Andrew Slack, whose work on myths I’ve shared before, once spoke on a TEDx conference stage about the archetypes of the underdog orphan and their nemesis, the evil empire. As Slack traced instances of this archetype, he also explained the story it tells about human society, human storytellers, and our capacity, despite all appearances, to overcome structural oppression and the oppressors who keep it running. “Fantasy is not an escape from our world,” he said, “but an invitation to go deeper in it.”
There’s power in the stories we tell: they inspire us. Given enough time, they also shape what we can imagine, and that drives up the responsibilities authors have to offer us more than practical visions of our lives and our world. We need hope, Le Guin argues.
In an interview with The Nation, Le Guin explains that the traditional dystopian premise—”the world’s coming to a nasty, ugly end, and only a very few people will survive, by luck and violence”—is a dangerous cliché.
Hard times are coming… when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom.” —Ursula Le Guin
We need those alternatives and writers who will write hope into our collective imagination much more than we need more stories about an inevitable undoing of the world.
When I was in high school and newly baptized into the Adventist community, I read the writings of our church co-founder Ellen White and fretted about the fiction I was finding at my local library. I was drawn not to detective stories or romances but to historical, science fiction, and also fantasy, and early Adventists like White were deeply suspicious of “the novel.”
I eventually realized that the most dystopian of the stories and books in these genres shared Adventist fatalism about our world. As Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart explain in Seeking a Sanctuary, early Seventh-day Adventism adopted a contrarian view of 19th and 20th Century modernism.
When the mainstream was bullish about its trust in human nature and the human capacity to innovate, Adventism declared that society would turn against its minoritized populations and violently persecute them. Adventist writers said that, rather than using technology to end suffering and resolve war or global hunger, we would instead use technology to underscore mass surveillance and centralized social control.
My fantasy books and my Adventist books shared these assumptions about human nature and human destiny, but I didn’t quite grasp that at the time. Not for a few more decades did I realize that an expectation of global disaster wasn’t at the core of my own faith even if it was part of my subculture. I didn’t need that expectation for my mythological story to fit together, and it wasn’t a vision I could comfortably coexist with.
What was and is at the core of my faith is a fundamental hope that not all that has been needs to persist: the oppression that has been need not be. I have too much faith to put my trust in the belief that mass suffering and desolation are inevitable; too much faith to believe that only my kind of human will survive, or that only we should.
And I think this is part of the value of the humanities. The arts and humanities sow the faith that alternatives are possible, and viable, and good enough to build lives on, and we need those alternatives more than ever.
“When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt our gravest error.” —Marilynne Robinson