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Is Fiction Fantasy?

Ake Ødin By Ake Ødin Published on November 5, 2015

Is fiction fantasy? I mean all fiction, regardless of how realistic it purports to be? In many respects, this is a divide that makes some people look down on sci-fi, fantasy, comics, graphic novels and speculative fiction as being somehow lesser genres. The Godfather, a work of pure imagination inspired by distillations of reality, can win plaudits where Lord Foul’s Bane cannot in literary circles. But why? The fantasy title uses distillations of reality too, emotions, desires, relationships and so on. Why the divide between the one and the other?

Take this bizarre tale for example…

It’s an extended family dinner. It was served late, I got caught out by the drinking which began hours before. Nuts and fancy gourmet crisps didn’t soak up the booze. As the pudding is finished and the brandies come out, one of the guests asks me if I’ve seen any films recently. I mentioned I’d seen the last fight-fest episode of The Hobbit and they cut me off before I’d even started ragging on it (I mean, it’s just too much, right? The book was better and can be read quicker than one episode than the three part movie adaptation… almost).

“Oh I can’t watch that nonsense!” she laughed “I mean, it’s got to be something that could really happen or I can’t take it seriously!”

“What sort of thing?” I asked.

“Oh you know, something realistic, like a war movie or a romantic comedy”

“What’s your favourite war movie?”

“Black Hawk Down”

“And that’s realistic, is it?”

“It’s based on a true story.”

“Like Jaws”

“No but Jaws is totally made up!”

“No it’s not, sharks really do bite people sometimes”.

Hmmmm. A war movie or a romantic comedy, eh? That’s realistic? I can’t see it. Over the years I’ve worked on various TV and Film projects, and it’s hard to see any of it as realistic when you’re standing behind the lights, watching the actors muddle their lines and argue with one another. But beyond that, there is a curious philosophical issue. Because a work of fiction adopts the forms of real life, it appears more realistic on the surface. However, it’s not realistic at all. In fact, in order to service the narrative, create jeopardy, throw in plot twists and all those writing devices that make something watchable, reality is the last thing you want. Consider how tedious it would be to watch Captain Kirk spending an hour in a team meeting going over the canteen supplies, or even taking a ‘comfort break’ in the Captain’s lavatory and flicking through a copy of Photon Torpedo Weekly. We’d be bored to death.

Take the mob scenes from Black Hawk Down. Writing a mob scene requires a broad brush approach, it lacks detail, mobs are by definition aggregates. A writer can’t script everyone in the mob scene, nor do they need to. The members of the mob don’t have mob backstories in writing, but of course, in real life everyone in the mob is a complex, real character. In this case you can’t help but wonder if the depiction of the mob scene in Black Hawk Down is more or less believable than the real Mogadishu mob that inspired it. It is an imaginary facsimile, after all. We accept it because it’s ‘close enough’. But is close enough the same as real? No.

To illustrate this point, imagine a parallel universe version of Black Hawk Down where all the Delta Force troopers are killed, the rebel faction wins and Somalia becomes a very different place than it was in the aftermath of those events. Would that be realistic? The answer is the approximately true version is more believable, but this is a paradox, because the original relies on the precisely the same writing device as the (less believable) parallel universe version, namely the fictionalisation of real events that change what really happened into what didn’t really happen like that. We accept the original was a dramatisation of events, the filmmakers acknowledging some protagonist roles were altered to serve the narrative of the film. It’s realistic, but not real. Exactly like the parallel version where the bad guys win. Realism and real are similar, but not the same.

In fact, realism can become quite destructive. If you accept what you see as realistic, it inevitably takes you to some very pejorative conclusions. If your understanding of the complex tribal politics of the Mogadishu mob is limited to watching Black Hawk Down (and I hope it’s not, but for some people that’s all they know about those events) it looks rather bleak. The good guys are just trying to keep the peace, the bad guys are a mob of savage, bloodthirsty, gun toting maniacs. If you’re inclined towards a racist viewpoint, it’s another false proof to support your broken perspective of the complexities of life. The realism with which it is portrayed will fuel your bias. The realistic can skirt close to propaganda at times like that. If you can’t watch The Hobbit because you view it as nonsense, but enjoy Black Hawk Down, perhaps you’re losing your grip on the difference between entertainment and reality. That’s a worrying prospect, but in some respects, for some people, is alarmingly true.

And so we reach a strange conclusion. The sci-fi fan, the fantasist, the comic book geek has a much better grasp of reality than people who can’t enjoy those genres because they aren’t believable. Let me explain…

And so we reach a strange conclusion. The sci-fi fan, the fantasist, the comic book geek has a much better grasp of reality than people who can’t enjoy those genres because they aren’t believable. Let me explain…

For the geeks out there (like me) the edge of reality stops at actual reality, and beyond that all fiction is fantasy. For others, the edges of reality blur with the realistic-but-unreal. The realists can’t enjoy fiction that won’t be cross-referenced with an atlas or an encyclopaedia, but within those parameters, they’ll accept almost anything. Even pure fantasy, clothed in realistic circumstances. Like The Godfather.

What a delicious irony. The people who think they’re too grounded in reality to accept elves and orcs are actually living in cloud cuckoo land compared with the people who geek-out and go larping. After all, if you go to the effort of suspending your disbelief, why not go the whole hog and get dragons and space ships for your efforts?

I’ve spent my life writing. Doesn’t everyone? We learn to do it when we’re kids and from there it never stops. Relationships live through writing. Emails. Facebook. SMS. From the moment we can ... Show More