Fantasy Friday: Imaginative Is Not Weird

Grendel, the monster Beowulf faced

Over and over I’ve heard the description: speculative fiction is that weird niche of fiction that appeals to a small group of people who see things differently from almost everyone else. Some notable people working with Christian speculative fiction promote that perspective.

I’m calling a halt to this line of thinking. Weird does not describe good speculative literature — either that, or the whole world is weird.

Exhibit A — Harry Potter. Not only did millions buy the seven hefty tomes, millions more have been flocking to see the movies.

Exhibit B — The Lord of the Rings. Not only did the movies earn renown, they also brought a resurgence to the popularity of the books, which had already won over a generation in the mid-twentieth century.

Exhibit C — Speculative movies. The titles featuring speculative elements dominate the list of highest grossing movies. Of the top thirty, only Titanic is without some form of speculative elements. If you look at the numbers adjusted for inflation, nineteen of the top thirty are still speculative (and that’s if you count The Ten Commandments as not speculative).

Exhibit D — Television. From Topper in the 50s, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in the 60s to Star Trek, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Lost, V, and the flood of speculative shows out today, clearly the fascination with the speculative is part of the culture at large.

"Double, double toil and trouble" - Macbeth

Exhibit E — Classic literature. Starting with works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and moving to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Edgar Allen Poe’s various short stories and even poetry, and many others, speculative elements are a part of the fabric of the stories that literature students continue to study.

What’s my point? Imagination carries all of us beyond the confines of contemporary reality. It is not weird to imagine. Those who write imaginative fiction are not weird. Those who read or watch imaginative stories are not weird. Speculative fiction that is done well has a broad appeal and has had that appeal since the beginning of literature.

Why some today think they are doing the genre a service to call it weird and to define it as a narrow niche that only a few not-normals will like, is beyond me.

Certainly some speculative fiction is more “hard core” than others. The harder the core, I suppose, the smaller the audience.

And yet books like The Hunger Games and movies like The Matrix which some might consider hard core were widely popular.

I believe we can account for the popularity of speculative fiction simply because it is imaginative. God made us with an imagination. As a result readers and viewers love to be transported to new places they’ve never seen. Stories of a place or time that is different from the here and now create wonder and intrigue and spark a sense of adventure.

Is speculative fiction a “‘weird’ kind of fiction” as one professional says? Are writers and readers of speculative fiction “not normal” as a speculative writer says? I counter that the evidence shows speculative fiction is in the mainstream and has been for a very, very long time.

The problem, as I see it, is that we Christians have yet to write a “break out” story that will catch the eye of all those speculative fans. Rather than settling for a niche market of hard core speculative readers who will devour anything in the genre regardless of quality, I think we should commit ourselves to learning what makes imaginative stories work. And stop calling what we do and what we like weird!

Name That Book

The story started somewhat slowly, what with the main character off taking a hike. Alone. In an isolated countryside.

And a good deal of it was told, with long sections reserved for first person descriptive observations.

What’s more, the “train-wreck” scene — apparently part of the contemporary formula for holding readers’ interest (see author Mike Duran’s recent post “What Grabs Readers and What Keeps Them”) was only alluded to because the main character was out cold.

And yet, this is a classic. Not one from the 1800s, mind you. This book was written in modern (though certainly not contemporary) times. It’s even part of a series.

Most Christians would list it as Christian fiction, though it was published by a general market press before the era of Evangelical Christian Publishing Association houses. There is no conversion scene, no gospel message, no allegory.

The genre is adult speculative, and speculate is probably what this one does the best. It’s imaginative, original, inventive.

But in contrast to today’s literature, I suspect the meandering sentence structure, the somewhat stiff style, and the more expansive vocabulary of this one might be somewhat off-putting. I confess that I had to make a personal adjustment to a kind of writing I haven’t enjoyed for some time.

The story itself broke a lot of the “good story” guidelines. The main character didn’t particularly want anything except to survive. The antagonists turned out to be allies. The stakes didn’t seem particularly high. The rising action happened too soon and the denouement was far too long.

And yet …

Something about this one makes it compelling. Perhaps it’s the fresh view of our world. Or the ideas it suggests about the supernatural. Maybe it’s the close look at human nature the story affords.

Certainly the total is greater than its parts, but I have to think this one is great because of what it says more than anything else. Maybe that’s just my perspective.

And now, if you haven’t guessed already, I’ll give a series of specific clues. In the comments let me know if and when you figured out the title of this classic.

10. Though the story begins on earth, most of it takes place elsewhere.
9. There is no portal.
8. The main character is kidnapped.
7. His kidnappers mistakenly think they need to provide a human sacrifice.
6. The main character is a philologist by occupation.
5. His ability with language helps him discover the truth.
4. The hnau he once feared become his allies.
3. The storyline may have been influenced by H. G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon.
2. The main character is Dr. Elwin Ransom.
1. The author is C.S. Lewis.

And the book title is …

Out Of The Silent Planet.

%d bloggers like this: