• Jacob Alcott

How Fiction Helps Us Answer Life's Big Questions | The Masks that Make us


'Gandalf V. Balrog' Zeker Toons Via Artstation.com

Childhood


Children have always grown up with the stories and fairy tales passed down to them by older generations. Stories - especially those that bend the rules of reality, i.e. fantasy, sci-fi, horror…- that are told to us through books, tv, movies, or in person end up being a large chunk of how we shape our understanding of a world that lies ahead of us.


By watching others go through challenges and finding personal development, we learn to do the same by proxy. For example a story about someone coping with the loss of a loved one lets us grieve in little ways and teaches us how to move on when it happens to us.


Scene of Gilgamesh and Enki via Epic of Gilgamesh Annotation

The reason children are so enamored with stories is because they have the least experience, and in turn, the most to learn. Speculative fiction (a genre of fiction that bends the rules of reality and lets us ask “what if?”) is so readily employed for children’s stories because it can be easier to digest.


By pulling a struggle or a moral outside of the bounds of reality, we let children digest it without fear of trauma or personal danger.


What then, is the purpose of speculative fiction in books and movies catered towards adults? While most effective for children for a plethora of reasons, we still see box office giants such as Marvel and Lord of the Rings dominating our movie theaters and cinematic zeitgeist.


The reason lies in the remarkable ability of speculative fiction to impregnate our everyday world with the wonders of “What If?”


The Big Question - "What If?"


Marvel 'What if?' Issue #1 Via Marvel.com

Using the question “What If?” lets us stretch the bounds of what we hold as fact. It lets us explain the extremes of moral and philosophical problems that can’t be explored through regular means.


The usage of this technique is nothing new in the world of philosophy and theoretical practices. Thought experiments such as The Trolley Problem and Maxwell’s Demon are two such "what-if" scenarios that have been employed in academia to help us visualize and work through problems in morality and physics respectively.


Both let us suspend our disbelief momentarily in order to tackle problems that plague us in real time. This is the same sort of questions we see acted out in works like Marvel's "Infinity Wars" in which the villain poses the moral question of "what if half the universe was wiped out in order for the rest to prosper?"


We then find personal stake in these questions for two reasons:

  1. We get to see it acted out for us by characters that we've grown emotionally attached to.

  2. Without realizing it, these are the grandiose versions of every day problems that we all face.


"The Masks that Make Us"


In this ongoing series, I’'ll go through some of literature’s most common genres in speculative fiction using classic works that call them home.


From the Sci-Fi works of Huxley and Dick, to the seemingly Psychedelic Fantasy of C.S. Lewis, all the way back to the myths and legends of Earth’s first civilizations, Speculative Fiction has always been around to help us make sense of the world around us.


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