Thursday, August 21, 2008

Setting and Escape

I'm very influenced by setting in my reading. I don't mean landscape only--though a good, weird landscape can draw me in--but all the aspects of an interesting cultural and social backdrop. I certainly enjoy good (as in well-rounded, believable) characters, an interesting plot, and depth of thought, but if I happen to find the setting intriguing, much else can be forgiven. That's probably a large part of my draw to speculative works--give me a secondary world that isn't cookie-cutter, pseudo-medieval; give me a far future colonized planet with intriguing societal structures; give me a post-apocalyptic story with believable repercussions (or just a narrator who begins his story, "On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig...").

Even in mimetic fiction, I'm much more likely to want to read something set in a culture or subculture that I'm not familiar with, or at least that I didn't grow up with. Whether it's set in Argentina, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, or China or whether it takes place among a subculture within North America, something that is by choice or force or location isolated from the mainstream--those are the stories I tend to enjoy. What I have very little interest in is stories about middle-class, white Americans dealing with the ennui of suburbia.

This preference opens me up to accusations of escapism. Is reading something like this merely a way to stick my head in the sand and ignore the world around me? I don't believe so, and I have three possible responses to that over the next few days. They aren't mutually exclusive, though there's one that I probably best reflects how I go about reading. Stay tuned!

4 comments:

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

It's not an escape if you are intending to come back - it's a journey. The more that we journey far and wide, the richer our lives become. So keep right on journeying.

Lion said...

Former academic snob reporting in:

I wouldn't call it escapist either... escapism is more like shutting yourself up in your room because everything outside isn't fairies and unicorns--though that's just an example, obviously escapism isn't unique to little-girl fantasy. I do get that sense from some readers whose rants I peruse, but not this.

Taste is taste, and stories are supposed to entertain--why shouldn't you read the type of thing you'd like to read? And that's not even considering that well-crafted otherworldly fantasy is much more defensible a taste than reality TV. :)

Eliza said...

I completely agree with your taste; I prefer a speculative, a-typical fantasy to urban fantasy any day (unless the book comes with the words 'Neil Gaiman' on the cover).

It brings to mind a book I think you'd enjoy: Barry Hughart, 'A Bridge of Birds'. A story about an ancient China that never was.

Daniel Ausema said...

Chad, journey is a good metaphor for it. Yes--I want to keep that one in mind.

Lion, yes...but, I'm not completely comfortable with that as a full answer. It's no more escapist than many other things, but someone could argue that it's no less escapist (in the negative sense) either. As someone who sees a real power in literature beyond only entertainment, that's an argument I need to address.

Eliza, welcome! I love Hughart's novels. ....an ancient China that never was but should have been. I wish he would write more, because those three books are hilarious. I ought to add them to my to-be-reread pile...

And I agree about urban fantasy, if by that a person means the bookstore marketing category of contemporary, real-world cities with magic grafted onto them (though I've enjoyed some of those). But recently, I've been thinking of urban fantasy as things more along the lines of Mieville and VanderMeer and the Paper Cities anthology--secondary worlds, but set in cities--which are something I'd love to see more of.