The Mirror

(A guest blog at amwriting.org. Many thanks to Johanna.)

As I imagine is true of many generally insecure people, I’m not a huge fan of catching sight of myself in the mirror. I likewise hate having my picture taken. When I somehow manage to have a picture taken of me that I hate slightly less than normal, it’s guaranteed to get used for way too long in every single place where I need to have a picture (like here, for example). In my experience, writers tend to be generally insecure people, so I suspect that a few of the people reading this might know what I’m talking about.

And it’s not that I’m uncomfortable in my own life. I’m actually very happy with who I am (general insecurity notwithstanding). It’s just that all of us effectively live our lives from the inside looking out, sensing the world as a thing around and separate from us. When we’re forced to look in the mirror, we’re forced to reduce our vision to contemplate only ourselves, and we lose sight of the world beyond ourselves as a result.

One of things that makes me very happy with who I am is that I’m a person who gets to spend a whole lot of time working in other worlds, as an author of fantasy and speculative fiction and as an editor and designer of roleplaying games. I fell in love with fantasy and SF in third and fourth grade, with five books that changed my life: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Jack Sendak’s The Second Witch, Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels, and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. However, despite my continuing love of F&SF for its imaginative transcendence, I’m the first to acknowledge that all literature has that quality of transcendence. All fiction breaks the bonds of reality to some degree in order to turn emotion into drama, event into art. Some of my favorite authors include Dostoyevsky, Doris Lessing, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad — writers whose works are rooted in the drama and pathos of the real world, real history, and the hopelessly flawed characters who inhabit that world and history.

However, when it comes time for me to write, I find myself drawn not to the real world but to worlds beyond. But here’s the thing — I don’t see fantasy or speculative fiction as mere escapism. I don’t write fantasy and SF to avoid the tough questions that life poses, or to shortcut the complexity of character that smolders and catches at the heart of all great fiction. I embrace fantasy and speculative fiction because, for me, F&SF provide the best opportunity to explore the conflicts, the pain, the triumphs of the real world.

Because when I look in the mirror, the face I see staring back at me seems too familiar. I live my life, I observe the lives of those around me, I embrace and honor the lives of those at a distance from me in what ways I can. However, the reality that wraps around all those lives creates a barrier of familiarity that can too easily insulate us from the deeper themes of our own lives.

Fantasy and speculative fiction break the barrier of reality that is the mirror we all hold up to ourselves. F&SF are the world beyond the looking glass, turning and inverting the mundane and the personal into things wondrous and never before seen.

Fantasy and speculative fiction have no effective bounds, and this is both a blessing and a curse for those of us drawn to write those genres, whether gritty urban fantasy, epic space opera, or all the myriad worlds in between. It’s easy sometimes for F&SF to focus on worlds and wonder to the exclusion of real character, real conflicts, real story. However, by virtue of the fact that F&SF is a literature that can be anything, F&SF is a literature that can do anything. This, for me, is the challenge for fantasy and speculative fiction in all its forms, and for all writers who stake their claim in the light and darkness of the worlds those genres build. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, from The Left Hand of Darkness to Dune, fantasy and speculative fiction can draw us in to tell us things about ourselves that the most realistic mainstream fiction often struggles in vain to achieve — because too often, when we look in the mirror, our first instinct is to look away.

Fantasy and speculative fiction let us look beyond the mirror. By doing so, the worlds of imagination in F&SF can impart the most vibrant, most memorable understanding of the real world we all share.