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Fantasy, Reality, and Why Stories Matter

This is the slightly edited/tidied up text of a talk I gave at Picocon on 22nd Feb 2020; there is an audio recording available courtesy of Chad Dixon but be warned, I had laryngitis at the time so it’s a bit…croaky.

When I was eight, I read Lord of the Rings, because I was that kind of kid. I fell properly head-over-heels in love with it, too. But what I remember most clearly about reading it—besides the maps, which were awesome—is my conviction that this was true. That it was a section of real history that had just somehow been missed out of the history books I was familiar with. I mean, if you’d really pinned me down, even at that age when fantasy and reality are very fuzzy at the edges anyway, I’d probably have admitted that no, I knew it wasn’t real real. But it was still…real.

Some thirty-plus years on, I am still fundamentally not, you know, really convinced of the distinction between fantasy and reality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a functioning adult who knows when I’m reading a story and when I’m looking at the Real World, although goodness knows it can be alarmingly hard to tell sometimes. But there’s a sense in which, deep in my heart, I still believe that Middleearth existed somewhere, once upon a time; that Barrayar and Pern are out there; that maybe one day the TARDIS will show up next to the river outside my house. It makes it a bit weird sometimes writing, and especially rewriting, my own stuff. Part of my brain is convinced that I’m just recording true things that happened somewhere somewhen, while the other part is saying, nope, that doesn’t work, that dialogue’s wrong, I need to change all of that and take that bit out…and now there’s something completely different that I’m still convinced is kind-of-sort-of Really True.

I’m not the only one who has a whole lot of worlds floating around inside my head. The ‘real’ one, and a whole load of fantasy ones, mine and other people’s. Many of which contradict one another, which is perfectly fine. I’m here for the multiverses.

And that’s great. I love the inside of my head. I spend a lot of time there.

But the thing is, when I was a kid, growing up in the 80s, none of those worlds in my head, neither the real one nor the fantasy ones, none of them had me in them.

There weren’t any queer people. To be clear, I’m not saying that there was no SFF with queer folks in, and I’m certainly not saying that the real world didn’t have queer people in. We have always been here. But that doesn’t mean we’ve always been discussed, certainly not in a way accessible to a fairly sheltered eight year old. In the SFF I was reading, queer people didn’t exist, or if they did, they were Bad or Weird or Other. The people who were writing queer characters—Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Ellen Kushner, for example—didn’t show up in my local library or in WHSmith. In the real world, gay men were those tombstone AIDS ads, and horrible disgust-laded newspaper articles; lesbians were a punchline in jokes about right-on councils; bisexuals didn’t exist. Trans people were trans women and they were Evil.

This matters. It matters for what you believe to be possible in the world. As a teenager I didn’t have words, didn’t have language, for parts of my identity. I just didn’t know about them. I’m not sure when I first came across the word ‘bisexual’, but when I did, I got the strong impression that you had to be actively getting it on with equal numbers of members of both—I was thinking in very binary terms back then too—genders to ‘count’. Some kind of scoreboard system was required, perhaps. Took me til my 20s to work that one out. I was in my early 30s before I encountered ‘non-binary’, and in my late 30s before I got to grips with it as something that could apply to me.

And I’ll note here that as a white middle class able-bodied person there were a bunch of ways in which I personally did and do see my experience reflected, in which other people without those particular axes of privilege do not.

What you see in the real world matters. What you see in fiction matters. I read a quote by Liz Bourke recently:
“Fiction is a medium through which we understand the world: it gives us forms against which we fit our experiences, and it helps in rendering them normal, comprehensible, part of a continuum of human experience.”
If you don’t see yourself in the worlds inside your head, it affects how you think of yourself, and what you believe to be possible.

The good news is that things have changed since I was a kid. (Which is after all quite a long time ago now.) The real world has more out queer people, much though I’m not pretending that everything’s all perfectly fine, representation-wise, in the real world. And there’s been a big increase in queer SFF. I get to read fantasy worlds now where people like me, and my friends, we’re in there. Queer characters, trans characters. Admittedly I’m more plugged into the small presses than I was; but it’s easier for a teenager now to find this stuff too, Because Internet.

