When a writer takes up their pen to evoke worlds, characters, and stories apart from their own, most of the time they take the opportunity to imagine things outside their experience,. The fantasy or science fiction writer goes further, and imagines that which is outside the realm of possibility.

Clearly, Tolkien never infiltrated a dragon’s hoard and George R.R. Martin has not, to my knowledge, destroyed an entire fleet of ships with unnaturally powerful wildfire.

One of the perks of fantasy and science fiction is having more tools and playthings available to us than those with which we already live every day.

So when someone has the liberty to imagine, to speculate, what do they choose to conjure up?

Why Fantasy Stories Reveal Fantasies

To me, imagination is often – even within the context of real life – concerned with that which we have never known and/or that which we have longed for.

The writer would probably become terribly bored if, while describing magical creatures and advanced space faring vessels, they only described scenes and people akin to those they have known in life. The setting would be fantastical, but the plot and characters would still be very mundane.

It would be the same-old-same-old in space, or with magic thrown into the mix.

And while it’s vital that characters remain relatable in order for us to connect to them, that doesn’t mean the aspects grounded in reality can’t stray into the realm of fantasy.

It’s simply a different form of fantasy.

I use the genre of fan fiction writing to immerse myself in things which I am not now, and sometimes never will be, able to have.

Although I am the elder sibling, I don’t have a magic hammer or a palace to live in. While I do have the companionship of pets, I’ll never know what it’s like to ride a motorcycle through the jungle, accompanied by a quartet of prehistoric reptiles. And the romantic relationship aspects of so much of fan fiction as a whole are relatively unexplored by me for the simple reason that I don’t need to imagine fulfillment in that area.

Dreams Of A Better World…

Beyond creative thrill-seeking, however, what wished-for things are we revealing in our writing?

R.A. Salvatore, though writing in the typically horrendously racist genre of fantasy, often explores themes of race and character, and the connections, or lack thereof, between them.

I cannot remember any character in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling being described as in danger for their lives as a result of poverty.

In the TV series Supernatural, there are monsters, but there are also people who dedicate their lives, literally, to keeping those terrors from harming people. Sometimes those monsters even infiltrate government and large corporations.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that actions taken to hurt human beings were perpetrated by members of another race of creatures, rather than by the willful ignorance or callous indifference of a member of our own species?

And wouldn’t it be even nicer to know that a couple of tough siblings are on the job to protect us from such “evil”?

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is another excellent example of this. It’s tough to imagine anything more fantastical than a disc-shaped world riding atop four elephants, astride the back of an immense galaxy-trotting tortoise. Yet at the same time, some of the central and recurring themes of the Discworld novels are very much concerned with aspects of life humans tend to obsess over.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that death was neither arbitrary nor random, and that each and every one of us was ushered into the next life by a kindly (if a little odd) grandfather-figure who was in no way cruel or evil.

Who in fact, would go to great lengths to defend the human race in the event something threatened it (Hogfather, in particular, is the perfect example of this).

Humanity’s Potential…

Gene Roddenberry, original creator of the Star Trek universe, came right out and said that his world was imagining what humanity could be. In the show, the movies, and the books, within the United Federation of Planets, there is no poverty, no hunger, and no money. People work to better themselves and others. Race, species and gender ostensibly have no meaning, with everyone being welcome. And while it took the Trek verse an alarming amount of time to include LGBTQ characters (it is in fact only within the last couple of years this was done, first in Star Trek: Beyond, and then in Star Trek: Discovery), there has always been a very racially inclusive attitude and the willingness to explore themes of race, sexuality, and diversity through analogous fictional narratives.

Which is not to say Star Trek never gets it wrong, certainly race and sexuality were an issue for them at times, but they gave a valiant effort.

Roddenberry left us a clear message about his expectations of what we can be someday.

I hope he wouldn’t feel we are letting him down.

Here’s the true purpose of fantasy and sci-fi narratives: only when we imagine can we move toward something better.

Without knowledge that an improved version of ourselves and our lives is possible, even if we have to accept that it probably won’t include dragons, there is no way to progress.

Writers of every genre, I truly believe, are busily working on providing us with these glimpses of the possibilities that lie within ourselves. And the FSF genres in particular are adept and delving far deeper into such themes than others, likely because it’s so easy for fantastical worlds to take real-world issues, and give them a very different face, one that’s easier to accept and listen to because it’s ‘not real’.

The message is carried in a context that diffuses the controversy, stigma, and outrage that would often be associated with the same theme if it were explored in reality – think of Orwell, exploring the follies of humanity at his time of writing in the classic tale, Animal Farm, and similar stories like Gulliver’s Travels and Lord of the Flies.

The pen truly is mightier than the sword. Keep up the good work, folks.

Colleen Rutledge

Colleen Rutledge is a certified ADHD coach and geek. She writes, makes chainmaille, and lives in Ontario Canada. You can find her coaching and spot-the-fandom here, and her shiny objects here.