Ah, spec fi. How much do I love thee?
More precisely, science fiction and fantasy. I have a few horror stories in me, no doubt, but I'd rather save those for much, much later in my career. But for me, Sci fi and fantasy are superb methods of expression. Even more precisely, soft sci fi, high fantasy. So many, many ways we find to cut our world into little tiny understandable bits.
I have to admit that I've never been much for reading science fiction and fantasy. As an adult (like, in the past year) I've read a bit of Asimov, Philip K. Dick, a volume from Martin. But it's all so foreign to me. Everything is either too vague in the case of sci fi in the classic vein or too detailed in the high fantasy genre. It is not what I expected. I have been writing my own brand of speculative fiction since I was about nine years old, but this was high fantasy informed by classic literature of the western cannon. Jane Eyre and the Metamorphosis, Hardy and Dickens and Dostoyevsky. And later, the classics of western philosophy.
There was a little on the edges of speculative fiction along the way. C.S. Lewis was the first: the Chronicles of Narnia were bedtime stories. And then the BBC did something that helped form me as an artist:
Later there was Star Trek: TNG, watched because it was my father's favorite. And Tolkien. And much later, Rowling and the Hunger Games and well, that pretty much brings to today, doesn't it?
It was sometime in the early 90s, watching those episodes of Star Trek with my father, that it occurred to me that a lot of sci fi and fantasy (actually, I would argue all) is allegory. Clumsy or profound doesn't really matter. To me it seemed and still does that in constructing worlds that are impossible or improbably, the speculative writer can indirectly illuminate our world by having direct access to the human heart. It is much easier, in my view, to highlight lessons of life when a reader is reading about a world that they assume could never be.
However, as I've grown, I've learnt two things about my early assumptions. One is that whether or not I read certain texts and television shows as allegory, the grand tradition of the creators of speculative fiction is to deny the allegory implied. Tolkien certainly did it. The exception to the rule is anytime the thing written is a Jesus allegory. And I think we both know there are far too many of those things to list. I'm not actually sure having another "the one" story really could teach viewers or readers anything new about the world. But, art for the glory of god and all that stuff, I suppose.
Anyways, where was I? Oh, yes. The second thing.
The Second Thing
The other thing I've noticed most recently among many artists, both literary and visual, and across any genre, is this insistence on art for art's sake. We're not supposed to teach anyone anything, so the argument goes. If you set out to write a novel with a theme or even more appalling, a lesson, already intact, you're going to create garbage. Or so it goes.
Well I just thinks that's a bunch of Hooey.
Edit: Although I will fully admit that there is plenty of narrative in the world for which one is beaten over the head with the lesson. Usually while the artist is simultaneously doing something even more harmful and insidious than that cultural crime they are warning against (I'm looking at you, Cameron, Martin, and yes, I'll admit it -- even sometimes Star Trek)
It's a Bunch of Hooey
I will give that creating art, especially in the details, especially in the details of writing, requires great amounts of freedom. Especially in that first draft, I certainly can see the need for turning off the inner censor and just going. To explore the created world and most especially the characters and what they do, how they act (and thus the plot) uninhibited. Sure. Fine. But art, however high-minded I'd like it to be, is not created in a vacuum. Art is an important part of culture. It is one of the elements that helps to create culture on an ongoing basis, pushing it ever forward. You can't just say you're to write a book and then not edit the first draft, right? At some point you've got to decide how much of your explorations you want to present to the public and those decisions, each tiny minute decision is going to eventually shape the culture in some way. Even if you have only one reader.
So, what? So saying that we do not teach lessons with our art, intentionally, is irresponsible. I believe that the writer of speculative fiction should not squander their most powerful position for shaping culture and cultural responses by just shrugging and saying, "oh, well, I didn't mean for it to be read that way." For instance, I learned about the profound negatives of xenophobia and messing in another's culture from Star Trek. If it weren't for that show, would I even understand now what xenophobia is? Okay, well, maybe I would. But I wouldn't have until perhaps undergrad, if then. The use of characters with whom I identified was a more powerful pedagogical vehicle than any textbook ever has been.
The Only Real Danger
The only real danger in claiming allegory and creating culturally responsible speculative fiction as I see it, is when readers miss out on the fact. (Edit: well, okay, and also like the other edit pointed out above: trying to teach a life lesson through allegory while not really having it nuanced enough to identify your own limitations to do so. Or, as I am talking about my genre and my art, not being able to see my own limitations, my own privilege).
When the allegory is not claimed, the impossible world and the created characters are cherished more than the lessons themselves. It's happened to me: I love certain characters in certain books more than some real people. The places they inhabit are like a second home to me. I am under the impression that this phenomenon happened to a lot of folks who grew up reading Harry Potter. Whether Christian or not, kids growing up reading those volumes adore them despite the allegory (I'm sure in some cases because of it). So I think as a speculative writer (or literary author) denies the chance to come out and say that this is an allegory, or this was the theme, or that this was meant to be the lesson -- they're being irresponsible. Plain and simple.
I suppose to sum up I just think it's a shame when you see quotes by writers along the lines of, "oh, no...I didn't mean to write an allegory. It had no theme. No life lesson. I had no motive in writing it."
Of course you did. Everyone has motives for everything they do. Complex motives. So does every character you write. That's called plot, remember?