Sunday, 1 February 2009

If I could be for only an hour, if I could be for an hour every day....

When people say that fantasy, science fiction, horror and so on are just escapism, I always inwardly roll my eyes, even though I have to recognise that the description is fundamentally sound. What annoys me is that it is also fundamentally sound for every genre of fiction. You're telling me The Secret History, White Teeth, Bleak House, Pride & Prejudice and Midnight's Children aren't about escape from real life? Saying that 'fantasy is just escapism' is simply another of the many ways in which the Literati consign the genre to the Untouchable Shelf in the book shop where the Not Real Literature books go.

The problem, you see, is the word just. 'Fantasy is about escapism' is a proposition I have no difficulty with. 'Fantasy is just escapism' is dismissive and wrong, not only because the genre is about so much more than that, but also because it implies that there's something bad about escapism - like it's an insignificant or unworthy goal. As we have seen, such an implication is idiotic because if it applies to fantasy it equally applies to 'literary fiction' or whatever label you want to give the Proper Novels - but it is also idiotic because escapism is at core a good thing.

Let me tell you about escapism. I spent much of last year in a kind of limbo between finishing a Master's degree and starting my Ph.D, mainly because of problems with the funding body who pay me for my research. During that time-between-times I was working as a translator and editor cum Head of English at a small company in Yokohama, and it was The Dullest and Most Soul Destroying Job in the world. I spent most of my time sitting at a desk in my office painstakingly translating patents and employee contracts that didn't have a modicum of anything approaching interesting content; getting up to grab another cup of coffee every hour or so from the lobby; idly flirting with the receptionists while drinking said coffee; staring out of the window; and listening to the clock tick on the wall. My boss didn't allow us to listen to music and I worked 10, 11 or 12 hour shifts at a time. I have never known longer days.

I think four things kept me sane during that period. One was the financial renumeration, which wasn't at all bad. Second was the fact that I knew I would be leaving in October. Third was going drinking after work. And fourth was the escapism offered by the fact that I was alone in an office and could post in various PBeM games during the day without anybody knowing.

The fourth thing was perhaps the most important. I would sit in my silent, grey, deathly boring office while life crept by outside at glacial pace, and I wouldn't mind the dullness, because for a few minutes every hour I was creating an imaginary world with good friends: slaying dragons, assassinating politicians, exploring ocean depths or just shooting the breeze about what we were going to do next. That's escapism for you. It ain't a bad thing.


  1. I think Tolkien put it best: "It is jailers who object most strongly to the idea of escape."

    Nice little vignette of life in the dreaded Translation Mines of Yokohama. :-)

  2. Well said! This fuels the imagination and creative thinking in my mind. It's my expression.

  3. Chris: Yup. Although I think he was quoting C. S. Lewis. Or maybe C. S. Lewis quoted Tolkien as saying that. I forget. The Translation Mines of Yokohama could almost be an D&D module, couldn't it?

    Blotz: I sense you've had a similar experience.

    Chgowiz: I think everybody who role plays can empathise.