Is escapism the enemy of smart science fiction? Are stories that let us escape reality always inconsequential fluff? That's what people argue — but the reverse is true. Escapism is a literary impulse, and escapist art is the highest art.
I was thinking about this the other day, when I was watching Gene Roddenberry's Genesis II TV movie. I was wondering why this post-apocalyptic story of tyrannical dominatrices and mutants was less interesting than Star Trek, and I couldn't escape the conclusion: Genesis II was less interesting because it was less fun — and especially less escapist. Instead of cool people on an awesome spaceship packed with fantastic toys, like Communicators and Tricorders, you had a guy trapped in Planet Of The Apes without any apes. And with an extra helping of Roddenberry's signature preachiness.
And I started thinking about escapism, and why we tend to look down on it. We have a bias — myself included, on occasion — against works that allow people to burst out of the bonds of unpleasant reality. They're automatically less smart or interesting than works which seek to confront you with the real world's unpleasantness, to impress on you how unsavory our world really is.
Escapism is the candy-coated pill, the sedative designed to lull you away from realizing quite how messed up things are — and how much culpability you, as a no-doubt middle-class person, have for the situation. Escapism is opium, soma.
The distinction between escapist and "realist" fiction isn't even a matter of utopian versus dystopian narratives — after all, much escapist fiction is dystopian, and plenty of realistic fiction has an utopian impulse at its core. But when movies or books depict someone escaping from the world's unpleantness, or just offer a vision which allows the watcher or reader to escape through their imagination, then we deplore the cowardice of anyone who seeks to run away from their problems in this way. Most of all, escapism is inherently just not serious.
Escapism: pulpy and tacky
Ursula K. Le Guin makes the case against escapism very potently in her essay "Escape Routes," gathered in the collection The Language Of The Night: Essays On Fantasy And Science Fiction:
What if we're escaping from a complex, uncertain, frightening world of death and taxes into a nice simple cozy place where heroes don't have to pay taxes, where death happens only to villains, where Science, plus Free Enterprise, plus the Galactic Fleet in black and silver uniforms, can solve all problems, where human suffering is something that can be cured — like scurvy? This is no escape from the phony. This is an escape into the phony. This doesn't take us in the direction of the great myths and legends, which is always towards an intensification of the mystery of the real. This takes us the other way, toward a rejection of reality, in fact toward madness: infantile regression or paranoid delusion, or schizoid insulation. The movement is retrograde, autistic. We have escaped by locking ourselves in jail.
And inside the padded cell people say, Gee wow have you read the latest Belch the Barbarian story? It's the greatest.
They don't care if nobody outside is listening. They don't want to know there is an outside.
Because the most famous works of SF are socially and culturally speculative, the field has got a reputation for being inherently "relevant." Accused of escapism, it defends itself by pointing to Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Capek, Stapeldon, Zamyatin. But that won't wash: not for us. Not one of those writers was an American. My feeling is that American SF, while riding on the tradition of great European works, still clings to the pulp tradition of escapism.
That's overstated, and perhaps unfair. Recent American SF has been full of stories tackling totalitarianism, nationalism, overpopulation, pollution, prejudice, racism, sexism, militarism, and so on: all of the "relevant" problems.
She was writing this back in the 1970s, so the specific accusations about SF are outdated. But as a summation of the "escapism is childish and not literary" viewpoint, it's pretty much perfect. And as you can tell, a big part of the hatred for escapism comes from a desire to be literary, and to be taken seriously by the upper echelons of the (supposedly monolithic) literary world. Writing in The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction in 1976, Barry N. Maltzberg raged that the literary/cultural establishment "either does not know we exist or patronizes us as pulp hacks for escapist kids."
One more quote. In his book On SF, Thomas M. Disch characterizes escapism as a "security blanket," and adds:
There are times when all of us would rather flee our problems than confront them head-on with the heightened awareness that genuine art forces on us. For such times, nothing will serve but escapism.
He goes on to say that certain trashy SF authors are as bad as Star Trek or Magnum P.I. (even though the latter show constantly bombarded us with Magnum's Vietnam War flashbacks.)
If you read these quotes carefully, a few things jump out at you. First of all, there's the equation of escapism with "pulp" traditions — which was obviously a big deal for authors like Le Guin and Maltzberg, who were trying to escape (sorry!) from the "pulp" label and prove that they deserved a higher grade of paper stock. And then there's the idea that escapism prevents your SF from being "relevant" or commenting on real-world issues — when, in fact, the most escapist narratives are often the most topical. (Just watch the original Star Trek.) There's the idea, which was way more prevalent in the 1970s, that explicit social commentary automatically made your work better or smarter.
