World Cup sort of cuts into my writing time these days, and part of me just wants to write about Argentina's 6 goals or the fact the I just taught my son to say, "Gooooolllll!" or other soccer/football-related things, but I wanted to get down my thoughts on the whole debate about escapism, partly just so I understand what I think.
One of the criticisms leveled at speculative fiction by mainstream writers, critics, readers is that it's simply escape, an attempt to hide from the realities of the world. It's also a criticism some SF people accuse fantasy of. One response is that escape isn't really a bad thing. This was basically Tolkien's argument, using the example of a prisoner escaping from prison--in this case the real world is a prison, and books allow those trapped to escape. I'm not sure I completely buy that. I want to say his argument was a bit more nuanced than I just gave it, but it's been awhile since I read it. I guess, part of my problem with this is that, even when the world is at its worst, it isn't really a prison...and if it is, the only way to truly escape is death, not something I exactly long for.
But writing that, I think I was misapplying his example. I'll get back to that. Another image I remember a former professor using where he draws on a poem by Robert Frost. In the poem the speaker jumps up to catch a tree branch and longs to escape the world. But right away he says he doesn't want any god or power listening to misinterpret his wish and actually take him away. He only wants to be away for a brief time so he can return to the world refreshed. This image has always appealed to me. Even if fantasy does take us away from the world, it does so to return us to the world with a new perspective or a better understanding of the world.
So back to Tolkien's image, perhaps the prison is not the world. Perhaps the prison is a restricted mindset--naively positive or overly pessimistic, purely materialistic or hyper-spiritualized. All of these are prisons that bind our thoughts and views of the world around us. Speculative fiction, then, is an escape from those bonds that hold our perspectives, and ultimately it frees us to see our world in new ways.
I do have to say, though, that speculative fiction (as well as other forms of fiction, including the mainstream genre) do not always achieve this form of escape. There are works that really are escapist in a bad way, probably far too many, works that take us away from the world but do nothing to help us escape from the things that really do imprison us, that do nothing to bring us back to the world with new eyes or a refreshed spirit.
All right, that's just my attempt to think through this (while my son watches sesame street in the background, so I don't know how the Netherlands v Cote d'Ivore game is going), so no promises that it's all perfectly lucid or is even a final judgment on the idea. But it's helped me think through some things.