Why Pakistani kids need to read Sci-fi and Fantasy
Speculative Fiction and the Joy of Imagination
Why Pakistani kids need to read Sci-fi and Fantasy
Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one. – Terry Pratchett (famous fantasy writer)
At the onset, let us define speculative fiction. Instead of a detailed description, I will offer this easy definition: Speculative fiction is human imagination codified in a story. It is the product of a human mind which chooses to think, construct and decorate a world that is not its own, though it may share similarities with it. The scope, scale and essence of that imagined world is never restricted. It can take any form that the mind wants to give it. Every human mind is capable of producing countless distinct worlds and realities. Each of these realities is unique in the same way that humans are from each other. Speculative fiction can take the form of a futuristic tale where time travel happens and cars fly. It might be a story of a little boy who is invited to attend a secret magic school. It could even be set in a world where Dragons horde treasures. Speculative fiction is vast and never-ending in its variety. At the root of it all, however, remains only one thing. The human capacity for imagination.
Not surprisingly, speculative fiction has been here from the start. It is the oldest form of story-telling that has been devised. Nowadays, we tend to codify speculative fiction in terms of genres like science fiction, magical worlds, sword-and-sorcery, historical fantasy etc. These labels are convenient and useful but in history, speculative fiction took on a grander form. It appeared in every era and region, across the breadth of cultures and civilizations. It shared and formulated the thoughts and worldviews of the people it originated from. In our past, speculative fiction was in the form of Epics. The Iliad, Odyssey, Ramayana, Beowulf etc are all speculative fiction in its purest form. Today, they may be celebrated as mythology/folklore but in their essence and format, they were no different from the fantasy worlds constructed by modern writers. The stories they told have the same themes as the sci-fi and fantasy novels we love reading. It isn’t a coincidence that Tolkien actively claimed that his magnum opus “Lord of the Rings” was a modern retelling of ancient European sagas. Speculative fiction has always been here.
It is also important to recognize that speculative fiction is not just an exclusive Western asset. It is part of our culture and past too. From the medieval epic Shahnameh to the famous Arabian Nights, there is a culture of imaginative story telling in our part of the world. Even within Pakistan, there has been a long history of storytelling. The iconic tradition of Dastan-goi (literally meaning tale-telling) is our inheritance. We have told and retold the imaginative tales of our legends, heroes and kings for centuries. Sometimes our tales take the form of a wandering traveler, sometimes they appear as the clever courtiers of Emperors and sometimes they even appear as fairies sitting next to lakes. Even in the 20th century, there have been talented writers among us who crafted addictive and fascinating worlds of their own. Ibn-e-Safi’s famous Imran Series with its spy-fi and vivid worldbuilding deserves articles off its own. Nonayhal and Ferozson Magazines’ Tales Section are our own indigenous treasure troves of sci fi and fantasy stories that are waiting to be read by a new generation. I have barely touched the surface here. So, given our own past connection to fantasy, it is imperative that we understand why we need to reclaim it and why our children need to read sci fi and fantasy.
For starters, the most clear and basic argument for regularly reading speculative fiction is the same as for other fiction. Reading fiction is good. It keeps your mind active and engaged. It provides you with an understanding of a language’s vocabulary and thought development. Reading allows you to develop a more nuanced understanding of the world surrounding you. The cognitive benefits of this are countless and with well supported by evidence. All these reading benefits apply to speculative fiction too but with some additions as well. But before delving into those benefits, I would like to give a quick review of the reading culture in our country and the kind of fiction available to young people here.
Put directly, there is no extensive reading culture in Pakistan. That is not to say that no one reads here but that our fiction and story-telling groups are fragmented. There is a dearth of large-scale publishing and distribution houses. Among those remaining, there is a preference for non-fiction books. Even amongst readers, there is a tendency to focus on non-fiction or foreign fiction. The book arrangements in large book stores often reveal a clear pattern of reader preferences. You will find Pakistani fiction (both English and Urdu) often at the back end of the store.
