Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto: Escape Artists
“Who are the people most opposed to escapism? Jailers!”
I’ve written eleven books and this is my twelfth. Counting this one, seven of them are nonfiction.
I’ve also been a newspaper photographer, a songwriter, a boiler-room phone salesman, a campus activist, a meeting and conference organizer, a journalist, a magazine editor, a screenwriter, a pizza man, a literary agent, a book publisher, a film director, a poet, a philosopher, and an actor.
But more likely than not when I’m introduced to an audience — after the audience is assured that I need no introduction — I’ll be introduced as a science-fiction writer.
Gee whiz, that’s leaving an awful lot out of the introduction.
But it’s still the highest compliment I can be given.
The charge of escapism is made against movies, books, magazines, comics, TV shows, games, comedy, and any other entertainment medium that engages the imagination. I’ve spent a good deal of my professional career — and my personal life — doing nothing else.
The term “escape artist” is usually applied to stage magicians — like the immortal Harry Houdini — who bind and chain themselves in handcuffs, shackles, locks, and chains, sometimes with time pressures like drowning or suffocation to limit the amount of time they have to escape. I suppose to be fair we’ll now have to add stage magic, itself, to the list of escapist entertainment since the audience knows the magician is somehow tricking them and are caught up in the suspense regardless.
The key to any sort of escapism is the audience member’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”
All consumption of narrative entertainment — and that does include games, jokes, and tricks — involves a conscious act of faith.
Guess what? I now get to add religion onto the list of escapist activities. Without imagination, there can be no religion.
That should not be either a surprise or an offense to anyone whose religion begins with the Book of Genesis. Are we not told by that story that we are made in God’s image? The verb of image is “imagine.” If we were indeed created by God, we were created by an act of Divine Imagination.
C.S. Lewis — both a Christian apologist in nonfiction and a writer of Christian mythopoeic fantasy in fiction — understood that without what he called a “baptized imagination” there can be no genuine faith. That’s why Lewis defended even the science-fiction and fantasy written by atheists and agnostics against the charges of “escapism.” All Lewis asked for was a level playing field with other purveyors of imagination to weave his narrative spells. Lewis believed that once the imagination was turned on, God would do the rest.
Which, of course, leads us to a seeming paradox: if there’s a serious point behind the fantasy, just what is it that one is escaping from?
I think the escape is from the idea that life must be dull and routine. I assure you. The life of the dullest person you know — if you give a writer like me the chance to get to know them — is the stuff of legend.
Fans of fantasy and science fiction refer to those who don’t share their passion for escape as “mundanes.” But no one is mundane. There are only people who are afraid that if they dream, they will awaken into a nightmare.
I sometimes wonder whether the most successful fantasy writer of our time, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, was inspired by the fan’s epithet for the non-fan to invent the term “muggle” for human beings without magical talents.
The term “fan” itself is telling. Quite the opposite of William Shatner’s classic Saturday Night Live skit — which centered around the Captain Kirk actor telling Trekkies to “Get a life!” — the word “fan” is short for “fanatic.”
This is a book about liberating human beings from the chains on their passion.
I assure you, the word “fan” is a good description of someone engaged in pursuing a passion. They already have a life. It may be an inner life invisible to the materialist, but playboys and mountain climbers probably wouldn’t think a Buddhist or Catholic monk — or scholars, philosophers, poets, or mathematicians — have much of a life either, huh?
I have news for fans of science-fiction and fantasy. If they think Holden Caulfield’s lost weekend in New York City, or John Steinbeck’s Joad family trekking from Oklahoma to California, or even Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman dreaming of success while succumbing to despair, are any less works of imagination than stories of time-travel or visitors from outer space, then I suggest their imagination needs some work. None of these characters are real. What happens to them in their stories is a reflection of what their authors understand about life. If the author gives their characters a hard time — if what they see is nearsighted, if their choices are limited — it’s because their authors want to prove something to you.
But I also have news for those snobs who consider science fiction and fantasy trivial escapism: these genres fearlessly explore those universal questions most important to human life and human happiness.
Science fiction and fantasy are the literature of “if.” The “if” in these stories play precisely the same role in a narrative as the X and Y do in higher math. These “ifs” are the variables in the equations of human existence.
If the next war were not a civil war among human beings but against invaders from another planet — H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, 1898
If a small orphan girl living in the hardship of a Kansas farm could run away to a magical world — L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W.W. Denslow, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900
If families could be replaced by the State — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932
If Stalinism ruled the entire world — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four , 1949
I could fill up this chapter just by listing more classic works of science-fiction and fantasy, or my favorites, or the authors who created them. While I haven’t hesitated to express my personal tastes elsewhere in this book, starting to reel off my favorites in my own profession would be both endless and personally dangerous. Once I start I dare not stop — what if I missed one written by a friend?
Imagination is the Sixth Sense. It’s the way we interpret the mere facts of the world we live in. It sees larger landscapes than the other five senses.
Imagination is the cure to the claustrophobia that causes a gang member to think that his ‘hood is the whole world, or the walls-closing-in despair that cripples the courage needed to keep going.
If by exploring forgotten worlds, or unreal worlds, or merely heretofore undeveloped worlds, we learn something useful about living in this one, that would be enough of a reason for our imaginations to make the journey. But often enough the worlds we see through imagination are unseen worlds we can discover … or build.
It’s good to imagine utopias and tell stories of the people who live in them. Those are the thought experiments — the dry runs, the proving grounds — that might help us discover the unintended consequences that turn one dreamer’s perfect world into another dreamer’s hell.
It’s worthwhile to read stories about what aliens might be like when we meet them — even though every alien you meet in a story is just a human psyche wearing a rubber suit. But even the attempt to imagine what an alien is like might turn out to be the key to communication if we meet them … and there is always the possibility that there are universal laws of consciousness that might mean no intelligent being we meet can be entirely alien.
Traveling through time, or into an alternate dimension, is a way of removing ourselves from our own assumptions and prejudices — if even for a few hours. When a single Einstein can revolutionize the human race’s understanding of physical law by imagining what time means for an object approaching the speed of light, what can an army of Einsteins do when their imagination is set free from the prison of learned authority?
Stories are lessons in how to see the unseen, to feel what someone else feels. Without imagination there can be no empathy. Without imagination and empathy, we are all trapped in our own head, alone and afraid. We “escape artists” are the explorers taking point in clearing the brush so you can see what’s outside.
The difference between what’s considered a realistic narrative and what’s considered a work of imagination is what the writer chooses to take for granted and what the author decides to make exceptional. In “realistic” fictions, the landscape is ordinary and the characters are exceptional. In imaginative fiction the viewpoint characters need to be everymen — as close to ordinary as possible — so we don’t get lost exploring strange lands and the unusual people who live there.
It wouldn’t do to have the Wizard of Oz take us on a tour of Never Never Land.
Or maybe it would.
Did I just come up with an escapist story idea?
Next in Unchaining the Human Heart — A Revolutionary Manifesto is Chapter XIII: Science versus Omniscience
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust. All rights reserved.
My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Amazon.com Video On Demand. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!