Genre storytelling & total immersion

Anyone who has been following me on Facebook or Twitter lately probably has caught on to the fact that Paul and I have finally gotten caught up in Battlestar Galactica, the 2003 “re-imagining” of the short-lived 1978 series. I’ve joked around about us living out this recent Portlandia sketch, but it’s just barely a joke. No, I haven’t played hooky from my job in order to keep the marathon running, but the series is in the back of my mind all the time, informing my understanding of the people around me and enriching my daily tasks with its big-picture thinking.

When I say “enriching,” I really mean it. To me, mulling over someone’s powerful storytelling isn’t a distraction from real life. It’s what helps me to process and understand the in-the-flesh interactions we often refer to as “real life,” and it’s certainly no less real. No, the aircraft carrier known as “Galactica” doesn’t exist. There are no twelve colonies of humans, searching for their thirteenth tribe. There are no sentient machines seeking to wipe out human existence. But that’s not what makes something “real,” at least in my definition of the word.

These things may not exist in the physical world, by they do exist in the imagination of the writers who created them, and as far as I’m concerned, imagination is a very, very real thing. It’s the best tool we have as humans for understanding and growing as a society, and for sharing that understanding with each other. It allows us to reach each other on the most fundamental level. It is our species’ best hope for survival.

That sounds like hyperbole, but I really think it isn’t. And I don’t think it’s limited to whatever storytelling we (whoever that is) have identified as “great.” Sure, there are a lot of scholars who will confidently argue the importance of… well, “important” works of fiction, assuming they ever agree on what those works are. Literary fiction, though still endangered by our society’s shamefully narrow education system, enjoys the full support of the intellectual establishment.

Fewer people are willing to grant any kind of credibility to genre storytelling—fantasy, science fiction, romance, and so on. And while I’m completely uninterested in arguing with hard-core academics (really ever again) about why genre fiction is important, I will say that I think it’s a damn shame. Because when I look at myself and the real, live people around me, it’s the places genre stories touch that tell us the most about ourselves and each other. Our moments of wild speculation, crazy-complex world-building, romantic fantasy—those are the bursts of imagination that reveal us for who we are, and help us connect with each other over ideas too real, too terrifying, or even too basic to discuss in plain, “real life” terms.

Over the past couple of weeks, for instance, I’ve been forced to examine my ideas and convictions in areas ranging from political ideology to my most intimate personal relationships. I’ve questioned my morality, my pacifism—my entire worldview. How do I really feel about the existence and role of the military? Have I participated in my closest relationships in good faith? What kind of person am I? What is important to me in the world? I did all this, not because I was reading Tolstoy or Shakespeare, or any of other acknowledged Great Works of Our Times. I was watching Battlestar Galactica. Just that, and only that, every chance I got.

I know I’ve said quite often that I, personally, connect most effectively with other people by way of imagination—exploring other people’s inner lives and finding the overlap with my own. And maybe I’m an extreme case. Maybe the understanding and enlightenment I find by immersing myself in fiction is indicative of some great mental failing. Maybe I’m exactly as weird as my junior high classmates thought I was. Immersing ourselves in fiction is not something we’re encouraged to do. At best, it’s viewed as escapism, or a simple waste of time. But I can’t help but feel that we all could use a few weeks off to immerse ourselves in someone else’s imagination, to listen to someone else’s story without “real life” interruption, to discover how another person’s inner life crosses over with our own.

What about you?

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