In Defense of Escapism

One of the great criticisms aimed at science fiction and fantasy is that it is “escapist,” framed as if that’s some terrible indictment—and the impulse to escape is a character flaw. This is, to use the Latin: stercore de bovem, or, in the vulgate: bullshit. The idea that escape is inherently tainted is fundamentally an argument of privilege made primarily by people who have never been in a position where they needed to escape from a situation when actual escape was impossible.

That kind of trap can take many shapes, but let’s start by talking about an easy one: childhood. Mine was largely happy, but it had significant challenges. My mother experiences severe mental illness, including multiple psychotic episodes with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. This has led to her being hospitalized on a number of occasions, though she’s doing well these days. This is not her fault; and I don’t blame her for it. Neurochemical diseases may present differently from things like cancer, but they are in the same class of medical horrors. As a person with an anxiety disorder, I speak to this as someone who has dealt with it from both within and without, and I know they happen to people regardless of personal merit.

None of that changes the impact my mother’s illness had on my childhood. When you’re a kid, you lack the power to control your own destiny. At age ten, you don’t get to walk away from the family stresses that are ripping you to pieces. There is no easy escape from a family member whose mental illness is hurting you. Unlike the physical or emotional abuse some of my friends suffered, the harm done to me was wholly unintentional. While that makes it much easier to deal with in retrospect, in the moment it could be quite difficult to cope with. I won’t speak to the experiences of other children, but there were times where being able to open a book and step into a fantasy world pretty much saved my soul.

Escapism also saves lives. I’m an author, so I’m approaching this from a literary viewpoint, but I know—from speaking to creators in other fields—that when I say escapism saves lives, it is as true for comics and music and movies and games as it is for books.

Ask any well-known author about their fan mail and they will tell you about that letter. The one where a reader thanks you for saving their life, the one where a reader says to you, “I was going to kill myself, but…” Knowing that something you created made that kind of difference in another person’s life is surreal. There is this wild mix of wonder, and pride, and grief at what the world does to us.

The mechanisms of salvation vary. Sometimes the author gave them a role model for overcoming adversity. If Character X could go through all that and still keep going, I knew I’d get through my problem. Sometimes, it’s an explicit escape. My life was horrible and I had no way out, but your work provided a refuge, a place I could go and get away from my problems. Sometimes, it’s an insight. When Character X said this thing, it led me to realize I could do Y. But in every case, there is a connection between the fiction we write and the survival of one of our readers. I think about that whenever I hear someone dismissing the kind of books I write and read because speculative fiction is “escapist.”

I also think of a guy I met back in my acting days. He made wind chimes and sold them at Renaissance Festivals. He was a retired Chicago homicide detective who really wanted to write a book about that experience. Sadly, he died before he got the chance. But there was a thing he said about the job that has stayed with me for more than 30 years. He was an avid reader, and whenever he went into a home for the first time, he always looked around for the bookshelves. He did that on the job too, and he noticed that while he might see one or two books in a house where a murder had been committed, there were rarely more than that.

He was always careful to note that didn’t mean people who read a lot never committed murders. It was just that in his experience it was much rarer. I suspect that’s for the same reason authors get those letters from people who decided not to commit suicide because of something they read. Having another way out of an impossible situation, even a brief and fictional one, matters. Escapism saves lives.

Right now in America, we are experiencing an incredibly stressful time. Donald Trump has brought a level of chaos to our politics not seen in generations. His election and the incredibly bigoted and divisive rhetoric he uses have exacerbated the tensions between races, religions, political affiliations, genders, and sexualities—even within families. The man is a lying, malevolent narcissist, who trolls and gaslights the world on Twitter with alarming regularity. He is also, unfortunately, the president of the United States of America.

One of the ways I am coping with that soul-punishing reality is exactly the same way I coped with rough times in my childhood. I am escaping into fiction and games and movies. I am using the art that other people have created to give myself brief vacations from stress. Spending time with Frodo and T’Challa and the Brotherhood of Assassins is keeping me sane.

Speaking of which, no one ever speaks derisively of vacations as being escapist. It is generally accepted that people are happier and healthier if they have the chance to take some time off from the world. You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, vacations are escapist nonsense” in the same dismissive tones, despite the fact that vacations are literally a form of escape. Vacations are an accepted and important part of the culture. They feed the soul. They are also expensive and not everyone can afford them. There have been times in my life where I have been too poor to take time off or to travel any farther than my living room.

Not being able to afford a physical escape doesn’t relieve the human need for one. If anything, the stresses of being poor add to the human need for time off and away. I know it did for me. I also know how I coped with that need. I read. I borrowed books from the library and friends. When I could afford it I bought used books, or I saved up to buy new releases from beloved authors. I took vacations without ever leaving the house by opening books and stepping through the doors they provided.

Again, this shows how much the criticism of some art and entertainment as “escapist” comes from a place of privilege. Speaking to that more directly for a moment, one of the places where I have been incredibly privileged is in the sheer quantity of stories and games that center someone who feels like me—straight, white, cis, male—in the narrative. I have never lacked for stories and games that spoke as directly as possible to me, and that has helped me to survive in tough times. I would love to see everyone have that same diversity of art and entertainment as a place of refuge against the storms of life. I believe we all need that.

So, go ahead and call science fiction and fantasy escapist if you feel you must, but don’t pretend that’s a bad thing or expect me to agree with you if you do. The idea that escapism is something to be ashamed of is privileged nonsense. Escapism saves souls. Escapism saves lives. Escapism saves money.

Escapism has saved me.

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for younger readers. His novels include two series, WebMage and Fallen Blade, as well as School for Sidekicks; Magic, Madness, & Mischief, and the forthcoming Spirits, Spells, & Snark. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His microfiction series DragonDiaries and Badnoir can be found on his webpage or by following him on Twitter or Facebook. He has been known to dabble in science fiction as science education, having written short fiction for the National Science Foundation and co-created a science comic for NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. He also does a fair bit of silly performance art which can be found at: kellymccullough.com/shenanigans. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. In those rare moments when he is not writing fiction, he serves as an elected county board supervisor, an office he has held for eight years.

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