As readers we crave closure. When that is threatened, as when an ongoing series is cancelled or its author dies, we feel disappointed or even cheated. And as writers we work toward closure, using structures that will provide readers with a satisfying ending.
But is there another sense in which, with science fiction and fantasy in particular, one aim is to avoid closure and open up a never-ending imaginary world?
Tolkien and Openendedness
In his essay ‘The Interlaced Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘*, Richard C West argued that Tolkien’s novel created an effect “that might be called openendedness, whereby the reader has the impression that the story has an existence outside the confines of the book and that the author could have begun earlier or ended later, if he chose”.
I think West’s argument ignores some essential features of the book he’s discussing, but it still raises an interesting point. Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s work is that it implies a far larger world and history, one which readers could explore both through his appendices and through their imaginations.
In a sense, Tolkien provides firm closure, seeing a great threat ended and Frodo leaving Middle Earth. But in another sense, The Lord of the Rings leaves many questions unanswered in the reader’s mind.
A Tradition of Imagination
We can see this in many other works of fantasy and science fiction. They lead us to imagine a world far beyond the borders of their narratives. In a sense, their stories usually have clear, decisive beginnings and ends. But in another sense, the best leave their worlds open through the wealth of barely explored detail they provide.
Perhaps this is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy – that it invites us to imagine beyond its boundaries in a way not all fiction can.
What do you think? Do science fiction and fantasy somehow avoid closure? And is this distinctive to these genres?
Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.
Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.
I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.
Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.
In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.
Food = happiness
Is there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.
The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.
Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory
We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.
That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.
Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.
Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.
Repression is so last century
All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.
Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.
So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? From Frodo facing terrible evil and fearsome foes, through to John McClane taking on a tower block full of heavily armed criminals, we love to see the little guy stand up to someone stronger. But why is this so appealing?
There are plenty of reasons of course, but one I hadn’t considered was mentioned by Victoria Grefer in Writing For You, and that’s the nature of the conflict. For an underdog, the outcome of the conflict is terribly uncertain. It’s hard for them to win, and our desire for them to succeed creates a tension that keeps us reading.
But I’d go further. I think that what really makes an underdog compelling is that every action implies both internal and external conflict. They can never relax because the enemy could beat them at any moment. Every move becomes a battle of will, pushing their body, their mind, their courage farther than ever before, because that’s the only way they can possibly succeed. Even if we’re not very aware of it, there’s an implicit internal conflict in the background of every externalised action set-piece, as the character grapples with their own weaknesses, forcing themselves to continue when it would be easier to just give up.
Thus, the character’s external tensions, their internal tensions and the reader or viewer’s tension are all neatly tied together. Doing that makes a story more powerful, and an underdog is a good way to make the connections.
Any other views on this? Why do you folks root for underdogs? And which are your favourite ones? Leave a comment, let me know.