Fortunately, even in this stifling environment, there are some who dare to tell a story. Pakistan has produced good writers in several languages. For now, we focus on English and Urdu where we will find a whole host of novels, short-stories and translations done over the years. Several of the local authors have tried capturing our society in these stories. They have added detail, humor, wit and literary beauty of what they write. Justifiably, they have amassed a healthy, if somewhat small, loyal fan base. Their work has been recognized outside the country too. The success of authors like Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Muenuddin and Kamila Shamsie is a clear indication that Pakistan’s fiction is not yet finished. With some support, the untapped potential can be utilized.
Despite all that has been said above, our country’s fiction comes with another problem. A certain problem which hinders the kind of fiction that our children ought to, and deserve to, read.
Most fiction in Pakistan has a distinct kind. A tendency, if you will, of producing a certain type of story. While the themes the local authors have touched upon can be split into many categories, there are some common nodes. Rather than delve in detail we can just list down some larger ideas our local fiction is based on. Pakistani fiction is, more often than not, centered on a few larger themes i.e. partition, terrorism, ethnicity, social issues, gender, religion, autobiography. While these ideas are very important and worth exploring, in Pakistan, the story tellers rarely add much to them. They prefer to lift the motifs out of real life and weave a story around real life. They do not create a lot of new story patterns based on these ideas. With some exceptions, most authors tend to take a larger theme and real life even and weave a clichéd story around them. They do not drift away from reality as much. At times, the crucial difference between fiction and reality is blurred in the wrong direction. Fiction should feel so well-written than a reader should be able to delve in the world of the story and take it as the reality. It shouldn’t be the case where fiction feels like a lazy rehash of reality. It is plain and simplistic and we find ourselves feeling bored at this type of a story. The autobiographical nature of many of these stories also means that if an author is far removed from the wider populace, their stories will never resonate with many. Instead, it comes across as self-indulgent. Add a repetitive pattern of storylines to this and you’ll observe that Pakistani fiction has stagnated. It has chosen to close itself to many topics it feels are dangerous and questionable. It has refused to stray further from this world and create its own unique mythopoeia. It has chosen to use story telling as merely a way to share the author’s own personal projections and morality. While there is nothing wrong with this, it effectively kills the joy of storytelling and imagination. What our children and young people need is imagination, not thinly veiled autobiographies. This is where speculative fiction comes in.
I have only mentioned so far about the power imagination and wonder hold in our real world. Let us delve a little into the effect they have on a child. It should be worth remembering that children are intelligent beings. They may not possess the tools of analysis, processing and knowledge to understand everything around them but they are not oblivious either. They pick up things, or at least attempt to. As famed child psychologist Gopnik once stated: “Children are little scientists”. True to that observation, children do make an attempt at understanding the world around them. Only difference between their understanding and those of an adult is that reality has not yet limited the scope of their world. Every closet has a story, every tree has a history and every river has a secret. For them, the world is still full of wonders that are waiting to be discovered.
It is not inaccurate to claim that children are already fantasy story tellers. Even in the modern age and time, children have created their own worlds full of ships, heroes and superpowers. They keep those beautiful worlds inside their heads for the most part. Sometimes when playing, they share those worlds with their friends. For a child, a slide in a park could as just easily be her castle or the lawn his whole kingdom. Their vivid imaginations can turn even the mundane into something magical. If you sit down and talk to a child, you’ll find that their world is not just detailed but is also consistent with its own logic. Unlike claims made by some that fantasy hinders science, you’ll find children creating worlds that are not just consistent but also complete with their own histories and social settings. And this whole mental activity is important. Fantasy begins as the psychological process by which a child learns to fill the gaps between their knowledge, reality and experience. They know the difference between fantasy and real life but they still choose to use their imagination. This imagination stimulates their mind to think beyond what is presented in front of them i.e take something simple and build something complex out of it. Growing up, there is a good possibility of this becoming a healthy life skill.
Children are not just exciting thinkers but they also have a full range of emotions. Anger, fear, happiness, bliss, wildness and a whole host of other emotions are present inside them. Unlike adults, they do not have inhibitions about showing those emotions. They want to express themselves. Fantasy gives them a safe way to do this. It allows them to experience these emotions without having to face consequences. By crafting a world distinct from theirs, it allows them to capture the meaning of different life events without facing them directly. It is much easier to cry over the death of a fictional prince you loved and process it than to do it for a real life adult you were close with. The emotional intelligence children gain here can never be understated.
Having established that children are indeed little Tolkiens, it is perhaps important to ask what can be done to further stimulate their minds. Should we do what most Pakistani parents do? Splash their dreams with a heavy dose of reality? Remind them of how stupid imaginary worlds are? Tell them to go study something “productive” instead? This seems unfair to the child and reflects rather poorly on the adult. The imaginations of children should be nurtured and encouraged. Fantasy is not time wasting as people imagine it is. It is a healthy activity that does, in fact, reap enormous benefits for the mental faculty of a child. An imaginative child is better-off than a child who never wonders. Here’s an interesting quote on fantasy from possibly the most productive guy of his era, one whose words should satisfy many parents:
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking. –Albert Einstein
Having digressed on the whole issue of child imagination, I now come back to speculative fiction. There is no better tool for an imaginative child than speculative fiction. A child is already half-way there. A wonderful tale of fantasy and sci fi will only lift their minds up. Put simply, every child assumes there is a world on the other side of the closet. All they need is to know that world. Fantasy provides them with that answer. In fact it introduces them to a whole set of ideas they can build upon and add details to. For instance, most children who read Harry Potter did not just pick up the story as it was, they actively engaged with it. They delved deeper and deeper into the sorcerer’s world, picking on details, imagining things themselves, creating backstories for minor characters. All the while, their own brains were stimulated into thinking beyond the visible. Seems like a truly productive activity.
Speculative fiction adds another element too. This element in particular is important for parents and adults to notice. Imagination and story-telling are not just about detailed worlds. They are also about people. People as characters in a story. Characters who do not exist but are written so vividly that they grab your attention. These characters are an introduction to the larger humanity for children. They may not have met, for instance, a farmer in real life but they have met him in fantasy. They have seen his barn, his house, his life. They have seen his struggles. They have come to understand him more closely. Just like the famer, they have also met with the serf, the shopkeeper, the fisherman, the orphan. This meeting in fiction is important because it teaches them the most crucial of all life skills: empathy. Children, teenagers and sadly even adults have usually not met as many people in life to develop an understanding of those who are different from them. They have not yet learnt how to understand a viewpoint strictly opposite to theirs. Speculative fiction teaches them how to do this. With its wide range of characters and rich tapestry of distinctive worldviews, it teaches a child how to appreciate and empathize with all kinds of people. Yet again, imagination plays a key role here. How can you empathize with someone if you can’t imagine what they must be feeling? Speculative fiction, with its penchant for imagination, nudges children to look at what the other person is feeling. This alone can mitigate so many harmful things our children are made to internalize.
So far, I have neglected one other group that should read fantasy. Teenagers and young adults need to read speculative fiction too. The first reason is simple. What makes speculative fiction so useful for children can also make it useful for teens. Teenagers need to learn imagination just as much as their juniors. Their brains need that simulation just as much. They need to process emotions and tragedy too. All these needs can be fulfilled by speculative fiction. With the transitive of life they are in, a world separated from their own can teach them a lot about these emotions and thoughts. Having talked about imagination and emotions in detail, it’s time to discuss another aspect of speculative fiction. An aspect that is crucial for a country like Pakistan.
Our country, with its censorships, state control and sensibilities is a hard place to express yourself. Even some benign and harmless topics are taboo here. There are topics that should never be openly acknowledged or discussed. This stifling is visible in the way our media is restrained. It is also visible in how our fiction is controlled. Even the most audacious author would gloss over topics that are forbidden. You cannot hope to remain in the limelight without adhering to this unwritten code of expression. The tragedy of this control is that our younger generations will be closed out of knowledge and information they deserve to learn. They should not be denied the topics important for their mental and intellectual growth.
