The Harry Potter books caused publishers to take notice of what are now called “crossover” books. These are books that are supposedly written for children but are being widely read by adults. Why should grownups be indulging themselves this way? Because “crossover” fantasy books are generally books that are exciting, lyrical, pro-social and often challenging. Treading the lines between magic and mystery, wonder and sometimes horror, they address a need that does not cease with adulthood. As a matter of fact, that need is central to the way we think as a species and accounts in large measure for our very survival – and the threat to the survival of both our species and the world. How so?
There are several scientific disciplines that are dedicated to uncovering the causes of human behavior. Psychiatry, Psychology, Cultural Anthropology and Sociology are all dedicated to this process. Many of the early discoveries in these fields worked in a kind of literary mode contrasting and comparing themes as they were expressed from patient to patient or from culture to culture. Although there are obvious similarities in the material collected at this level of investigation, the fundamental concern in the old catalogue of human behavior was with differences, begetting an image of human behavior as relative to culture.
Looking for a deeper, more adequate description of human behavior prompted a number of researchers to break through the veil of relativity to find universals; to find how we are more alike than we are different. The work of Margaret Mead, Claude Levi-Strauss and Jean Piaget forged new descriptions of what makes human beings human. Piaget is particularly important for the way he described the development of thought. Without going deeply into his scheme, it is important to note here that he described a process of learning that involves confusion or dissonance, followed by a resolution or integration of ideas. This process begins in childhood and extends into adulthood. Language, art, play, and dreams are the symbolic processes that make the abstract and the unseen more concrete. It is through this process that we are able to deal with our feelings, beliefs and intuitions in order to place them into a meaningful context. We continually negotiate between the concrete and the abstract, the conscious and the sub-conscious, the actual and the virtual realms of life. All of the elements of the speculative fictions – fantasy, science fiction, mystery and even horror – are engaged in this process.
There are many good readers who don’t like any writing that falls under the rubric “speculative fiction.” This is because we have drawn an “iron curtain” between what we like to call “reality” as opposed to something we call “make believe” as if they were two distinct realms of thought that had nothing to do with each other. But all thoughtful activities work through symbols and even those works of language, art, and play that we categorize as “realistic” are in fact, manifestations of the process of making believe. The only difference between realistic and non-realistic art forms is that “realistic” forms tell us what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world we inhabit while make believe or speculative forms allow us to consider possibilities that lie beyond the narrow spectrum of reality as we understand it in our day to day lives.
Ironically, however, we are even now on the verge of an era that will pressure us to become more and more daringly imaginative as we move inexorably into the epoch of quantum theory. As the scientists and mathematicians themselves describe it, the ultimate “realities” of the quantum world along with string theory, multi-dimensions and multi-universes – all of which are now filtering down to us from the Mount Olympus of Scientific Speculation – are describing the ultimate nature of reality as “strange,” “weird” and even “fantastic.” Many of these elements are beginning to crop up in crossover fiction alongside the more familiar stuff like dark castles, stormy nights, trolls, fairies, magicians, dragons, and needy princesses.
As we continue into the future, the ability to imagine how and why we are, how and why the world is, and how and why we are either a part of or apart from nature, will continue to engage us. Imagining, fantasizing, and dreaming will remain key functions for living and surviving in this brave new world.
But how will we find the truth?
Another word often used for truth – usually misused to mean un-truth – is the word myth. I’ve said it before but never too often, that in fact myth is a prime vehicle for truth. As our friend Chuck Lauter once said, “A myth is a truth so important that it can only be expressed through a story.” Myth, archetypes, and fantasy work hand in hand to express our most profound truths. As a Native American storyteller once said, “The things in this story never happened but the story is true.” Fantasy is a primary art form which embraces and enhances the search for truth and beauty and most especially justice.
It’s OK, Dear Reader, if you don’t read speculative fiction. But I warn you, there’s some fine reading hiding under that description. Don’t read it! If you do, you might just get hooked.