More queer writers are writing our own stories now, and writing ourselves into stories. More non-queer writers are writing worlds which reflect our real existence, too, which is nice. But it’s interesting (‘interesting’) how much this stuff colonises your mind. How much you have to get past, to write your own story. Pretty much everything I’ve ever written has a protagonist who’s some flavour of queer; but it did take me a while to really feel comfortable with having lots of queer folks, and non-binary folks, and trans folks, like I do in the Marek novels, which have more queer and trans main characters than they do cis straight ones; and I’m still working on that with able-bodied folks. I don’t have enough background disability in my books.

I write two non-binary people having a conversation, and I stop, and worry about ‘realism’. And then I wonder what the hell I’m thinking. I’m non-binary. I have a lot of non-binary friends. We…interact! It’s a thing! What the hell is my back-brain going on about? It is a real thing, in the real world, and yet I’m worrying about ‘realism’, because there is a non-zero chance that some straight cis reader will make exactly that complaint. People who are perfectly happy with SFF which is wall to wall white dudes; people who are all over magic and dragons but draw the line at multiple queers. Because they don’t want to engage with the reality that we exist.

We exist.

And all of that is precisely why it matters. When I struggle to write non-binary people or disabled people or non-white people, I’m reflecting the existing worlds kicking around inside my head. The fantasy ones, and the real one in the sense of how its story is told to me—whose stories, how they’re told, whose pictures are out there, who has authority. The stories we tell, and the stories we’re told, fantasy and reality both, are how we build our world.

We’re embedded in the world, can’t not be, and change is hard, because you have to change your own internal structures before you can change the others, and you’ve been swimming in a soup of stories since the moment you were born.

Stories about your apparent gender (people treat babies in pink and babies in blue differently literally from day one), stories about your skin colour and what that means about you in the world, stories about what can be expected of people like you. Having access to more, different stories helps people to make different stories for and of and about themselves and those around them. Which is what society is: the set of stories we tell about ourselves and others. Breaking away from the dominant mode is hard, because that’s what you know.

So stories matter for who we are, and for seeing ourselves as part of the world: constructing our own identities and believing that we get to exist in the world, that we get to have stories. And they matter beyond that, as well. They matter for how we construct the world as a whole.

Because as well as telling us about who to pay attention to, who exists in the world, whose stories are important; fiction tells us how to think about the world on a bigger scale. What it is to exist in the world. How to structure our belief system.

It’s all built on stories. The real world, the world that we experience, it’s all mediated through the stories, all sorts of stories, that we tell ourselves.

Stories help us make sense of the world. They tell us things: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. They tell us: and there’s no point in fighting that; or they tell us: so this is how we act against that. They tell us: the world is unfair, live with it; or they tell us: we can make a difference, singly and together.

Of late, the SFF subgenres of grimdark and hopepunk have been under discussion. The term ‘hopepunk’ was coined by the author Alexandra Rowland, who described ‘grimdark’ as seeing the glass of human nature always half-empty, that evil and entropy will triumph. They said:
“Hopepunk responds to this to say, ‘I don’t agree with that. I think the glass is neither half empty nor half full. There’s water in the glass and that’s important.’ It says that people are petty and cruel and mean, but also people are amazing, and that our communities are capable of incredible things, and that we all as much as we have that core of malice and evil, we also have a huge capacity to do good and to take care of each other and to make the world a better place.”
What’s important is that, contrary to what I think some folk believe, hopepunk doesn’t mean everything is just fluffy and lovely. It doesn’t mean a failure to engage with the dark side of life, or creating or inhabiting a world where everything is just fine. Although, those are perfectly reasonable worlds to create, if you want to write them! I am a big fan of fluffy kind books in which I don’t have to engage with anything dark or challenging. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want to write and to read, and that’s fine.