There's also a certain feeling of disapproval, even dismay, that people are having too much fun. If I hadn't read tons of books by Le Guin and Disch, and discovered first hand how enjoyable (and frequently, how escapist) their work can be, I would think both authors wrote dry Socialist Realist works, in which their protagonists were born and died in the same gutter.
There has been a move to re-embrace escapism in recent years — Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay was about the fictional creation of a Golden Age superhero who was actually called The Escapist. And Chabon shows us exactly how The Escapist's real-world origins reflected the political and social trends of the 1930s and early 1940s, and how much his adventures reflect the struggles and traumas Sammy and Joey are going through in their real lives — everything from Sammy's secret homosexuality to Clay's family trapped in Nazi-controlled Eastern Europe becomes part of the secret backstory of the Escapist and the League of the Golden Key. In Chabon's novel, backstory is the story — when you try to strip the League of the Golden Key and the other details from the Escapist's origin, you chip away at what makes the Escapist who he is, and the reasons why he does what he does.
It's no coincidence, of course, that Chabon has also been a champion of bringing the pulps back into the sphere of the literary — he edited two anthologies of mock-pulp science fiction stories for McSweeney's a few years ago, chock full of literary and genre superstars doing pastiches and homages to the plot-heavy stories of the past. Authors like Chabon and Dave Eggers are able to celebrate the pulpy and retro in a way that Maltzberg never could back in the 1970s, because they're already assured of their literary status, and need not fear being marginalized. (And meanwhile, the "new space opera" and posthuman SF novels that throng on our shelves are the very picture of escapism, with their heroes who live for zillions of years and can port themselves into new customized bodies whenever they feel like it.)
But in any case, we're now far enough from the pulp era that the "pulpy" label has lost much of its sting, even as unabashedly pulpy urban fantasy heroines in tight pleather pants are eating science fiction's market share for lunch. So maybe it really is time to reclaim the word "escapism" and transform it into a paean to works that liberate and illuminate us.
A theory of escapist art
So I promised you an explanation of why escapism is the highest form of art — and yes, there may be a slight amount of hyperbole involved there. At the same time, escapism has given us some of our greatest speculative art works, and has the potential to spawn even greater ones in the future, if we recognize it for what it is.
First of all, let's dispose of this false dichotomy between "escapism" and "realism." Neither of those things is ever entirely pure, and each always contains elements of the other. Any time you have a flight of fancy, or a grace note, or an elivening metaphor, in a "realist" work, you are engaging in escapism. Because whenever you invoke the imagination, or suggest another world (made out of thought, or images) beyond your protagonist's "real" world, you're allowing the reader a brief escape. And in fact, if you look at "real life," some of our "realest" experiences involve escape.
Think about that old literary standby, the "coming of age" narrative — it is the most pure escapist story you can have, even if it doesn't always have a happy ending. (More on happy endings later.) The "coming of age" tale is about someone outgrowing his or her childhood, and casting off the stifling restrictions of parents, school and conformist expectations. It is a story about reaching escape velocity, and bursting out of childhood's gravity well. This is never a tidy process in real life, nor is it often in literature. But it's the original escapist tale, and in many ways, it's the template on which all other escapist tales build.
The reverse is also true — escapist elements don't automatically make a work less realistic. Just as the "coming of age" story is about escape in the "real" world, it's more than possible to tell a realistic story about a world that repesents an escape from our reality. We've all accepted, by now, that you can tell a realistic story about that ultimate avatar of escapism, Batman. (Batman is in many ways a more escapist figure than Superman, because Batman is just like us — except that his amazing training and gadgets turn him into an unstoppable force.) Look at Paul Pope's amazing, stark graphic novel Batman: Year 100. And if you want SF that comments on real-world issues, it's hard to get more topical than the first few seasons of the Battlestar Galactica remake.
