In a world that’s becoming more fantastical, and science fictional, by day, it’s sometimes tempting to ask, what’s the point of science fiction or fantasy? After all, these days we have, in our pockets and in our homes, devices that outstrip the projections of yesteryear science fictioneros—heck, many of us practically own magic mirrors, and oracles we can ask about the weather. But lots of us persist in writing and reading science fiction and fantasy. Why?
The easy, and in my opinion mostly wrong, answer, is that science fiction and fantasy both expand our imagination, and plant the seeds of great advances. Science fiction primes us to go to the moon, or to Mars. Science fiction builds in its readers and viewers a desire for pocket communicators, for slabs of glass that hold all the books ever printed; fantasy inculcates a desire for devices that just work, for a home that responds to our will as if animated by djinni servants. And it’s true that science fiction and fantasy have both prompted the creation of technological marvels, from human triumphs like the moon shot to far more troubling fare, like, well, Palantir.
But I think it’s pretty arrogant of the genre to claim those advances for itself. People dream and yearn and experiment regardless of what genres of fiction they read growing up. The real power of science fiction and fantasy, for me, lie in their use as tools to interpret the world around us, and investigate aspects of our life that are too complex, too implicit, too subtle to tease out with the limited toolset of realistic fiction.
For example: climate change is a massive problem, distributed throughout the world, with myriad taproot causes and enablers. Human society as a whole drives it, and human society as a whole is already suffering from it, but climate change operates on a scale of time and space that shares little with the constrained world of the realistic literary novel. We could tell a story about a family whose farm failed because of a draught—but the “realistic” novelist’s instinct would be to root the drama in the characters, their triumphs and failures and conflicts, centering them and leaving the changing climate as an inciting incident rather than the focus of the story.
Fantasy and science fiction both have their own ways of engaging with these enormous problems. Fantasy’s method is, simply, to give these problems their proper scale and time and context. An adversary operates on the level of gods, on the level of deep social structures vastly distributed through time? No problem! Fantasy has a ready-made language of gods and magic for the purpose. And, indeed, when Steinbeck attempted to confront a more localized version of capital-reinforced climate change in The Grapes of Wrath, he did it by deploying the fantastic: his vision of grand monsters stalking the Oklahoma farm country, of the combine harvester as a kind of dragon.
Science fiction uses similar techniques, confronting the problems of the present either by extrapolation or by recasting them in clearer language, often thanks to a change of perspective. Systems of oppression often work in the real world by clothing themselves in anxiety or uncertainty, so that perpetrators and bystanders can claim ignorance and disbelieve the protests of the suffering. It’s often easier to understand a critique of settler colonialism when Star Trek’s Major Kira discusses the history of her home planet, than it is to see the world we live in with our own eyes.
As with all shifted or projected perspectives, though, there’s danger in them there hills: the writer may not understand her subject, and the reader may not listen, or may read a story in a way the writer didn’t intend. But the room these genres offer to play with language and possibility allows them, at their height, to speak truth to the concerns of the moment and of the age—and as the world becomes more fantastical, the truth grows more important than ever.
Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Full Fathom Five, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. He tweets as @maxgladstone.
This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.