Of course, there are responses to this tyranny. There are brave people who attempt every day to fight against this hindering of freedom of expression. They want to discuss these topics. They want to educate our youth. They want to remind everyone of the issues we gloss over. They write articles, reports, papers. They give speeches. They write books. But they do it all at great personal risk. They have to share their opinion with a fear of reprisal every time. Even our fiction writers face this tragedy. The maligning of writers creating taboo stories is not uncommon. There is always some caveat that the thought police will raise for the realist fiction written by authors. This is because Pakistani fiction is so deeply rooted in reality that any metaphor or analogy can be identified right away. Sadly, in Pakistan, even those hiding behind satire and comedy fear for consequences. Dissent is trouble in Pakistan.
This is where speculative fiction, with its constructed reality and unique social settings, becomes powerful in a country like Pakistan.
As a statement of expression.
We have already discussed that speculative fiction (scifi and fantasy) are built on imaginative worlds. Though they may share similarities with reality, their nature is still constructed. And speculative fiction, with this constructed world, opens up a whole new set of possibilities. The worlds we create and design are all unique. Which means that none of them have the same purpose. They all have different social settings. They all have different cultures inside them. They can all be used differently. Some can be used to make jokes, others can be used to recreate history. In scifi, the worlds are even used to predict our futures. All of this are interesting uses that have been explored time and again by speculative authors.
Yet, there is one use that has stood far above others. It is the use of a constructed world as a statement, as a means of expression, as a tool of dissent. Authors have time and again used their imagined fantastical worlds as means of saying something real. As old as a millennium ago, Ferdowsi used Shahnameh to preserve ancient Persian culture for posterity against an oppressive Arab regime. In recent times, Frank Herbert’s sci fi saga Dune provided a biting criticism of Oil Industry and Middle-East conflicts before anyone could even realize it. Ursula Gein used her sci fi and fantasy worlds to rip open conceptions of race, orientalism and power in front of entire generations. Rowling herself used Harry Potter to inform and educate young readers of the tragedy of tyranny, bigotry and loss. The Japanese post-apocalyptic story Akira thoroughly investigated youth juveniles and nuclear power thirty years ago. For decades Luis Bujold has used her Vorkosian sci fi saga to openly discuss the problems of militaristic states and fascism. In perhaps the most famous example of speculative fiction as a statement, Star Trek has was used as a way to educate people about environment, race, technology, weapons etc. More teenagers and young adults have understood these themes through fiction than they did through reality.
These and many other authors used fictional worlds to delve into truly uncomfortable subjects. They dissected these issues with the same level of depth that many journalists do. They crafted worlds and stories in a way that the reader could pick up the themes without even realizing it. And yet, they did not have the same fear of reprisals that others do. Why? Because imaginary worlds allow us to keep a distance from reality while still keeping in mind the daily truths we have to face. It offers us an examination of issues without our own biases and apprehension. One of fantasy’s foremost authors Robin Hobb summed up this argument beautifully:
“Fantasy is where we can examine the big questions we face while leaving our own baggage outside the door. Divorce yourself from your own ethnic, religious, gender, nationality and other identities and think about slavery or being born a worker or serf or any other hot button issue. It lets us confront those issues without preconceived notions in radically different settings.”
Perhaps Pakistani youth can use speculative fiction to learn about the things it has been denied. Maybe our educators and teachers can use this to teach things that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. From militaristic societies, brutalities, human rights, empathy and to the concept of common good, there are so many thing our children and youth have to fully internalize. Speculative fiction can help them do that and do it while removing them from the stark reality of the world they live in. More importantly, the universality of these stories make them accessible to every child in Pakistan as long as someone is willing to help them understand these stories.
I have tried to list down some of the reasons why our youth needs to read speculative fiction and enjoy it. This genre is rich and vast, full of stories for every person and every era. Every child can look into fantasy and sci fi and find themselves in there somewhere. The job for adults of this nation is to help them find it. We have to encourage them to read things that will stimulate their brains, let them express themselves and discover the art of empathy. We have to allow them to learn about taboo topics and issues they will need to intellectually progress and we have to make sure that no one hurts them for learning it. All this can be made possible with speculative fiction.
By Hamza Sarfraz, a recent graduate who loves stories any medium, anytime, anywhere