Having come down with a nasty cold the last few days, I did what I always do when I feel like total shit, and tucked into the biggest, thickest, most difficult books that I could reach without having to get out of my chair. In this case they were Susanna Clarke's magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Alan Moore's almost appallingly excellent From Hell.Read more
The day after Donald Trump was voted President Elect of the United States, I was in a daze. It was an event so strange and terrifying that it even now sounds like the elevator pitch to a bizarre alternate history or a satirical joke - like a crazy stunt for Sharknado 5. Even so, these things have now come to pass in the stark light of day, and the political repercussions will be real, and probably not very funny. While I am not equipped to ponder what those repercussions will be, I can say without fear of histrionics that I feel deeply for all the people that, for whatever reason, fear a Trump presidency. His platform has often been xenophobic, racist, and sexist, and to me, these are unforgivable faults in a politician.
And so, being who I am, I tried to reckon with my shock by going to the movies; I saw Doctor Strange. In 3D, no less. As escapist fare it was beyond reproach, as if Inception had focused less on mock-profundity and tried harder to be dumb fun. But I am not here to review the film (though I do love reviewing films and television, and plan to write them often here, if you’ll have me).
Books and film (and music and visual art and anything else that are creatively composed and thoughtfully consumed) are not just escapist entertainment, even those which are examples of the broad genre of speculative fiction. Horror films are good for more than a mere hour or two of pleasant anxiety, they find a way to process fears that are otherwise repressed or difficult to access. Fantasy novels do not merely create a world better or bigger or more appealing than ours, they allow us to more clearly see our own from different perspectives. Super-hero stories are not just excuses to destroy cities and topple buildings and make people run and jump, they are also our American fantasies. As such, they serve as the more morally-minded counterpart to the American Dream: they’re not merely about getting rich, although superheroes are often rich as well, they are about using power to help people, or in the very least, stop those that wish to hurt the innocent.
The best examples of all these genres show us ourselves in a strange new light. Like Shakespeare’s The Tempest (a seminal work of fantasy if ever there was one, featuring a wizard, a monster, magic books and other genre mainstays) they show us a “brave new world”. And that world, for all of its otherworldly elements, tells us something about our own.
Doctor Strange, for instance, involves a group of wizard-like occultists who are able to tap into the powers of other worlds and use them to change our own. They can open windows into these other worlds and step through them at will, or, in one case, show these worlds to disbelieving normal folk. In the film, these occult wizards can leave their body to travel on astral planes, and access places where the rules are different. They do this principally by waving their hands around in the air, often while running and jumping. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Although, of course, such people really exist.
No less a towering figure than Alan Moore, who I honestly believe is one of the greatest and most important writers alive, believes that he is a magician. This is not so say that he is hurling himself through other worlds ala Dr. Strange (not necessarily anyway), but to say that he can, after a fashion, construct new worlds. As he himself said,
“Do I believe, for example, that by using magic I could fly? No. How would you get around gravity? Impossible. Do I believe that I might be able to project my consciousness into a very, very vivid simulation of flying? Yeah. Yes, I've done that. Yes, that works.”
He has also said “[t]here is very little difference between magic and art. To me, the ultimate act of magic is to create something from nothing…” I agree with the spirit of the statement, but not all of the specifics. His brilliant opus Watchmen didn’t create something out of nothing, as Dr. Strange might conjure a portal or an astral sword, or whatever the case may be. Rather, it was nothing less than a work of transmutation: an alchemical "great work". He took the anxieties and aspirations of the last few decades of American history and combined it the text of American superheroes, one of the 20th century’s most fanciful daydreams. In doing so, it created something, if not new, certainly startling. Like so many of the best works of speculative fiction, it aimed, if not to save us, at least to think about how we might be saved.
I would venture to say that speculative fiction tends toward the liberal, asking us to sympathize with characters that we would not otherwise find appealing. Science fiction like J. J. Abrams' re-imagining of Westworld insists that robots or androids should have the same rights as humans, and thus makes us consider what the inalienable rights of a human, therefore, ought to be. And if a science fiction film presents us with a dystopia, it forces us to consider our own proximity or lack thereof to utopia. Speculative fiction is always already political, even if that context changes through time, or means something different to someone else.
In short, even Doctor Strange can be viewed (or read, as it were) as a metaphor for the role of the speculative writer and artist in today’s world - our own, but not our only one. It is a world which is often beautiful and marvelous and magical in its own right, but which will sometimes fall short of our notion of what a world really ought to be. What is Doctor Strange and its ilk, if not a kind of corrective to that world?
This has been a roundabout way of suggesting two things that may not be great recompense to those who are hurt and afraid of Trump’s presidency, but which nevertheless comfort me a great deal.
One is that great art (not just of the speculative kind, but certainly that as well) will continue to help us to make sense of, encapsulate and protest the “real” world, but so even will the merely highly entertaining art. This is a function of all stories and tales, but I think that in many ways works of genre fiction come by it most honestly because in not having to represent perfectly all of the contingencies of contemporary reality, they can pluck nerves that cannot be as easily reached by pure realism. This will not cease with Trump as President. In fact, I’d lay good odds on it becoming more pronounced.
And the second point I would like to suggest is that writing (and its corollary, reading), as magical/alchemical acts, really do make things happen in the real world. It might do to be reminded that television’s first multi-racial kiss was on Star Trek.
In one scene of Doctor Strange, two characters debate whether it is kosher, ethically speaking, to “draw power from a dark dimension” in order to change the world. I do not see this as a bad thing at all. In these troubling times, though not yet devoid of hope, I would expect nothing less from our writers and creators of speculative fiction. And I very much look forward to reading and watching the kinds of speculative fiction, humane, outraged, or virtuous, that will help us understand where we are going, and how to get somewhere better.
If this has become a dark dimension for some of us who believe that everyone should be equal and that hatred and fear will get us nowhere, we will simply have to transmute it into something else, first in the diverting forms of fantastic fictions, and then with the courage of our convictions.