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?
* Published in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell.