Jeanne Cavelos and the Pleasures of Science Fiction

Jeanne Cavelos -- director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles, and winner of the World Fantasy Award -- has an intriguing post about the Pleasures of Science Fiction. Go there and read it, then come back.

For those you who weren't reading closely, she lists the following pleasures:
  • Pleasure 1-Recovery
Recovery -- a term coined by the late, great J.R.R.Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy-Stories" -- is an after-effect of being immersed in a fictional reality. According to Tolkien, it allows one to "regain a clear view" of the truth of reality. After reading a book or a short-story, we look at our reality with new eyes, with an altered perception.

For me, this is certainly true. All of my favorite SF novels have given me "fictional reality hangover", normally requiring a mental gearshift in order to adjust to the 'real world'.

However, there must be at least one fundamental truth that resonates in the text. Otherwise, it is the equivalent of wearing x-ray specs or filtered lenses -- your perception is merely altered but you see nothing truly new.
  • Pleasure 2-Escape
Escapism is common criticism leveled at SF in general. It's nice to see SF authors 'own' this term and tout it as one of the principal reasons to read SF.
  • Pleasure 3-Cognitive engagement
Say what? I take this to mean "science fiction makes you think", and will simply agree.
  • Pleasure 4-Exposure
This is not a cruel practice mean to cut down the number of children. This refers to the therapeutic method of exposing someone to their fears.
I prefer to think of this as a mind-expanding practice of exposing people to new ideas, new principles, and new frameworks of understanding (and thus feel this is very close in spirit to Pleasure 1) -- especially ones that are unfamiliar and threatening and maybe even terrifying.
  • Pleasure 5-New insights into the human condition
Hm. Very well, though I think all good literature should have some element of this. I suppose that SF's primary contributions are exploring macro-level impacts on the human condition, as well as some radical changes to the status quo of the human condition.
A common theme here is showing how "even in the future, we're still fundamentally human", which is comforting and perhaps in some cases true. It's rare to see books that deal well with radical shifts to human culture and the human condition -- enough to make us wonder if the characters are even human anymore.

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