And that leads to another point — escapism can be incredibly dark. I said earlier that many escapist works are dystopian, and it's clearly true. The "last survivors of a post-apocalyptic world" story is full of escapism — for one thing, you're one of the chosen few, and you're incredibly special and wonderful as a result. You no longer have to pay taxes (like Le Guin's heroes), and you live in a world where the worst has already happened. And many escapist films are show someone escaping from an incredibly dark world, even if it's only through the power of the imagination. Think of Guillermo Del Toro's beautiful Pan's Labyrinth, which is at its core a work about the escape into fantasy. Even if both the real world and the fantasy are dark and disturbing. Or Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which takes place in a dystopian world and shows us Sam Lowry's flights of the imagination as well as his attempts to escape in real life. Did I mention that escapist works don't have to have happy endings?
At the same time, who says that realism is the best thing a literary work can aspire to? It really is true, as many SF writers have said lately, that we live in a world that's changing so quickly, that any attempt at pure realism will become historicism instead. And then there's the subjective nature of "reality." But most of all, realism is like art that attempts to be purely representational: it can't show any deeper reality beneath the surface, nor can it reflect all of the stuff that's happening just beyond the frame of our perceptions. We've all lived through historical moments where a new meme or phenomenon seemed to "come out of nowhere," only to look inevitable in retrospect, once we see all of the early indicators that we ignored at the time, because they were outside of the narrative we were telling ourselves about "reality."
If the goal of a literary work (and remember, "literary" is not synonymous with "good." More on that here) is to reflect "reality," then "realism" is one tool among many for doing so. And escapism is another.
I already suggested, above, that metaphors are inherently escapist because they take us away from the strict view of what the thing "is." And the reverse is also true: escapism is a metaphor. TV shows like Lost In Space and Star Trek are so transparently metaphors for the hopes and fears of the Space Age that it's impossible to watch them now without thinking about what people were living through at the time. You get as revealing a mirror into the Space Age, Cold-War psyche from Star Trek as you do, say, from John Updike's Rabbit Run and Rabbit Redux. The stuff Star Trek tries to say about the politics of the 1960s is fascinating, but even more fascinating is the stuff that it says without meaning to, about Manifest Destiny and the post-colonial project of redeeming the Third World.
We tend to think of escapism as a childish impulse, but that's by no means always true — like Brazil, or The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, many great escapist works are about adults, who are trapped as only adults can be, in prisons partly of their own making, and look for a way out.
Escapism also shows what we're trying to escape from — this seems like an obvious point, but it's one that often seems to be overlooked. This changes over time, and also varies from creator to creator. Some escapist works are concerned about breaking out of a totalitarian, oppressive state, others are more concerned with running away from middle-class American life. There's escapism from war, from conformity, from individualism, from failure, from success. Whether or not an escapist work explicitly shows us what we're escaping, it's still always there, revealed by what the escapist elements aren't. Escapism always reveals what we're escaping, and serves as a mirror of whatever the artist (or corporate overlord, as the case may be) views as the most horrendous elements of current reality. It's convex where dire reality is concave, like a plaster cast mold. If your goal is to get the clearest possible picture of "reality," looking at that reflection may be your best shot.
And yes, escapist entertainment does reflect the era that spawned it. The Space Age gave us lots and lots of space heroes, but today's escapist avatars are much more likely to be superheroes — who existed during the Space Age, but were much more confined to comics and the occasional weak TV series. Actually, thinking about it some more, our most escapist works currently seem to fall neatly into three categories: superheroes, vampires and post-apocalyptic survivors. All of whom share a few categories that seem emblematic of our times: they're individualistic, they're special, and they're often at odds with a world that doesn't understand how special and great they are. In other words, they're the perfect heroes for a time when we're no longer involved in a collossal economic struggle like the Cold War, but instead are facing a crumbling middle class and a number of insoluble global struggles, in North Korea, Iraq and Iran, among others. Escapism illuminates our times.
Escapism also does go hand in hand with the epic, the same impulse to celebrate great heroes that gave us the Odyssey and the Iliad.
Returning to the Le Guin quote, it strikes me that what she's describing as escapism is actually better described as "weak story-telling." Stories in which there are no consequences, in which the choices are easy and the heroes always right, aren't escapist — they're just bad.
If escapism is frequently tawdry and dull — if our culture gives us Transformers 2 instead of Superman II — blame the creators, don't blame escapism itself. In fact, holding a low opinion of escapism (and saying things like "It's just a movie about explosions and robots, don't expect too much from it") lets the Michael Bays of this world off the hook too easily.
Let's give the last word to C.S. Lewis, who's quoted by Arthur C. Clarke as having once said, "Who are the people who are most opposed to escapism? Jailors!"