One of the first articles I ever professionally published was Exhibits with a Pulse, for the American Historical Association. Written in 1997, the article addressed the 1995 controversy surrounding the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s intent to exhibit the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
A lot of folks were pissed off about the interpretation of the plane, which they said focused too much on the suffering inflicted on the Japanese. The American Legion and Air Force Association galvanized in protest, and the whole kerfuffle wound up with the museum’s director having to resign.
The article covered a lot of things, but one of the points I made was that the controversy was largely fuelled by a sense of ownership over the story. The people looking at the plane were people who had actually lived through the event, whatever their degree of participation. The interpretation of what happened, its place in history, was important to them. Important enough to dig in and fight.
I stared thinking about this when Peter V. Brett tweeted a link to an essay by fantasy writer Terry Brooks, Why I Write About Elves. When I first read it back in 2005 it didn’t have too much of an impact on me. Even back then, Brooks was an institution in fantasy, his original Shannara trilogy (Sword, Elfstones and Wishsong) were part of the canon of my youth, books that served to define the person I would become nearly as much as Tolkien before him, or Martin after.
Like my article, Brooks’ essay makes a lot of points, but the larger one is that he appreciates fantasy because of its ability to “mirror reality” without reflecting “an exact image.” It allows Brooks to write at a remove that helps him tackle tough issues with enough distance to not be overwhelmed by them.
It was amazing for me to read Brooks’ essay now as a fantasy novelist myself, and realize that he used fantasy as a tool for dealing with that same human tendency that sank the Enola Gay exhibit. Storytellers of all stripes (and museum curators are most certainly storytellers) face that same challenge: how to convey their point to an audience without it being overwhelmed in the baggage of allegiances that are integral to everyone’s real life.
China Mieville overthrows bureaucratic and corrupt … fictitious governments. Charlaine Harris deals with the rigors of bigotry … against vampires. Daniel Polansky skewers the lines of class and privilege … in a distant place that feels familiar, but no one has ever visited. I address the hidebound nature of military bureaucracy … as it deals with the emergence of magic in the world.
Once a story leaves the author’s hands, they have no control over it anymore. It belongs to its audience, and they will interpret it as they will. But I suspect that Brooks (and my) attraction to fantasy isn’t all that unusual. We want to write about the things we see around us. We want to talk about issues that resonate. But we want to do it in a way that dispenses with the innate certainty that most people have when they approach any topic. We want there to be a chance to see things in a new light. We want to write, as Brooks says, “… a story that inspires us in ways we might not recognize at first, but on reflection can provide us with fresh insight.”
That’s part of why Brooks writes fantasy.