Science Fiction and Fantasy as a Backdrop to Discuss "Important Things"
Not Just Escapism
Some people dismiss science fiction and fantasy as mere escapism, flights of fancy that have nothing to do with the real world or serious themes. However, the science fiction and fantasy genres give authors the chance to use fantastical elements, strange settings and unusual creatures to reflect the thematic elements of the story. These can help to drive home the "serious issues" of the story in a way that will linger in the minds of readers. In particular, the setting of the novel is a great way to mirror the emotional state of the protagonist or other characters. Consider how a few sub-genres can reinforce story elements.
A post-apocalyptic setting is perfect for a story in which the protagonist is emotionally obliterated, traumatized or otherwise haunted. The rusted ruins of old cities, the presence of plague, the crumbling of once-great civilizations, all of these elements create a sense of loss, ruin and decay. By allowing the surroundings to reflect the protagonist's inner condition, the readers gets a stronger and more compelling sense of what it means. The wasteland offers a strong visual sense of internal trauma. In my e-book, Shadows of Tockland, a plague-ridden post-apocalyptic landscape provides a memorable backdrop for characters who are emotionally damaged and a protagonist who might be losing his mind.
Dystopian novels are all about societies in which totalitarian governments have become dehumanizing. Environmental destruction, lack of freedom, harsh and unfair laws, and brutal punishments are all common elements of dystopian novels. A popular example would be the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins in which children are forced to participate in a cruel fight for survival by a dictatorial government struggling to maintain absolute control of its citizens.
Dystopian novels are usually science fiction, but it is certainly possible to conceive of such a story set in a fantasy world. Perhaps there is a magical land somewhere ruled over by cruel and tyrannical wizards who subject their people to dark magic and cruel experiments.
Dystopian novels serve well as a setting for stories about characters who are struggling to be free. A protagonist who feels inhibited, restrained or hindered in some significant way, who strives to discover and embrace a strong, independent identity. Many people have these internal struggles particularly at a young age, but the presence of some exaggerated brutal government serves as a concrete reflection to that emotional turmoil.
Magic, of course, is really just a plot device. It needs to have well-set rules in order to provide a sense of consistency. Otherwise, it feels like cheating. However, the real reason for magic in a story is to give a more fantastical way for characters to make choices and move the plot forward.
For example, in my young adult novel, Mary of the Aether, the protagonist is introduced to a type of magic called aether, a mystical energy that can be used to transform objects. It works according to certain rigid rules that are established throughout the book series, and it gives me a chance to let my protagonist do some really cool things.
However, aether is really just a plot device. Thematically, it is a way to represent the protagonist's potential, as well as to portray the consequences of her choices and thoughts. It gives a concrete reality to internal struggles that are otherwise unseen.
A Concrete Reflection
Far from providing fantastical elements to help readers escape reality, science fiction and fantasy allow writers to take internal struggles, emotions, themes and conflicts and mirror them in the magical or futuristic elements of the story. So in the Star Wars movies, we get The Force as a concrete reflection of the internal struggle between good and evil, peace and passion, order and chaos.
If you write in one of these genres, consider how your setting, your magic, your futuristic technology or any of your other fantastical elements can be a reflection of the internal condition of your characters. Consider how they can reinforce the overall themes of your novel. They might just give you the opportunity to talk about important things without seeming preachy.
Something I have been bothered about for a long time is the condition of workers, particularly child laborers, in third world factories and sweatshops. The statistics are alarming. 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are forced to work in miserable conditions around the world. They work long hours in dirty, unsanitary and unsafe locations, earning meager wages while being subjected to mistreatment and abuse.
In my science fiction novel, Children of the Mechanism, I was able to wrestle with this particular issue in a dark, dystopian setting. Slaves living and working in the depths of what one reviewer called "an exaggerated Dickens-meets-Stephen King factory" under the control of cruel robots serve as a fantastical version of a very real problem.
Far from escaping reality, science fiction and fantasy allow authors to create strange and compelling images of very real problems. Through the fantastical, we are able to explore the human condition.