Last week I wrote about how I think one of the appeals of SFF is that both writers and readers get to experience answers to questions that we otherwise would not, which satisfies our desire to know how things work out. I still think that’s true. However, one of the comments on the entry and some more time to chew things over about it got me to thinking that there’s another aspect that is just as important.
I really do think we like having answers to our questions. At the same time though, I think that there is a reasonable number of people who also do like the idea of unanswered questions out there as well. I’ve certainly clung to it for many years.
I wrote a while ago about how one of my memories of Leonard Nimoy was a TV show he did called In Search of that was about all sorts of mysterious and strange things like Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and swamp monsters. That may be what got me started on loving the idea of unsolved mysteries and strange phenomena in the world. I don’t remember where I got it but I had huge tome from National Geographic called Unsolved Mysteries that was a compendium of (allegedly) unexplained things through history. I read it cover to cover many times. I somehow convinced my parents to subscribe to one of those Time-Life book series on the same subject area. I got about 15 of those before stopping. I still have a book by Jerome Clark that examines a lot of the classic ‘unexplained’ stories and puts some of them to bed, leaving others (from his point of view) up in the air. I read that thing into a ragged state as well.
So, for a long time I have loved stories about Bigfoot and UFOs and people displaced in time or disappeared from history. Probably not a huge surprise there, given what I write I guess, and there’s likely some cause and effect with the literature I became a fan of as well. All these things at least purport to be great Unanswered Questions, riddles that we don’t have the solution to and parts of the universe that we can’t yet understand.
I will say that as time has gone by it has gotten harder to keep a lot of these unanswered questions alive. A lot of them just don’t stand up to scrutiny. The Bermuda Triangle is my favourite of those, because its ‘mystery’ was easily disposed of by a tool I am quite familiar with: archival research. It turned out, once someone bothered to put in the spade work, that a lot of the reports of ships or planes vanishing in perfect weather had in fact involved huge storms and rough seas, that many vessels ‘lost forever’ had been found years ago, and that the number of craft lost in the region was no greater than any other similarly-large region of well-travelled ocean. The Triangle stories (of course) ignore all the many, many people who travel through the area perfectly safely, and weave together a bunch of quite mundane maritime tragedies into something more than they are. Not so much an unanswered question there, in the end, as the lack of a question at all.
Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, suffers in a slightly different way – there are, among the clearly ridiculous and obviously fraudulent tales, a few reports of something in the wild that genuine anthropologists and biologists have found puzzling. Perhaps an unanswered question? Of course the trouble is that it gets increasingly hard to believe, in this ultra-monitored, urban-encroaching, satellite-imaged and wilderness-adventured age, that there can be anything as stupendous as an anthropoid ape (or whatever explanation you prefer) out there, mostly undetected by modern society. You either have to adopt one of the rather more outré versions of the stories with psychic ape creatures from another dimension or, reluctantly, start to think that the answer to the question may really be earnest misidentification and misinterpretation after all.
I don’t like it, no sir. I would have been much happier if the forests and mountains of northwestern North America had really turned out to have some kind of fantastic creature in them. I would like it if there were giant serpentine creatures making their slithery way through the ocean depths, and I think it would be wonderful if there were dinosaurs in the depths of the Congo. I don’t really want anyone or anything to disappear without a trace (in fact this was one of the Horrible Fates that used to fill Young Me with dread, back in the day. Well, it still kind of does.) but the idea of there being parts of the planet that we don’t quite have nailed down yet still appeals.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, judging from the popularity of ghost hunting and ancient alien and alien visitor type programming on television. Perhaps this is a reaction, to some extent, against the supremely rational and sceptical society we have constructed for ourselves in the Western world. We’ve deified reason to a level that would have pleased the Jacobins and most people, I think, ultimately believe in a universe that is amenable to our analysis and understanding and, finally, thoroughly explicable. Not to say that this is wrong, but perhaps some part of our imaginations, or some ancestral part of our spirit, rebels against it, just a little.
This is where speculative fiction steps in again. You can experience (again, through creation or consumption) worlds in which all sorts of wonderful and amazing things are possible, after all. There are amazing and (of course) perilous creatures out there. There are wonderful realms yet to be explored, arcane secrets waiting to be revealed, and Questions awaiting Answers, if they can be answered at all.
We can experience, for a little while at least, a universe in which it is possible to travel faster than light and discover that the galaxy is awash in intelligent life, both wonderful and perilous. We can have magic and lost cities (well, until we discover them and get to walk down their streets) and dragons on the map again.
I guess this is far from a subtle point – fantasy and science fiction allows us to experience the fantastic. I think it is interesting, though, that speculative fiction really lets us do both things that I’ve talked about on the blog recently. We can answer the unanswerable, and reintroduce the unanswerable to our ever more answer-filled world. I don’t know whether it’s a contradiction that both things seem to be going on in the genre, or if perhaps that explains its special appeal to those of us who get hooked on it.
Anyway, that’s my thoughts for the week. Now I should get back to seeing if I can create a little more of my own personal fantastic world. I hope you’ll be doing the same.