12 February 2021
The Crow Folk author offers his thoughts on how fantasy fiction is much more than escapism
Over Christmas, I saw a fellow author declare on social media that they could never read any kind of fantasy or science fiction. Why would they deny themselves the pleasure of reading these genres? Because, apparently, they’re not real.
Okay, fair enough if you just don’t like a genre. Some folks aren’t keen on musicals or westerns, and that’s all just a question of personal taste, and science fiction and fantasy is often dismissed as geeky escapism. And hey, it is! That’s one of the reasons I love it. The appeal of being swept away to another world, or to strange and fantastical places is a strong one, especially when the real world is a little too, well, real to be coping with now, thank you very much.
I try to read a little of everything — currently on the boil are David Copperfield, a book on directing film by John Badham, and Linwood Barclay’s new one — but science fiction and fantasy have been my happy place since I was a child. I recall being encouraged to read and write gritty, realistic fiction by well-meaning teachers, but I grew up on a council estate in Hornsey in the late ‘70s. I had family members who were alcoholics, depressed, angry and bitter. I had my fill of gritty, ta very much.
Instead, I took regular return trips to Bradbury’s Mars and Le Guin’s Earthsea. It didn’t matter where I was, I could escape to somewhere magical at the turn of a page, so when I started my own first noodlings it was no surprise when the stories were set on other worlds.
I did dabble with gritty realism when I was writing plays, and I had plenty of fun with it, but then I wrote a play about a ghost and that became a screenplay and that got me an agent and the rest is what passes for my career so far.
I was recently asked if I was capable of writing anything that didn’t have a fantastical element in it, and I’m not sure I can anymore. I’d love to. You don’t have to invent anything for a start. You try figuring out how the plumbing works (or not) in a medieval-style fantasy citadel. It’s a right faff.
I’ve been working on a contemporary romcom screenplay with another writer, set very much in the real world, and I thought this would be a great chance to get real, but even that has a few fantasy dance sequences in it. Why? I can't help myself. I mean, if you have the opportunity for a magical dance sequence, why wouldn’t you put one in? If a little magic can enhance the story, then I’m using it. It’s a bit like garlic. You wouldn’t want a whole plate of the stuff, but I pop it in pretty much everything but cereal (now there’s an idea).
Seriously. What is wrong with me? When will I knuckle down and write a proper book with real people in it? One without robots, or witches, or dragons. I recall an English teacher at my old comprehensive who despaired that all I wrote was 'American rubbish', meaning SF&F (she also refused to watch ITV on the grounds that it wasn’t proper television, so God only knows what she would make of Netflix or Disney+).
But SF&F is more than magic and worldbuilding and inventive ideas. And it can be as gritty as any kitchen sink drama. Like any good writing, it will have a strong central dramatic argument, and this is what folks who’ve never read the genres will often overlook. They’ll see the orcs and dragons and robots and guess it’s just silliness for geeks. Or, if they do like something, they will refer to it as 'heightened genre', which is guaranteed to get me scat-swearing like Yosemite Sam.
For any doubters, I would gently steer you towards the writing of Terry Pratchett (start with perhaps Mort, Wyrd Sisters or Guards, Guards — all absolute belters). Influenced by Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, and Dickens, his Discworld books reflect our own real world issues through a fantasy prism. Just Google 'Vimes Boots Theory' to discover a timeless take on poverty and the divide between the haves and have nots that’s as good as any I’ve ever read. Douglas Adams’ science fiction explored the kind of alienation and unhappiness we’re now experiencing with social media long back when digital watches were cutting edge. Ursula K Le Guin explored themes of feminism and sexual androgyny, Pat Cadigan writes about humanity's relationship with technology that becomes more relevant with each passing day.
Like a lot of authors of the fantastical, I start with an unworldly idea — say… walking, talking scarecrows tormenting villagers — and then discover what it’s really about as I develop the characters and story.
And here’s the thing: it always comes from reality. My own stuff deals with themes of community, family, privilege and the things that divide us. Science fiction and fantasy is as real as it gets. It just has added jetpacks, ray guns and dragons.
Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones once declared that 'Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius.' I was once in a play written by Jones (Lucky Blues, Edinburgh Festival, 1990). It used all kinds of fantastical elements. It failed to garner any good reviews and closed after a week. Maybe fantasy is harder than it looks?
The days of relying on F.R. Leavis and The Great Tradition as the arbiter of what constitutes great literature may be over, and defenders of realistic/literary fiction may now find themselves on the back foot as the kids who grew up reading comic books and pulp science fiction and fantasy are now commissioning editors. We know how this stuff works. It’s fun and it can start conversations about big subjects that affect all of our lives. The SF&F category is brimming with books on race, identity, gender, politics and many of them do it with real style and magnificent storytelling.
The geeks have inherited your bookshelf and they’re here to stay, so why not enjoy yourself? Escape from reality. Join us. We have dragons.
The Crow Folk by Mark Stay is published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99)
Interested in creating a fantasy world in your fiction? Author Gareth Powell lays out some guidelines for worldbuilding is science fiction and fantasy.