But hopepunk isn’t solely fluff. It’s about fighting back, taking action, creating community, knowingly engaging with power and oppression, standing up for people who are marginalised or oppressed; it’s about the power of hope and building something new, even if that is only one tiny step at a time, even when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere.

Hopepunk isn’t about utopias, because utopias don’t exist: for many reasons, including the meaning of the name, but partly because they’re static, and life isn’t. (Also, if you’re ever looking at a utopia, ask yourself: who is it a utopia for?) Humans are imperfect, life isn’t static, but we can keep moving forwards, building something, and then building it again when it falls down.

We can keep lighting candles. Hopepunk lights candles, even if they’re only tiny ones, rather than cursing the darkness. And then when they go out, relights them. And perhaps occasionally uses them to set a few things on fire.

Hopepunk says: kindness is a political act, and radical kindness is part of building community. We’re looking into a future in which some kind of collapse looks highly probable, and that will inevitably fall most heavily on the most marginalised*. Building community and webs of resilience is how we distribute the load of that collapse so it hurts fewer people.

Community is important; humans are social animals. But who gets to be in any given community? Because for those of us who are queer, or who aren’t white, or who are disabled, or otherwise marginalised, ‘community’ doesn’t, always, necessarily include us. Real-world communities all too often aren’t designed to include us. People run things in inaccessible places. They don’t look at who is coming to their events. They don’t provide gender-neutral toilets. They don’t want kids along but they don’t look at childcare either, never mind parents and carers for whom childcare won’t work. They say ‘ladies and gentlemen’ and don’t think about those of us who are thereby excluded. Some of this stuff is getting better. We’re still not there yet.

And if people outside the dominant paradigm are invisible in fiction, they’re often similarly invisible in fictional communities. Sometimes those communities are even structured in ways that implicitly exclude them, so you can’t even pretend that it just so happens that no one like you gets to be part of that community. That says: you don’t belong here. You don’t get that protection and support.

So one of the things that the queer hopepunk I’ve read—and a lot of hopepunk is really damn queer, which is doubtless part of why I like it—does is to create communities that do include people like me. For minority folks, just looking after ourselves and one another is a radical fucking act. Just surviving, in a world that doesn’t want us to be here and sure as hell doesn’t want us taking up space and having worthwhile and fulfilling lives, because that means being out and open and demanding that the world make space for us, and the world as it stands doesn’t like that.

And many queer people rely heavily on our communities, because many of us don’t have or cannot rely on or cannot be honest with our birth families. Everyone relies on communities—as I said, humans are social beings, however much that occasionally bothers me as a massive introvert—it’s just that queer folk are more likely to be relying on community that they made for themselves. And that in itself can challenge the notion of what a ‘community’ is and how you come across one and fit into one. Family-of-choice and found family are important tropes to lots of queer people because that’s how we rebuild our lives; we want to see ourselves in that. (And often we read those narratives as queer even when they aren’t explicitly so, when that’s the only way we can see ourselves.)

But when we’re stuck in the current reality, when we’re excluded or see others excluded, it’s hard to envisage something else to build towards. We need to be able to imagine something else, something different. And that’s where fantasy and the power of story comes back in: what does it look like to do things differently? What can we envision? We can ask what we love in fantasy worlds. We can interrogate and explore that. We can think about how we might bring it into reality, and what that might look like. We can envisage alternatives. We can create spaces of possibility and of challenge within ourselves and outside ourselves; as well as spinning out darker visions from our present, looking at the worst of what might arise from here. Utopias don’t exist, can’t exist for everyone at the same time; but there’s no One True Truth anyway. We want multiple alternatives, multiple ways of challenging how we think about the world, multiple sets of problems and solutions and ideas.

George Slusser talked about science fiction as a “thought experiment” meant to “depict future things”—not that that’s the only role for SF, of course. But thought experiments can be useful. SFF is one way of thinking through ideas, of exploring them and challenging them and engaging with them and wondering about them. In my novella A Glimmer Of Silver, gender isn’t a thing at all. Everyone uses xe pronouns, and no one thinks about gender in the course of the story. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that no one in that world has a gender; if I went back to that world maybe I’d explore that aspect of it. But at the time what I really wanted was to envisage a space where gender wasn’t one of the major building blocks and dividers of society, because I was—still am!—really pissed off with gender as a concept and even more pissed off with it as currently constructed in this society that I live in. I don’t know how it was as a reading experience, but it was a huge cool breath of relief for me to write.

