Strange Horizons, Literati Scorn, and Escapist Reading

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of monthly reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, The Fix is no longer around so I'm reprinting these reviews on my website.

One of the classic knocks the literati give against speculative fiction is that the genre exists merely as escapist reading. This silly view holds that it’s wrong to read science fiction or fantasy simply to experience a different world, while the reverse—that it’s quite all right to read a highbrow literary novel and experience a different world—is totally acceptable.

In many ways, this dismissal of speculative fiction is reminiscent of the way 18th century English novels were initially dismissed by critics as “intellect-eroding” sentimental fiction because their audience was middle-class women. No doubt these solemn critics worried that too many women were daring to read novels as an escape from their expected wifely duties. The irony, of course, is that many of these escapist 18th century novels are now considered classics of the genre, praised by the same literary critics who turn around and heap scorn on speculative fiction for being mere escapism. Such is the circular nature of both life and literary snobbery.

The truth is that all art is, to one degree or another, escapism. For it is only by escaping our reality—be it the few seconds it takes to look at a painting or photograph, or the hours needed to read a novel or memoir—that we have the opportunity to consider events and themes far greater than our own lives. It is only through escapism that art reaches the heart of its audience.

I bring all this up because, on the most basic level, all four of the stories published in August 2008 by Strange Horizons are escapist reading. However, these stories take their escapism a step further by having as their joint theme an examination of people trying to escape from their own lives. Escapist stories about escapism! I’m not sure the literati could even begin to handle such an ironic turn of fictional events.

In “Down the Well” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, a bureaucrat is sent to end the career of a famous biologist, Dr. Roya, who has been running a secretive government project. A few years ago, this project created a wormhole connection to a Venus-like planet in another universe. Because the flow of time is different in this new universe—basically 23 Earth days pass for every million years in the new universe—Dr. Roya was able to play god on this barren planet and seed life. Since then, she has been shaping and observing this world as evolution unfolds across vast periods of time. The cost to Dr. Roya has been great. In just a few earth years, she has aged more than five decades due to the cost of living for brief periods in the new universe.

Now that Dr. Roya has created a complex, life-giving world, the government has decided to remove her from the project and use the world for its own ends. Hence the arrival of the bureaucrat to end Dr. Roya’s career. As Dr. Roya prepares to end her life’s work, she must decide if this new world was merely a place where she escaped to for most of her life, or if the new world is so important that she’s willing to risk everything to prevent others from corrupting her creation.

Like all of Johnson’s stories, this one is beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of the strange life forms Dr. Roya has created. Johnson also plays very nicely with the time-flow differences between the universes, which gives the story’s ending paragraph so much power. My main quibble is that it gets a bit too philosophical at times. In addition, since the bureaucrat narrating the story essentially agrees with and supports everything Dr. Roya does, the only conflict is with the unseen outside governmental forces which are now forcing Dr. Roya’s hand. Still, this is a thought-provoking tale and worth the read.

The next story is “The Emerald King” by J. Kenneth Sargeant, a new writer whose previous publications include a very good story, “Fort Bliss,” published last year in issue #11 of Paradox. In “The Emerald King,” Sargeant explores a near future in which a new drug called emeralds enables people to experience a shared fantasy world. The story focuses on one emerald addict being held in a mental institution. Every night, a troll appears in the addict’s padded room, taunting the addict with both the threat of mortal harm and the fact that the hospital orderlies can’t see the troll. The addict also worries that while he’s locked up he won’t be able to complete the mission given to him by his king.

As with the fiction of Philip K. Dick, the reader wonders if the addict is truly experiencing an alternate reality or if this so-called reality is a way for the addict to be manipulated into nefarious deeds by others. The doctors and nurses definitely hold to this latter view, but enough doubt is planted in the reader’s mind that the story plays off this tension in an effortless, easy flowing manner. Sargeant also makes perfect use of dialog to both tell his story and move the action along. Unfortunately, the story ends abruptly with what feels like a forced ending. This leaves the reader unsure about what exactly happened, and what the addict is trying to escape into or from.

Sex with Ghosts” by Sarah Kanning deals with what many people might see as the ultimate escape from reality—the ability to have sex with anyone you desire. In this near-future story, Carla is a beautiful but nonsexual woman working as the receptionist for a made-to-order sex business. Clients come in and place orders for different types of realistic human robots, which can look like a famous movie star, an old friend, or even your ex-wife. The clients then engage in lots of whoopee with said robots, all while paying up the whazoo for this privilege.

Until now, Carla has believed she’s seen every type of sexual fetish known to humanity. But then a client requests a sex robot in Carla’s image. Once Carla meets her double, she goes ballistic, which leads to an all-too-predictable ending. Carla also discovers that there’s not much she can do about someone creating a sex double of herself—which is one of my major issues with the story. Over the last decade, we have already seen movie stars and other famous people claiming copyright over their likeness. If the future plays out as this story imagines, it’s hard to believe that Carla will have no way to prevent this assault on her being. While Kanning does a good job exploring the world within the plot constraints she set up, the story just didn’t ring totally true in either how Carla merely accepts what is done to her or in how this world would allow something like this to happen.

The final escapist tale is “The Secret Identity” by Richard Butner. This short, elegantly written story is part ghost story, part boy-meets-girl romance, part slice-of-life vignette. The story follows the college life of Lona and Walter, two best friends, who act almost like a married couple. However, while Walter believes he knows all about Lona’s life, the truth is that both of them have their own secret lives they escape into from time to time. Then along comes a ghost, which shocks both Lona and Walter into discarding the costumes they have been wearing all this time and embrace the reality which is staring them dead in the face.

There is much to praise in this story, including how the complex characterizations of both Lona and Walter are revealed with a minimalistic approach to prose, and how Butner takes care to never reveal, or explain, the ghost at the center of the plot. “The Secret Identity” was originally published in a 2002 chapbook, and it’s great to see Strange Horizons bringing such a wonderful tale to a larger audience. It’s also telling that while this story could easily have found a home in The New Yorker or any other high-brow literary magazine, it took a speculative fiction magazine to actually bring this story before the public. Recommended.