2020 so often feels so isolating, so directionless, full of dangers and impossibilities. When we have an infrequent spare moment, we all seek the most fragile of things: hope, justice, compassion—and sometimes to remember why we love the things we love.
In advance of Sirens at Home, as we contemplate gathering safely online rather than in person with the warmth of the Sirens community, we invited members of that community to write about what speculative fiction means to them. We think you’ll find their essays reassuring, a common touchstone that we all need when we’re adrift, and perhaps a welcome remembrance of something you love.
Today, we present an essay by Chelsea Cleveland.
Science fiction and fantasy books have always been one of my favorite escapes. It started with Redwall, Harry Potter, and Ender’s Game, and only grew from there. People sometimes say that word—escape—like it’s a bad thing. Escapism. An illusion. A guilty pleasure. Something to be relegated to a box hidden on top of the fridge or the soft glow of a television screen after the rest of the household has gone to bed. I disagree.
SFF is not the kind of thing you should have to stash away, but something to be discussed and recommended. It’s fiction at its most fiction-iest. It takes the rules, crosses out all the even-numbered lines, and writes new ones in the gaps. It’s an escape—but the kind of escape that also means a getaway. A trip to a tropical island that you come back from happy, tanned and refreshed. A chapter is a mini vacation that can fit within a lunch break or bus ride. For far less than the cost of a plane ticket, authors have taken me to other countries, other times, and other solar systems.
And even if it is the running away kind of escape sometimes, I think that’s perfectly healthy. There are moments when we all need a break from the everyday. A ninety-minute wait in a busy doctor’s office was never better spent than in the company of friends like Tamora Pierce and Neil Gaiman. Sometimes your brain needs a rest from worrying about that big project, the magical sink that never empties of dishes or your ex’s ambiguous texts. You may still have to share the neighborhood Trader Joe’s with Steven-who-can’t-commit, but you’ll never unexpectedly bump into him on the planet Pern. And to be honest, even if you did, you wouldn’t care; you have a dragon to impress. SFF not only takes you away from your everyday surroundings, but also your everyday headspace.
When you travel to a new planet or kingdom in a book, the most disconcerting things often aren’t double moons and wizardry. The things that keep you thinking are the less visible shifts. A new planet means a new orbit and rotation. An invented history can lead to a different form of government. The presence of magic may produce a different balance of power. What if a day lasted sixty hours? What if our leadership was determined by a computer program? What if only one gender had magic? What would that change about daily life? What if normal meant something entirely different than what we’re used to? SFF has a particular ability to challenge the status quo. Its authors have continually pushed against my assumptions, expanded my empathy, and made me wonder if there might be a better—or at least different—way of doing things. SFF is a thrilling, if sometimes frightening, leap away from what we know.
While I generally read more on the F (fantasy) side of SFF, I’ll admit to a particular soft spot for near-future science fiction. Near-future SF has an urgency to it that I find extremely compelling. Titles from this niche are often written like an intimate question. The kind you only ask a close friend, a really good date, or a stranger at a party when you’re two drinks in. What if things keep going the way they’re going? Is this the future we want? What would you do if the world suddenly changed? What is your zombie apocalypse survival plan? Whether I agree with the way the writer proposes things might go or not, the time spent considering their questions always feels worthwhile.
By pushing beyond the limits of what is, science fiction and fantasy books expand minds and challenge assumptions even as they entertain. For me SFF is an escape. But not the wasteful kind. The vital kind. The kind that should be a part of any up-to-code apartment building or personal library.
Chelsea Cleveland is a Seattle-based marketer and copywriter. She has particular experience in the fields of books, design, travel, and technology. Her other passions include standing on tall things, feeding animals (human and otherwise), collecting art supplies, and discussing movies. She writes short stories, largely because it’s very difficult to finish long ones.