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I am firmly in the camp of people who read for escape, rather than exploring the human condition. I don't want to learn about how my fellow man feels in today's disconnected and narcissistic society. I don't care about how your misunderstood childhood informed your love of jazz and rescuing puppies, and I really have no patience while you explore new horizons in structure and feeling in your poetry.* I read because I want to depart from this world and enter a new one, and I've found that there are roughly three types of worlds that one can find in fiction.

Type A: Our world: Essentially, everything follows the rules that we live by. No one flies, there are no aliens, and people use cell phones and watch television in the usual ways. These stories provide escape because they take us to a different part of our world, where we can meet different people and experience new things through their eyes, providing much the same experience as travel-writing, I imagine. I would hypothesize that people who like this type of fiction also like travelling. I, however, don't. I hate travel. I like to be at home, to know how things work, and when I travel all of my habits are useless, or worse than useless. I don't have the background to replace them. I don't speak the language, I don't know where the grocery stores are, I don't know how the money works, and I need to read the line map when I take public transportation. When I'm looking for escape through fiction, why would I want to escape into such an alienating place?

It is also worth mentioning that such books very often have a tendency toward social commentary, which never really works all that well. I read the newspaper. I'm aware of social issues, and generally speaking, social commentary is not commenting on the happy ones, like how tasty Baily's Irish Cream is, and how nice it is to go with Mr. Philena to the local piano club and listen to a bunch of kiddies from ages six to eighteen play pieces of vastly differing complexity, from thirty-second pieces containing about five notes and one chord, to Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. No, usually the commentary is about alcoholism or climate change or income inequality or racism or infidelity or criminal punishment, or how a kid feels when his dog dies: unhappy stuff---stuff that, in fact, is usually the reason I want to escape from this world.** Don't thrust it on me in fiction!

This is not, of course, to say that these books are uniformly displeasing. I don't like traveling, but I do like people, and sometimes the stories about people are good enough that I put up with the displacement of being stuck into an alien part of my world. I like Richard Russo a lot (despite his continual emphasis on how thirty years ago factories polluted small towns in upstate New York, gave everyone cancer, and then left, leaving behind only unemployment, depopulation, and blighted rivers), because he writes compelling stories about people. And one of the absolute best books (in my opinion) perhaps not coincidentally takes place in something as close to my world as possible: a university department carrying out a search for a new faculty member (Straight Man, if you want to read it. It's hilarious).

Type B: world confined to story: These are worlds that are distinctly not the world we live in, but are not quite fully formed beyond the story that is recounted in the book. A lot of Borges's stories fit in this category: they have a conceit---a wildly ingenious conceit---and often little more. He simply tells the events without bothering to explain how they can be possible or what the rules are that govern their world. In this world, it must be possible, because it happened. Here's a man who meets another man who somehow knows everything about his life and relatives and has an enormously symbolic landscaping, and then he kills him in order to send an ingenious message to his military superiors, morphing the world from something zen and spiritual into a spy thriller. Here's a story where (spoiler alert!) Homer finds the fountain of youth. Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics is similar. Here's a world where everyone lives together before the Big Bang in the same point in the universe. It's cramped, and no one really likes the immigrants. Here's a world where all the mammals think the dinosaurs have gone, to the point where when the last dinosaur walks among them they don't recognize him for what he is. Calvino and Borges have an idea and builds enough of a world to get the idea across, and then walk away. We don't know enough about how these worlds work to imagine other stories taking place beyond the main events, because the world is subordinate to the story.

Some "realistic fiction" (to quote my second grade librarian) also belongs here, I think. Henry James, for one. I remember reading The Ambassadors (which I loved so much I can't bear to read it again, for fear it won't be as good) and being struck by all the exquisite intricacies of conversational rules that everyone was aware of and obeys with such sophistication. To be sure, I don't mix in that sort of society, but I'm pretty sure no society ever had members with such an acute understanding of their interlocuter's exact psychological state and expectations and the ramifications of every comment to a person whom they'd met only a few minutes before. Such a world, with its apparently universally understood dances of social interaction, cannot possibly exist outside the confines of that book

When the story is good, this is an incredibly effective way of providing an escape hatch into fiction. It's not as alienating as the Type A type of travelogue-world, because it's never expected that you should be able to navigate the setting from the outset. The story builds the world, and as the story progresses the world appears around you. It remains unfinished, but since it's not supposed to be finished, it doesn't displace the reader who doesn't quite understand how everything is supposed to work. Who cares how the bus system operates? Look at what's happening to the guy with the map!

