have no real passion for writing or publishing military fiction unless it’s also speculative. And on the other hand, I like plenty of speculative fiction with no connection to military themes at all.
I think there’s a positive reason why this is so, beyond the fact that I enjoy exercising my imagination. You see, writing science fiction and fantasy is serious business.
This statement may very much surprise friends of mine obsessed with politics or convinced this world is about to end soon…to them (as they only on occasion openly express), speculative fiction is sheer escapism from the world around us and spending time on it is acting like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. Why be concerned with sci fi or fantasy when the real world around us has so much trouble that clamors for our attention?
I do want to acknowledge they have a tiny bit of a point. For some people, speculative lit really does seem to be nothing but escapism. And the complete pursuit of such escapism really could cause someone to fail to pay attention to what’s going on around them. There are times when it is absolutely essential to pay attention to the moment you are in and not wander off mentally to realms of things that are not. Though a devotion to speculative fiction may be more of a symptom of a withdrawal from the real world rather than a cause.
But I believe worlds of speculation, of the unreal, serve a very important function for most people whether they realize it or not. They remind people this world we dwell in is not the only world that affects our actions. What the world once was isn’t just the stuff of known history, but lies in the sphere of the unknown and legendary as well…and such legends have the power to live in human imaginations right now, to shape our conversations and thoughts. And the world we see changing around us is headed into a future of things uncertain for us, perhaps leading to a world of advanced technology, or perhaps a dystopian or post-apocalyptic collapse into decay and death. Speculating about what the consequences may be in the future of actions we’re taking now may be able to help us live in the present with greater knowledge and wisdom.
Fantasy and science fiction explore these other realities and help us understand the here and now in context of what could have been or what or could be.
But most important: This world is not all there is shouts speculative fiction, pointing out a void in our human lives. We long for things we’ve never seen as human beings, one of the odd and interesting things about us. And while it certainly can be true that human fiction, including speculative fiction, can be a sin-tainted expression of a corrupt imagination, the void in us longing for something else goes far beyond that. That void truly longs for God and the unknown elements of his created work, the Creator whose imagination far exceeds that of any human being, who has the power to create new worlds at a whim (whether he has exercised that power or not), who has hidden genuine mysteries in the mind-boggling physics of real world that surrounds us, and who will bring to an end most things we humans think are important now and establish his own rule.
Christians may feel we know our future eternity very well from the book of Revelation: pearly gates, throne of God, singing praises, New Jerusalem on Earth, etc. But we have every reason to believe eternity with God has got to include elements we’ve been told nothing about, if for no other reason because eternity is such a long time. And even a simple statement in Revelation that the streets are made of gold but transparent tells us that the the gold there will be significantly different from gold as we know it (assuming literal gold is meant–but a visual representation of figurative gold doesn’t make the future any less unexpected). There are many other details in Revelation like that, things that seem to make no sense but ultimately point to a future that will represent a world unlike our own. Again, there’s every reason to think the actual truth about eternity is that we only know the tip of the iceberg.
Science fiction and fantasy tap into a desire to see and experience things that amaze us, things that boggle our minds–which will be one part of what eternity will be like.
And not only is the full reality of what world awaits us who have faith in Christ unknown, it’s unknown how long it will be before the end of time as we know it comes. Yes, some people act awfully certain that we are in the “End Times” and the end of this world will come very soon. But while I agree Christian believers should anticipate the Lord’s return, who can say for certain if our world won’t endure for twenty thousand more years before that happens–and what will happen in the meantime? Perhaps our world will become very different than it is now, as is seen in much of science fiction–perhaps we human beings will even explore other starts, only for those adventures to eventually die out, leaving the human race restricted to Planet Earth alone as the book of Revelation seems to indicate.
And who’s to say for certain that God hasn’t created other inhabited universes in parallel with our own, as occurs in most realms of fantasy? Perhaps discovering other universes will be part of what happens in eternity.
In the end, I create and publish the kinds of stories I do, not only to exercise in a positive way the faculty of imagination God gave me, but to reinforce the truth that this world is neither all there is, nor all there is to be. I also desire to spin visions of the unreal that specifically point fingers back toward the creator God, the author of all things. As much as I may engage in flights of whimsy at times, science fiction and fantasy as I know and love them for me rest on a bedrock foundation of this serious purpose.
I assume the same is true for most of you reading this post. But if you disagree or wish to add your own thoughts on the ultimate purpose of speculative fiction, please share your thoughts in the comments below.