(cross-posted on Parting Pigeons on 9/6/11)
Tonight, before I go to sleep, I will be thinking of dragons. I am twenty-two years old, graduated with a bachelor’s degree (with honors) from an excellent university this past June, spent the bulk of my day working on structural biology research on the protein dynamics of the beta1-adrenergic receptor, and for the last week I’ve been going to bed with visions of dragons.
There’s nothing strictly wrong with this. I’m entitled to draconine thoughts — although admittedly it’s more than thoughts, it’s something more closely resembling “worldweaving,” if you will. Dragons, dragon riders, dragon wars, dragon training, dragon etiquette, dragon politics… I’ve made up a lot of words along the way, too. This is what I used to do all the time — this is what got me into writing. I build worlds out of nothing. I make things up, borrowing shamelessly from the world I know. I turn experiences into story lines; I turn wishful thinking into alternate reality. I stretch my imagination, and sometimes people read what I’ve come up with and say hey, I really like that.
So what is it about growing up that makes me feel like this dragon-filled creation of mine doesn’t belong in my world? Because it’s high fantasy*. It’s something no one ever tells us we’re supposed to have outgrown, but one day I woke up and realized I couldn’t take myself seriously when writing a fantasy (or even science fiction) story. As Seth said the other day when we were discussing this, “I don’t get how Tolkein explained his books before everyone had read them. ‘Okay, so there’s this thing called Sauron, and he hates everything. And makes little mud elves to fight humans. All the humans don’t trust each other. So it’s up to these fat midgets to destroy evil.'” Whose first instinct is to take that seriously?
I’ve learned a lot over the years from fantasy and science fiction. I probably wouldn’t have kept reading after my plateau in reading level around 6th grade if it hadn’t been for A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass. There’s a basic allure to fantasy and scifi, that escape from the world we’re stuck in, which readers like my adolescent self gravitate to. Maybe it stems from a lack of maturity, an inability to see the thrills and struggles of normal life and fiction compared to the epic conflicts that arise in fantasy. And those epic conflicts can (and do) tie themselves into the real world. I’m not entirely sure which came first, but the life history of Bean in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow played some part in stoking my love of genetics. Philip Pullman explored some really interesting tensions and fallacies in religious text through His Dark Materials, Roger Zelazny dances around concepts of metaphysics (and relates technology and computer hacking to magic) in The Chronicles of Amber, and Orson Scott Card eloquently lays out some key bioethical issues in Speaker for the Dead and the Bean quartet (just to name some of the many topics these authors prodded with their writing). But who’s going to take you seriously if you write a dissertation on any of these themes?
My best guess as to why this stigma exists is this: in fantasy fiction, there is a fundamental disconnect with reality. That’s practically the definition. And yes, there are plenty of cases of people losing touch with what’s real and taking things too far. (I risk offending some people right now, but hear me out, I have redemption for you.) Cosplayers, fanfiction writers, Harry Potter unofficial online trading card game players, the people who contribute to and update the extremely detailed entries on Wookieepedia — I could go on. However, there’s a difference between productive hobby and unhealthy obsession. Some of the cosplay costumes I’ve seen are really impressive costume-making that perfectly normal people made in their spare time, and plenty of fanfiction writers have spun incredibly inventive, moving stories based on characters that someone else started. The difference is knowing your limits — knowing that okay, there’s a world separate from this fantasy. This goes for anything, really — plenty of us are wrapped up in completely fictional story lines (I’m looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy fans who had serious meltdowns after whatever season finale it was) or waste our time on the strangest things (watching endless animated gifs of cats?). The point is there are plenty of things we do to entertain ourselves that no one else — or at least, a select few — quite understands. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why the hell not?
In light of this, I have decided to take this tack: I spent the bulk of my day working on structural biology research on the protein dynamics of the beta1-adrenergic receptor. I’m a high functioning and contributing member of society. So you know what? It’s okay that right now I’m obsessed with dragons.
* It says something about me that I know the distinction between “high” and “low” fantasy. For those who don’t, think of fantasy as a spectrum from our world to a completely made up world:
Yes, I made you an explanatory diagram. There are nerdier things I could have done.