Above us, Only Sky

Politics, Philosophy, Science, and Everything Else.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The Value of Fiction

I’ve written before about some books I’ve read which I thought had too much ideological bias, now I want to talk about what I consider to be the real value of fictional stories/novels. It is possible to tell a story of value in another medium, but I’m going to focus on the novel because this is something I know about, at the very least because I’ve read so very many of them and I’ve tried to write a few as well.

Generally, when one thinks of ‘important books’, you’re either talking about non-fiction of very carefully placed fiction. While some classical works of Science Fiction and Fantasy have achieved this status, for the most part any book in the fantasy or Sci-Fi section of your bookstore is going to be considered, by most people, to be pulp and geek-fodder. For many of those books, the placement isn’t wrong. But to paint the whole genre with that brush is to do a great disservice to yourself, because you’re denying the value that this type of book can provide.

From where dose the value of stories come? We can start with true stories- news and non-fiction, stories that are for the most part, true. For some kinds of news, they can tell us about things going on in our world, but for most of them, and for anything about the past, there isn’t going to be any specific information about what we can expect in our day to day lives. Yet there is value to them- the value of their being human stories. There are always morality tales, and very often there is an attempt to structure real world stories in this way- showing acts and consequences, but on a simpler and less deliberate level, stories simply convey human action and feeling. When we hear about a disaster, we imagine ourselves there, we imagine other people there- we think in human terms. Every successful story ever told conveys some kind of human element. Why is lord of the rings so popular? Because we all imagine ourselves as the brave hobbit bearing a terrible burden and receiving a heroic reward. We are affected by 1984 because we imagine ourselves trapped in the same nightmare. These archetypes also show us wherein the value of those fictional worlds lies. What the fictional world does is it allows the author to create exactly the situation he wants in order to show some aspect or quality of the human condition. It does so without getting entangled in any real world historical situations that might complicate the issue.

If you want a character to be faced with the ultimate evil, supernatural, unbounded, then simply invent it. Fantasy fiction allows the author the scope to examine the human condition from any angle, under any conditions, without restriction. The only thing that must remain constant is the honest portrayal of human actions. This is not because it is impossible to tell a story absent any real human behaviour- but without it, the story will lack any great appeal. The only factor in the survival of a book or story (once it has achieved a certain minimal amount of dissemination) is appeal- whether people enjoy them and want to pass them on or not. This appeal has virtually nothing to do with the real world setting, though many of the best stories have been told in the real world, because the complexity and depth necessary to create a really compelling human portrait is easier to create when much of the context for the story is already in place.


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