When the story is not quite good enough to build the world, or when the author aims for a Type C world and misses, then books might fall into this category by default. Mr. Philena and I recently read The Scorpio Races, which is a bit of a combination of those two properties. The story itself is a bit prosaic (girl with pony meets boy whose passions make him an outsider; both face adversity and overcome it and end up together), with an attempt at social commentary (tourism supporting small town with one industry whose locals dream of getting away), and although the world building conceit is brilliant (carnivorous water horses who are incredibly fast and incredibly dangerous, who migrate out of the water in November and prey upon anyone who gets too close, but can sometimes be controlled by people who are daring or stupid enough to try), it's a smidge shallow. The water horses by themselves are not quite enough to build a full world, and the story by itself is not quite enough to support the world that's there.

Type C: world endures beyond story: As you may have guessed from the structure of this entry, this is my favorite type of escape fiction. This is the type of fiction that includes Star Trek and Middle Earth and Discworld and Robin Hobb and Honor Harrington and Young Wizards and Tortall and Xanth and Dr. Who and Firefly. Even if the individual stories are not quite so good, the world is complete, and you know how the rules work, and you feel at home there and want to return to it by reading new books and re-reading old books, and, if you like that sort of thing, writing your own continuations. These are the universes that lead to enormous troves of fanfiction on the internet, and spin-off novelizations in the used bookstores. (I have a huge collection of Star Trek novels, and I'm not ashamed!) It's my preference for this type of world that led me to choose books with sequels over one-offs in my middle-school library, and leads me to prefer television series to movies. If I like a book, I want to be able to read more of it. A movie only lasts two hours, but if the world of the TV show is good, then I get to return to it for a new episode every week (or perhaps, every 50 minutes, fi I'm doing a marathon with my parents!). A movie can be excellent, but it usually creates a Type B world, and it's difficult to revisit that in a satisfactory way, and you can only re-watch a movie so many times.***

Fiction can jump categories in interesting ways. Jane Austen and Dickens and Trollope and a lot of the nineteenth century canon was originally meant, I'm sure, to be type A fiction (Trollope especially). But because those worlds are so alien to us now, they can't be Type A, and because they are so complete (they have the entire force of history backing up the work of the writer) they have become Type C. What Tolkien created by force, Thackeray acquired effortlessly and unintentionally, and yet the result is the same: the stories are rooted in a world that is complete, whose rules I understand, a world that I can visit and feel at home in when I escape my own world. Jane Austen's membership in Type C, in particular, is supported by the existence of books like Death comes to Pemberley and Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma. This change from "our world" to "escape world" of books from the nineteenth century is, I think, why period pieces are so popular, and explains why I like costume dramas---Downton Abbey, Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings castle (although that world was built with Wodehouse's pen more than by history).

It's my preference for Type C fiction---world over story, world over people---that explains my love of science fiction and fantasy. In order to write science fiction or fantasy, the author has to create a new world, rules that govern it, and then on top of that create a story. This is hard to do well! If the world doesn't stand by itself, it's bad science fiction. If the writer is lucky, such an incomplete world is classified as "magical realism"---which I never really liked, because it didn't make sense. I like my fiction to make sense. I just want the sense to be invented.













*I find myself especially disgusted with people who write best-selling memoirs describing their feelings about their young child's long, drawn-out death from leukemia. It seems disrespectful to the dead to use them as a source of profit. If you want to get the feelings out for your own good, write a journal. If you want to share your experience with others because you think it should be more widely known, write a blog or sell the book for no more than whatever it takes to recoup the costs of publication and dissemination. The moment you start using the tragedy to make money for yourself or a publisher, you lose all sympathy from me. (Unless you donate all the royalties to leukemia (or whatever) research. Then you have my full support.)

**I have not been personally affected by any of these issues. I say "escape" in the most general terms. Please do not read this paragraph as a comment on Mr. Philena, my employers or colleagues, my criminal actions (if they existed), my deforested section of the Amazon (if it belonged to me), or my dog (which I don't have).

***Avatar was an exception. That was a full-fledged Type C world, which overcame any deficiencies in plot or tendencies toward social commentary.

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philena

July 2014

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