Fantasy, sci-fi push artistic boundaries

With the upcoming premieres of The Host and Game of Thrones, fans of science fiction and fantasy are prepared to see some of literature’s hottest titles portrayed on the screen.

Whatever your opinions on Stephenie Meyer or George R. R. Martin, it’s undeniable that the fantasy and science fiction genres have a large market for readers, cinephiles and television lovers alike. This year has already seen the theatrical releases of Beautiful Creatures and Oz the Great and Powerful. And promises of a December 2014 release for the second installment of The Hobbit trilogy have die-hard fans of J. R. R. Tolkien writhing in anticipation.

But what gives science fiction and fantasy their cultural staying power? Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series debuted in England in 1954, but when Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of The Fellowship of the Ring hit screens in 2001, the film grossed $872 million worldwide. And that figure doesn’t take into consideration the sum already earned by Tolkien’s other Middle-earth novels and subsequent  film adaptations.

Similarly, the first installment of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series was published in 1996, yet is just meeting Hollywood success with HBO’s premiere of Game of Thrones in 2011. Still, the second season of Game of Thrones, according to The Hollywood Reporter, averaged 10.3 million viewers per episode (just to compare, HBO’s series Girls averaged only 4.2 million viewers). Naturally, with both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings possessing large fanbases and grand financial successes, it’s safe to say that time hasn’t rendered either work irrelevant.

Perhaps audiences are drawn to fantastical literary texts because of their penchant for chronicling human experiences in new worlds. Tolkien, for example, created a depth-defying history of his fictional Middle-earth and even drew on his background in linguistics to invent multiple languages, such as Dwarvish and Entish, for his universe. Elvish, perhaps the most famous of Tolkien’s languages, remains fully functional, and the most dedicated Tolkien readers can carry a conversation in Quenya and Sindarin.

Yet The Fellowship of the Ring, despite Frodo Baggins’ 50-ish age in the book, still contains a quasi-coming-of-age-story as the hobbit Frodo embarks on a trek to take the ring of Sauron to Mordor — a big deal, since hobbits don’t usually have adventures.

“I should think [it would be very difficult to find anyone to share in an adventure] — in these parts!” says hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the prequel to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, The Hobbit. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

But as Frodo begins to confront his own simultaneous thirst for adventure and anxiety about handling the dark powers of the ring, Tolkien’s novel quickly becomes an exploration of moral issues — issues common even among those of us who don’t happen to live in Middle-earth.

“The great thing about fantasy is that you can drag dreams and longings and hopes and fears and strivings out of your subconscious and call them ‘magic’ or ‘dragons’ or ‘faeries’ and get to know them better,” reads a famous quote by fantasy writer Robin McKinley. “But then, I write the stuff. Obviously I’m prejudiced.”

McKinley, known for her retellings of Beauty and the Beast in her novels Beauty: A Retelling of  the Story of Beauty and the Beast and Rose Daughter, as well as her newly invented worlds in Sunshine and The Blue Sword, has a clear-cut vision of humanity’s ongoing presence in fictional universes.

Her 2003 novel Sunshine, for example, follows the tale of Rae “Sunshine” Seddon as she befriends a supposedly dangerous vampire Constantine. Though McKinley’s novel takes place in a world dominated by humans, the politics of the universe as we know it have changed. The Voodoo Wars, fought between humans and “Others”  — vampires, demons and werewolves, have left “bad spots” in Rae’s world, places where dark magic thrives. When Rae decides to embrace her own magical abilities, however, the novel quickly turns into a classic case of good versus evil.

There’s only one problem: How do you distinguish between the two?

“The rose shadows said that they loved the sun, but that they also loved the dark, where their roots grew through the lightless mystery of the earth,” writes McKinley in Sunshine. “The roses said: You do not have to choose.”

In her lyrical prose and fantastical metaphors, McKinley proves that fantasy and science fiction offer effective starting grounds for investigating the human condition. Her characters, even if they are not entirely human, explore what it means to love, the nature of responsibility and the intricate workings of friendships — all themes that find relevance even in novels that are more grounded in realism.

Without the restrictions of working within realistic realms, however, authors can find a never-ending avenue for defining humanity in ways that might not be expressed in more conventional forms. Magic suddenly becomes an expression of responsibility. Vampires, goblins and werewolves become metaphors for the monsters within ourselves. And, even if an author is just pushing the limits of his or her imagination, communicating the more uncomfortable facets of reality becomes easier as the fantastical world gives us some distance from themes we might not be ready to discuss.

Perhaps, once again, McKinley says it best in Sunshine: “I like that: a little pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself … See what kind of a pretzel you can tie yourself into and press on the understood.”


Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.