Reality is constructed by the way we, as humans, as individuals, as a society, give it meaning. Stories give us ways to create that meaning. That means that if you prioritise different stories, or you change the way you think of story—bearing in mind that what makes a ‘story’ looks different to different cultures—you change reality. If we broaden the world to centre everyone’s stories, then reality begins to stretch to value and accommodate those people. We construct our reality around the stories that we believe to be important, and to create the stories that we’re used to seeing. Change the fantasies and you change reality. Another world is possible.

One of the biggest stories we tell ourselves, in this culture right now, something that really bends reality around us, is capitalism.

My kid looked at my initial very scribbly notes for this talk, where it said ‘anti-capitalism’ and said “Yes. You should definitely get that in.” My kid’s 7, so obviously we’re brainwashing him early, which is nice. On the other hand he plays a game called Evil Miner Tycoon on his iPad in which your aim is to become a quadrillionaire by having lots of miners work for you, so capitalism is doing its best to brainwash him back.

Anyway, economics is about managing resources and resource scarcity, and capitalism is one way of resource allocation. One way. Not the only way. Economic systems—what they give value to, what they treat as scarce—are created by humans. They’re stories, and they vary across time and culture. Current standard economic models give us the story of Money as Paramount. Alternative stories, alternative models, alternative priorities and structures are possible. Even if you’re fond of some brand capitalism, it doesn’t have to be the version we’ve got right now.

And perhaps stories, and SF, can create fantasies to see how we can model alternatives and turn them into reality. Cory Doctorow’s well into this, in a very cyberspace-y tech-heavy sort of a way. I do worry about the ecological cost of his post-scarcity societies, given that electronic tech has a high cost in non-renewable resources, but he’s got some very interesting ideas. Solarpunk is a subgenre that investigates this a bit, too, and there’s other people exploring alternative social economic ideas. It can be hard, though, because it’s easy to find oneself falling back into the ideas that the world around you soaks you in.

Doctorow in Walkaway writes about reputation economies and gift economies in a current-Western context. Reputation economy is, when it comes down to it, susceptible to most of the same problems as money, it’s just reputation, instead of money, that gathers unevenly, and will tend to flow to those who have it already. Kirsten Bussière points out that a meritocracy implies that some people ‘deserve’ to be poor in the same way that some ‘deserve’ to be rich.

Doctorow’s gift economy exists in a post-scarcity situation where resources exist in abundance, but gift economies have also existed in the real world in scarcity situations. And in The Dispossessed, Le Guin envisages an anarcho-communitarian society dealing with very scarce resources, in which private property more or less does not exist. Of course Anarres has problems, because humans are annoying and imperfect. (Not like we don’t have plenty of problems with the current setup.) One of the things I really like about The Dispossessed is that it examines those problems and shows people continuing to work at improving a society. Utopias don’t exist, people are imperfect, keep on building.

It’s not like fiction isn’t a blueprint. Some economies or societies are more thoroughly thought-out than others—there’s some very detailed critique of the practicality of the Potterverse out there—but inevitably, none of them are as detailed as reality. That doesn’t make them less useful as ideas and thought experiments.

Stories matter. Stories shape how we see the world, who we see in the world; they shape how we think of ourselves and what we can achieve, how we think of society. And they’re fun, which is nice. We’re here; we get to be here. In reality, in fantasy. Our presence matters, and our stories matter, and our stories create our reality around us. So let’s make more stories; better stories; a better reality.

* This is riffing off a quote from Laurie Penny to which I have lost the link.

Many thanks to doop and Mari Ness for reading through at an early stage, and D Franklin for reading through at a later one; and to everyone who came and listened at Picocon.

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