Naomi Alderman: A Fantasy and Sci Fi Revival?
I’ve been asked to write a piece about the “revival of interest in sci-fi and fantasy”. Which puzzles me. Because since I picked up Timothy and Two Witches and read it to myself at the age of four, my interest has never gone anywhere and doesn’t need to be revived. And there are millions of loyal readers around the world for whom the same is true: those of us who have always loved sending our minds wandering into imaginary worlds.
Maybe there has been something in the air lately. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. Superhero movies every five minutes. Enormous franchises with vast budgets which invite us to walk into their imagined spaces and believe, for a moment, in magic, in dragons, in radioactive spider bites. Maybe if I tried I could conjure a thesis that now, in this troubled world (ah, but when is the world not troubled?) we long more than ever to escape. But I don’t think that’s it. I think fantasy and science fiction (by which we mean imagining the future) are part of the cultural patrimony of the human race and we impoverish ourselves every time we reject them as “not realistic”.
Fantasies about creatures and worlds that never have been and never could be are nothing new. Who wrote about witches, ghosts and fairies? Shakespeare. Who wrote both searing social and political commentary and also fanciful tales about visitations from spirits? Dickens. Who wrote stories about ravening monsters, strange new lands and, yes, witches again? Homer. These tales are metaphors and they’re also real. Just as a map (simplified, key features amplified) is often the best way to describe a space, so the imaginative amplification of the monstrous, the magical, is often the best way to talk about life.
We keep on rediscovering the power and pleasure of the imagination. It’s like a game. We become routinely seduced by the idea that fiction has something to tell us about the real world – of course it does, fiction is imagination and our shared and individual imaginative landscapes are part of the real world. And then we start to imagine that fiction should be somehow ‘realistic’ – as if the things we see in dreams and nightmares and daydreams and wishes and hopes aren’t real, don’t form a part, maybe the greater part of our experience of our lives. And then we can be surprised once again by the power of monsters and ghosts, fairies and witches. We can back ourselves into them, startled and frightened and excited and alive. Look, look at this we say to ourselves as we rediscover shape-changing creatures or magical mirrors or women who live in the water. Look how mesmerising this is. How did we let ourselves forget?
Of course, a spell of forgetting is part of magic too. The most powerful witches might not let you remember what you’ve seen of them. So maybe fantastical literature will always be on the edge of memory, never quite respectable, always being unearthed and rediscovered, like a tune heard in childhood whose notes you can never quite remember aright.
It’s in that spirit and with that hope that I’m delighted to have been involved in choosing some neglected science fiction and fantasy titles to be reissued for the Penguin Worlds Series. I’m thrilled E Nesbit’s lesser-known Horror Stories are being brought out in this beautiful new edition and to have contributed an introduction for them, as well as for Emma Bull’s brilliant urban fantasy War for the Oaks and Joanna Russ’ strange and haunting tale We Who Are About To. They are stories to haunt the corners of the mind, niggling at it, never quite allowing it to settle into a conventional shape.
And believing as I do that a voyage beyond the quite realistic can bring us back strange and precious cargoes from far-off inner landscapes, my new novel The Power, which will be published next month, is also science fiction. Or speculative fiction. Or anyway, not a fiction about a real thing (curious concept) but a fiction about a fictional thing (surely they all are?).
The Power is about our world – today, or tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow – when very suddenly almost all the women in the world develop the power to electrocute people at will. Anything from a tickle up to full electro-death. They can do it to other women, to men, to animals, to railings if they want. And then… everything is different. To see how different, you’ll have to read the book! But I expect you’ve noticed that I’m writing about something real, just slantwise. Which is sometimes the only way to get at a real thing, to catch it unawares before our minds have a chance to force it into an acceptable, expected pattern.
I always suspected I had science fiction (or speculative fiction, or a fantastic tale) in me. After all, it’s been what I liked to read ever since Timothy and Two Witches. So it was only ever a matter of time.