There is moment, in Man of La Mancha, that struck me very powerfully from a very young age. Cervantes, in prison and interrupted in his tale of Don Quixote, is challenged by another prisoner, who asks him why poets are so fanciful, why poets can’t just face up to life as it is? And Cervantes responds gorgeously, bitterly, passionately:
I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!
I have always been a storyteller, and I have always been an optimist. This, I think affects the way in which I tell stories.
I’ve said — and written — before about how sci-fi and fantasy hold a mirror up to life and question it, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. The dominant trend for the past fifteen years or so has been the grimdark version. Not so much a mirror as a magnifying glass, turning the saturation up on misery and pain. Everything from Batman Begins to A Game of Thrones to Altered Carbon — these things dwell on agony. They stripped down the glitz and color of the 80s and 90s, and with them, the hope. The prevailing message is that everything is terrible, everyone is terrible, and there is no escape.
Now, obviously, that’s not 100% of what’s out there, but it’s quite a lot of it, especially in SFF. I consume this media, because it’s the current paradigm, but it’s not what I most enjoy. And it’s not what I write.
I’ve been analyzing this in myself lately, and I’ve realized that, when I write, I look at the way things were in the past or the way things could be in the future, and then I ask: “What would change if we, individually and as a people, made better choices?” I imagine life a little more as it should be.
And then, because of the way my brain works, I set about trying to figure out what tuns that should into a could. I’ve watched myself do it in far-off history, re-imagining the Romans; I’ve seen myself do it with nearer history, re-imagining America in the 19th century; I’ve seen myself do it with the future, imagining life in space. I never want to create a utopia. Those go too far; I tend to find them somewhere between boring and unbearably bleak, and they just don’t ring true. No matter how good we humans get, we’re never going to be perfect. We’re messy, emotional creatures, and we’ll always make messy, emotional mistakes. But if we were just a little better, a little kinder, a little more aware, a little less selfish, a little more long-seeing — How might that change things?
And it’s not just about the past or the future. As I started thinking about it, this desire to imagine a better world plays into the characters I’m drawn to in fiction, as well. It’s particularly noticeable in, though not exclusive to, romance.
Because let’s face it: scoundrels with hearts of gold are a rare commodity. Most of them are just irresponsible jackasses. Maybe they’re not bad guys, really, but they’ve never learned to be better. And those dark, brooding types? Entitled jerks, on the whole. Selfish and self-righteous. They are not really the kind of people you want to give your heart to.
But in fiction… they can be.
In fiction, you can spend at least a few hours imagining that people can change for the better, and that the redemptive power of love can make them want to do so — that the Beast works to prove himself worthy of Belle’s love, that Han Solo does care about something other than his own skin, that the rake reforms. And yeah, I get the argument that portraying relationships like that in fiction sets a dangerous precedent in real life, that it encourages girls and women to think wrong-headedly and invest in men who don’t deserve them. I get it. I’ve lived it. Heart many-times-broken; lesson perhaps-eventually-learned.
It doesn’t stop the yearning to imagine that it still might be true, that loving someone enough could make them want to do better — by you and by themselves and by the whole damn galaxy.
Just like I understand the instinct for the grimdark stories. I understand the idea that forcing us to view our darkest natures might make us own up to them. There’s a place for all these stories. But there’s a place for the rosier versions, too. There’s a place for people to dream, to hope, and to imagine something less brutal. In some ways, that’s a relief; in other ways, it’s a necessary coping mechanism. It’s what keeps us from dying despairing. A story of hope gives us something to keep reaching for.
I know there are some who find that point of view naive, irrational, or unsophisticated. They’re wrong, of course, because they’re assuming it comes from a place of ignorance or insulation, and that’s often quite far from the case. Rather, when you’ve been battered about by the Real World, it’s not unreasonable to want to believe in a version of the universe that could be just a little bit better.
I rather think it’s a thing of courage, to gift your heart with such imaginings.
This is why I like fluffy romance novels. It’s why I like Rogue One so much, because even through the tragedy, the message is one of hope, not of annihilation. It’s why I liked the X-Men of the 90s. It’s why Cap and Thor are my favorite MCU Avengers. It’s why I like the vision of the future that Star Trek presents. It’s why I still love and weep at Disney movies. And it’s why I write books the way that I do.
If I’m going to spend time in a fictional world, whether my own or someone else’s, I want it to be a place where I can imagine, at least for a little while, life as it should be.